Nonalcoholic beer is having a moment. With big-name brands and craft-beer brewers joining the game, which should you stock up on?
Published Apr. 6, 2023.
Nonalcoholic beer had a bad rap but is staging an exciting comeback. Sales have skyrocketed in the United States, growing almost 70 percent from 2016 to 2021, with annual sales totaling $670 million in 2021. Though still a tiny fraction of the beer market, nonalcoholic beer accounts for 85 percent of the alcohol-alternative sector, according to NIQ, a consumer-data provider.
The rising demand was led by the ”sober curious” movement that motivated people to cut down on alcohol intake and by technological advancements that made nonalcoholic beer better able to mimic the sensory experience of alcoholic beer. So how did nonalcoholic beer go from having the reputation of tasting skunky and metallic to being full-bodied, nuanced, and, well, tasting good?
The tradition of making nonalcoholic beer in the United States goes back to 1920, when Congress passed the Volstead Act, banning alcoholic beverages with more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). To bypass the law, Pabst and Anheuser-Busch pivoted to making low-alcohol beers; this method didn’t make beer alcohol-free, but the residual alcohol was lower than 0.5 percent ABV in the final product, which became known as “near beer.” Most of those near beers were riffs on mass-market lager, notes Joshua Bernstein, a Brooklyn-based beer journalist and author of The Complete Beer Course. “The lack of options beyond lager contributed to the delayed takeoff of nonalcoholic beer,” he adds.
Starting in the 2010s, the demand for nonalcoholic beer began to rise. Notably, 82 percent of nonalcoholic-beer buyers also purchase alcoholic beverages, says Jon Berg, VP of Beverage Alcohol Thought Leadership at NielsenIQ. “The takeaway is that people want moderation in their consumption.” The rise of the craft-beer movement in the early aughts also helped turbocharge the nonalcoholic beer resurgence, leading breweries to diversify the styles of very low-alcohol and completely nonalcoholic beer to mirror current trends in the craft-beer industry. You can now find nonalcoholic versions of popular styles in the craft-brew scene, from hoppy and fruity IPAs and chocolaty stouts to crisp Italian pilsners and funky sour ales.
To remove alcohol or prevent it from being created, brewers can use physical or biological methods, both of which have merits and drawbacks. The oldest physical method involves brewing beer as normal and then heating it to 173 degrees, the temperature at which ethanol boils off. It reduces the alcohol content to less than 0.5 percent but often results in a flavorless, metallic, and “skunky” beer, kn...
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Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.