Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Craft brewers jump on the non-alcoholic bandwagon

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A lot of people are just not drinking alcohol right now for their own reasons and for Dry January. WBUR's Andrea Shea reports, they have more options now, including craft nonalcoholic, or NA, brews.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: NA beer has had a bad rep in the United States for decades.

CHRIS LOHRING: Nonalcoholic beer has been the dusty bottles in supermarkets next to the mixers in some aisle you never go down, and they taste like light lager that has been cooked on a stove for 10 days.

SHEA: Chris Lohring, owner of Notch Brewery in Salem, used to say he'd never make one.

LOHRING: There was probably the sense of, well, it's not real beer. What am I doing? I'm a brewer. I make beer. I make alcohol.

SHEA: He does that with a small army of tiny, hungry organisms inside his stainless steel fermentation tanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLING)

SHEA: This is the sound of yeast blowing off carbon dioxide while eating sugars in a sweet-tea-like barley malt solution called wort. The other byproduct of that process is alcohol, which adds flavor and mouthfeel.

LOHRING: And when you remove that, you definitely remove, you know, the essence of the beer.

SHEA: But Lohring and a lot of other independent craft brewers are more motivated to experiment and invest in finding ways to make nonalcoholic beer that lives up to their standards.

LOHRING: So this is an IPA, New England style - a lot of tropical fruit, a lot of citrus.

SHEA: Lohring recently released pilot batches of two NA beers. He says consumer demand has been proven by a company called Athletic, a nonalcoholic brand that's exploded onto the craft scene.

LOHRING: They're crushing it (laughter).

SHEA: According to the Brewers Association, Athletic's production increased 400% in 2020. Industry journalist and podcaster Jessica Infante has been following the Connecticut company's uncanny rise.

JESSICA INFANTE: One thing that I think Athletic really was able to do that no one else has been able to do was make nonalcoholic craft beer cool, for lack of a better word. You know, people really feel comfortable asking for it, buying it, being seen drinking it.

SHEA: She points to end-of-year data from industry tracker IRI, which found off-premise retail sales of nonalcoholic beer went up 24%.

INFANTE: That's far and away the biggest growth of the whole beer category.

SHEA: Infante says there are a lot of reasons why people are turning to non-alc (ph). Maybe they have health concerns, they're designated drivers, or just don't want to feel crummy the next day at work. Lifelong beer aficionado Amy McKeon eliminated alcohol 14 months ago because it makes her tired and bloated.

AMY MCKEON: When you stop drinking, you feel like you have to explain yourself, which is really strange. People feel like they need to ask you why you stopped, or they automatically assume there was an issue. There was a problem.

SHEA: In social situations, McKeon sometimes feels like she's missing out. But with more tasty NA beers on the market, she's got more tools in her sober lifestyle toolbox. Even so, McKeon's inner beer geek has yearned for the ritual of going to her local brewery. She recalls the first sip of Notch's new NA, Pilsner.

MCKEON: I had tears in my eyes because I felt like I finally had a product that made me feel like a beer drinker again.

SHEA: That's music to Notch head brewer Chris Lohring's ears, and even this veteran beer-maker is enjoying the novelty of cracking open a cold one whenever and wherever he wants.

LOHRING: I drank one on the way home the other day. It was great (laughter).

SHEA: He did that while driving in his car.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Shea
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.