In the past, alcohol-free or non-alcoholic beer was always considered a joke. There were very limited choices — and the few available options weren’t exactly great, leading many beer lovers to ask themselves, “What’s the point?”
Beer is supposed to be enjoyable — if you don’t like the taste, why bother?
Fortunately, today, it’s a completely different story. There are more delicious non-alcoholic beers available than ever before, with a much wider choice from major brewers and craft brewers alike — including a non-alcoholic Guinness stout.
Whatever your favorite beer offering is — whether it’s a pilsner lager, IPA, wheat beer, or traditional ale — there’s bound to be an alcohol-free or non-alcoholic version out there for you to try.
With a wider choice and general improvements in quality, more people are waking up to the idea of drinking “non-alcoholic” beers.
But what exactly is classified as a non-alcoholic beer, and how does it differ from an alcohol-free beer? How is an alcoholic beer made non-alcoholic, or alcohol-free? Can you brew your own at home? And finally, what are the benefits of non-alcoholic beer?
The Difference Between Non-Alcoholic Beers and Alcohol-Free Beers
Non-alcoholic beer, also known as “NA beer,” as the name suggests, should contain zero alcohol — or, at least, incredibly small traces of alcohol.
There are many types of beers without alcohol available, which can be broken down into two distinct categories: non-alcoholic beer and alcohol-free beer.
But is there a difference?
Yes, in fact. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations state that for a beer to be labeled as alcohol-free, it can contain absolutely no alcohol at all — 0%.
By comparison, non-alcoholic beer is permitted to have up to 0.5% alcohol by content.
Although it may not seem worth splitting hairs over such a small trace of alcohol, it can be an issue if you are driving, are pregnant, or have any other health issues where alcohol should be avoided. A study in 2010 of 45 non-alcoholic beverages discovered that nearly 30% still had over 1% ethanol content.
0% ABV is a bit of an ambiguous number, though, as 0.5% is technically the lowest amount of alcohol that can be detected by modern methods.
In fact, everyday products like bread, baked goods, and some juices often contain minuscule traces of alcohol due to the natural fermentation of the ingredients used.
A woman from Louisiana is actually taking Heineken USA to court after the Dutch brand’s “alcohol-free” beer, Heineken 0.0, was found to contain a 0.3% alcohol content. Heineken is now being sued by the plaintiff for violation of the Louisiana Unfair Trade Practices Act, as the woman feels she was misled by Heineken’s “false and deceptive representation”.
How Do Brewers Make Non-Alcoholic and Alcohol-Free Beer?
There are two different methods brewers can use to make beer without any alcohol or only trace amounts of alcohol: They either remove the alcohol after brewing or limit the formation of alcohol during the fermentation process.
It may sound difficult to try and limit the formation of alcohol as a brew is fermenting, but it’s much simpler than it might seem. Really, all it requires is a specialized low-alcohol yeast or a well-timed interruption to the process.
The other method of removing alcohol after fermentation involves heating the beer although this can often have devastating effects on the taste of the final beer. Mass-market breweries often use super high-powered vacuums to reduce the boiling point of the beer, limiting any damage to the flavor.
Reverse osmosis, also known as filtration, is another method used by larger breweries, but the equipment is often expensive and out of the reach of many smaller brewers.
Another negative consequence of the dealcoholization process is that you also lose a lot of the essential fizz that contributes to the mouthfeel of the beer.
Flavorless, flat beer sounds like we’re heading back to the old days of non-alcoholic beers! Fear not, however, as breweries often add in additional CO2, in much the same way as carbonating soda, and add extra sugars to enhance the flavor.
Can You Brew Non-Alcoholic or Alcohol-Free Beer at Home?
That’s the burning question for many of us home-brew enthusiasts! And yes, it is totally possible to make non-alcoholic beers at home, but it may require investment in some expensive equipment you might not already have in your brew kit.
Of the four methods for removing or reducing alcohol from beer — vacuum distillation, filtration by reverse osmosis, reducing the sugars, or using a specialized yeast and boiling off the alcohol — the latter two are the most readily available to homebrewers.
Any fermentation is going to need sugar, something to feed the yeast. By reducing the level of fermentable sugars, you can also limit how much fermentation takes place.
With alcohol being a byproduct of fermentation you effectively limit the creation of alcohol. Unfortunately, this can also affect the beer flavor and can involve complex calculations to tweak your recipe.
Boiling Off Alcohol
The best option, in our opinion, for making beer without alcohol at home is to boil off the alcohol.
Brew your beer as you normally would, without tweaking the recipe, and then boil off the alcohol after fermentation. As the alcohol will evaporate you should be left with a beer of about 0.5% ABV, ideal for a non-alcoholic beer.
You may worry about the flavor of your beer and all the hard work you put in with those delicious malts but there are a few tricks you can employ to avoid that disappointment. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do is to put your brew kettle in a preheated oven for about 20 to 30 minutes rather than using a burner. As the beer heats more evenly in an oven, the chances of fluctuating temperatures harming the beer are reduced.
The boiling process will also boil off the Carbon dioxide so you are going to need to carbonate the beer, either naturally or force carbonate it with CO2.
The Benefits of Non-Alcoholic Beer
As drinking habits change, the non-alcoholic beverage market has seen a surge in recent years with booze-free beer becoming a bigger player in that market all the time.
More and more beer drinkers are starting to recognize the benefits of drinking non-alcoholic beer both socially and for health reasons, and not just because there are more delectable alcohol-free beers available than ever before.
Let’s take a look at some of the key reasons more beer consumers are now choosing the alcohol-free option when at a bar with friends.
Of course, one of the most noticeable benefits of beer which is lower in alcohol or has no alcohol is you are less likely to get drunk.
Yes, it is possible to get drunk from non-alcoholic beers but it is very rare and you would really have to try.
As most non-alcoholic beers contain only up to 0.5% alcohol your body will process this smaller amount of alcohol much quicker than a full-strength beer. It will only take roughly 15 to 20 minutes to process the 0.28 units of alcohol found in a pint of 0.5% ABV non-alcoholic beer.
Compare this to a pint of alcoholic beer at 3.6% (approx. 2 units of alcohol) which would take 2 hours or a premium beer of 5.6% which would take over 3 hours for the average body to process and you will soon realize how much non-alcoholic beer you would need to throw down your neck in a pretty short time.
No more hangovers, poor productivity, tiredness, and making a fool of yourself are just a few of the benefits of being sober.
NA Beers Provide The Same Relaxing Benefits Without the Negative Effects
Although non-alcoholic beers have come a long way since the days of Kaliber and other limited choices, you will still occasionally hanker after some of your favorite delicious beers, especially if you are a beer connoisseur.
A heavy drinking friend of mine normally slips in a non-alcoholic beer every two or three drinks when out to cut down his alcohol consumption, especially now there are some damned tasty options out there. (He may not be safe to drive home, but at least he’s not hugging every street light on the way home anymore!)
Drinking non-alcoholic beer can be an ideal way of taking a break from alcohol when on a night out without having to resort to sugary, artificial preservative-filled soft drinks or tasteless uninspiring water.
One of the reasons non-alcoholic beer works so well as a substitute is that your body associates the aroma and flavor of non-alcoholic beers with that of a full-strength beer. In turn, your body produces dopamine, the feel-good chemical released when you drink alcohol. So yes you can still get the buzz of drinking from non-alcoholic beer but without the negative side effects of alcohol.
Just be warned, as non-alcoholic beer provides many of the same feelings as full alcoholic beers, it can be tempting to go back on to the stronger stuff. If you have an addiction to alcohol, non-alcohol beer isn’t the best cure and you should always seek the help of a healthcare professional.
Non-Alcoholic Beers Can Have a Lower Calorie Count
Each unit of alcohol contains 56 calories, ie a pint of 4.5% ABV beer has 145 calories more than a 0.5% beer in alcohol alone. These calories are classed as “empty calories” as they have no nutritional value at all. It’s about the same amount of calories as you would find in six teaspoons of sugar.
Not all non-alcoholic beers however are lower in calories. Some of the ingredients used to add extra flavor like more sugar or the brewing process can add both more calories and often have a higher carbohydrate content too.
We all know that a major source of revenue for the Government is the taxation of alcohol. In many countries, the US included, the beer industry will pay tax on beers above a certain percentage. This cost is usually passed on to the customer.
Non-alcoholic and alcohol-free beers are often cheaper for you to buy without this extra tax to pass on. But some brewers, especially smaller craft brewers will find it’s more expensive to produce an alcohol-free beer, so don’t always assume the non-alcoholic option is going to be a bargain price.
After all, we pay for quality and taste, not just the alcohol content.
Most non-alcoholic beers are brewed in the same way as your average beer, using just the four natural ingredients of water, malt or grain, yeast, and hops.
Other non-alcoholic offerings like sodas or cocktails are normally loaded with artificial sweeteners, additives, and chemical colorings. Non-alcoholic beer, however, gets its flavor from natural hops, not artificial flavoring.
You can also see exactly what’s in the non-alcoholic beer as FDA rules state all food products must list all ingredients in a product unless it is an alcoholic beverage over 0.5%.
Health Benefits of Non-Alcoholic Beer
Unless you are very lucky, it is unlikely you have a doctor who recommends beer for a healthy life. That said, believe it or not, non-alcoholic beer is one of the healthiest drinks behind the bar!
For example, studies have shown that drinking non-alcoholic beer can help with cardiovascular health as the presence of polyphenols found in natural hops reduces blood pressure and inflammation. Those same hops can also help with reducing anxiety and stress — and unlike full-strength beers where the alcohol prevents healthy sleep, those hops help to decrease the brain the neural activity of your brain.
The malt also has health benefits, with horedine, which naturally occurs in malt lowering cholesterol, improving your mood, and also contains 50% more antioxidants than superfoods like broccoli or blueberries.
The yeast used in the fermentation of non-alcoholic beers has also been found to assist in controlling diabetes by lowering blood sugar levels and also contains beta-glucans which protect against diabetes, lower your cholesterol, and promote a healthier heart.
Although you will find the same hops, yeasts, and malts in regular beers, unfortunately, the higher alcohol content negates many of the benefits.
Non-Alcoholic Beer Is Nutritious
There’s no denying that beer is nutritious. Even regular full-strength beers contain vitamins and minerals which can promote a healthier lifestyle. Unfortunately, those regular beers also contain alcohol which can do more damage in excess than those “healthy” good bits.
Some of the vitamins and minerals present in non-alcoholic beers include calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, selenium, potassium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), and folic acid (vitamin B9).
Non-Alcoholic Beers Are Just as Delicious as Alcoholic Counterparts
Although the health benefits, cost, staying sober, nutritional value, and cutting down your alcohol intake are important factors, to us beer drinkers what matters most is how the non-alcoholic beers taste.
Good news: Most “unleaded” (or non-alcoholic beers) taste pretty similar to the “leaded” beers today. You would be hard pushed to tell the difference between a non-alcoholic version of your favorite brew and the regular version.
The only slight differences may be a higher level of carbonation and missing the alcoholic “burn” effect.
Many of our favorite brewers now produced non-alcoholic versions of their beers including Heineken, Brew Dog, Coors, Stella Artois, and some of the smaller craft brewers too, including Athletic Brewing Co., Mikellar, and Atmos to name but a few.
You can even get a non-alcoholic version of the iconic Irish stout, Guinness, which is much better than the awful Kaliber, which they originally entered the non-alcoholic beverage market with many years ago.
Non-Alcoholic Beers — Final Thoughts
It was alcohol-free beers like Kaliber, Barbican, and other generic mass-produced non-alcoholic beverages that originally gave non-alcoholic beer such a bad reputation, panned by beer critics and consumers alike.
Fortunately more and more brewers both here in the US and worldwide are devoting more time to producing more delectable non-alcoholic beer options.
Whether you are an IPA drinker, a pilsner man, a stout devotee, or just a lover of all things beer, you are bound to be able to purchase a non-alcoholic beer to suit your tastes almost anywhere — even online specialists exist now.
I’m not preaching the virtues of an alcohol-free life, but next time you’re out with friends, why not try to slip in a non-alcoholic brew or two? You will probably be pleasantly surprised!