Even as the craft beer movement swept across America in the ’90s and 2000s, nonalcoholic options were left to the country’s biggest brewers, such as O’Doul’s, made by Budweiser parent Anheuser-Busch, and Sharp’s, from Miller. European imports, such as Beck’s and St. Pauli Girl, also found fans. As drinkers have become more health conscious in recent years, nonalcoholic beers have exploded back onto the scene, with new entries from Heineken and Budweiser, as well as dedicated nonalcoholic craft breweries, such as Bravus and Athletic. American craft brewers, however, mostly stayed out of the game. But in 2020, two breweries in Maryland and Virginia introduced nonalcoholic IPAs, providing the chance to drink local while staying sober.
Three Notch’d Brewing opened in Charlottesville in 2013, and its barrel-aged stouts and fruit-forward IPAs quickly earned the brewery a following across the state. It now has branches in Richmond, Roanoke and Harrisonburg, in addition to a substantial brewery and restaurant in its hometown. But over time, says founder and CEO George Kastendike, more customers — including those he describes as loyal craft beer drinkers — began to ask bartenders about nonalcoholic beer. “We had folks come in that were with large groups or wedding parties, or they’re watching a basketball game or football game and needed to drive home,” Kastendike says.
Three Notch’d offers a lineup of housemade sodas, but visitors requested something that tasted like a “normal” beer — and, in customer focus groups, Kastendike says, “we talked to several folks that saw a stigma about drinking” mass-marketed nonalcoholic beverages from Heineken or Budweiser, and were looking for craft options made in their own backyard — the same reasons that beer drinkers seek out breweries like Three Notch’d in the first place.
Brewers spent more than a year experimenting with pilot batches, and looking into different brewing techniques before putting the first version of its Non-Alcoholic IPA on tap in Charlottesville last year. The recipe, which checks in at 0.35 percent alcohol by volume, was refined several more times after customer feedback, and cans are now sold in 100 outlets around the state.
There’s a more personal story behind Rhoadie, nonalcoholic beers made at Brookeville Beer Farm, a farm brewery in northern Montgomery County. Phil Muth, who founded the brewery with his wife Grace, developed what he calls “a little medical condition” that meant he had to stop drinking alcohol. “I tried some of the nonalcoholic beers that are out there, and some are acceptable to drink, but I couldn’t help but think we could do something that we really like.” Working with brewer Kenny Borkmann, they began trying to reverse-engineer nonalcoholic beers they enjoyed, and looking into different production methods.
One of the reasons more craft breweries don’t produce nonalcoholic beer is that it’s not as easy as following a recipe for a pale ale. During fermentation, yeast converts sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, while creating the esters and compounds that give beer aroma and flavor. One method of making nonalcoholic beer is to slow or stop fermentation during brewing. Some breweries brew the beer to completion, then lower the alcohol using reverse osmosis, vacuum distillation and other processes.
Borkmann says that he eventually settled on a process called micro-fermentation, “using unfermentable-type malt, so we’re not getting a lot of fermentable sugar,” and managing the yeast to arrest fermentation and keep the beer under 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Three Notch’d’s Kastendike doesn’t want to go into too much detail about their “proprietary” brewing process, but he does say, “it’s legitimately brewed like an IPA,” using Cascade hops.
Most craft beer drinkers who try nonalcoholic beers complain that they don’t taste exactly like “regular” beers. Three Notch’d Non-Alcoholic IPA’s body is thin, though it has a IPA-like bite of grapefruit pith, and a lingering bitterness. It looks the part, with a golden color, rocky white head and lively carbonation, but the lack of oomph (that’s a technical term) in the body pushes it closer to a lively, hoppy soda than a full-fledged IPA.
Brookeville’s current canned Rhoadie offering is a coffee stout, brewed with coffee from Mayorga Organics in Rockville, as well as malted barley. Borkmann says the fatty acids found in coffee beans boost the body. The result, to me, was closer to a canned cafe mocha cold brew — the mouthfeel lacks the viscosity or creaminess you’d expect from the average stout, though the dryness and coffee aromas make it pleasant to sip, and it’s not excessively bitter. (There’s a warning on the can that it contains caffeine, so this beer may not be suited for everyone, including pregnant women.)
Both breweries say they’re committed to nonalcoholic beers, though they’re still tinkering with recipes and processes. Brookeville’s next nonalcoholic release, a hazy IPA expected to drop in a few weeks, will incorporate an enzyme that Borkmann expects to add more body and boost the hop aromas. Three Notch’d recently unveiled a twist on an IPA with Amarillo and Citra hops in its main taproom. Both see themselves diversifying their alcohol-free lineups in the future: Brookville is considering a vanilla or coconut porter and Mexican-style lager; Three Notch’d tested a golden ale on draft last fall, with more varieties to follow.
“I think it will absolutely be a lineup,” Kastendike says. “One of the best things about craft beer drinkers is that they’re adventurous, they want to investigate new products, and very rarely are they interested in buying the same craft beverage every weekend. And I do think that trait will resonate” with nonalcoholic craft beer drinkers.
5 nonalcoholic beers to try
More nonalcoholic beers than ever are crowding beer store shelves. We tasted 20 options in a variety of categories — IPA, stout, Pilsener, golden ale — and these were the favorites.
BrewDog Punk AF: Scottish brewers BrewDog make a selection of nonalcoholic beers at their Columbus, Ohio location. Punk AF is the lightest of the three we tried, a refreshing beverage with a tropical aroma and lots of hoppy citrus flavor but not much malt. The carbonation and low bitterness almost brought it to seltzer territory.
Brooklyn Special Effects IPA: Brooklyn’s second entry into the nonalcoholic world, following Hoppy Amber, isn’t quite the juicy IPA that’s promised. The beautiful copper-colored beer has an aroma of ginger and sweet floral notes, and tastes of lemongrass and sharp grapefruit flavors before a grassy, bitter finish that lingers just long enough. This would be a good one to pair with food.
Bravus Oatmeal Stout: Hands-down the best of the five stouts we tried, and the silver medalist in the Non-Alcohol Beer category at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival. The sweet chocolate notes and roasty malt character more than balance out the slightly thin body.
Einbecker Brauherren Non-Alcoholic Pils: Germans have embraced nonalcoholic beer more readily than Americans — more than 7 percent of all beer consumed in Germany is alcohol-free. (Maybe you remember the stories about German athletes crushing thousands of liters at the last Winter Olympics?) Looking for a classic lager, we rediscovered Einbecker Pils, which has the classic bready, lemony flavors of German Pilsener, and a clean, crisp body with grassy hops and only a little tang in an otherwise dry finish.
WellBeing Intentional IPA — Full of the pineapple and orange you might expect from the combination of Mosaic and Citra hops, WellBeing’s strength is in its drinkability: While too many nonalcoholic IPAs lack the backbone of their full-strength counterparts, WellBeing has a well-rounded mouthfeel, thanks to the addition of lactose, and a welcome bitterness.