How the NA is NA’d
By: Bryan Donaldson, Brewing Innovation Manager
It’s that time again: another year, another pledge for an alcohol-free month. Yes, even those of us who work at breweries have been known to go for a no alcohol January! As a brewery best known for our work with hops, we couldn’t settle for bland, flavorless, alternatives to our signature IPA. So, let’s take a look at some of the technology out there to create non-alcoholic IPA and what we did to make two delicious beverages: Hoppy Refresher and IPNA (non-alcoholic IPA). Buckle up and get ready for a Bill-Nye/Dexter’s Laboratory tour of how we do what we do!
What exactly is nonalcoholic beer and how is it created?
Science! [Insert science meme here] There have been two main tactics for creating non-alcoholic beer, or “near beer” as it’s legally called. The first method is physically separating alcohol out of a finished product. This can include using vacuum distillation or membrane filtration. What the heck is that? Well, membrane filtration allows you to selectively remove certain compounds (insert alcohol here) out of a solution. We could go down the rabbit hole of details here, but basically we use the solubility and polarity of the compound to selectively remove it, while leaving behind everything else, including all of the flavor. When it works, this technology produces great results. However, it is finicky, hard to use and relatively expensive, making it unavailable to most craft breweries.
Vacuum distillation uses the rules of pressure and evaporation to gently remove more volatile compounds from the solution. In very general terms, you lower the pressure above the solution, supply very gentle heat, and allow the alcohol to gently boil off. The reason you use the vacuum is to lower the energy (aka heat) inputs, which helps preserve the flavor of the product. If there is anything we as brewers know, it is that heat is the enemy of freshness in our product.
The second category for creating non-alcoholic near beers is biological. This can include techniques that don’t include special equipment, like arrested fermentation, alternative yeasts/microbes, or changed mashing regimes.
Often, changed mashing regimes will be used in addition to either arrested fermentation or alternative microbes. There is good reason for this, which comes down to how we create fermentable sugars in brewing. This happens very early in the brewing process in a stage called mashing. We can use different temperatures to control which enzymes are most active and direct how much fermentable sugar is produced, which directly leads to how much alcohol is produced. I could go on much longer about this, but what we care about is the less fermentable sugar – We try to target higher mash temperatures when we create non-alcoholic near beers. This means we don’t have a lot of super long chain starch making it to the final product (which would create an unpleasant haze), but we also don’t have very much fermentable sugar making it either.
Now that we have low amounts of fermentable sugars produced in the brewhouse, we can decide if there are any other procedures we can follow to limit the amount of alcohol produced. With arrested fermentation, we will start fermentation off as normal, allow it to proceed for a limited amount of time (usually 24 hours or less), and then quickly cool the beer and remove the yeast. This stops fermentation before too much alcohol is produced and means we don’t have to remove anything physically. We want this limited amount of fermentation time because it helps clean up the flavor. Before this, coming out of the brewhouse, we have a liquid that is really sweet and tastes more like grain than beer; we describe this flavor as “worty” (not what we’re going for).
A more recent development in non-alcoholic near beer production is the introduction of alternative microbes for fermentation. They will only ferment simple sugars like glucose and fructose, the production of which we can control in the brewhouse. They will produce a large amount of flavor-active compounds during fermentation. These microbes may or may not be hop tolerant, which is a vital distinction when you are trying to make a non-alcoholic IPA.
Can no alcohol alternatives really taste good?
Youbetcha! Now, we don’t want to brag but we’ve been told that our IPNA is the bombdiggity – it tastes just like our flagship IPA but without all that alcohol fuzz. So, how did we do it? Well, we wish we could tell you exactly, but unfortunately, we think our process is so unique we don’t want anyone else taking it! But here’s a few of the things we can share without giving too much away. We are master manipulators.
Basically, we take advantage of brewhouse manipulation to create a beer with body and flavor. We add dry hops in the presence of yeast which allows the yeast to work to liberate pleasant hop flavors, much like we would in one of our alcoholic beers. We don’t apply any heat to remove the alcohol, keeping the beer as fresh and flavorful as possible. If you don’t believe me, check out one of our brewer’s ode to IPNA! Doing things the way we do allows us to have a low calorie drink, meaning you can enjoy a few IPNAs after work, feel great the next day, and keep to your gym schedule (if that’s your thing).
Now, if you are a little disappointed not to learn more about how IPNA is made, maybe we can soothe your feelings by telling you about another delicious, hoppy Lagunitas product for your January alcohol-free alternative: the Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher. We actually created this product first, almost on a lark. Who would want a dry hoppy seltzer water? Turns out, lots of people!
As much as we wish we could tell you all about a complex, mad scientist process of infusing hop flavor into water, the reality is much simpler. We take a giant tank of water and add hops and yeast, letting them hang out together for a few days, then we cool the tank down, separate out the hops and yeast, carbonate, and put it into bottles. We use a different yeast source than our normal beers, so we have a zero alcohol, zero calorie, zero carbohydrate, extra-low gluten beverage with all the flavor of a highly hopped, no guilt beer.
Simple yet delicious. Hoppy but refreshing, it’s our personal go-to Lagunitas nonalcoholic beverage. We may or may not stock every office fridge with these puppies just for drinking during the workday.
Hopefully, this exploration into non-alcoholic IPA production taught you a lil’ sumpin’. The brewing challenges are certainly something that keep us engaged as brewers, trying out new things and creating new products that are as exciting as they are tasty.
So, what we’re saying is this: You don’t need alcohol to have fun, and you don’t have to sacrifice taste when it comes to nonalcoholic alternatives. January doesn’t have to be dull and void of joy. Drinking doesn’t have to be with alcohol. So, stop by, grab a pack (or two or three), and drink without drinking with style, class, and a lil’ bit of sass.
But wait, there’s more!
Looking for the best non-alcoholic beer? Wanting to start the New Year hangover free? How about the best mocktail you can make at home? Or a tasty low-sugar non-alcoholic drink for those upcoming football and baseball games? Whether you’re looking for a healthy drink alternative or planning for a week, month or even a year of soberness, we got you covered. Look no further than our mocktail guide.