Craft beer was built on the open sharing of ideas among brewers. Nonalcoholic craft beer is taking the opposite tack—to the detriment of innovation.
Sweet, unfermented barley stew. An explosion of foam. A sour funk when the beer is not a sour. Weak, watery, undercarbonated thinness. These are just a few of the faults you might encounter—repeatedly—when trying nonalcoholic beers. The category is booming, with new options debuting daily, a bright spot shining against the current, sagging reality that craft beer sales are in decline. But too many of these options aren’t actually good. Why does consistency prove so elusive in this increasingly popular category?
Secrecy might be the answer. The rise of N/A beer has been built on proprietary methods and brewers who keep their advances to themselves. It’s the polar opposite of how the rest of the craft beer industry has evolved over the past few decades.
“In American craft brewing, for the most part, there’s been a ‘no secrets’ culture—I can tell you all the details, but you’re still going to wind up with a different beer,” says Joe Stange, executive editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine and the Brewing Industry Guide. “At the same time, sharing the techniques and processes that really work well is a habit that lifts all boats—it makes everybody better.” When brewers discover some game-changing ingredient or method, they often can’t wait for show-and-tell; the innovations spread, and beer improves. With nonalcoholic beer, meanwhile, brewers are on their own.
Perhaps craft beer is the one that’s the odd man out here. As a drinks writer and editor, Kate Bernot has been met with vague responses from brewers when reporting on N/A equipment and methods, a departure from interviews with standard craft beer makers. “Craft beer is … the anomaly in terms of cooperation,” she says. “You don’t see one construction company inviting a competing firm’s engineers to come ‘collaborate’ on blueprints.” Meanwhile, in craft beer, teamwork-based origin stories abound. “I think of the story of Ken Grossman visiting Jack McAuliffe at New Albion Brewing Co. in ’78, then taking that method he saw and scaling it to start Sierra Nevada,” says Meagen Anderson, founder and CEO of AFicioNAdo, the world’s first nonalcoholic adult beverage training and certification program.
N/A beer brands have a reason to act more like a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company than a craft brewery. Entering the N/A beer arena requires a massive investment of money, education and resources. Athletic Brewing Co. has effectively launched the craft nonalcoholic beer category and remains its primary driver, and it was valued at $500 million in 2023. As of 2022, it had raised approximately $173.5 million in funding. That has fueled the creation of gold-standard N/A beer styles; perhaps unsurprisingly, Athletic is patenting its process.
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“We have invested significant resources, both in terms of time and capital, to develop processes that set our products apart from others on the market,” says Athletic communications manager Chris Furnari.
Even if a brewery dished on its methods, they’re often not widely accessible, anyway. Many breweries who want to start making nonalcoholic beer don’t fully comprehend the undertaking it is, Anderson says. If you opt to use a dealcoholization process, the required equipment can cost millions of dollars. If you choose the biological path of arrested fermentation using standard yeast or limited fermentation using strains for nonalcoholic beer, there’s a steep learning curve to overcome in order to avoid faults. Additionally, most brewhouses aren’t equipped for the rigid food safety demands of N/A brewing, considering brewing standard beer involves the antimicrobial powers of alcohol.
“It’s harder to do something like [Sierra Nevada did back in 1978] on the nonalcoholic side, when you’ve got to have $2 million in cap ex [capital expenditure] to start and a tech company to teach you how to do it,” says Anderson.
Finally, there’s the marketing piece of the puzzle. Craft beer wooed drinkers with its image of scrappy, independent creatives coming together to collaborate. Brewery tours and guided tastings built a culture of education as part of the drinking experience. So far, we haven’t seen that same interest in N/A beer. “Whether a brewery uses a tunnel pasteurizer or outsources its brewing entirely to a co-packer or uses arrested fermentation, it’s not clear that drinkers will choose a brand because of that,” says Bernot.
Not only is the incentive then not there for N/A brewers to be transparent about their process, let alone shape it into some storytelling device, but the secrecy can even be its own selling point. “There’s the perceived marketing value of methods being ‘proprietary,’” Bernot explains. “Many consumers have not held N/A beer in high esteem, so when a brand can claim it’s doing something different or proprietary, it sets itself apart.” Take the web copy from Rescue Club Brewing Co., the nonalcoholic sub-brand of Vermont’s Zero Gravity:
So how do we do it?
We could tell you, but you know how this story goes. But seriously, we use a process that no one else in the whole world knows about, and even if they did they could never reproduce.
N/A brewers want to protect their pricey findings and consumers seem fine with it—what’s the harm, right? But the lack of information-sharing stalls peer-fueled innovation, and the gravity of this goes beyond developing weird flavors. The food safety element of nonalcoholic brewing is crucial, and because even safety methods are unnecessarily safeguarded, the industry lacks agreed-upon best practices.
As Bernot reported on this issue for Good Beer Hunting in November 2022, brewers have mixed opinions on how to best keep N/A beer contamination-free and shelf-stable. The result of varied approaches? Varied results, and varying degrees of success. “The worst-case scenario for N/A beer as a whole is that new brands launch who aren’t making consistent, delicious or safe products, and it sours drinkers on the entire category,” she says.
Considering the reasons that nonalcoholic beer deliberately eschews craft beer’s clubhouse sharefest, it’s not likely that we’ll see N/A brewers start opening up anytime soon. It’s up to organizations, then, to gather information and conduct independent research, sharing that with N/A producers. The Brewers Association covers nonalcoholic brewing in its magazine, The New Brewer, hosts seminars on evolving methods at its annual Craft Brewers Conference, and releases resources on topics like pasteurization, with a comprehensive N/A brewing resource dropping this month. And AFicioNAdo operates like beer’s Cicerone program, offering training on nonalcoholic beverage-making with the goal of certification.
With these trade groups at the helm, we can, at the very least, expect a growing push for consensus on how to brew contamination-free beer. It won’t be the same warm, fuzzy story of craft beer’s collaborative evolution, but as long as the knowledge comes from somewhere and is made accessible, nonalcoholic beer will eventually find its groove as a category where off-flavors are the exception, not the rule.