For the most part, N/A beer gets a bad rap, and that’s because it’s pretty terrible. Or at least most of its iterations have been for decades. If the industry took to N/A beer with the same creativity given to turning perfectly good Italian dinners into mediocre beers, well, we’d probably be worse off. Luckily, some unhazed minds have taken the helm, and we’re seeing a culture forming around the sober lifestyle that doesn’t sacrifice luxury for health.
Looking back, it’s important to note that N/A beer wasn’t the result of people pursuing an alternative to alcohol. Rather, it was done out of necessity due to the 1919 Prohibition Act. So why try to make good N/A beer? Just make something that people could legally buy at 0.5 percent alcohol, which worked out so well that by the end of 1920, New York had 32,000 speakeasys filled with everything but N/A beers.
So why do N/A beers taste…off? The answer lies in what it takes to make N/As: heat. Boil out the alcohol after fermentation. What’s lost is virtually every hop character aside from bitterness. Consider the boil in the brewing process before fermentation, where hops are added at different intervals for different reasons. In a 60-minute boil, commonly you start out by adding your bittering hops, which are working to balance out the sweetness of the wort. Next is the flavoring hops, which won’t boil long enough to extract the bitterness (15 to 30 minutes), but will add their brightness to the mix. Lastly, aroma hops—added 5 minutes before the boil is over or even at flameout. You can do other additions, and different hops will impart different characteristics, but to illustrate the point, boiling after fermentation means erasing the work done by flavoring and aroma hops. It’s why N/A styles are typically malt- or yeast-forward beers.
That’s not to say nobody made a drinkable N/A beer up until now, but investing resources into making a good N/A had poor ROI when compared to brewing a Pilsner or American Adjunct Lager. That is, until the sober curious movement, where people with active-drinking lifestyles seek to work periods of sobriety into their party schedule, including Dry January, Mindful March, Dry July, and Sober October. It was a market looking for good N/A drinks.
Today’s N/As are now really pushing themselves to mimic flavor profiles found in their leaded brethren. For some breweries, this involves looking back in history to when beer regularly incorporated flowers and spices in lieu of hops. The right combination can liven up mouthfeel and re-create malt and hop harmonies. One microbrewery even found a way to take out the post-fermentation boil altogether.
Hairless Dog Brewing Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wouldn’t tell me everything about their process, but they forgo fermentation and never introduce yeast to their brew. Because there won’t be yeast to convert the sweet sugars in the wort, Hairless Dog’s mash process, where enzymes break down starches into simple sugars, does a few things different on the front end. No details as to what, but they are working with the same grain as everyone else. The result is a true 0.0 percent beer. In addition, because alcohol was never introduced to the brew, they can ship anywhere in the United States.
Jeff Hollander, Hairless Dog CEO and co-founder, having long ago chosen a sober lifestyle, remembers how things used to be before the sober uprising. “You haven’t lived until you’ve brought an old-school N/A beer to a party.” Where the Animal House loyalists might’ve jeered and shunned, Hairless Dog focuses on inclusion.
“The whole purpose is to bring more people into the party,” says Jeff. “It’s not about trying to maintain the old trajectory of the N/A beer category; it’s about inventing a new one.” I’m a huge fan of what a world embracing N/A beers would look like. You’d get to enjoy the show all night long even when you have work tomorrow. “As we like to say around the office, it’s cheaper than an Uber ride.”
Nuts and bolts talk, how’s it taste? “With us, we can leave behind a lot of the nuances of the grains that craft beer lovers, craft beer fans, like while never introducing alcohol to our process,” says Jeff. “This gives us a lot of ability to create different styles. For example, right now we have an IPA; a Citra Lager, which is made with citra hops, very refreshing; we have a Black Ale; and then we have a Coffee Stout, and we have three new styles that we’re going to be introducing this year.”
Okay, that’s a great variety, but seriously, how’s it taste? After trying each of the four beers, I’d say there’s a line straddled between beer and heavily aromatic hop tea. What’s most impressive is how distinct one beer is from the other. The Coffee Stout is better than at least half of the coffee beers I’ve had, though when I drink it, it’s more of an homage to stout rather than a straight up copy. And I like that. I don’t want a company that’s acting as a pioneer in style to betray what’s inherent in their process.
Jeff points out that “most people, when they try our brews, think they contain anywhere between 6 to 8 percent.” Perhaps this is because there’s a lot of thought going into the beer. In trying to mimic yeast, there’s a very ester-rich-like aroma and taste that mixes with some other spice and floral elements akin to some Belgian styles. These work with the malt, creating a fuller mouthfeel. It allows the roasted character in their Black Ale and Coffee Stout to come across pretty darn clean, leaving something of an ESB bitterness.
I will say that the macro beers have been improving their N/A game as well. During my taste testing, I walked away thinking I could totally do one of these between my regular beers and not have to worry about my palette being wrecked or feeling like I’m suffering through the next 30 minutes. Before I reintroduced myself to these beers, I didn’t see a future for N/As other than being the annoying goody-goody sidekick of an otherwise badass superhero. Now, I’m genuinely excited to see where things can go as the industry recognizes a lot of the previous roadblocks were just parking cones.
To today. May we always embrace it as though it were tomorrow.
Kyle Jacobson is a writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.
Go to drinkhairlessdog.com to order their new 4-pack sampler or to find out where you can get their beers near you. Jeff also recommends Zhuzh handcrafted shrub, based out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.