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  • Bob Monroe

Dead Ends, U-Turns, and Restarts

When I say I tried a lot of different non-alcoholic beers, I mean I tried a LOT, and by a lot I mean probably approaching 100 different beers from 20 different producers. After I decided to dive into NA beers as an option to fill the void of no longer being able to drink regular beer, I did what I typically do and dove in 100%. I had two goals, find an NA beer that resembled the real thing, and then find out what I could on how it was made.

Every time I would find a new producer of NA beer I would order several of their beers (luckily there are no shipping restrictions for NA beer so you can get most shipped nationwide) and then find whatever info I could scour from the internet about how they produced their beers. My hope was that I could correlate different methods with the good or bad qualities of each beer. While most producers do not share their exact methods, I was able to piece together clues from their websites, interviews done with the owners or brewers, and articles in order to make an educated guess on the main methods employed.

While all the various methods discussed in the previous post can create really good NA beers and I found good examples of each, I found a few themes running through the various examples I tried. Again, don’t take these “themes” to mean they apply to every beer made using a specific method, but rather trends that highlighted to me either the limitations of a specific method or hurdles to be overcome to create a great tasting NA beer.

Variations on a Theme

For beers created by manipulating fermentation I often get a very “worty” aroma and flavor. Wort is the sugary liquid produced during the brewing process prior to fermentation taking place. During a normal complete fermentation this “wortiness” is reduced as the sugars are consumed and replaced by yeast produced aromas and flavors. I attribute the “worty” flavor in some NA beers to incomplete or lack of fermentation and the absence of those fermentation byproducts. If you’ve ever had Malta, which is basically wort soda, it kind of reminds me of that. It can be ok in small amounts, but the profile is syrupy and cloying, so it lacks the refreshing qualities of a normal beer. I have found that certain styles, like stouts and other darker beers, can be made to utilize these “worty” flavors as part of their flavor profiles but it is more challenging to make lighter styles without this character overshadowing the other flavors.

While not typically impacting the taste of the beer, the other thing I’ve noticed with many NA beers produced by fermentation manipulation is an extremely cloudy, sometimes almost murky appearance. My guess is that this comes from the use of higher protein grains and unique mashing techniques, both intended to reduce fermentability and increase mouthfeel.

In general, I’ve appreciated beers created using technology to remove alcohol post fermentation. The biggest advantage to these methods is that a complete fermentation is accomplished prior to processing. This leads to a reduction in the “worty” flavors and aroma, and it allows the yeast to produce favorable byproducts during fermentation. This can lead to a more beer like flavor and aroma in the final product. The other advantage to this method is it allows use of any type of yeast to complete the fermentation. So you can create lagers using lager yeast, or Belgian ales, or hefeweizens; all of them benefiting from the unique fermentation flavors and aromas produced by each type of yeast. At Figurehead, we take full advantage of the broad spectrum of yeasts and the varying character they can bring to our alcoholic beers, so I appreciate this NA method that allows for use of any type of yeast. This helps provide those familiar flavors that almost trick you into thinking it is an alcoholic beer.

Because the processing methods used to remove the alcohol can also remove other aromatics, these methods do sometimes reduce the overall aroma profile of the NA beer and can make it more challenging to produce more hop forward or dry hopped beer styles.

Also, just like in some beers produced through fermentation manipulation, the NA beer can taste thin and what I would describe as flat on the palate. Alcohol can provide significant mouthfeel in a normal beer, as well as additional flavor components, so any beverage with little or no alcohol can seem thin.

Based on this “research” I began looking for a way to produce an NA beer via technological processing and in spring 2020 I saw a presentation through the Brewer’s Association from a company that offered that exact technology.

Searching for a Partner

Due to the pandemic also kicking off in early 2020 my entire focus shifted to keeping the brewery afloat, so I wasn’t able to pursue my NA project until late 2020 and I began discussions with the company about their technology in early 2021. After the initial sticker shock ($250k) when I inquired about purchasing their equipment, the discussions shifted to how I could use their equipment as a service to create NA beers utilizing my recipes.

By the end of 2021 we had narrowed down to a plan which involved me developing the recipes for a few NA beers based off some trials, having those recipes contract brewed by a brewery near the company’s facilities, the company converting that beer to non-alcoholic, and then that NA beer being packaged and shipped to Seattle. The main issues with this plan involved scale and the fact that the finished product needed to be shipped across country. In order to get even close to breaking even we would need to produce at least 15bbl (a beer barrel (bbl) is 31 gallons, so 15bbl would be approximately 5000 cans of NA beer), and 30bbl or higher would be preferable.

To give you a comparison we produced around 24bbl per month of alcoholic beer in 2021 and around 90% of that we sold through our taproom. The other 10% we self-distribute in the Seattle area, meaning we don’t have a large distribution channel and we don’t have a relationship with a distributor who could help us get the beer out. So it would be a big challenge to distribute that initial 15bbl order of NA beer but I had decided to make it happen in order to test the market and begin establishing our NA beer lineup.

Just when I was about to send the first samples to be converted as test batches, I got word from the company that the contract brewery they were working with would require a 30bbl per month contract in order to move forward. This equates to 360bbl/year, more than I produce in alcoholic beer, and an unrealistic amount for me to self-distribute. This meant my dream was dead in the water.

Resuscitating the Dream

Instead of giving up though I pivoted and over this past Christmas break I scoured the internet for anything related to manipulating fermentation to produce NA beer. I found white papers from universities in Europe discussing maltose and maltotriose negative yeasts (more on that in my next post), homebrewing forums for making low alcohol beers at home, and various publications discussing the craft NA beer movement underway.

With this I started to develop a plan which would leverage my homebrewing experience to create very small scale trials in rapid succession. I purchased an electric mash/boil combination kettle, some very small plastic carboys, equally small kegs, and sourced a couple different yeast strains to start with. I terrified my wife who thought I was going back to a full-scale homebrew operation. The new set-up will allow me to do rapid trials over the coming months to test different ingredients and techniques with the hopes of creating something worth drinking.

To figure out where to begin with these trials and what things to tweak, you first have to understand what’s contained in that little kernel of barley, and the particular appetite of your chosen yeast.

Next: The complexity of complex sugars.



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