How to: Brew full-flavor NA beer using maltose-negative yeast

Although long viewed as inferior to traditional alcoholic beer, NA beer is experiencing a renaissance as craft breweries use innovative techniques and technologies to brew new ales and lagers minus the alcohol.

Scott Miller, Staff writer

June 28, 2024

5 Min Read

At a Glance

  • For years, non-alcoholic beer was relegated to the flavor sidelines, but craft breweries are changing that.
  • Two schools of thought define NA brewing: adjusting fermentation or extracting alcohol.
  • Tunnel pasteurization is another vital part of the process of brewing NA beer.

Pop, pour, fizz.

If you’re a beer drinker, you can probably hear, see or even taste those words. But, if you’ve ever sampled one of the major non-alcoholic (NA) beers, you might be tempted to change the final word to “fizzle.”

For decades, NA beer was known to most enthusiasts as a flavorless, watery version of their preferred beverage, especially after homebrewing and craft breweries started blowing up the U.S. beer scene in the 1990s. But now, thanks largely to those same craft breweries, the NA beer market is steadily growing, with innovative — and tasty — new offerings ranging from sour ales to stouts, all containing less than 0.5% ABV.

How the old guard removed the alcohol

According to up-and-coming NA beer brand Gruvi, two schools of thought have prevailed on how best to make a beer non-alcoholic: Either extract the alcohol from a fully brewed beer or adjust fermentation to prevent alcohol production.

The first option is how many large breweries have been doing it for years. Methods such as vacuum distillation and membrane filtration reportedly offer better results than the “boil off method,” where you simply expose a beer to controlled heat and let the alcohol evaporate before the water does, thanks to its lower boiling point.

Some craft breweries, including Gruvi, still use methods like these to produce specific beers, but the associated machines and processes can be costly to set up and scale — plus, they’re often less sustainable — so many others take the second approach.

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Manipulating fermentation

Before Athletic Brewing Co. launched its first commercial batches of NA beer in 2018, cofounder and chief product officer John Walker brewed more than a hundred trial batches, some of which were "homebrewed" in a garage while the brewery was under construction.

“We control a number of variables in each step of the brewing process,” Walker said. “The hot side of the brewing process is a day long and involves several tanks, several treatments, all sorts of variables from sugar density to pH to rest times, conversion times and all those things.”

Next comes one to three weeks in the fermentation cellar, where the brewer must control still more variables, such as temperature and microbiological treatment. All these factors require constant monitoring, but the most important variable of all is the yeast — the micro-organism responsible for the ancient process of fermentation.

Maltose-negative yeast

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the third largest craft brewery in the U.S., has been working for years to develop its Trail Pass lineup of NA beers.

“It's a hard category to play in,” Sean Lavery, vice president of Technical Brewing and Innovation, said. “With a lot of the techniques that [dealcoholize], such as vacuum distillation … you build a beer, and then you pull everything away, and then you try to build it back up with all these other ingredients.”

Stripping out the alcohol and then building the beer up again wasn’t good enough for the brewers at Sierra Nevada; they wanted to make NA beers that, first and foremost, tasted like beer.

Five years ago, they discovered the LalBrew® LoNa yeast strain, a maltose-negative Saccharomyces cerevisiae hybrid from Lallemand Brewing. This ale yeast does not consume the maltose, or malt sugar, in the wort, or the ready-to-ferment liquid from mashing, meaning you get all the delicious byproducts of fermentation without the alcohol (or the sulfurous or phenolic off-flavors often associated with using nontraditional yeast).

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Building a better beer

Sierra Nevada recently added two new beers to its Trail Pass portfolio: a hazy IPA brewed with grassy, citric Mosaic and El Dorado hops and a “brewveza” crafted with lime and salt that pays homage to Mexican lagers. Both are ultra-low ABV, and both taste like beer. Brewveza is light, crisp and refreshing, while the Hazy IPA has a hoppy bite without going overboard (as IPAs sometimes do, despite their ongoing widespread popularity).

Nonetheless, the process involved some trial and error. Sierra Nevada’s brewers mixed and matched traditional ingredients in inventive new ways to achieve the desired results. During fermentation, for example, you must add hops at precisely the right time to achieve the appropriate expression of flavor and mouthfeel — in short, to ensure a good-tasting beer.

Brewing using maltose-negative yeast also means compensating for a shorter, less aggressive fermentation cycle. This gentler process introduces new opportunities but also new questions.

“We really had to go back to our brewing notes and books,” Lavery said. “How do I make sure that I'm getting an accurate fermentation that is letting those esters showcase themselves? And how can I add hops to this when I want to have the appropriate biotransformation even though this yeast strain doesn’t operate in that same way?”

Starting small can help simplify the process of scaling up.

“We did some smaller batch trials where we went from our 10-barrel system to a 200 barrel system and carry that through and pull off into smaller [two-barrel] tanks,” he explained. “We can brew the base and pull that into our two-barrel tanks and play with different dosing levels to make sure that we're getting it just right, and then take that to a larger scale.”

Where NA beer goes from here

Innovation is rapidly changing the NA brewing industry, with new technologies becoming more commonplace every day as brewers try out the latest and greatest toys, such as arresting fermentation via cryogenics. One vital piece of gear is a tunnel pasteurizer, which ensures NA beer is safe, extends shelf life and safeguards flavor, not only preventing bacterial contamination but also stopping fermentation to ensure alcohol does not manifest inside the can or bottle.

“Tunnel [pasteurization has] a very light touch, and we found that it really didn't affect the taste of our beer,” Zoe Riccio, senior director of global quality assurance and compliance at Athletic, said. “But the added benefits of increased shelf stability, shelf life and preservation of flavors in our beers have been off the charts, whereas a lot of hobby craft beers deteriorate in their sensory profile very quickly, within weeks.”

Sierra Nevada also uses tunnel pasteurization, and this gentler sanitization process can open the door for experimentation with new flavor profiles — if consumers ever get around to asking for them.

“We made a porter, a dark beer that was just, whoa, this is the best [NA beer] we've ever made,” Lavery said. “But at that time, we were looking at dark beers, and there's not a lot of growth in that space. People want IPAs.”

About the Author(s)

Scott Miller

Staff writer, Food & Beverage Insider

Scott Miller brings two decades of experience as a writer, editor, and communications specialist to Food & Beverage Insider. He’s done a little of everything, from walking a beat as a freelance journalist to taking the Big Red Pen to massive technical volumes. He even ran a professional brewing industry website for several years, leveling up content delivery during an era when everyone had a blog.

Since starting at Food & Beverage Insider, he’s written pieces on the price of greenwashing (and how to avoid it), debunked studies that served little to no purpose (other than upsetting the public) and explained the benefits of caffeine alternatives, along with various other stories on trends and events.

Scott is particularly interested in how science, technology and industry are converging to answer tomorrow’s big questions about food insecurity, climate change and more.

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