At beer blind tastings, it’s not always easy to pick up on the same notes as the other experts at the table, or to be confident in the root cause of those specific flavors and aromas (especially when they’re labeled with such specificity as “garden basil dampened by a spring rainfall,” for instance). But at a recent panel, when one beer was placed before me, I lit up with self-assuredness: This was a nonalcoholic IPA. I would know that sweet, bready, unfermented wort aroma anywhere.
The malted barley stew smell that characterizes wort before yeast turns it into beer is both a common flaw and a recognizable hallmark of nonalcoholic beer. That the two go together so often should prompt a cold, hard look in the mirror for N/A beer brewers. Craft nonalcoholic beer is a market that’s exploded in recent years, and that’s undeniably a good thing. But the proliferation of booze-free options is accelerating at such a breakneck pace, breweries seem to be joining the race whether they’ve perfected their processes or not. Some brands are even pushing to differentiate with more style options, like witbier and kölsch, before nailing the basics of alcohol-free brewing.
The launch of Athletic Brewing in 2018 catalyzed the craft nonalcoholic beer segment. Cofounder Bill Shufelt says that at the time, “N/A beer made up roughly 0.3 percent of total beer sales and it was difficult to find [it] on menus. According to NIQ, off-premise sales of N/A beer in the U.S. totaled $135 million in 2018... This year [that figure] will eclipse $500 million.” N/A beer now makes up over 2 percent of total beer sales at U.S. grocery stores and over 13 percent of total beer sales at leading retailers. Athletic, by the way, leads the grocery store category with over 20 percent market share.
The runaway success of Athletic became a siren song to breweries looking to stay relevant in an increasingly oversaturated industry, as well as to new companies forming exclusively around N/A beer. More brands making more N/A beer in more places is, at surface level, a positive thing: More consumers can find something they like and access it where they are. But the methods to make nonalcoholic beers are still evolving and, unlike the original craft beer boom, which flourished on the back of industrywide collaboration, nonalcoholic brewers are notoriously protective of their processes. The result is a surge in N/A beers hitting the market that simply miss the mark.
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Have you ever cracked open a nonalcoholic beer to have it overflow with foam? Have you gotten that sweet wort character? How about really thin, watery N/A beer? Undercarbonated? Sour? Maybe an ammonia aroma? These are just some of the common flaws each brewery has to solve for independently in the production process.
Most breweries use one of just a few basic options for production, each of which comes with its own set of considerations. There’s dealcoholization through evaporation, aka vacuum distillation, in which beer is heated and distilled to remove the ethanol. Dealcoholization via reverse osmosis, meanwhile, uses membranes to separate the alcohol from the rest of the liquid. The former method can strip some desirable flavor compounds, and both options are a financial stretch for smaller craft breweries.
More accessible are cold contact fermentation, arrested fermentation with standard yeast and limited fermentation with maltose-negative or maltotriose-negative yeast (i.e., N/A beer yeast). Cold contact fermentation, however, can yield flavor compounds that create that sweet, bready, unfermented wort character. Arrested fermentation is risky, too, because it’s easy to miss the precise moment to halt the chemical reaction to end up with a beer at the 0.5 percent ABV limit for nonalcoholic beer, says Emily Tietje-Wang, founder and lead scientist at Denver-based craft beer laboratory Fermly. And limited fermentation with N/A beer yeast highlights a major hurdle with N/A beer-brewing in general, which is keeping the product contaminant-free in the absence of alcohol’s antimicrobial properties.
“When you’re using these N/A yeasts, you need to consider how you’re going to make sure the beer is food-safe, that the yeast isn’t going to keep fermenting, and that nothing else gets in there that’s going to start going after the sugars,” says Tietje-Wang. If you get a bit of sourness or the aforementioned ammonia aroma in your booze-free IPA or lager, Tietje-Wang says chances are it’s the result of bacterial issues. Using preservatives is an option, but that will keep product off of shelves at places like Whole Foods that don’t allow preservatives. Depending on a brewery’s capability and distribution goals, flash pasteurization or tunnel pasteurization can be better alternatives.
But despite the hurdles, there are a number of breweries creating satisfying, crave-worthy nonalcoholic beers. We endeavored to find N/A offerings that would actually scratch a beer itch, providing full flavor and crisp effervescence sans weird off-flavors, and versions that would justify reaching for an N/A beer over, say, sparkling hop water. Here are our favorite nonalcoholic beers to try right now.
The Best N/A Beers to Try Right Now
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.: Trail Pass IPA
Not only does Sierra Nevada’s Trail Pass IPA scratch the beer itch, it scratches a Sierra Nevada IPA itch, proving alcohol isn’t required to get that classic West Coast, dank, wet hop vibe happening. Perhaps there’s something to the fact that Sierra Nevada clearly did not race its nonalcoholic beer to the market, having just launched Trail Pass at the end of 2023. The brewery’s vice president of marketing, Lesley Albright, says this took over five years of research and development. “We wanted the drinking experience to be reliable, consistent and enjoyable, to mimic the flavor, aroma and mouthfeel of a traditional beer. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, as it turns out, but our talented brewing team really nailed it with Trail Pass.”
- Price: $25 for a 12-pack
Zero Gravity: Rescue Club Pils
Craft beer darling Zero Gravity, out of Burlington, Vermont, cracked the code on a consistently refreshing, true-to-form pilsner that happens to be booze-free. The Pils from Zero Gravity’s N/A brand, Rescue Club Brewing Co., has no sweet wort character, but does have a hint of sweet grain and classic breadiness, plus some nice fluffiness playing against crispness and a dry finish with some mineral bitterness.
- Price: $16 for a 6-pack
Untitled Art: Italian Style Pils
Wisconsin brewery Untitled Art launched in 2016; four years later, it kicked off a line of nonalcoholic beers repping a wider range of styles than most breweries are daring enough to attempt. Untitled Art’s greatest triumph is one of the most essential and straightforward: Italian Style Pils. Head brewer Sam Green says this beer gave the team the “most apprehension because there’s no room for hiding in a pilsner. That is who your brewery really is; you can’t cover up your flaws with hops or fruit. We accepted the challenge in the hardest way possible because now there’s no alcohol, either.” This one boasts herbal, earthy hop bitterness against subtle sweet grain and fluffed crispness, and is perpetually refreshing.
- Price: $17 for a 6-pack
Athletic Brewing Co.: Upside Dawn Golden
No shocker here that one of the beers that launched the brewery that launched the craft N/A movement made our cut. Athletic’s Upside Dawn Golden Ale is an uncomplicated, thirst-quenching, tasty staple. According to co-founder John Walker, Upside Dawn is made with premium Vienna malt and a combo of English and American hops for a touch of earthy, spicy, citrusy character. It’s crafted to remove gluten, to boot.
- Price: $14 for a 6-pack
Athletic Brewing Co.: Cerveza
Also no shocker that Athletic has two beers on our list. The Cerveza Atletica is one of our two picks that comes with a caveat. Before you crack this, you might be expecting a super light, clean lager. Adjust your expectations a bit to something more along the lines of Negra Modelo and you’ll be pleased. Cerveza has a nice dry finish and isn’t cloying, but does feature some notes of molasses and dark dried fruit.
- Price: $14 for a 6-pack
Clausthaler: Dry-Hopped IPA
Our second recommendation with a catch, Clausthaler’s Dry-Hopped IPA, isn’t going to deliver on your hop-bomb American IPA cravings. Think more English-style bitter, with some sweet grain supported by a sturdy backbone of hop bitterness. It’s giving Noble hops in aroma, with spicy, herbal characteristics, and it’s a reliable refresher. It may not be an American IPA, but it can definitely satisfy most beer cravings.
- Price: $10 for a 6-pack