Beer Without the Buzz

The demand for nonalcoholic beer is growing as brewers accommodate new tastes.

April 25, 2019

LONDON – A lot of people enjoy the taste of beer, but for various reasons, avoid consuming alcohol. Now Nirvana Brewery, based in a small town outside London, is working to give beer fans a beverage with the taste, but not the side effects, of real beer, according to Bloomberg.

Becky Kean’s father loved the atmosphere of the pub, but as a recovering alcoholic, he hated sipping mineral water while his mates sampled bitter pale ales, smooth stouts or tropical fruit sours. Three years ago, Kean founded Nirvana Brewery to create nonalcoholic beer that tastes as good as craft brews. The business makes a half-dozen no- or ultralow-alcohol brews, with names such as Kosmic, Karma and Tantra.

Today, brewers worldwide are discovering it’s OK to mix suds with sobriety as demand for no- and low-alcohol beer soars. While growth of the broader craft beer market is slowing and sales of college beer-pong staples, such as Bud Light and Coors, decline, lower-alcohol brews are the latest trend. Sales this year will grow by a third in the United Kingdom and 9% globally, while the overall U.K. beer market will expand by 2%, according to researcher Euromonitor.

Nonalcohol customers range from designated drivers to pregnant women to folks who simply like the taste of beer but want to cut back on alcohol. “It’s people in high-pressure jobs, like law or banking, who are trying to find balance,” Kean said.

The industry’s giants are reassessing a business that once largely focused on lowest-common-denominator lager for sports fans. Carlsberg makes a no-alcohol pilsner dubbed Nordic, Heineken offers 0.0 lager and Anheuser-Busch sells alcohol-free options of leading brews, including Hoegaarden, Leffe and Stella Artois. In 2016, AB introduced a standalone brand called Prohibition, and by 2025, the company wants no- and low-alcohol brews to account for 20% of its volume.

“What makes this segment even more exciting is that these brands often command a premium price,” said Carlos Brito, AB chief executive. 

Producers say sober brews are a natural fit for lunch menus, and they’re starting to market them as sports drinks. “Business is very, very good, as there’s a lot of innovation in our sector that’s turning heads toward alcohol-free,” says Stuart Elkington, founder of a web store called DryDrinker.com.

The biggest challenge to brewing a buzz-free beer is accurately re-creating the taste. Alcohol provides a distinct mouthfeel and a flavor that are difficult to replicate. Most breweries simply use traditional brewing methods, then heat the finished product to burn off the alcohol.

Instead of de-alcoholizing its beers, Nirvana adjusts the temperatures, sugar, malt and fermentation times to deliver brews with only trace amounts of alcohol. The India pale ales and malty stouts taste lighter than versions with alcohol, but they’re close enough to the new flavors that have reinvigorated the market.

Nirvana produces 100,000 liters of beer a year, or 0.0001 percent of AB output, but the company is growing fast. Revenue doubled in 2018 and is on track to do so again this year. It’s had inquiries from prospective importers in Europe, Asia and the U.S. And it’s boosting its appeal locally by participating in nearby beer.

“You get a few snobs who say, ‘It’s not beer,’” Kean says. “But to us, beer is about the ingredients, a social drink that brings everyone together. It’s not about the alcohol at all.”

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