With the growing interest in mocktails, the demand for better nonalcoholic beers is expected to go up next. A Connecticut brewer, Athletic Brewing Co., is having success with its nonalcoholic beers, which are being sold in bars and restaurants around Portland and in other parts of the state.

One Maine craft brewer already has “perfected” two recipes for a no-alcohol IPA and a stout on pilot systems, but you won’t find them on store shelves anytime soon.

Patrick Rowan, owner of Woodland Farms Brewery in Kittery, has recipes for non-alcoholic beers ready to go. Photo by Dave Patterson

Patrick Rowan, owner of Woodland Farms Brewery in Kittery, said he hasn’t started brewing his alcohol-free beers for sale because “at a craft beer level, it really is cost prohibitive to remove alcohol from beer.”

There are three ways to remove alcohol from beer, and each comes with its own problems, Rowan said. Woodland Farms consulted German experts on a yeast strain used to make non-alcoholic beer in Germany, where there are a lot of low- or no-alcohol alternatives because of strict drunk-driving laws. The German yeast doesn’t ferment malt but still creates good taste without the alcohol, Rowan said. The problem is if the beer is manufactured in a facility where regular yeast also is used, cross-fermentation can occur. The yeast starts fermenting in cans of the no-alcohol brew and cans explode. The way around it is to pasteurize the beer, Rowan said, but pasteurization is expensive and completely changes the flavor of an IPA. (Large, national brewers pasteurize their beers to extend shelf life, Rowan said, but it’s not typically done on the craft beer level.)

Another method to remove alcohol from beer is to heat the beer to 160 degrees and allow the alcohol to evaporate, Rowan said. But that affects the flavor just like pasteurization, and caramelizes the beer as well so it comes out much darker. The large brewers who use this method add carbonated water back to the beer, which addresses the color issue but leaves the beer tasting slightly sweet, Rowan said.

The third method for removing alcohol is vacuum distillation, which uses much less heat but is “ridiculously expensive,” he said.

Rowan said he prefers the product created by the yeast-based approach, but cost and space are other factors in considering which he will use. He hopes to start brewing his no-alcohol beers sometime in the next year. Right now, Woodland Farms brews about 1,200 barrels of beer a year, and Rowan said by the time they reach 2,500 barrels, they’ll be able to afford the equipment needed to make the new beers a reality.

Regardless, Rowan believes there’s a big market for no-alcohol beer. (Most of the calories from beer come from the alcohol, he notes. That alone would be enough to have Americans stampeding toward the beer aisle.) “Everybody has an uncle that shouldn’t drink,” he said. “Everybody has a friend who’s pregnant. Or maybe you just want to have a high-quality, nonalcoholic beer in between other beers so you’re not imbibing too much.”

If the barrier to entry in the no-alcohol market wasn’t so high in cost and technique, Rowan said, “you’d see a lot more of it a lot quicker. But it’s not there. It’s not easy.”

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