Z is for - Zero Percent

I imagine that like me, upon seeing the ‘Z’ blog, you thought two things.

  1.  Oh noes! Where will I go for my loosely-beer-related alphabetised content now?!?
  2.  I sure hope that they are covering Zymurgy, which we all know is  The branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation processes. 

I can’t help you on Number 1, I am afraid, although we did consider starting all over again given that the living hellscape created by ol’ pando mcgee is reaching its first anniversary. As for Number 2, I'm afraid we are going in a different, and more populist direction. Try and contain your disappointment. I thought Zymurgy, the study of fermentation, was too controversial hashtag brexit, so rest assured that fermentation can still be simply defined as the conversion of sugar molecules into ethanol and carbon dioxide by yeast. Am I right guys!?!? Honestly, if I had a pound for every time someone told me that C6H1206 -- 2CO2 + 2C2H5OH. 

I digress, because this blog is about Zero Percent Beers and, more specifically, their rise in popularity over the last few years. 

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to make boozeless booze aka fun-sponge juice.  The most common way to make an alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer is to brew a beer as normal, then extract as much of the alcohol as possible.  However, this process can adversely impact the taste as you often take more than just the alcohol out. There’s no easy way to ‘take the alcohol out’. It is very hard and very expensive and, crucially, not really worth it even if you get it right. This is because it is virtually impossible to take only the alcohol out when you take the alcohol out. Alcohol is not a salient part of beer floating around inside your pint. Some taste, inevitably, leaves alongside it. Very large scale breweries - your supermarket hosted alcohol free beers, for example - can do this, but that is because they involve chemical processes in creating their product that are closer to food production than brewing. That’s not an insult; processes like that come with the territory and the scale. It is a manipulation of the processes they have available that they can make beer - or beer -flavoured beer-less beer - as it is more confusingly but correctly recognised, with their kits. 

Here is a clever alternative that smaller breweries use.  What many brewers are now doing is deliberately brewing with “lazy” yeast strains that don’t produce alcohol in the first place. Some yeast strains are more active than others (and are used in different beer types for precisely this reason). Not only this but different strains can be stimulated in different ways. Temperature, sugar etc. It’s like the ‘post-it’ principle, where bad glue makes for a good post-it. Crap yeast makes for fantastic low abv beer. There is hope for all us underachievers yet! 

In beer, body is important too. I’m talking about the body of the beer, not the body of the drinker. That’s almost the opposite of being important if you are drinking beer. We are a broad church. When brewing a beer you need to strike the right balance between flavour and body - beers can seem too hefty or too light and watery with the same hops in both recipes. You want a beer that is not too heavy, and not too light. When brewing at very low abv this is both more important and harder to achieve. You need to keep the flavour but reduce the alcohol, something often inherent to the body, without harming the feel of the body of the beer.  Frankly, it is  a task many alcohol-free beers aren’t up to. 

Low ABV and alcohol free beers have been steadily on the rise in the last decade and have blossomed in Lockdown. Figures published by the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) suggest that under lockdown sales of no- and low-alcohol beer have grown by 14.8% (Nielsen Scantrack, four weeks to 21 April 2020). What’s curious about this is that if you dig a little deeper into it, it highlights more about our drinking habits as a nation than perhaps we would care. 

Anecdotally, Alcohol free beers were a tiny part of beer sales prior to the last few years. Tucked away, almost embarrassed, in the corner. Certainly not something presented as a viable option to the casual drinker. They were a small selling speciality product on the high street, too. But this is not the case in Europe or America.  I have no idea why we’re so behind on this in the UK. In Germany, a nation of enthusiastic beer-swillers, there is a roaring trade in alcohol-free beer. All the major Croatian beer companies have decent alcohol-free versions of their brew. 

The increase in sales of low- and no-alcohol beer during the last few years follows a huge amount of investment and innovation into the category by UK brewers, which has helped to drive growth according to the BBPA.

“Might as well drink water.” The common response in the UK to the no alcohol option. Point taken, but for me this is rather sad, implying that beer is consumed only for the purpose of intoxication.  I think we are at the beginning of a small revolution here, or at least I hope we are. The more you think about it - and it really doesn’t take that long to get to this conclusion - the more it is apparent that intoxication is the worst part of drinking. A good alcohol free beer has removed this downside whilst keeping the upsides, yet the reward for this product is alienation rather than celebration. Surely a beer that keeps the upsides of having a beer (relaxing, flavour, socialising, social inclusivity, happiness) but without the major downside (oh my god i feel awful what did i do last night) should be celebrated? But no, according to sales and marketing strategies, Britain says ‘no thanks, we will keep the intoxication and the hangovers please’. Next to water, alcohol-free beer must be the healthiest thing to drink in a pub: no alcohol, no added sugar and not many calories. It is high time that zero ABV beers are normalised and included and seen as viable menu options. 

The market has grown by about a fifth in the past two years but still, too often, all most British pubs offer is a few bottles of Beck’s Blue or Heineken 0.0 huddled apologetically together in the bottom of a fridge. It is time they came in bigger bottles, on show and proud in the higher reaches of those fridges. FA is making a ZIPA (our Zero % IPA) and we will  be shouting about it from the rooftops. Responsibly.

Written by neil wates
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