What does a night out really mean? Does it mean anything other than spending time among people whose company you enjoy in a place other than someone’s house? Often, the assumption is that a night out means to gather at a pub or bar and share food and drink while socialising.
The growing amount of non-alcoholic beers hitting the market over the last couple of years comes at a time in which the way we approach our spare time is transforming one escape room and rock climbing club at the time. This disruption includes our preferences around the table and of course, inside of our glasses.
It is not a coincidence that in recent weeks two different alcohol-free venues have made headlines: the first one was a pop-up on South Anne Street appropriately named “The Bar For When You’re Off The Beers” which featured Diageo’s non-alcoholic beer Pure Brew along a line-up of entertainment that included DJs, comedy and live music.
The second one, The Virgin Mary, is set to open this month and it will be Ireland’s first permanently open alcohol-free bar. The venue is the brainchind of drinks expert Oisín Davis and it promises to offer the whole pub experience without any of the ABV.
The Free-from Era
Beer is one of the most ancient drinks humanity loves and a major key to its success is that it has evolved with the times; from a ceremonial beverage, to a safe way to stay hydrated, to a cheap and cheerful drink with mass appeal and more recently, to a hipster-friendly artisan product with many obscure and quirky variations.
What’s the next innovation? Wellness-conscious consumers have set up the challenge: we want options that taste great, that are made under high standards of quality and that are free from the ingredients we are aiming to cut back on or, in some cases, remove from our diets. We want our decaff drinks to be exciting, our chocolate to have vitamins instead of sugar and our ice cream to swap the fat for protein. All while being delicious. And affordable.
When it comes to alcohol-free beers, the above also applies, and this is not just a Dry January phase. It’s the era of mindful drinking, of cutting back on excess and striving for balance.
The Beer World Opens Up
Speaking of evolving with the times, another way in which the new wave of non-alcoholic beers fits our zeitgeist is by making the drink even more inclusive. For example, on several occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of hosting and organising events for multicultural groups and often, guests who would normally pass on a regular beer will appreciate having been thought of (think of this as the liquid version of having a vegan option at your dinner party).
On a larger scale, a restaurant or a bar that goes the extra mile to offer a range of non-alcoholic beers to its patrons is showing outstanding hospitality. It’s not just about having booze-free items on the list as if that was the case, any old cup of tea or soft drink would do, it’s about extending the joyful experience of sharing a beer with your friends to everyone.
How Innovation Has Upped Today’s Alcohol-free Beers
Making alcohol-free beer that’s appealing and affordable is easier said than done and until not long ago, the category was not something that many companies would put a lot of love in.
Commercial production of non alcoholic beer had a moment in the sun during Prohibition, when the alcholic content in drinks couln’t legally be above 0.5%. The old school method to produce non-alcoholic beers starts off identically to the regular one, but once the beer is made, a process of evaporation of the liquid’s alcohol through heat takes place.
However, this is akin to half-cooking the beer and not a very efficient way to retain flavours.
More recently, the development of reverse osmosis has allowed the production of low-alcoholic beverages without the heating. Long story short, this technique separates the water and alcohol from the rest of the mix, which means alcohol can be distilled out and then the water can be reintegrated into the drink without altering its taste.
Another way of getting rid of the booze without boiling the flavour out is vacum distilling, which is used to change alcohol’s boiling point. These processes revolutionised the quality of non alcoholic drinks in general, including beers.
Catering to Evolving Tastes
Technology has allowed for better tasting alcohol-free beers and producers are taking note as we redefine what a night out can be. Silent disco? Let’s dance to our own beat. Office board game night? But let’s not get too tired on a Wednesday. Wanna stay out late but you want to be able to drive back home in the wee hours instead of waiting forever for a taxi or even longer for the night bus? Why not.
This new mindset has been embraced by well-established names such as Diageo and Heineken in a way that would have been hard to imagine barely a decade ago. Last year, both companies unveiled non-alcoholic lagers created for people who actually like drinking beer, contrasting with the narrative of “this is what you drink when you have no choice” that one could have read between the lines in the not too distant past.
Pure Brew, which has recently celebrated its first year in the market, comes from the Open Gate Brewery, a place that has become Diageo’s playground for hoppy experimentation and development of exciting beers in many styles.
At the time of the launch, lead Brewer, John Casey celebrated the beer as an achievement that took two years to perfect. He noted that during independent taste tests, over two thirds of people couldn’t noticed the beer was non-alcoholic (0.5% ABV) and were surprised to find out.
The beer is fruity and with a light hop character, citrus notes dominate the palate and it has a smooth texture with a pleasant fizziness.
Also in 2018, Heineken unveiled Heineken 0.0%, also a lager. With the motto “now you can”, it flipped the paradigm of non-alcoholic consumption: it’s not what you choose when you can’t, it’s one of many things you can choose.
The beer is double brewed and the alcohol is then removed and the beer is blended with natural flavours.
Taste wise, it’s quite similar to its boozy sibling: a crisp, refreshing and lighly malty lager made to please without too many complications.
A kinder beer scene
Have them all night or in between other sips if you’re in for the long run. Technical progress and neat packaging are grand, but the real game-changer in the non-alcoholic beer panorama hasn’t come from engineers or graphic designers. Not even from brewers themselves.
Acceptance and interest in non-alcoholic beers is a reflection of a scene that’s maturing. Beer festivals grow diverse, bars host sober evenings and beer yoga is a thing. There is place on the shelf for that madly strong imperial stout that’s boozier than your average Riesling as well as for a bottle as wholesome as a pouch of orange juice (but would still make you feel like an adult when you’re drinking it).
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.