Non-alcoholic beer in smaller brewers' reach

Paul Bowker and head brewer Jon Seltin from Brick Lane

Brick Lane Brewing’s managing director Paul Bowker with head brewer Jon Seltin

Brick Lane Brewing is about to join the country’s major brewers in brewing an alcohol-free beer, contributing to a market segment that is becoming increasingly accessible to smaller brewers.

Brick Lane managing director Paul Bowker said they were currently working towards a microbiological approach to the issues rather than using the physical methods used in the recently released versions from the major brewers .

“We’re incredibly excited about low alcohol beer, we think there’s a huge place for it in the market. It’s a great alternative and you can make delicious beers without alcohol, it’s just a different mouthfeel, a different flavour profile.

“Our brew team are hugely excited and they love a technical challenge, and low alcohol beers provide that.

“We’ve tried a few different ones so far, narrowing down the methods we’re going to use when we release it.”

The technical challenge was part of what made Brick Lane’s brewers want to take it on, but the question of where to start and what methods to use was a perplexing one.

“There are so many different ways you can make it. There are effectively two methods, one is physical – vacuum stripping and reverse osmosis that type of thing – but that’s the capital-intensive approach of doing it and that’s usually where the big breweries play.

“The other way of making low alcohol beer is through microbiological methods. You can look at yeast, the fermentables in your wort stream. We’re currently doing trials for low alcohol beer using microbiological methods.

“We’ve already produced some for trial purposes, but there’s a range of different paths you can take even within microbiological methods.

“We need to be a lot more sensitive to a few key things. Low alcohol beer brings a lot more challenges, and whatever the fermentables are, they need to be made stable.”

He said that Brick Lane was uniquely positioned to invest in the low alcohol beer trend.

“Anyone can make a low alcohol beer but there are a few things that greatly assist in the process, and some of these things we have invested in for the brewery.

“[As a result] we can have a high degree of process automation, so we can have really high levels of control over all facets of production including over mash programmes and other areas that are really sensitive and you really need to dial in on when you’re making a low alcohol beer.”

Food safety concerns were a major issue for the team due to the instability and potential health risks associated with beverage with less than 0.5 per cent alcohol content – risks that have already affected brewers of other fermented beverages.

“We also have, which is important in low alcohol beers, the ability to pasteurise.

“Alcohol can act as a preservative for beer and makes it more stable. As soon as you have a product with a lot less alcohol and fermentables in there as well, it’s less stable than a regular alcohol beer would be so we pasteurise our low alcohol products through our trials.”

Brick Lane has invested heavily in state-of-the art testing and pasteurising equipment, including a tunnel pasteuriser, which has proven vital to their efforts to produce a safe, as well as palatable beer.

“We’ve got a new lab and a really high level of leading edge instrumentation equipment so we’re able to test throughout the process and after the process a number of different areas. That greatly assists us again because of the really fine tolerance in these products.”

In addition to their own line of low alcohol beerBrick Lane are looking into other methods for contract brewing partners.

“We’re also looking at doing some trials with third parties as well who are looking into the sector. It’s a huge area of focus for us and we’re excited we have the brewery, the equipment and the brewers to be able to deliver a wonderful tasting product to market.

“We’ll settle on the method for our own beer, and we want to keep experimenting with our partners as well.”

Bowker said they were investing a lot of time in developing the product to a high standard, even more important as one of the first independent alcoholic beer brewers to delve into the category – although indie players like Sobah have invested in the low or no alcohol category as their sole focus.

“It’s all about quality, because these are beers that haven’t been brewed to date in breweries of our size, at least not in Australia. We’re doing a significant amount of trial and testing before we release something to the market, because we want to make sure it’s a great product,” Bowker said.

A Brick Lane low alcohol beer will be available in 2020.

Brick Lane Tanks 2019 1

Market for non-alcoholic beer

CUB announced last month that mid-strength, no and low alcohol beers make up nearly 25 per cent of its sales, turning the spotlight on the growth of alcohol-free beers and the potential for the category.

Along with Carlton, imports Holsten Lager from Coopers and Erdinger are the biggest name brands in the category in Australia, and IWSR Drinks Market Analysis research found that non-alcoholic beer sales in the country grew 94.3 per cent in 2018 on the year before.

It predicted that from a base of 340,000 hectolitres sold in 2018, volumes on alcohol-free beer would growing to an estimated volume of 750,000 hectolitres in the country by 2023, with a projected compound annual growth rate of 17.1 per cent between 2018 and 2023.

This jump is from a low base, but highlights the potential of non-alcoholic beer in a shrinking market in terms of total beer volumes sold, as alcohol consumption per person drops to levels not seen since the early 1960s.

Tommy Keeling, IWSR Asia Pacific research director said that they had seen a noticeable upward tend (which is determined by IWSR to be three to five years of consistent volume growth) in the category around the world, but particularly in certain countries.

“Non alcoholic beer, in terms of global trends, is very much a developed country trend – in Europe, North America and then Australia and New Zealand – but not so much in richer Asian countries like Korea or Taiwan.

“In the west this is related to brewing consumer demand, from consumers who are cutting down generally, and who experience drink driving laws where you can’t really drink anything if you’re driving.”

However it’s not just the legal environment pushing the trend, Keeling said.

“It’s also health and wellbeing concerns. In Australia that’s one of the strongest trends we see at the moment. People are paying more attention to what they eat and drink, younger people are using smartphone apps to track their drinking.”

On the supply side of the equation, brewers are answering consumer demands for low or no alcohol alternatives with greater investment.

“The choice is expanding and improving. Previously a limiting factor has been that non-alcohol beers aren’t very good, they have a funny taste due to the brewing technologies used.

“Now there’s more companies investing in it – they are putting the money in and developing the tech, and obviously the more investment in it the better tasting non alcoholic beers will be.

“The more companies that invest in it, the more the quality of non alcoholic beers will improve and there will be greater choice for the consumer,” Keeling said.

While independent beer has been constrained, mainly by costs, from investing in the new trend, Brick Lane’s jump into the relative unknown that is low alcohol beers in the independent sector heralds a new era of low alcohol craft beers, taking advantage of exponential growth trends.

Brick Lane’s Paul Bowker agreed that wellbeing concerns were some of the major drivers behind the trend.

“The big global trend is health. Overall beer consumption is declining, and classic styles are declining, although from an enormous base. What’s happening is that consumers are after variety in terms of different flavours where craft beer comes in.

“The other thing is this trend towards refreshment, refreshing style beverages that you can have in lots of different occasions and some of those occasions you don’t necessarily want or need to have alcohol.

“It’s a huge growth sector and clearly all the big breweries are jumping on board, but I think there’s a great market for craft and independent breweries that can bring those things: flavour profile, authenticity, transparency on how they source their supplies and ingredients and how they sit in the community.”

Whether this demand will grow however is uncertain however, said Keeling.

“I expect [these factors] to keep driving volumes at least for a few more years.

“However as a comparable, in Japan non alcoholic beers came out around 2011 and they shot up in about two years, but they hit 1 per cent of beer volumes and just plateaued.

“There was a certain latency and once brewers introduced the beers and consumption hit that level, it hasn’t gone up or down since, although that’s not to say the pattern in other countries might be different.”

How to do it

If, as has been predicted, this trend continues its upward trajectory, more independent brewers will be looking at cost effective ways of brewing low or no alcohol beer.

Steve Henderson of Rockstar Brewer explained there were a number of ways to make low alcohol beer depending on the brewer’s skillset and resources. These include using a semi-permeable membrane in either reverse osmosis or a form of dialysis, vacuum distilling or ‘cold contact’ methods of fermentation, among many other options, which make it a major challenge to decide where to start.

“There are also special types of yeast out there that won’t eat the complex sugars that are generally in wort,” explained Henderson.

“Basically what will happen there is you’ll actually make a beer that’s low gravity, using this special yeast (like Fermentis LA01 for example) and it will ferment a little bit because there are some simple sugars in wort, but as soon as it hits the complex sugars it will stop.

“Generally you’ll wind up with something that’s around 0.5 per cent-ish abv.”

Being able to actually make a low alcohol beer is the first hurdle, he said. The second is ensuring that the finished product is pathogen free, which is why brewers who are thinking of brewing a non-alcoholic range have to be hyper vigilant when it comes to the end product.

“It’s not black and white, but for the most part, pathogens can’t live in beer because of the ethanol,” Henderson explained.

“Once you get into that sub-3% abv and 8 IBU range (as hops are a preservative and prevent bacteria from growing) in conjunction with a high-sugar environment from under-attenuated, low ABV beer, then pathogens can actually live in the product and there’s a risk there of making people sick.”

He said that the worst case scenario with an alcoholic beer was much less harmful than that of a no or low alcohol beer.

“If you have a beer of 3 per cent abv and above and if it gets infected with a microorganism, the worst thing that will happen is the beer will taste like shit. But if you drink milk that’s off it will make you sick. That’s basically the job of the alcohol in the beer – it prevents pathogens from living in it.

“Because we’re dabbling in something that is more like a food product, you have the potential to make someone sick and brewers need to tread carefully in that space.”

Henderson said that in beers below around 2.8% abv the chance of pathogens being able to live in beer increased. This can be dealt with by heating the beer to the point where any harmful microbes are killed, sterilising the beer. But this process can be a barrier to independent brewers.

“The way in which you’d normally deal with a pathogen risk in a product is either through pasteurisation or something like that, and a lot of smaller craft brewers don’t have access to pasteurisation.

“Light beers under 2.8% abv like Carlton Zero are shelf stable predominantly because they’re a pasteurised product. Big brewers pasteurise their products anyway.

“Craft brewers don’t necessarily and that’s because that technology is quite expensive. There are some craft brewers that do pasteurise and they would have the ability to do it, but they’re on the bigger end of the spectrum.”

The equipment and methods are often not commercially viable for brewers, potentially costing millions of dollars collectively, and not only that but it’s imperative for brewers to have the laboratories to test the beer for both alcohol and pathogen content.

“It’s a bit of a double whammy for brewers to make low or no alcohol beer.

“Even if you’ve dropped potentially a couple million dollars on the equipment, you still need to test that its got zero or no low alcohol. You’ll need a chemical lab to test the alcohol and a microbiology lab to test for all the pathogens as well. It’s not easy by any means to make low or no abv beer.”

But that’s not to say that we won’t see more independent players invest in low and no-alcohol beer, he said, or that the category is something that indie brewers should avoid tackling.

“Drinking low or no alcohol beer is totally safe when made properly and brewers have equipment and skills to be able to do that. I’d have no hesitation in buying the beers the brewers make for example,” said Henderson.

“Every craft brewer out there is keen to make a low or zero abv product, but brewers have to be mindful of the technical challenges they face.”

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