One of the more disruptive beer trends in recent years has been brought about by the rising popularity of the lifestyle beverage category. From hard seltzers to CBD-infused sodas, sparkling hop waters and more, the focus is often on low calories and low carbs. Add in growing awareness about the deleterious effects of ethanol, and that means low (or no) alcohol is in demand for those reasons as well.
Over the past several years, N/A beer sales have increased—up 39% and 38% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. In 2021, there was a 315% overall increase in combined no- and low-alcohol brand sales, according to Nielsen.
The good news is, non-alcoholic beer has been getting better in recent years, in flavor, variety, and availability. And Central Oregon is the place to find it.
“Most of the N/A beer that has been available the last 10 to 20 years was not very good,” says Dustin Kellner, brewmaster at Bend’s Worthy Brewing. “I imagine it served a purpose, but enjoyment wasn’t it.”
He points to the lineup from Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing as well as recent N/A beers from Deschutes Brewery and Crux Fermentation Project as examples of more recent innovators.
“As brewers, we are always looking to improve on what we make as well as the never-ending pursuit of producing the best example of any particular style,” Kellner says. “Buying N/A no longer means you’re sacrificing quality and flavor to maintain an alcohol-free lifestyle.”
“I think there are many people looking for healthier alternatives when it comes to drinking beverages,” says Cam O’Connor, head brewer at Crux. “They want a reduced calorie and either low or no alcohol.”
Crux currently produces two N/A beers, NØ MØ IPA and NØ MØ Hazy IPA, while Deschutes introduced its non-alcoholic Irish Style Dark in 2020, and released Black Butte Non-Alcoholic earlier this year.
To legally qualify as non-alcoholic, beer must have 0.5% or less alcohol by volume. A common method to achieve this target is known as arrested fermentation: A recipe is formulated and brewed normally, but the fermentation process is stopped before reaching half a percent of alcohol. However, in such brews, residual unfermented sugars can leave a “worty,” unfinished quality, and there’s often a harsh, oversteeped hop bitterness.
Crux doesn’t follow this process at all. Instead, the NØ MØ brews begin as fully fermented, albeit extremely low-gravity, beers and are essentially diluted with water until the target alcohol-by-volume level is reached. It has to be tweaked with this dilution in mind, of course, but the process works—the results, though light and a bit watery, taste like beer.
“If you have tasted some of the N/A beers of the past, you can see why people are looking for something that tastes more like a craft beer,” O’Connor says. “I took some NØ MØ IPA on a rafting trip down the Deschutes last Memorial Day. It was great to have a beer while rowing on the river and not have the alcohol content in the beer.”
In many ways, Deschutes has been leading the way in the lifestyle category in Oregon. The brewery launched Da Shootz in 2019, its 99-calorie, 4% ABV light lager, to tap into the calorie-conscious “lite” beer market. It followed up in 2020 with Wowza, a 4% ABV hazy pale ale with 100 calories. And Deschutes has long offered a house-brewed, gluten-free option in its pubs.
Not all of the brand’s efforts have been successful. Modified Theory, the low-sugar, gluten-reduced “craft hard bevvies” designed to compete with hard seltzer, debuted just as the pandemic hit and was discontinued.
When it came time to produce N/A beer, Deschutes partnered with Colorado’s Sustainable Beverage Technologies and its proprietary BrewVo technology. Details on how this process works are vague, but production begins with a full-strength beer, and the alcohol is removed while other essential qualities are maintained. According to Deschutes brewmaster Veronica Vega, it provides the closest profile to a regular beer among those it tried.
“Through tasting products made from other processes and meeting with different vendors of de-alc equipment, we did explore other options,” she says. “BrewVo simply provided the best tasting beer and a path to scale that we could embark upon.”
The proof is in the experience, and with Black Butte N/A, it’s reasonably close to drinking full-strength Black Butte Porter. It lacks the full body and malt richness of the original, but it avoids the off flavors of old-school N/A brews.
Vega thinks it took some disruption in the market for quality N/A beers to gain traction, but low alcohol is a tougher sell. “I think low alc is a more difficult proposition to take to market to be honest,” she says. “It can work as a beer on draft at a pub but is very difficult at retail.”
Kellner doesn’t brew alcohol-free beer at Worthy, but he recently produced Hop Quencher, a sugar-free sparkling hop water featuring Strata hops, and developed the Easy Day line of low-ABV, low-calorie hazy IPAs.
The Easy Day beers “definitely provide the satisfaction of a full-flavored hazy IPA while maintaining the sub-100-calorie count that has been the focus of the many flavorless American light lagers out there,” he says.
The region has plenty of light lagers and alternatives to offer. Boss Rambler Beer Club in Bend and Redmond’s Kobold Brewing, for instance, brew Stokes Light (4.2% ABV) and K-Lite American Lager (4.3% ABV), respectively. Bend’s Spider City Brewing has a regular line of house-brewed hard seltzers, as do Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters and 10 Barrel Brewing. Boneyard Beer in Bend also explicitly markets a line of CBD-infused sodas as wellness beverages, which feature CBD derived from locally farmed hemp.
Expect to see more of this as breweries continue to diversify to meet the demands of the lifestyle market. In particular, watch what comes out of Central Oregon’s breweries, which are on the cutting edge of this trend.