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Text by Florian Holzer Photos: Getty Images, manufacturer
Alcohol-free beer has undergone an astonishing change in recent years: from a dreary loser drink to a soft drink alternative that can be taken seriously in terms of taste.
Statisticians love non-alcoholic beer. Not because they can collect the numbers more clearly and interpret them more clearly when it is consumed, but because an alcoholic drink without alcohol is of course an interesting contradiction in terms and one would therefore like to know: Who is drinking it and for what reason? And above all: How many are there who do something like that, and what else do they do?
Neither Pils nor Märzen nor New Zealand IPA or Oatmeal Stout is interested in why and by whom it is drunk, but with non-alcoholic beer they are very interested. And this fact alone is remarkable.
Perhaps because this group is the fastest growing among beer drinkers. Because even if the proportion of those who are generally not averse to non-alcoholic beer has remained roughly the same at 22% for years, the number of explicit fans of this drink has doubled from 4% to 8% in the past five years. And that is not nothing in a country that has the second highest per capita consumption of beer. Perhaps even more remarkable is the opposite approach: five years ago, 60% of all beer drinkers rejected the non-alcoholic drink as a matter of principle; when the last “beer culture report” by the market leader Brau Union was compiled in April 2019, it was only 51%. And that goes hand in hand with this: 48% of all beer drinkers assume that in ten years' time more non-alcoholic beer will be drunk than today. And already in the second paragraph of the foreword to this beer culture report, Brau-Union CEO Magne Setnes directs the topic towards non-alcoholic beer - something that is probably called a trend.
No wonder, because this product has changed a lot in many ways. It tastes better than it used to be, its packaging no longer looks as embarrassing as it used to and the people who drink it are no longer seen as failures, sissies or those unlucky ones who have just pulled the short straw and so by the Driving home have to take the wheel. No, today's alcohol drinker is young, healthy, athletic, responsible and has an energetic look, full hair and bright white teeth in TV commercials.
In fact, of course, the car is still the strongest argument in favor of non-alcoholic beer. 49% of those who like / like / rarely drink alcohol-free beer (which in turn are a total of 47% of all beer drinkers) do so because they then get behind the wheel. Much more interesting, however, is the next group, namely those who drink the Null-Bräu because they feel like a beer but don't feel like drinking, and that's 42% of this customer group. This group is relatively new, as new as are the new non-alcoholic beers. This group - let's call them the “connoisseurs” - was simply not offered a product in the past, because beers without alcohol tasted like washing-up water without alcohol and were relatively painless to consume just above freezing point. In the meantime, people are working with more and more aromatic hops, with yeast cloudiness and elaborate brewing technology, so that the differences in taste and mouthfeel between "real" and non-alcoholic hop tea are not always that easy to determine.
It is also not uninteresting that 18% of non-alcoholic drinkers do not see their drink as an alternative to normal beer, but on the contrary as a way of being able to leave heavily sweetened soft drinks. Only 16% choose the zero percent after sport, although this sector in particular has long been regarded as an area of hope for breweries. Wrong thought, the connoisseurs are more important than the athletes. (The fact that alcohol-free beer - unlike in Germany - may not be called "isotonic" because the salt content is too low for this may play a role ...) The question remains: How does it even work?
How do you get alcohol, a not insignificant product of a fermentation-based brewing process, out of the beer? You have several options. A simple and most common variant, which has been practiced for a long time, is firstly to brew a brew with a very low original wort and then to let it ferment only briefly, so that there is a bit of aroma, but only too little alcohol. The disadvantage of this method is a rather pronounced residual sugar, which is why these beers had to be refreshed with a lot of carbon dioxide and were rarely enjoyed at temperatures above four degrees Celsius. (It's not for nothing that labels with temperature-sensitive indicators were stuck on.) The much more complex methods are reverse osmosis and a distillation process, which are notorious in the wine industry. Here a completely “normal” beer is first brewed, in which the alcohol is then separated from the “water” (i.e. the remaining beer) by a semi-permeable membrane using the reverse osmosis process. The beer aromas remaining in the alcohol can be separated off and added back to the beer. That sounds easy, but it isn't. In the distillation process, on the other hand, vacuum evaporators are used, the principle is the same as in osmosis, and these two techniques are often used in combination. It is clear that it is only worthwhile for large breweries to make this effort. In Austria this is specifically Gösser, where master brewer Andreas Werner developed the recipe for the Gösser “natural gold” in 2015 and the system was put into operation in the course of the last modernization. Those craft beer breweries that already work with specialists across borders often also buy this technology and develop special recipes that produce the most expressive result possible despite the technical processes. Which has made the scene much more colorful, diverse and therefore dramatically more attractive.
In addition to large domestic and German breweries, there are also a few craft beer pioneers from Scotland and Scandinavia that have now grown to a respectable size. But also small, artisanal breweries show that you can achieve a lot, especially in the non-alcoholic IPA sector, if you only take enough of the aromatic hops.
All non-alcoholic lager / pilsner beers are available in regular grocery stores.
Ales / IPAs are available from Beerlovers, 1060 Vienna, Gumpendorfer Strasse 35, beerlovers.at.
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