Brewer's Ed

How Low Can You Go? An Overview of NAB/LAB beer

Methods of production and important safety protocols

By Shana Solarte

Apr 22, 2024

The people have spoken: non-alcoholic beer is popular. What used to be widely disliked and sometimes avoided, NA beers have followed a trajectory similar to that of the craft beer boom, with new flavors and styles coming to market faster than ever. As a result, consumers have begun to expect an NA selection on the menus of their favorite bars and taprooms. And many brewers are interested in meeting the demand. However, it can be a challenge to make them look, taste and feel like the real thing, not to mention the additional safety concerns that the absence of alcohol brings. NA beer isn’t inherently unsafe, but the lack of various layers of protection against human pathogens makes brewing it a bit more of a challenge. 

What makes beer safe

Regular-strength beer and non-alcoholic beer have a number of safeguards in common, but these defenses work better when multiple safety measures are present. Hops are often credited as the ingredient that makes beer safe to drink, but they work in conjunction with alcohol and pH to keep your beer tasty and prevent it from being harmful. 

Heat: Art of the brewing process involves boiling, which in addition to contributing to flavor, serves to eliminate any microbes that might have been present on the raw materials. Heat can also come into play at the end of the brewing process in the form of pasteurization, a final act of thermal processing that kills any remaining organisms in the beer, even yeast. It’s worth noting that spore-forming bacteria (like Bacilli and Clostridium bacteria) are even harder to kill, requiring sterilization-level temperatures to prevent future spore growth, so heat alone is not enough to ensure that your NA beer is safe. 

Hops: One of beer’s core ingredients, hops are one of the most essential safeguards we have against pathogens. The alpha acids present in hops isomerize into iso-alpha acids during the boil, which not only contribute bitterness but also act as an antimicrobial agent. 

pH: Acidifying is a classic method for preserving food items — think pickles, kimchi, etc. — because low pH inhibits microbial growth. To avoid most pathogens, a pH below 4.6 with the addition of other safeguards (like the ones discussed in this section) is acceptable. However, without pasteurization or the presence of hops and/or alcohol, normal beer pH levels alone are not necessarily safe — brewers of NA beer need to control pH throughout fermentation (keeping it below 4.6) and finish the beer with a pH below 4.2 to ensure a safe product. 

Alcohol: The alcohol produced during fermentation is a major reason why beer is safe to drink, especially in conjunction with other safeguards. It is difficult for many species to reproduce in the presence of ethanol, making low- and no-alcohol beers a potentially ideal environment for pathogen growth. 

Overcoming new hurdles

Remember, we’re not making beer as we know it, we’re making NA beer, which brings with it a laundry list of new challenges now that we’ve lost a number of our usual safeguards:

Saccharomyces contamination: Wild yeast contamination is a concern with any sort of beer making endeavor, but maltose-positive Saccharomyces strains can also make their way into sugar-rich wort that was intended for a maltose-negative strain and enact normal fermentation.

Hop creep: Dry hop-induced hop creep doesn’t just apply to traditional beer fermentation, it can also happen in NA beer. Remember that dry hopping can send yeast chomping on new sugars and creating alcohol, and it raises the pH of your beer which can potentially move it out of a safe pH range.

Diminished hop character: Getting hop aroma into NA products can be challenging, as researchers are finding hop oils to be less soluble with a decreased presence of alcohol. Many brewers are currently experimenting with various hop extracts which help to avoid any issues with refermentation.

Flavor balance: While over-sparging is a concern with all brewing, it can bring especially unpleasant astringency when brewing NA beer because the grain bill is smaller than usual. Brewers may want to avoid sparging entirely when brewing NA beer.

Stabilization: Even if the liquid is pasteurized, all components of the packaging system — pipes, tubes, tanks, cans, lids, etc. — present opportunities for harboring bacteria that can run rampant once it comes into contact with NA beer. Chemical solutions like sorbates and benzoates are an option that require training and validation to be used effectively.

Package vs. draft: Many brewing experts highly discourage draft NA beer because of the potential contamination down the line. Even with extremely effective stabilization, NA beers still have high amounts of residual sugars, which can quickly lead to a feeding frenzy for any bacteria present. Once the kegs leave the brewery, there’s no way to ensure that food safety protocols are being followed at the point of service.

Methods of NA beer production

How do you make NA beer, anyway? Many non-alcoholic beer makers are secretive about the methods they use to make their products. There are a few different approaches brewers can take, whether they choose to avoid producing any alcohol or take steps to reduce or remove it entirely.

No fermentation: producing no alcohol

Conceptually, one way to make a non-alcoholic beverage is to produce wort without ever adding yeast, which prevents the formation of alcohol. There are numerous downsides to this method, as it results in a sweet beverage without any of the typical fermentation-derived flavors found in beer and has none of beer’s inherent safeguards against microbial contamination. This is extremely uncommon. 

Biological methods: limiting the production of alcohol

Arrested fermentation puts the brewer in the driver’s seat, halting fermentation typically through the use of temperature control. Brewers reduce the temperature of the fermentation vessel to the point where yeast activity is reduced and eventually ceases.

Cold contact fermentation is a fairly common process, with the main benefit being that it is quite simple: after the boil, wort is crashed to cold temperatures (normal cold crashing temperatures, all the way down to 0°C but taking care not to freeze the wort) before pitching yeast. Very little fermentation actually occurs, so a small amount of flavor is produced and little to no ethanol forms. In both cold contact and arrested fermentation, there will often be residual yeast present in the beer, so brewers must stabilize the final product to prevent additional fermentation in the future.

Mash temp

It’s what’s for dinner: Mashing at certain temperature ranges encourages various types of sugar production, which you can use to predict how your fermentation will be limited. Here we show what’s being served” at various mash temps. 

Limited fermentability of wort means that brewers are designing a recipe so that the wort developed on the hot side is rich in dextrins, but has little maltose available for fermentation. This allows brewers to use a traditional brewing strain that can create some fermentation-derived flavors, but won’t ferment to full strength due to the lack of available consumable sugars. Mashing at higher temperatures can help encourage dextrin production and limit wort fermentability.

Limited fermentation requires brewers to select a maltose-negative strain of yeast, meaning one that is unable to ferment maltose, which is typically the majority of wort’s composition. While these strains do keep alcohol levels low, leaving behind all of this maltose can create a wort-like flavor, which can lead to the development of stale, cooked wort flavors.

There are some maltose-negative strains on the market currently, and while they do help ensure that alcohol levels stay low, they are also very easily out-competed by traditional brewing strains. Any kind of cross-contamination with another brewing strain will result in alcohol production, as those strains will suddenly have access to a maltose-rich environment where they can ferment freely.

Maltose-negative strains tend to be low flocculators, and some are phenolic, which may limit the styles brewers are able to produce. Because there is little to no fermentation taking place, the ester profile will also likely be restrained. In the grand scheme of brewing strain domestication, maltose-negative strains are relatively new to the brewing world, and as such lack the finesse and behavior expectations we’ve been able to coax out of traditional brewing strains over centuries.

Physical methods: removing alcohol (dealcoholization)

Because ethanol boils at about 78°C, boiling to evaporate alcohol is one method of bringing a beer into non-alcoholic territory. However, flavor is a major consideration with this practice, as boiling will bring a strong cooked wort flavor to the beer. It will also cause the beer to lose volatile aroma compounds and may accelerate staling due to the long exposure to heat.

Similar to boiling, vacuum distillation is another method for removing alcohol, but the presence of the vacuum reduces the boiling point for ethanol from ~78°C to ~34°C, which in turn reduces the flavor impact of boiling.

Membrane filtration involves running a beer along a filter that uses pressure to separate alcohol from the remainder of the liquid. Reverse osmosis is a type of membrane filtration in which beer is forced through a membrane under pressure, removing ethanol and water and leaving behind flavor compounds. Water is then added back to the final product to make up for the water lost during the filtration process.

Both vacuum distillation and membrane filtration require costly equipment, and these methods are most often employed by the largest producers and co-packing facilities.

Tasting activity

Given that most NA beer makers don’t disclose their production methods, it can be difficult to discern how certain brands were made. We can use sensory clues to help us understand how some of these non-alcoholic and alcohol-free beers came to be. Pick up a few brands and make a note of the flavor characteristics in each using the chart below. See if you can sort out which processes are used to make the beers you chose, then check to see if the manufacturer shares their methods.

Taking a hybrid approach

Combining production methods can help brewers get closer to the ideal finished product: real fermentation-derived characteristics, low residual wort sugars, and <0.5% ABV. For example, by taking advantage of biological processes to create flavorful beer with limited alcohol (up to 2 – 3% ABV), taking the next step to remove alcohol can be easier and less resource-intensive. While each method has its drawbacks, a hybrid approach is a great way to mitigate those concerns and make a more flavorful beverage.

In our own trials, we found that nailing at least one very beer-like” aspect of the flavor profile helped a sample perform better in our tasting panels. IPAs with strong fresh hop aroma and blonde ales with refreshing carbonation and dryness made it a bit harder to tell that the samples weren’t the real deal.

Making it work for you

When it comes to making NA beer, why not leverage the brewhouse to do as much of the heavy lifting as possible? Before handing off your wort to the yeast, use mashing techniques to develop more dextrins and malt flavor, but avoid allowing starches to be broken down into maltose. Wort destined to become full-strength beer is typically made up of about 50% maltose, with the rest being split among glucose (20%), dextrins (20%), and maltotriose (10%). If you were to get less conversion in the mash and fill your yeast’s dinner plate” with mostly dextrins and just a bit of maltose, you get the opportunity to use a more traditional brewing strain that will consume the maltose and ferment it, but with less available food” it won’t create nearly as much alcohol. Following that up with an alcohol removal method may result in just the flavorful non-alcoholic beer of your dreams.

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