Right at the start of 2020 — before pandemics and lockdowns changed our lives (for the time being, anyway) — I was sat in the taproom at London Fields Brewery in East London, attending a beer tasting hosted by Brooklyn brewmaster and beer-legend, Garrett Oliver.
Now, when Garrett speaks, you listen. A brewer of more than three-decades, he’s headed up brewing operations at New York City’s Brooklyn Brewery since 1994, and is the author of several best-selling books on beer, including The Brewmaster’s Table and The Oxford Companion to Beer. He’s also a charismatic and engaging speaker, often found giving keynotes at conferences or appearing on panel discussions. I will never get bored of hearing him tell a crowd how he “once took the Ramones bowling,” (which is a true story!)
At the tasting we refreshed our palates with a few Brooklyn favourites, from the delectable Black-Ops bourbon barrel-aged stout, to newer releases like the spritzy Bel Air sour. When it came to one of the beers in the tasting however, my cynicism had made my mind up about it before the beer was even poured.
Special Effects is Brooklyn’s first entry into the booming low and no alcohol category. On the surface it’s pretty much a standard American-style amber ale, but rated at less than 0.5% alcohol. The grapefruit and lemon zest aromas characteristic of US hops are as convincing as in any full strength beer, and there’s a pleasing amount of sweetness to the taste. My notes, however, say that I found the finish a little thin, with a “worty” aftertaste —meaning that, at the time, I thought it tasted a little like unfermented beer. But is this just my cynicism talking? Am I expecting too much from low and now alcohol beers? And how can I (or indeed, should I) separate my preconceived bias from beer's current boom category?
It’s an understatement to say the sector is thriving. According to data firm Kantar in an article published by the Grocer in April 2020, the low/no beer sector in the UK is worth £45.2 million and has seen 40% year-on-year growth. Judging by the sheer volume of new low/no beers hitting the market, from established brands like Adnams, Mikkeller and BrewDog, to relative newcomers such as Big Drop and Lucky Saint, it’s a trend that shows zero signs of slowing. That the latter breweries I mentioned focus exclusively on low/no products, perhaps demonstrates how healthy the category is at the moment.
But my personal view of these beers has, generally, not been positive. As I often do, I decided to take a position decrying low and no alcohol beers as being, quite simply, not very good. I have tried many of them, and I maintain that there are some very, very bad examples out there. You may have tried some of these too: products that taste of sweet, sickly unfermented wort, or like rancid cabbage and tomato juice that’s been left out in the hot sun for far too long.
I’m not going to name any names, but the fact that these products exist has made it much more difficult for me — a well documented enjoyer of regular-strength beer — to get my head around the fact that nowadays some of these products are very well made and do actually taste quite good. The technology used in their production has also come on in leaps and bounds, and is now available to a far wider range of entrepreneurs than it was previously. These are not the same beers that flooded the market several years ago—and I will name one this time — like Kaliber. Nowadays, they are far, far better.
It’s ignorant of me to tar all low and no alcohol beers with the same brush, and equally so to say they are “not my scene.” I exist in the beer world, and these products do too. I now accept that what’s happening in low/no alcohol beer is too important to ignore. And while I have also accepted that many of these beers will never be to my liking, once I take myself out of the equation, everything changes.
For the beer industry to thrive it needs to be as welcoming and accessible to as many different people as possible. And as ludicrous as this might sound to some of you, that includes people who don’t — or at least don’t always — drink alcohol. This has been understood in other beer drinking nations for a long time. Look at Germany for example, not only does it probably produce the best examples of low/no alcohol beer, it understands how it’s relative availability is positive for beer as a whole.
So this is my declaration, a mea culpa if you will. From here on I am putting my cynicism about low/no beer to bed. I accept that largely these beers are not to my personal taste, and that generally I don’t like their flavour compared to alcoholic beers (alcohol is an important factor contributing to beer’s body and taste, after all) but also that they form a really important part of the beer category. Perhaps this is another bias I can work through — pretty soon the Euroboozer team will be putting me through my paces with a blind tasting to see what I really think (we’ll share more information about this soon…)
SAVE THE DATE - 11th March 7pm - We'll be putting Matt through his paces on a Live Stream with Martyn & Mitch. Check back here, or watch our socials for more details...
Admittedly, at one point, I saw these beers as a threat to the full strength beers I love — and thinking about it now, this is quite ridiculous. The rising quality of low and no alcohol beers compliments the beer category as a whole, and both producers and consumers will benefit as a result.