Visit The Good Beer Hunting site

Rob Fink’s beer is made in Canada, at Equals Brewing Company in London, Ontario. It’s also brewed in Australia, at Brick Lane Brewing south of Melbourne, and in his native U.K. (at Hepworth & Co Brewers in Sussex, and at Fourpure Brewing Co. in London, England). Soon—by Thanksgiving, all being well—it’ll be brewed in the U.S., at Great Central Brewing Company in Chicago.
For a company founded four years ago, that’s an impressive rate of expansion, but this is no typical operation. Fink is co-founder and CEO of Big Drop Brewing Co., where a diverse range of beers—Pale Ales, Lagers, Brown Ales, Stouts, and Sours, among others—are brewed to just 0.5% ABV.
Big Drop is at the forefront of a small but growing wave of non-alcoholic breweries in the U.K. Sales of no- and low-alcohol beer (defined as below 1.2% ABV) more than doubled between 2016 and 2019, and now represent around 1% of the market, according to figures from the British Beer and Pub Association (a trade body which represents the U.K.’s largest breweries and pub companies).
That’s still a tiny sliver, but it’s growing by about 25% each year. COVID-19, which has laid waste to British beer sales, doesn’t seem to have slowed the category’s momentum either, at least if the producers themselves are to be believed. Fink says Big Drop has “maintained the growth trajectory we had before COVID,” while Luke Boase, the man behind 0.5% ABV Lager brand Lucky Saint, says sales are more than twice what they were pre-pandemic, despite 70% of output having been on-trade (pubs, bars and restaurants) before the virus hit the U.K. in March.
QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY Non-alcoholic beer is now part of the British beer landscape. Alongside Big Drop and Lucky Saint, there’s Nirvana Brewery, Drop Bear Beer Co., Drynks Unlimited, and Coast Beer Co. making non-alcoholic beer, for example, while Small Beer Brew Co. focuses on beers under 2.8%. Everyone from traditional brewers like Adnams to globe-trotting modernists like BrewDog makes it. Abstaining is hip: Dry January is so popular that another month (“Sober October”) has been allotted to the anti-alcohol cause.
Part of the reason for this energy is the quality of the beers, which are much closer, in terms of flavor and body, to “real beer” than their predecessors. They’ve come a long way from Britain’s previous non-alcoholic beer boom in the late 1980s, when one of the nation’s favorite comedians, Billy Connolly, advertised Guinness’ Kaliber on TV not with an endorsement of the flavor—God forbid—but with the line, “Because it’s alcohol-free, you can drink as much as you like.”
“We’re giving the yeast less sugar to play with, we’re putting in lower amounts of yeast, we’re doing everything we can to stress the yeast out, and so you get a very different fermentation profile. So we decided pretty early on that we needed to ferment this beer normally.”
— Fergus Fitzgerald, AdnamsWhat’s interesting—and inevitable, perhaps, given the movement’s youth and the relative secrecy with which these beers are made—is that no consensus has yet emerged on production. Some, like Big Drop, are created using what Fink calls “lazy yeast,” or yeasts which do not ferment maltose. Others, like Adnams, use the latest generation of reverse-osmosis machines, whereby beer is filtered to remove water and alcohol; and some, like Lucky Saint, use vacuum distillation, where the beer is distilled under reduced pressure to remove alcohol, at around 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit). Whatever the process, though, quality remains high.
This level of quality is very new, as Fink can attest. He left a career as a lawyer in the City of London, Britain’s financial heart, to enter the world of non-alcoholic beers in 2015 because he was disappointed that the boom in craft beers hadn’t translated into non-alcoholic options. “At that point in time, you could buy alcohol-free Lager,” Fink, whose brewery launched in November 2016, says. “That was fine, but there weren't these craft beers that I was looking for—Pales and dark beers, and the rest.”
He enlisted Johnny Clayton, formerly of The Wild Beer Co. in Somerset, to help him after having been knocked back by a number of more traditionally minded brewers. The technique they settled upon requires the use of a yeast that, as Fink puts it, “is not very good at converting sugar to alcohol.” Although he refuses to say which yeast that is (“That’s the secret sauce”), there are a number of strains on the market that could fit the bill. Saccharomycodes ludwigii, available from White Labs, does not ferment maltose or other larger sugars; SafBrew LA-01, from Fermentis, has similar qualities; and Torulaspora delbrueckii, which apparently produces extravagant fruit aromas and flavors, is in the same bracket.
Alongside its yeast strain, Big Drop employs techniques to suppress alcohol production while maximizing flavor. These include using a smaller mash bill so there’s less fermentable sugar in the first place; brewing in part at a higher temperature in order to further inhibit the yeast; and utilizing more than 20 speciality grains to round out the flavor and ensure there’s not too much residual sweetness.
Lactose, an unfermentable sugar, offers mouthfeel—except in Big Drop’s Lager, Uptown, where maltodextrin is substituted to ensure the beer is vegan. “When I’m selling the beer now, people say, ‘Yeah, we've heard a lot about your beers,’” Fink says. “‘Are they vegan, are they gluten-free?’ Before they wouldn't have even talked to me because they weren't interested in alcohol-free beer. There’s been a shift, not just towards alcohol-free, but also what else it can do.”
The fashion for hop-forward beers—almost as prevalent in the U.K. as it is in the U.S.—has been a huge boon for non-alcoholic beer, Fink believes: “That's enabled us to create these styles because the hops offer a lot of flavor, but they have no bearing on the ABV at all.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE That shift has also helped Fergus Fitzgerald, the 45-year-old head brewer at Adnams, a traditional brewery with a modern approach based in the eastern county of Suffolk. One of Adnams’ most popular beers—making up almost 10% of its sales—is Ghost Ship 0.5, a non-alcoholic version of its biggest brand, the Citra-hopped Ghost Ship.
Released in 2018, Ghost Ship 0.5 wasn’t Fitzgerald’s first attempt at a low-ABV beer. That came almost a decade ago when, in 2011, former Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government introduced a tax break for beers under 2.8%. “We did a beer called Sole Star at 2.7% and, actually, it went really well,” Fitzgerald says. “It wasn't really low enough, though. It sort of fell between two stools, so we dropped the ABV to 0.9%, using restricted fermentation. Even though we thought it was a nice drink, there was something odd about the fermentation. You thought, ‘This is not quite there.’”
When Adnams decided to really commit to non-alcoholic beer, then, it took another approach, spending around £500,000 ($650,000) on a reverse-osmosis system, the AromaPlus Membrane Dealcoholization Unit from German company GEA, in March 2018. Adnams head brass took a trip to Klosterbrauerei Andechs in Bavaria, where the first machine was operating, to see how it worked. “We had a lovely evening, sitting in their beer garden, eating pig knuckle and drinking lots of beer,” says Fitzgerald. “Andechs’ non-alcoholic Wheat Beer is really good. They've done a really good job on that one.”
Reverse osmosis is decades-old technology—but, according to Ralf Scheibner, department manager in Membrane Filtration at GEA, his company’s unit has much-improved polymer thin film membranes, through which the beer is filtered at less than 10° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit). This means the unit, which was launched in late 2016, offers much better flavor and aroma retention than traditional reverse-osmosis machines. It also uses less water than previous models.
“We’ve brought it up to modern, state-of-the-art standards,” says Scheibner, whose team has sold “13 or 14” of these units around the world so far. “You can produce not only 0.5% beer, but also 0.0% beer. That’s a big asset. The key thing is the membranes ensure super-high retention of the ingredients of the beer; not everything is retained—here are some traces of other organics that are similar to ethanol [that are lost], but if you look at the filtrate coming out, it’s crystal-clear. It produces much better beer compared to the old days. There is a big difference.”
At the same time that it was preparing to invest in GEA’s kit, Adnams had decided to create a non-alcoholic version of Ghost Ship rather than a new brand. It’s a decision that reflects how it’s done in many German breweries, which often have non-alcoholic alternatives to their most popular beers available.
“The more we thought about it, the more we thought, actually, that's really what we want to do,” Fitzgerald says. “But how do we mimic the flavor of the existing beer? People know what it tastes like: if you're going to call it the same thing, then people can stand them side-by-side and tell [if] you're talking nonsense.”
Fitzgerald and his team revisited their previous attempts at brewing non-alcoholic beer during the development of Ghost Ship 0.5. “We started thinking about Sole Star and why it wasn’t right—and as far as I'm concerned, the answer is really fermentation. We're giving the yeast less sugar to play with, we're putting in lower amounts of yeast, we're doing everything we can to stress the yeast out, and so you get a very different fermentation profile. So we decided pretty early on that we needed to ferment this beer normally.”
“We put some of the ‘mother beer’ back, to get aromas lost during the dealcoholization process. And alcohol gives balance: if you take it away, there’s a lack of harmony. That’s why we blend to 0.4 ABV.”
— Matthias Ebner, WeihenstephanThat led Adnams to reverse osmosis, but there was more work to do. The original beer had to be tweaked to ensure it tasted right at the end: hop flavor was accentuated by reverse osmosis, and malt character removed, so less of the former and more of the latter went into the pre-dealcoholization beer. Finally, after the process was complete, the brewers replaced just 75% of the water that had been removed for a more satisfying mouthfeel.
It has been an impressive success: the reverse-osmosis kit is currently running at about 80% capacity producing this one beer. That’s one of the reasons why, if the brewers were to make another non-alcoholic beer, it would be done differently. “We always talk about [doing another non-alcoholic beer],” Fitzgerald says. “What’s changed in the last few years is there's a lot more knowledge of other ways of making low-alcohol beer, like using different yeast strains. I think we probably will add another low-alcohol beer in the next 18 months or so. But I'd be surprised if we put it through the reverse osmosis; I think we'll probably do something different.”
MADE IN GERMANY As the Adnams experience illustrates, the German influence on Britain’s non-alcoholic beer has been sizable. That isn’t surprising; with 7.3% of overall beer sales being non-alcoholic in 2019 (according to figures from the Deutscher Brauer-Bund, the German brewers’ association) and more than 500 different non-alcoholic brands available, it’s one of Europe’s two biggest markets for the category.
The other is Spain, where 13% of a beer market less than half the size of Germany’s is non-alcoholic (defined in Spain as below 1% ABV). These beers are overwhelmingly industrial Lagers, although a few craft breweries are starting to dip their toes in the market.
“Non-alcoholic beers here tend to be Pale Lagers, and the larger breweries advertise them quite heavily. I haven't seen many other styles; We [Garage] have never done one,” says Joe Gallimore, an Englishman who recently left his role as head brewer at Barcelona’s Garage Beer Co to join Madrid’s Oso Brew Co. “At the moment, it’s still seen as something industrial brewers make.”
That’s no longer the case in Germany, where small breweries like Hamburg’s Uwe are now part of a market that has been growing gradually for two decades and more. The Bavarian state brewery Weihenstephan, for example, has been making non-alcoholic beer since 1994, when a dealcoholization system built by the Baden-Württemberg-based company API Schmidt-Bretten was installed at the brewery north of Munich.
It is a distillation (or rectification) system, according to Wilfried Teuber,Process Plant Control Engineer for API, who has worked on the non-alcoholic project since it began in the early 1990s. The company has sent more than a hundred out since: to Germany, Spain, and China, primarily.
The system starts at around €400,000 ($470,000), he adds, going up to €2m ($2.3m) for a kit that includes “many, many options” such as aroma recovery and CO2 dosing. It has evolved since the 1990s, even if the basic concept remains the same. “The main process has not changed, but a lot of development has been done on the control of the plant,” says Teuber. “Now everything is fully automatic, with a touch screen, and there have been many improvements in cleaning. With each new plant, we make small improvements.”
“Body is the biggest challenge. These [non-alcoholic] beers are normally really thin. What we discovered was the difference between filtered and unfiltered is a complete game changer in terms of flavor and body.”
— Luke Boase, Lucky SaintIt’s worked out well for Weihenstephan, for which non-alcoholic Wheat Beer makes up 9% of its production. (Helles, the brewery’s other non-alcoholic beer, is just 2%.) Its success with non-alcoholic beer means Weihenstephan will be installing a new plant to work alongside the original one in the next few years, according to Matthias Ebner, the brewery’s international brand ambassador.
Weihenstephan’s two non-alcoholic beers are brewed to 0.0% before being brought back to 0.4% by blending in full-strength beer. “We put some of the ‘mother beer’ back, to get aromas lost during the dealcoholization process,” says Ebner. “And alcohol gives balance: if you take it away, there’s a lack of harmony. That’s why we blend to 0.4 ABV.”
Given the depth of knowledge in Germany, it’s perhaps no surprise that Luke Boase ended up there. By the time he launched his non-alcoholic Lager, Lucky Saint, in the U.K. in October 2018, the 39-year-old had consulted multiple brewers in Britain and Germany before settling on a contract partner in Bavaria. Although he won’t reveal the name of the brewery—the only clue on the bottle is a line about “over 400 years of proud brewing heritage,” which doesn’t really narrow it down in Bavaria—he does say that Lucky Saint is made using vacuum distillation.
The key to its genuinely impressive flavor—honeyed malt sweetness, restrained hop bitterness, huge drinkability—and body is the fact it is not filtered, he adds. “Body is the biggest challenge,” says Boase, whose beer is made with all German ingredients and gets two weeks’ fermentation and four weeks’ conditioning before dealcoholization. “These [non-alcoholic] beers are normally really thin. What we discovered was the difference between filtered and unfiltered is a complete game changer in terms of flavor and body.”
The beer is not currently available in the U.S.—“We are talking to one person in the U.S.,” says Boase, “Export hasn't until very recently been a focus at all”—but he may end up following Fink across the Atlantic. The latter is energized by the success that Connecticut's Athletic Brewing Company, with a similar brewing approach to his own, has had in recent years.
“They’ve absolutely smashed it,” he says. “That makes me optimistic, although I think [the attitude towards non-alcoholic beer in] the States is probably where we were a few years’ back. People don't quite get it, they don't understand why you’d want it. I wonder whether U.S. consumers are happier to drink things like cola and lemonade as a non-alcoholic alternative to beer than we are in the U.K. We'll see.”
Words by Will Hawkes
Illustrations by Ben Chlapek