Low and no alcohol beers are increasingly becoming the drink of choice for many people. Drinkers encouraged by moderation now have a greater selection of low and no beers to choose from, but how are they made? Which ones should you look out for? And which foods should you pair them with?
What they are and a brief history
In a nutshell, if a beer is 0.5% ABV or below, it’s a non-alcoholic beer. Low-alcohol beers are between 1.2% - 2.8% ABV.
It all started in America in 1919 - prohibition. Non-alcoholic beers began popping up when it was deemed by the powers-that-be that the strongest beverage could be no more 0.5% ABV. Breweries responded by making something called ‘near beer’, which fell in line with the 0.5% threshold. But when the prohibition was banished, beer drinkers of the time had acquired a taste for the light, pale near beers which prompted breweries to carry on as they were (although this time they left more alcohol in).
Today, one third of all the non-alcoholic beer brewed in the world is sold in the Middle East. 60% of Spanish beer drinkers in 2013 chose alcohol free beers – as did 14% of beer drinkers in the UK.
How Non-Alcoholic Beer Is Made
Non-alcoholic beer goes through almost the full brewing process, even fermenting. But while regular beer will then be bottled, canned, kegged or put into casks and aged, non-alcoholic beer has its alcohol removed.
The most common way that alcohol is removed from beer is through gentle heating. Because alcohol has a much lower boiling point than water, the fermented beer can be gently warmed until the alcohol evaporates, and reaches just 0.5% ABV or lower.
Then there’s vacuum distilling, where beer is put under pressure in a vacuum sealed container. The change in atmospheric pressure allows the liquids to boil at a lower temperature and distill off the alcohol.
Another technique that can be used is reverse-osmosis, the same method used to purify drinking water. We’re not osmosis experts, reverse or otherwise, so here’s that process explained by science person Jason Horn from chowhound.com: "...beer is passed through a filter with pores so small that only alcohol and water (and a few volatile acids) can pass through. The alcohol is distilled out of the alcohol-water mix using conventional distillation methods, and the water and remaining acids are added back into the syrupy mixture of sugars and flavor compounds left on the other side of the filter. Bingo—a nonalcoholic beer.". They basically use a microstrainer to filter out the alcohol.
Finally, during bottling kegging or canning, brewers add CO2. One of the reasons beer is so good with food is its bubbles. They help cut through fatty textures and cleanse the palate after each bite, and the process of removing the alcohol from beer reduces the CO2 content.
Some to try
There is now a greater variety of low and no alcohol beers than ever before. Lagers and wheat beers make up the main bulk of beers on offer but there are styles too. For lagers: Beck’s Blue, Bavaria, Clausthaler, Cobra Zero, Carlsberg 0.0, Budvar B.Free and Bitburger Drive are all good options and offer a flavoursome low/no alcohol alternative.
There’s an equally varied range of wheat beers to choose from. Look for Rothaus hefeweizen, Erdinger alcohol frei, Bavaria wheat, Schneider Weisse Tap 3, Paulaner, Maisels Weisse, Der Graf Von Bayern, Franziskaner, Krombacher and Nix. The same sweet, sour and fruity notes found in regular wheat beers can be enjoyed in these low/no options.
Aside from lagers and wheat beers, some low and no ales will tick the box for those in search of a higher hop count. Brewdog Nanny State, Greene King Tolly English Ale, Redchurch Broadway Place, Siren’s QIPA and Brentwood’s BBC2 will be enjoyed by hop hunters.
While they might not be found across as many beer styles as their higher alcohol cousins, low and no alcohol beers still do a fine job of accompanying food. The lagers complement a wide range of foods very well, from white fish (fried or battered), prawns and spicy dishes to pasta, pizza and pork. Wheat beers will also lend themselves affably to all those as well as bratwurst and salads. They also have the added bonus of working superbly with egg based dishes, so look to quiches and omelettes.
And give a radler or a shandy a go, a mixture of beer and fruit soda or lemonade. They’re sweet, tart and refreshing and go very well with similarly flavoured food. Try them with a lemon tart or sweet crème brulee. Seriously, you might be surprised.
So if you’re opting for a low or no alcohol beer you have lots of choice. Choice that’s filled with flavour and uncompromising on taste.
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