What do you get when you take the alcohol out of beer? A sobering realisation that it's incredibly difficult to make a good brew.
Since their inception, alcohol-free drinks have amazed and even confused a lot of people. Some don't understand the why behind an alcohol-free beer or spirit. Why would someone choose to drink an alcoholic drink without the alcohol?
However, in recent years, adult alcohol alternative drinks have been exploding in popularity. With more than 1 in 5 UK adults no longer drinking and 84% of global drinkers wanting to reduce their intake, many of us are looking for alternatives. With the likes of Heineken and other big breweries getting in on the action after seeing the meteoric success of several craft brands, it seems that alcohol-free beers are here to stay.
How exactly are alcohol-free beers made?
Most alcohol-free beer actually starts out as its regular alcoholic counterpart. This means it goes through almost the entirely same process as regular beer, from making a mash, to boiling the wort, to adding hops and even fermenting. Then, the two veer off in separate directions.
While regular alcoholic beer might be bottled or canned at this point, non-alcoholic beer proceeds through the de-alcoholisation (alcohol-removal) process.
- Removing alcohol via heat
- Good for easy, rapid, cheap production, excellent yield
- Bad for flavour and all-round quality, gives a metallic taste
Years ago, alcohol-free beer was primarily made by boiling the ethanol out of the mixture. Today, some breweries still continue to use this process because it can be cost-effective.
Since alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, brewers will heat the beer up to approximately 78.3 degrees C and keep it there, until the solution is below 0.5% ABV. However, this process can sometimes have the unfortunate consequence of inhibiting the natural flavours and aromas of the beer, which resulted in some pretty poor tasting beers. This is how most mass-produced alcohol-free beers are made.
However, the benefit of this approach is that you can produce a significant amount of beer at a low price, with an impressive yield by diluting a higher-ABV product - often from 3:1 to 5:1.
- Removing alcohol via pressure
- Better than Thermal Extraction, good yield
- Bad for retaining body due to tight filtration
One popular technique of removing the alcohol from beer involves reverse osmosis. This technique basically uses extreme pressure to push the already-fermented beer through an extremely tight filter.
The holes in the filter are so small only water, alcohol and volatile acids can fit through. Once through the filter, the alcohol can then be distilled from the mixture by using a standard distillation process.
This process is becoming more popular because it maintains a little more flavour than thermal extraction, while still reducing the alcohol content.
- Removing alcohol via vacuum
- Better than most other methods other than natural fermentation
- Difficult to get carbonation right and can feel like a 'soft drink'
The third technique brewers use for non-alcoholic beer is vacuum distillation. This process uses a vacuum chamber to lower alcohol’s boiling point as much as possible.
While alcohol’s original boiling point is approximately 78.3 degrees C, the vacuum helps to greatly reduce it. So, instead of heating the beer to the point where it might lose its flavour, the beer only reaches a fairly warm temperature. This allows it to keep its taste intact while still evaporating the alcohol out of the mixture.
Once the beer goes through the de-alcoholisation process, it must be carbonated in order to mimic the texture of alcoholic beer. Most alcoholic beer carbonates itself during the fermentation process inside of the bottle. As yeast metabolises sugar into alcohol, it produces the byproduct carbon dioxide, which gives beer its bubbles.
However, as alcohol-free beer no longer has yeast and is not fermenting, it has no CO2. Therefore, most brewers will inject the drink with CO2 during the canning or bottling process, similar to what companies do with soda.
This finalises the brewing process, and gives us flavourful, alcohol-free beers. However, as it still involves removing alcohol, there will always be a lower concentration of flavour compounds.
Natural Cryogenic Fermentation
- No removing alcohol, restricts fermentation through sub-zero temperatures
- Good for flavour, body and all-round quality
- Expensive to produce, time-consuming and low-yield
The final technique featured is natural cryogenic fermentation, which is also how IMPOSSIBREW®s are made.
It achieves <0.5% ABV through restricting fermentation in tank and tightly-controlling the available amounts of fermentable sugar. By suddenly dropping to sub-zero temperatures, it shocks and disables the natural yeast in the brew and stops any further fermentation beyond alcohol-free.
The benefit of this approach is that it produces the highest quality product, keeping almost all the typical characteristics of a top-level craft beer.
However, the difficulty is that it tends to be expensive to produce (especially without dilution), it is time-consuming and has low yield.
As Mixer Direct says, “Through the new techniques, breweries can create alcohol-free beers with different flavours and aromas.” These techniques allow AF beers to maintain the same delicious taste without any worry about alcohol.
If you choose to live an alcohol-free lifestyle—whether for a short stage in time or for your entire life—alcohol-free beer is the perfect choice to try. With recent adaptations in technology, alcohol-free beer mimics its alcoholic counterpart closer than ever before, and provides the same delicious taste, without any concern for alcohol.