“They were around last year but it seems that 2021 was really the kick-off year,” Filip Kemp, Little Bang Brewing.
“I don’t think it will go anywhere, I think it will continue and improve; people will continue to work at it and become more creative with it,” Cherry Noble, Blackhearts & Sparrows.
“More so than the technology, I think it’s just brewers making more interesting styles and giving the beers a bit more love. I think for some of the bigger brewers, the alc-free products could be a bit of an afterthought,” Ben Holdstock, Heaps Normal.
“I brew beers I like to drink and now I like to drink non-alcoholic beers,” Nic Sandery, Molly Rose.
When future beer historians look back on 2020, they’ll probably note that the year saw the rise of alcohol-free craft beer in the country. The likes of the alcohol-free-only Heaps Normal and UpFlow Brewing plus Modus Operandi spin-off NORT all launched then, Holgate and Mornington Peninsula Brewery added non-alc options to their core range, and UK-based Big Drop Brewing started building an audience – and a team on the ground – for their beers in Australia.
But while 2020 might have been a breakout year for non-alcoholic beer, 2021 feels the time we witnessed real integration, acceleration and acceptance. Bridge Road, Little Bang, Hop Nation, Big Shed, Molly Rose and Urban Alley were among those to add non-alcs to their core range last year, while Brick Lane launched their offshoot ultra-low alcohol Sidewinder series.
America’s Athletic Brewing launched locally in Woolworths stores as both supermarkets and traditional booze retailers began devoting more space to them, while Aussies can shop at an exclusively booze-free online retailer or meet mates at Melbourne's alcohol-free bar, Brunswick Aces.
As we move into another year, and with New Year's resolutions in mind, there will be many looking to cut back their intake (even if the escalating chaos of the pandemic might be pulling them in the other direction). What's more, it does seem there's been a move from only considering alcohol-free beer when the situation suits – designated driver, taking a month off – to the point where drinkers are able to fire off a list of their favourites.
Anecdotally, as someone who recently reached his 30s, they're widely accepted in my social circle now: friends regularly buy them as a means of drinking less alcohol rather than cutting out drinking altogether. But there's no need to rely on anecdotes – talk to beer-focused retailers and the feedback is that people are seeking them out in ever greater numbers.
At Blackhearts & Sparrows, beer buyer Cherry Noble says sales data from the last three quarters makes that clear.
“Heaps Normal has been the number one selling beer in all our stores, which is wild,” she told The Crafty Pint.
Blackhearts aren’t alone either, with the Sydney-based online beer retailer Beer Cartel naming Heaps Normal's Quiet XPA as their top-selling beer too.
Cherry says the success of alcohol-free beer in their stores has taken her by surprise and, at times, she’s struggled to range enough to keep up with demand.
“It’s been big for us, and steady; I haven’t seen any drops in it,” Cherry says.
As for who is reaching for such beers, Cherry says it's diverse, although younger generations are drinking less, while many drinkers are looking to make a change after picking up bad habits through COVID lockdowns.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily attracting new customers; I think it’s just a change in the way people drink,” Cherry says.
“I think it’s more customers who are going to a party who are going to take two beers, or maybe four beers, and then take a four-pack of non-alcohol beers.”
Cherry says the quality of such beers has been improving too, whether that's through brewers brewing them with greater palate weight or a more impactful and interesting flavour profile. The result is more booze-free options that come close to resembling regular beers.
For Ben Holdstock, co-founder and head of production at Heaps Normal, he says the success of their flagship Quiet XPA has impressed even the brewing company team to the point it’s been a challenge to keep up supply.
“From our perspective, we’ve seen demand for the product that has surprised us – at first at least,” he says, suggesting that the growth of the category stems from pent up demand for such products; people were searching for such options, even if they weren't calling for them.
“I think it’s a thing that people haven’t talked about or shared: that desire for a non-alc product,” Ben says.
“People didn’t realise they wanted it until it was there. People would taste the beer and go, ‘Hang on a minute, this is a normal craft beer’.”
Demand doesn’t appear to be slowing down either, with Heaps Normal recently announcing they’d raised $8.5 million in fresh capital from investors, including the likes of Who Gives A Crap founder and CEO Simon Griffiths and GWS footy player Matt de Boer, who is a managing partner in the private equity group Athletic Ventures.
In part, that money will go towards building a brewery of their own – their beer is currently brewed by Brick Lane – with the team eyeing locations in Sydney for a production brewery and taproom.
“The really cool thing about it is it will allow us to do far more limited beers,” Ben says, adding: “It’ll probably be our beers on tap and then all the brewers who have supported us in their taprooms, we’ll put them in ours.
"We’re all about balancing and thinking about how much you’re drinking rather than being completely sober.”
It was while looking to cut his own alcohol consumption that Little Bang co-founder and head brewer Fil Kemp started exploring the space. He hadn't been drinking alcohol for around half a year, a decision led to the creation of the brewery's recently-released core range Spacer: an American pale ale brewed with Columbus, Centennial and Cascade hops that's less than 0.5 percent ABV.
“I thought I better make myself one so I have something to have when everyone else is having a beer at the bar,” he says, pointing out that it wasn’t just him seeking such an offering in their Adelaide venue.
“There was normally a request a day to see if we had a non-alcoholic beer and that was fed back to me through the taproom staff,” Fil says.
“I suspect that the big uptake in non-alcoholic stuff is people probably hit it way too hard during COVID shutdowns and are now recovering from it and realising that they also need a break.”
In creating the beer, he studied techniques being used by other brewers around the globe and across other alcohol industries too to find a method he figured wouldn’t impact flavour too much yet would be achievable without requiring significant investment in new equipment. Admitting there will always be a trade-off when designing a beer with such low levels of alcohol, he landed on a specific yeast (LA-01 from Fermentis, to be even more specific) designed for such beers, as well as using higher mash temperatures to help create a fuller mouthfeel without generating alcohol.
“It does leave your product really vulnerable because you’ve got a lot of fermentables still in there by using a yeast that doesn’t metabolise it,” he says.
Without a pasteuriser, Fil says they instead chose to sterile filter Spacer to protect against contamination or re-fermentation; he says any brewer working on such beers needs to be fully across laboratory best practices.
“It’s certainly harder than any other normal beer I’ve ever had to make before,” he says.
“Getting the body balance is really difficult because alcohol adds body and sweetness, so leaving enough residual sugar in is what generates the body, but getting that balance right is difficult. Plus then you have to adjust the bitterness, and hops, and everything else.”
His first attempt at the beer didn’t finish the way he wanted, while with the second the body and bitterness were out of balance. Finally, he felt the third batch was hitting the sweet spot, so the fourth went into cans (pictured above). They installed an ice bank chiller separate to their glycol system to prevent it freezing in the lines due to a lack of alcohol, and now Fil is eager to explore more styles, including stouts and lagers.
For Molly Rose founder Nic Sandery, whose first two non-alc beers were named in our Best New Victorian Beers Of 2021 feature last month, he too has been finding much to love about alcohol-free drinking. Initially, he didn't take much interest in the category, but that changed after trying those brewed at Holgate, where he used to be a brewer.
“I started using [those beers] to assist me in getting my alcohol-free days,” he says.
“I try to aim for at least two or three a week, which is pretty hard in the booze industry, but it’s something I try and do for my own health. So, at the end of a hard day in the brewery, I was having a non-alcoholic beer and it was making me not feel like drinking a beer.”
From sceptic to devotee, Nic made the call to release two in time for Dry July last year, jumping in with a hundred cases of each despite not carrying out any trials.
“It was the most nervous I’ve been brewing any beer in a long time,” he admits.
Prior to brewing them, he picked the brains of people who were already producing non-alc beers then considered how he could make them into Molly Rose beers. The results were Citra Citra, an IPA featuring both Citra hops and fresh oranges, and Strawberry Sublime, a strawberry and lime gose that uses limes from Nic’s parents’ farm in the Northern Territory.
“We tried to gather as much information as possible and then put a Molly Rose take on it,” he says.
“So, we like using citrus and fruit and making sour beers. The flavours we added were those we like to use in our other beers and were pretty unique to non-alcoholic beers.”
In the case of Strawberry Sublime, which Cherry at Blackhearts believes stands up well alongside many kettle sours on the market, Nic says the complexity comes from co-fermentation with live lactobacillus and a non-alcohol-producing yeast over a number of days.
“We let [the lactobacillus] have a few days head start and then we pitch the yeast and then leave it to ferment as long as it ferments before being pasteurised," he says. "So, there’s a larger layer of complexity than maybe a kettle sour, which only has 12 or 15 hours on the bacteria.”
Having launched the beers relatively early in the rise of non-alc beers, he sees a big future for them, as well as for his more recently-released radler collabs with Strangelove, both of which sit in light beer territory.
“[Citra Citra and Strawberry Sublime are] definitely our number one and two best-selling beers and we hope in the next 12 months to really break them out.”
Both are pasteurised, which for Nic means he has to transport the beer from one brewery to another – a logistical challenge he hopes to overcome if sales continues to grow.
“It does make it a lot harder, but it’s a passion project and is at a small scale now, so we’ll hopefully come up with a solution when we really get into it,” he says.
As for who is seeking out Citra Citra and Strawberry Sublime, Nic believes they've connected both with his existing customers and new ones. Given retailers like Dan Murphy's on the one hand and petrol stations on the other have shown an interest, he says: “It means there’s a whole bunch of people out there who are asking for non-alcoholic beer.
"So we do see it as a way to get Molly Rose into the hands of people who might want a spacer, or take some time off drinking, or who have taken full time off drinking.”
While he agrees COVID has helped to create a “perfect storm to drive non-alcoholic beers”, even without lockdowns he believes they would have found fans in Australia. For him, one of the most interesting aspects in what’s driving the growth is that there doesn't seem to be one single thing driving it at all.
“People have different uses for them and they’re being helpful to lots of different people to help them look after their health and still enjoy things they like but in very different use case scenarios,” Nic says.
“Because to quit booze entirely is very different to someone who goes, ‘I don’t want to be drunk and hungover tomorrow but I love double IPAs and I want to stay drinking with my mates, so I’ll have one double IPA and two non-alcs.
“It’s really surprised me how people have decided to use non-alcoholic beers.”
For his frequent collaborator at Blackhearts & Sparrows, things have changed significantly compared with a few years ago too. Back then, Cherry says they might have held a couple out the back in case someone came looking for one.
Now, in a sign of the times, she says: “We’ll have at least six, but often ten in the fridges at all times.”