On a sunny December morning in Longmont, Mike Kasian hooked up a keg of beer to a tall, shiny metal machine covered with sensors, tubes and dials.
As Bootstrap Brewing’s canning machine whirred away in the background and staff members loaded six-packs of beer onto pallets, Kasian fiddled with a few of the machine’s valves and levers, then tapped on its touchscreen for a few seconds.
Beer flowed out of the keg, through the attached tubing and into the machine. What happened next might as well be magic: An hour later, the machine spat out the same beer, minus the alcohol.
Bootstrap is one of the Colorado craft breweries forging ahead with non-alcoholic beer, the next big trend in better-for-you beverages, following right behind hard seltzer. Non-alcoholic beer is not new — O’Doul’s has been around since 1990 — but it’s having a renaissance right now, one that’s trickling down even into craft beer.
And though non-alcoholic beer likely won’t take the world by storm the same way hard seltzer did, it’s catching on for all the same reasons: People are looking for lighter, healthier, easier-to-drink beverages that won’t weigh them down or get in the way of an active, outdoorsy lifestyle.
“It’s a small market, but one that is growing rapidly,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, the trade group representing small and independent craft brewers.
The NA beer trend, explained
The Brewers Association sees the rise of non-alcoholic beer in its annual Nielsen Harris consumer survey. In 2020, 17 percent of craft beer drinkers said they were more interested in low-alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks than they were a few years ago, up from 14 percent last year.
They’re also watching sales data. Over the last two years, non-alcoholic beer grew from 0.30 percent of beer sales by volume to 0.40 percent. (Those numbers may not tell the whole story, either, since they don’t include on-premise and direct-to-consumer sales.) That’s tiny compared to regular beer, yes, but with the U.S. beer market topping $116 billion, even a small fraction of sales still means big business.
In 2019, the Brewers Association brought back non-alcoholic beer as a subcategory at the Great American Beer Festival. This spring, the association also petitioned the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to allow brewers to reference specific beer styles on non-alcoholic malt beverages.
Some Colorado breweries, like Bootstrap, are getting out ahead of the trend, which is really just beginning to pick up steam in the United States after years of success in Europe. (Athletic Brewing in Stratford, Conn., the first U.S. non-alcoholic craft brewery, launched only two years ago.)
Others are playing it safer and starting to experiment with various methods of producing non-alcoholic beer, which has historically gotten a bad rap for tasting funky. Entirely new “breweries” that make exclusively non-alcoholic beers are popping up in Colorado, too: There’s Denver-based Gruvi, which recently won the Naturally Boulder pitch slam competition, and Arvada’s Ceria Brewing, for example.
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“(Non-alcoholic beer) is really new but there’s momentum behind it,” said Steve Kaczeus, Bootstrap’s owner. “The more people taste it and realize, the next morning, they’re actually feeling really good. I really think it will be life-changing for a lot of people.”
Bootstrap officially launched its new Strapless non-alcoholic IPA in November and plans to drop a non-alcoholic golden ale in January.
It’s making the new Strapless series using a special on-site alcohol-removing machine designed for craft breweries and, in the collaborative spirit that permeates the Colorado craft community, it’s letting other breweries use the machine to experiment with their own non-alcoholic beers.
The machine, called “the Equalizer,” is the brainchild of ABV Technologies, a St. Paul, Minn., company that wanted to give small craft breweries an opportunity to compete with Big Beer in the non-alcoholic market — and with non-alcoholic beer that actually tastes good. (You can now buy non-alcoholic beers from all the big players: Budweiser, Coors, Heineken, Guinness, just to name a few.)
“Everybody knows that non-alcoholic beer sucks,” said Patrick Frimat, one of the company’s co-founders. “I used to say that, but I don’t say it anymore, but that’s where we started. We’re craft beer lovers, and the beer we like is getting heavier and heavier in (alcohol by volume) and we’re like, ‘Huh, too bad we can’t drink more.’ ”
Traditionally, brewers have used two overarching techniques for creating non-alcoholic beer. With one method, they essentially boil off the alcohol. With the other, they stop fermentation before the yeast can produce high amounts of alcohol. These methods tend to be inconsistent and they can really mess with the beer’s flavor.
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The ABV Technology machine creates a vacuum to extract the alcohol at a low temperature, which helps preserve the beer’s intended flavors. Beer goes in, non-alcoholic beer comes out. As an added bonus, the machine also turns the unwanted alcohol into unflavored hard seltzer, which breweries can then put their own spin on.
Bootstrap was the company’s first brewery partner outside of Minnesota. It got the machine for free in exchange for maintaining it and processing beer for other Colorado craft breweries. (ABV Technology gets a cut of all the beer that runs through the machine.)
Much like the mobile canning industry, this service model helps make non-alcoholic beer accessible to breweries that can’t afford or don’t have space for a big, specialized piece of equipment, according to Frimat.
This niche beverage might not be for everyone, but it’s likely to start popping up on more Colorado taproom menus in the near future.
Using Bootstrap’s machine, Dry Dock Brewing is experimenting with a non-alcoholic version of its popular apricot blonde ale — part of the new “Looted” series — and will have it on tap at its tasting rooms in time for “Dry January,” when people give up drinking for the first month of the new year. So far, the brewery has no plans for non-alcoholic beer beyond the taproom.
“We’re just going to be experimenting with it in our tasting room to see what the consumer reaction is to it,” said Michelle Reding, Dry Dock’s co-owner. “I really don’t know what to expect.”
In Boulder, Sanitas Brewing Co. is also starting to explore non-alcoholic beer. It’s taste-testing and comparing non-alcoholic beers made using an array of different methods, including with the Equalizer.
“The question is: Can we do something consistently that we like the flavor of? And I have not been convinced of that yet,” said Michael Memsic, Sanitas’ co-founder and CEO. “We’ve tasted four or five now and they’re either bitter or boring.”
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