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ON WINE

Dan Berger: The state of non-alcoholic beer

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It’s been decades since I saw a non-alcoholic beer on a store shelf for the first time. I bought it. It was abysmal. So, it’s no wonder that the early non-alc products had all the impact with beer lovers of pickle-flavored ice cream.*

Making a fine-quality beer with alcohol is at least as complicated as is making great wine. Both beverages rely on some astoundingly complex chemistry to achieve a balance of aromatics, flavors, and textures. But they use radically different ingredients, although the chemistry is similar.

To make a beer with no alcohol in 1962, when Kingsbury non-alcoholic was launched without any public acclaim, had to be a challenge. And the market’s ultra-cool response was based on the fact that it had an odd aroma (vaguely yeasty) and had almost no beer flavor.

It was a pretty frightful substitute for tap water.

Over the decades, beer scientists have worked diligently to solve many of the problems associated with making tasty beers that have less than 0.5% alcohol. Today, without much support from beer aficionados, the non-alc beer category has exploded, and not only in the number of them.

When I began researching this story recently, I expected to find many flavor-challenged alc-free beers, which is what I saw six years ago, when a medical condition limited my alcoholic intake. I had been advised to abstain, so I bought a few of the non-alcs then available. One, from Germany, was drinkable — barely.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned this category of beer to one of my sons who is extremely savvy about beer. He was kind enough not to tell me how out of touch I was with the category.

“Dad, there are some non-alcs out there that are so good you wouldn’t be able to tell they’re not traditional beer,” he said. It didn’t take long for me to be a believer. And what an order of magnitude difference there is from what I saw in 2015 and today!

I tried to look more deeply into the science of how this stuff was made, but my investigation was thwarted several times. The subject seems intentionally clouded in clandestineness. Trade secret stuff. That’s why I have no technical details that explain how they’re all doing this.

CIA-like, no one is talking.

What I learned is that the processes involved in making an NA, as they’re called, include some of the most stealthiest data, which appear to be as closely guarded as is the formula for Coca-Cola. What I can say is that the latest non-alc beers include some fine products.

One reason light beers were developed relates to the fact that the early efforts to make non-alcoholic beers in the 1970s and 1980s were so lackluster and unappealing to true beer lovers.

Sure, it’s possible to simply remove the alcohol in a beer, but students of zymurgy (the branch of chemistry associated with fermentation and distillation) typically find that simply taking the alcohol out can result in a liquid that doesn’t resemble its un-treated brother.

One key result of fermentation is the conversion of sugar to alcohol. If you remove some sugar, you get less alcohol, but if you remove a lot of the alcohol you usually get a flavorless brew.

And if you leave some sugar behind, to give the resulting beverage a richer body, you have a beverage that’s a bit sweet. And if you try to balance sweetness with higher acidity, which often is done in some white wines, you could end up with a beer that can be bizarre.

In the last decade or so, yeast strains have been developed that produce much lower levels of alcohol than previous yeasts, but you still end up with some alcohol. Some of that can be reduced further by using other special techniques (reverse osmosis, fine membrane filtration, spinning cone, and other distillation techniques).

White Labs of San Diego offers two yeast strains in particular that it suggests for low-alcohol and no-alc beers. They may be used in conjunction with dilution, in which water is carefully added to reduce alcohols.

The first real breakthrough in non-alcoholic beers of which I was aware was from the Firestone winery family of Santa Barbara.

Founder Brooks Firestone, partner Hale Walker, a brewing expert, and Dr. Michael Lewis, head of the brewing school at UC Davis, developed a beer brand called Firestone & Walker that produced an excellent non-alc beer in 1988.

It was test-marketed in San Diego and sold for about two years between California’s central coast and San Diego before the brewery abandoned the non-alc project to focus on micro-brewing.

I tasted one of Fletcher’s first efforts with NA brews even before it was test-marketed, and many consumers found the brew to be fascinating because it was rich, and more like a “craft brew.”

I tried one of the first test efforts in 1988 and found it to be superb – more like an ale, denser than I expected! I spoke with Fletcher at the time, and he said focus groups found it too rich, so he reformulated it, making it more like a lager. That made it more like domestic beers, simpler and less complex.

He described the reformulated version as “very much like an English ale, not bitter, with lots of malt, and not very heavy on the hops.”

A week ago, curious about this new category of non-alcoholic beer, I bought six of the more popular versions and tasted them with a friend and fermentation instructor. Three of them were acceptable as substitutes for beer, but only two were what I would call good enough to consider a regular basis.

The following non-alcoholics all sell in six-packs; many stores will sell singles.

•  Heineken 0.0: Clean, toasted barley notes with a light lager mid-palate. Uncomplicated and refreshing, very slightly sweet aftertaste.

• Clausthaler Dry-Hopped: This well-established non-alc producer added this line extension and it is remarkably complex, with a lot more hoppy characteristics — along the lines of a red ale. Excellent clean flavors. The aftertaste, which is slightly sweet, is well-balanced.

• Athletic Run Wild IPA: Calling this an IPA is really a stretch, but once you get past the fact that it has very little IPA characteristics, the brew is quite appealing with a citrusy and hoppy complexity.

• Lagunitas IPNA: Sort of IPA-like, but with an odd, almost tea-like quality. It reminded me of a slightly heavier style of domestic lager, not a lot like an IPA.

• Athletic Golden: Not particularly beer-y, this has a pale, lager entry with a curious citrus-y note. OK to drink if you don’t think of it as beer.

• Estrella Galicia: The aroma and taste clearly indicate that this product has lots of maltose, so it’s noticeably sweet and the aroma has a faint note of soy sauce.

One point about all six of these products is that the heads (foam) seemed to be short-lived, and not particularly dense. And the effervescence in all of them was also relatively fragile. All were chilled only slightly (about 50°F) and poured into beer glasses before evaluation.

As an incidental note, the carbohydrates and calories in all these brews or significantly lower than traditional light beers.

*Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co. introduced a pickle-flavored ice cream about 16 months ago. I’m not aware of any reaction by either Ben or Jerry.

Check out Napa Valley's most expensive home, a $25m estate located in Deer Park at 850 Sanitarium Road. "The warm modern design features an open floor plan connecting living, dining, cooking, and family rooms, a 2,000 bottle wine library, luxurious primary suite, massage room, gym, two offices, media/theatre room, infinity edge pool, outdoor kitchen, and a full two-suite guest apartment with its own living room and view deck."

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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