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Not your father's 'near beer': Northwest craft brewers rethinking drinking with nonalcoholic quaffs

Tom Banse/Northwest News Network
Craft brewers are tapping into a new growth market with nonalcoholic beer that tastes as good as full-strength brews.

Half a dozen Pacific Northwest craft breweries are diversifying into making nonalcoholic beer.

But instead of brewing bland and watery "near beer," they're injecting quality and variety into a space that used to be dominated by a few national brands. A swelling customer base is lapping it up.

The kettle was already hot when the co-owner and the head brewer at Three Magnets Brewing Company arrived last Wednesday with a load of freshly harvested hops from the Willamette Valley. Brewer Aaron Blonden got right to work at the brewpub in Olympia.

"This is Self Care ‘Fresh Cut!’ It’s a pale ale," Blonden announced as an assistant emptied the bags of fragrant hops into a stainless steel tank. Blonden's team has plans to brew several different styles of fresh hopped beers during the harvest season. This brewery is one of the first in the nation to extend the distinctive, aromatic seasonal treat to the nonalcoholic segment.

Craft brewers said they are seeing the target audience spill well beyond designated drivers and people in recovery minding their sobriety. Athletes are choosing the zero-proof lagers. Health-conscious millennials are driving growth. The quality improvement eased the possible stigma of being seen drinking "near beer" at a bar or barbeque.

There are a bunch of ways to make nonalcoholic beer. One is to brew regular beer and then later remove the alcohol with pressure or heat. Another option is to control the fermentation, so the batch produces minimal or no alcohol to begin with. Blonden takes that approach.

“I’ve told everybody it’s challenging,” he said. “And no, I won’t tell you exactly how we do it.”

Broadly speaking, the technique is called manipulated or arrested fermentation.

Craft brewers prefer it because it preserves the flavor and body of the beverage without requiring additional expensive technology. To be sold as nonalcoholic in most states, an adult beverage needs to have less than 0.5% alcohol content.

Tom Banse/Northwest News Network
Three Magnets head brewer Aaron Blonden begins brewing a batch of fresh-hop beer with hops that were plucked from the vine mere hours earlier on September 7, 2022.

The past couple years have seen a case full of flavors and styles of nonalcoholic beer pour into the market.

“A lot of our pilsners do really well,” Blonden said. “The Bohemian Brew that just came out is wonderful. That’s based on a Czech pilsner that I specialize in.”

In Oregon, Deschutes Brewery now makes a nonalcoholic version of its signature Black Butte Porter. Also from Bend, Crux Fermentation Project competes with an IPA and a Hazy IPA. Crux’s marketing director, Jason Randles, said sales at retail in Oregon of nonalcoholic beer are up 20% in the year to date while most other beer segments are down.

“We see this trend continuing as craft beer drinkers look for healthier options and more occasions to enjoy locally made, high quality beer,” Randles said via email. “We're also seeing strong support from retailers like Safeway, Fred Meyer, Whole Foods, and even Costco.”

This month, Sawtooth in Idaho is coming out with a seasonal Oktoberfest brew under its nonalcoholic Atmos Brewing label. Bend-based 10 Barrel Brewing Company is the newest to join the party with a full-flavored, alcohol-free IPA it released in August.

The next entrant from the region into the nonalcoholic segment could be Figurehead Brewing Company in Seattle, where co-owner and head brewer Bob Monroe has been cutting against the grain by blogging about his experiments to create a “great tasting” nonalcoholic beer.

“While the craft brewing industry is amazingly collaborative and most breweries will happily talk recipes and process with other breweries, the NA brewing world is the exact opposite,” Monroe wrote. “Most NA breweries spend an immense amount of time and resources on research and development and therefore closely guard their processes as proprietary trade secrets. (The) blog is intended to be the antidote to that.”

How it started at Three Magnets

At the Three Magnets microbrewery in Olympia, co-owners Nathan and Sara Reilly said their venture into nonalcoholic beer started in 2020 as an experiment.

“Yeah, a selfish one at that,” Sara said, explaining that the entrepreneurial couple were looking ahead to Sober October and just wanted something suitable to drink.

“Sara and I had partaken in Dry January that year and Sober October the year before,” Nathan continued. “I asked (Blonden, their brewer), I said, ‘Can you have a batch done and in cans before October?’ He thought about it for about a minute and said yes.”

Now just a few years later, Sara said the nonalcoholic beer line, branded Self Care, accounts for just over half of the production volume of the small brewery.

“The sales exploded. We’re shipping this beer to 41 different states,” she said.

“Another really special sector we weren’t expecting was pregnant women,” Sara Reilly said. “We have two kids and I remember being pregnant in this industry. It can be kind of alienating to not be able to drink when everyone is drinking. I just love to see the pregnant women come in with their friends and drink a beer and get to feel a part of the community and what’s going on.”

The Northwest craft breweries entering the nonalcoholic beverage lane face competition from a growing list of cheaper national brands. Industry giants Budweiser and Coors still produce their standby N/A brews along with a range of European brand name imports such as Heineken, St. Pauli and Clausthaler. Several upstart craft brewers who only make nonalcoholic beer have quickly achieved high-volume national distribution. Athletic Brewing Company (California/Connecticut) sports celebrity investors, including NFL football star J.J. Watt and cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The nonalcoholic category remains small in comparison to overall beer sales, with its market share accounting for less than one percent of all beer purchases in the U.S., according to Brewers Association economist Bart Watson who referred to the trade group’s 2021 industry production survey. Watson said what was exceptional was the strong growth rate in the segment, as Crux’s marketing director also noted, in contrast to the performance of off-premise beer sales generally, which ranges from flat to down.

If beer is not your thing, the next trend could be local, nonalcoholic wine and spirits. A few Northwest wineries and distillers are dipping their toes into this space, including Waterbrook Winery of Walla Walla and Wilderton non-alcoholic botanical spirits of Hood River.