It’s one of the fastest growing segments of the liquor market and is set to grow even more. Beer writer Lucy Corne looks into brews without the booze.
In the midst of the long 2020 lockdown I was looking for beers to review for a magazine column. The problem was that there was no way – legally at least – to get hold of any new beers. So I decided to review non-alcoholic versions and duly put out a call for suggestions. The response surprised me. I knew about Heineken 0.0 and Castle Free of course, plus some of the imported non-alcs like Becks Blue and Bitburger Drive. But what I didn’t realise was just how many craft breweries had started producing non-alcoholic beers.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a short term fad – a kneejerk response to the alcohol ban in a bid to still get a little cash flowing in. Indeed a number of new non-alcs did pop up in 2020. “We had actually been working on our non-alcoholic recipe for several months,” said Chantal Bruwer of Red Bridge Brewery in Knysna, “and thank goodness, because it’s really been our saving grace through the lockdown”. Chantal and husband Karel took over the brewery in late 2019, leaving them less than six months to trade before the pandemic hit. Their non-alcoholic Golden Ale kept things ticking over through the various alcohol bans and has since forged quite a following. “Knysna has quite an active population and we also get a lot of sporty tourists here – mountain bikers, hikers and such. We’ve found a great response to our non-alcoholic with them,” Chantal said.
But over the past few years, South African brewers have stepped up to the proverbial plate with some innovative ales that are low in alcohol, calories and carbs. Perhaps the most successful has been Devil’s Peak’s Hero range which comprises the original pale ale as well as lemon and grapefruit versions.
Several small breweries have added non-alcoholic versions of core beers, quickly guaranteeing the success of the new additions. “It’s been surprising how sales have been steady even outside of the alcohol bans,” said William Yell of Featherstone Brewery in Grahamstown, adding that the non-alc version of his Golden Mole IPA will stick around long after Covid-19 has departed.
While the pandemic – and associated alcohol bans – have undoubtedly caused despair to those in the beer industry, the periods of prohibition did perhaps have one small benefit. They put a fire into brewers bellies, forcing them to catch up – or at least make up some ground – to their counterparts around the world when it comes to brewing interesting and flavour-forward non-alcoholic beers.
Non-alcoholic or alcohol-free?
There is a difference between calling a beer non-alcoholic and labelling it alcohol-free, and it comes down to a decimal place. To be considered non-alcoholic, a beverage can’t be higher than 0.5% ABV. An alcohol-free beer however must be lower than 0.05% ABV (alcohol by volume).