Whether you’re abstaining from alcohol for a short period of time or have sworn it off altogether, you’ve likely heard the hype: non-alcohol (NA) and alcohol-free (AF) beer is IN. Sales of so-called near beer and low-alcohol beer were up 19.5% in 2022, according to NielsenIQ, and thanks to advances in technology, they now taste so, so much better than they used to. For beer lovers, that means dozens of tasty options are now available from around the world — produced both by NA/AF-exclusive breweries as well as “regular” breweries of all sizes cashing in on what smart money predicts is a “trend” that’s here to stay.
Before you go shopping to find new favorites, know that the terms NA and AF are not necessarily interchangeable, and beers labeled as non-alcoholic might actually contain minimal amounts of alcohol. While definitions in this category vary from country to country, the US federal government designates these beers as “cereal beverages” that may carry a “non-alcoholic” label even if they contain up to .49% ABV. If you’re going for no ethanol at all, zero in on “alcohol-free” beer, which guarantees no measurable traces, or, in other words numbers, 0.0% ABV.
Some of the differences in alcohol content come from the production process, with some brewers making full-strength beer then removing the ethanol and others keeping the alcohol from developing in the first place. Craft brewers tend to opt for preventing full fermentation by keeping the yeast from fermenting the liquid too much, or they might experiment with modified new yeasts capable of only fermenting to low alcohol levels. Brewers who can afford pricey dealcoholization systems may choose to remove ethanol molecules from full-strength beer with either intense reverse osmosis filtration or vacuum distillation, which boils out the alcohol at lower-than-normal temperatures.
While you might decide whether you like a beer in just two sips (always give a first beer a second chance) did you know that near beers have their own sensory profiles different from alcoholic versions? Because there’s no ethanol, and production techniques don’t always mirror those of their boozy brethren, consider giving NA/AF beers some slack for a thin body, a quickly dissipating head, a sweeter-than-expected taste, more or less carbonation than usual, or a drier-than-normal finish. Plus, some dealcoholized beers have fainter hops or yeast-derived flavors or aromas, owing to certain volatile compounds not surviving the removal process.
To maximize flavor, drink NA/AF beer fresh, cold and never after freezing.
Veteran freelance journalist and former Forbes beer/spirits contributor and TV host Tara Nurin writes for hundreds of media publications and speaks for entities like the Smithsonian on topics that relate primarily to beer business and culture. Nurin designs and teaches for-credit beer and spirits courses for Wilmington University (DE) and provides marketing consulting services for a client roster that includes NZ Hops, Ltd. With a focus on women in beer coverage, she’s been an active Pink Boots Society member since 2010 and founded New Jersey’s original beer education group for women. Nurin is frequently quoted as a beverage expert in publications such as Wine Enthusiast and Food & Wine. After residing in 11 states and countries, the trilingual Nurin has chosen to live as an urban pioneer on Camden, NJ’s, riverfront. She released her first book, A Woman’s Place Is in the Brewhouse: A Forgotten History of Alewives, Brewsters, Witches, and CEOs, in September 2021.