“Dry January” is nearing its conclusion, and if you’re interested enough in beer to read this, you’ve probably come across more than one story about a month of abstinence and the rise of nonalcoholic beer. Though to be honest, my January has been about as dry as 19th-century Portland was under the “Maine Law.” That is to say, not terribly dry.

The Maine Law was the nation’s first law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, passed in 1851; laws against “intoxicating liquors” would remain intact statewide until the repeal of national prohibition in 1933. And yet, those laws were unevenly enforced across the state – particularly in larger cities like Portland and Bangor. Wet Mainers often found ways to get illegal beer – like porters, pale ales, golden ales – as well as “demon rum.”

Throughout much of the second half of the 19th century, many Maine brewers openly advertised their wares in local newspapers and city directories. These were often promoted as “small beer” (roughly 1% to 3% ABV). Leverett S. Baldwin brewed small beer in Saco and Biddeford for three decades, starting in 1849. Benjamin Walker started brewing it in Portland’s Bayside in the 1850s. His son, Emery, brewed small beer in Saco in the 1870s. So, too, did Asahel Penniman of Rockland. John Cantillon (no relation to the Belgian brewing dynasty) brewed small beer in Biddeford in the early 1890s.

Toward the end of the century, as the forces of temperance consolidated and advanced their political power at a national scale, some Maine brewers shifted to making “hop beer,” a presumably nonalcoholic temperance drink. Augustus R. Stanton brewed it in Lewiston in the 1890s. The Ingalls Brothers of Portland advertised “hop bitter ale” for sale, alongside “genuine ginger ale” and “cream tonic beer” in 1895, when most Maine-based brewers had since been driven underground.

Nonalcoholic beer is currently having, it would seem, a moment. Or, if we look at Maine’s brewing history, a revival. In previous decades, the production of nonalcoholic beer (which legally means a beer with no more than 0.5% ABV) was dominated by brands from multi-national and mass-market breweries. But today, we now have local options that drink much more like craft beer than the infamous O’Doul’s.

Woodland Farms Brewery, out of Kittery, debuted its first nonalcoholic beer in March. Pointer, an adaptation of a New England style hazy IPA, starts with lemony and slightly grainy aromas. Peach and citrus flavors lead to a lightly bitter finish with a little grapefruit pith.

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Founder and brewer Patrick Rowan started developing recipes for nonalcoholic options nearly four years ago.

“Alcoholism runs in the family,” he noted, and “there wasn’t an alternative at the time that tasted good.” But he also figured that there were others, like him, who would appreciate a healthier alternative to alcohol at times, even if regular beer continued to play a role in their lives as well.

Rowan uses a special mash process and a specialty yeast, followed by pasteurization to prevent further fermentation in the can (which might result in exploding cans). The brewery works closely with the University of Southern Maine, sending samples there for testing to ensure that it’s at the most 0.5% – a level that is deemed not to affect drinkers.

Woodland Farms has rolled out a range of different styles since the launch of Pointer. Witty is a wheat beer that seems poised somewhere between a Belgian Witbier and a German Weissbier (a style that has quite popular nonalcoholic versions in its native country). Clove, coriander, orange and bread dough combine for a beer that is light, slightly sweet and quite pleasant. Ruby is a take on a Berliner Weisse, which is then blended with raspberries. Juicy, with a touch of tartness, it too is very drinkable.

More recently, the brewery released West. As the name suggests, it leans into the pine and citrus typical of a West Coast IPA, made as it is with the “C” hops (Cascade, Chinook, Citra and Columbus). This is a bitter hop bomb, marked by piney aromas and a grapefruity finish. The most recent addition to the line-up is Dark, a stout that Rowan says is “killing it for us right now,” given the limited availability of nonalcoholic dark beers. A nice creamy head and a roasty nose join with coffee and chocolate flavors and a slightly bitter finish. Rowan plans more in the future, including a one-off series, whose first iteration will be a guava sour.

Kit NA brewer Simon Burhoe, co-founder Will Fisher and brewer Adrian Beck-Oliver. Photo courtesy of Kit NA

And Maine’s native-born nonalcoholic beerscape is growing, with the opening of Portland-based Kit NA Brewing. Like Rowan, Kit NA founders Rob Barrett and Will Fisher wanted to develop a craft-style nonalcoholic beer that could be enjoyed by those looking to lessen their alcoholic intake, as well as those who are sober entirely. On Your Mark, a nonalcoholic blonde ale, hit retailers’ shelves this month. It is a delightfully fresh little beer featuring Simcoe, Crystal and Amarillo hops: bright, lemony and piney with a balanced, slightly bitter finish. Kit NA plans to expand its portfolio quickly, with the release of an IPA called Get Set in March and a pilsner-inspired beer in April.

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Fisher, who is also a co-founder and co-owner of Austin Street Brewery, said, “We want to try brewing everything,” allowing for drinkers’ range of tastes. While he’d “love to do a barleywine” – citing Austin Street’s Snowblower – he notes the perhaps insurmountable obstacles to replicating high-alcohol styles, observing that alcohol itself has a flavor that can’t really be imitated. But it is possible to admirably reproduce lower-alcohol styles, and with proper balance, Fisher says, “you won’t miss the alcohol.” On Your Mark certainly hits that marker.

Kit NA’s On Your Mark, which hit stores this month, is the first beer to be released by the new Portland nonalcoholic brewery. Photo courtesy of Kit NA

Kit NA currently contracts with a brewery in Cincinnati, though it plans to eventually “bring it home,” as Fisher says, and brew in Maine, along with having a proper retail setup and small tasting room.

Nonalcoholic craft beer remains a very small niche of the overall beer market. According to Nielsen, sales of nonalcoholic beer and cider (which are categorized together) have grown as a whole – roughly 32% in 2021; however, nonalcoholic beverages (including nonalcoholic wine and spirits) are still consumed by less than 5% of households.

Even so, there is some evidence that some drinkers are integrating nonalcoholic beer into their full-strength beer routine. Nielsen also says that 78% of Americans who bought low-and-no-alcohol beer, wine or spirits in 2021 also drank alcohol. And according to IWSR, an alcoholic beverage data firm, 58% of people consuming nonalcoholic drinks worldwide switched between those drinks and alcoholic ones on the same occasion. At the same time, just 14% of nonalcoholic consumers reported avoiding alcohol in their lives entirely.

As the taste of nonalcoholic beers improves, and a certain cohort of drinkers ages – our bodies and brains less elastic to the effects of alcohol – perhaps this is the space that nonalcoholic beer occupies, facilitating an occasional break from the booze or building bridges between more red-blooded beers in a single session. It’s a welcome experiment with promising early returns, ever-expanding the world of beer options we have, and thus the people who might be able to participate in that world.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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