Hoppy Alternatives This Dry-ish January
By: Bryan Donaldson, Brewing Innovation Manager
Another January, another pledge for an alcohol-free month. We have all been there. Yes, that includes those of us who work at breweries (in fact, maybe especially those of us who work at breweries!). The problem, at least until recently, has been that there just weren’t very many good alcohol-free alternatives to traditional alcoholic products. Cue the non-alcoholic IPA revolution, which has been brewing (hehe) for a few years. Most producers started by making alcohol-free alternatives to the normal American lagers or light flavored ales. This is all well and good, but not for us! 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).
Traditionally, there have been two main tactics for creating non-alcoholic “near beer” (as it’s legally called). The first is physically separating alcohol out of a finished product. This can include using vacuum distillation or membrane filtration. Both of these techniques are fairly mature technology, used for many different reasons all through industrial production and require dedicated, special, equipment.
Membrane filtration allows you to selectively remove certain compounds out of a solution, in this case the alcohol. We could go down the rabbit hole of details here, but suffice it to say, you 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 solution. In very general terms, you lower the pressure above the solution, supply very gentle heat and allow the alcohol to boil gently off. The reason you use the vacuum is to lower the energy (heat) inputs, which helps preserve the flavor of your product. If there is anything we as brewers know, it is that heat is the enemy of freshness in our product. However, there is a downfall. Unfortunately, most what we consider “flavor” is actually volatile aromatic compounds (I could go into how we perceive taste, and happily would, but this isn’t the time or space for it; suffice it so say, without our noses things would be really boring). Because the compounds have similar (or higher) volatility to alcohol, they also risk being stripped off during the de-alcoholization process. My favorite technique for dealing with this is by capturing the first, most volatile, compounds that come off in an essence, then selectively adding that essence back to the non-alcoholic IPA until the right flavors and alcohol level are achieved.
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. These are going to be more available to most breweries, since you can do it on the equipment you already have. There is one more biological technique, known as continuous fermentation, but we won’t address that here since it is very specialized and requires special equipment that is even less practical that the physical processes for most breweries.
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. While this term isn’t used in common parlance, it basically means mixing milled grain with warm water. When we do this, is allows enzymes native to the grain to convert the starch in the grain into sugar. 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 (see chart below). In general, more Beta Amylase activity will produce more fermentable sugar, but the Alpha Amylase will cut down the long starch into sections that the Beta Amylase can work on. I could go on much longer about this, but what we care about is, the less Beta Amylase activity we have, the less fermentable sugar. So, we try to target higher mash temperatures when we create non-alcoholic near-beers, which limits Beta Amylase activity, while maximizing Alpha Amylase activity. 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 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”. While there are plenty of people who enjoy this flavor (myself among them!), it doesn’t taste like beer and would not fit the category of non-alcoholic near-beers. That sugary liquid would also be ripe for an unwanted microbe coming in and spoiling it.
A more recent development in non-alcoholic near-beer production is the introduction of alternative microbes for fermentation. In general, these microbes will share a few characteristics. 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. And they will usually be proprietary and not re-pitchable. These microbes may or may not be hop tolerant, which when you are trying to make a non-alcoholic IPA is a vital distinction.
So, what technique did Lagunitas decide to use when making IPNA (non-alcoholic IPA)? Well, I wish I could tell you exactly, but unfortunately we think our process is so unique we don’t want anyone else taking it! A few of the things we decided were important follow, without giving too much away. We took advantage of brewhouse manipulation to create a beer with body and flavor. We add dry hops in the presence of yeast; this 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 alcohol, keeping the beer as fresh and flavorful as possible. If you don’t believe me, check out one of brewer’s ode to IPNA!
Now, if you are a little disappointed not to learn more about how IPNA is made, maybe I can soothe your hurt by telling you about another delicious, hoppy Lagunitas product for your dry January: 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 I wish I could tell you all about a complex 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 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 beer and none of the guilt.
Hopefully this exploration into non-alcoholic IPA production taught you a little something and made you want to try something new. The brewing challenges are certainly something that keep us engaged as brewers, trying out new things, creating new products that are as exciting as they are tasty. The science behind products like this is super interesting, and I would be happy to talk about it on end, but unfortunately, they are limiting my word count! So, go out, try an IPNA and let me know what you think. Cheers.