Whether it’s Dry January or any other time of year, many drinkers are exploring non-alcoholic beers and wines. And producers are jumping at the chance to provide them. Some winemakers and brewers have introduced non-alcoholic (NA) items, while others created entire NA brands.
But how exactly do you make an alcohol-free beer or wine? What’s the process to remove or prevent booze from finding its way to your glass?
Today, the primary consideration among brewers and winemakers who create NA drinks is how to retain or replace the characteristics typically provided by alcohol, like the weight or body of wine or the aroma of beer.
Terry Donnelly, chairman and CEO of Hill Street Beverage Company Inc., a manufacturer and distributor, believes the best way to make NA beer is via arrested fermentation. The process either stops fermentation before it creates too much alcohol, or it uses yeasts specially created to result in lower-alcohol beer. The beverage maintains the complex flavors of beer and hops that most of us associate with beer.
Another method is vacuum distillation. The beer is placed in a vacuum chamber, which lowers the boiling point of the alcohol down to about 80°F.
“That’s basically a warm summer day,” says Donnelly. “And at that temperature, the water and all the elements in the water do not boil, but the alcohol does…You need to have a separate process to capture [the terpenoids and flavonoids], distill them and bring them back into the liquid, and the alcohol has been separated and distilled and moved into a separate container.”
Some brewers remove alcohol via reverse osmosis. This practice “runs the liquid through a filter, and the filter separates the alcohol based on the size of the molecule,” says Donnelly. “Alcohol is a bigger molecule than water, so you can literally run it through like a microscopic strainer, and filter the alcohol off.”
Phillip Brandes, founder of Bravus Brewing Co., the first exclusively nonalcoholic brewery in the U.S., doesn’t use any of these methods. In 2015, he hired a molecular biologist who was a homebrewer to help develop its beers.
“I really wanted to look at ways of just not removing stuff, as there’s no way you can just remove the alcohol without affecting the rest of the beer,” says Brandes of Bravus’ proprietary process. “People think it’s just malt, hops and water and barley, but it’s a very complex process that goes through, especially in craft: the transformation in the hops, down to the sugars and the esters. We really wanted to look at ways of not putting a lot of alcohol in the first place.”
Yoko Sato, the winemaker and laboratory manager for Freixenet Alcohol-Removed, prefers vacuum distillation.
“With this system, we can eliminate the alcohol at a low temperature, [95ºF], which respects the aromas and flavors of the wine,” says Sato. In addition, “vacuum distillation allows us to achieve an alcohol level of 0–0.05%. By removing the alcohol by vacuum distillation, we maintain the integrity of the finished wine, so we’re able to produce a fresh, fruit-forward sparkling wine that can be enjoyed at any moment.”
Noughty, the organic, vegan, NA sparkling Chardonnay produced by Thomson & Scott, also uses vacuum distillation. Founder Amanda Thomson describes the process as low-intervention.
“The finished wine is fermented to dry,” she says. “The alcohol component is removed at 86ºF, which is a cooler temperature than if you’re using the boiling method to retain that flavor. Then, a very small amount of organic sugar is added at the bottling process to create that perfect balance, that beautiful, delicious, sparkling alcohol-free Chardonnay. No synthetic aromas are added at any point.”
Thomson believes the primary challenge is one of creative thinking.
“We [winemakers] are often a bit stuck in our own approach to wine, and so we’re not trying to create a copy,” she says. “I think we have to set out to create something that’s independently special and delicious.”