Going booze free?
Kicking back with an alcoholic bevvy symbolises the end of the work day, relaxation, social bonding, events and celebrations. At the same time, the health risks of alcohol — at least two important scientific reports conclude the only safe level is none — the hip pocket and other factors mean many of us want to cut down. Almost one in five of us reported drinking less in the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of alcohol consumption. Aligning with our changing times, manufacturers have come to the party. Without fanfare, booze free versions of beer, wine, spirits and other alcoholic beverages have crept into the shelves of supermarkets, bottle shops and bars and into the menus of eateries.
The rise of teetotalling
In a scene crowded with options, the new booze is a relative newcomer. Full-strength still reigns as the grog of choice — data from the IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, for instance, shows that in 2020 no- and low-alcohol beer and cider, which lead sober alcohol sales, represented 5.3 per cent of the total beer and cider market in Australia; teetotalling wine and spirits far less. Non-alcoholic options are climbing in popularity within the country and abroad. A forecast by IWSR predicts the no- and low-alcohol sector in Australia will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8 per cent by 2025. Against a flat market for alcohol generally, it’s significant. Teetotalling is “in”, according to La Trobe University research. It’s being led, their findings suggest, by a new breed of young people more closely monitored by parents and concerned about the future, health and being seen drunk on social media. Abstinence is on the rise for what’s been dubbed “generation dry”. Further research by Carlton & United Breweries found Carlton Zero, their non-alcoholic offering, particularly popular among 25- to 34-year-olds with fit and active lifestyles.
Whatever our motives — pregnancy, breastfeeding, detoxing, a more mindful life, weight loss, driving under the limit or something else — are the nonalcoholic versions of our downtime brews worth partaking of? How do they differ from the traditional kind? It requires suspending our prejudices — it’s fake, inferior imitation, faddish, kowtowing to Aussie and Kiwi drinking culture, and so on — to find out.
What exactly is non-alcoholic alcohol?
Alcohol without alcohol? It almost sounds like a misnomer. Typically packaged to look like the traditional versions we’re used to, non-alcoholic booze is also known as “zero-alcohol” and “noalcohol” to differentiate it from the “low-alcohol” or“lite” bevvy. Trendy product tags include “zero” or “0.0”. So what’s in the bottle or tinnie?
According to manufacturers, non-alcoholic alcohol is the same as the real deal but with the alcohol removed (de-alcoholised) after brewing. A variety of methods are used. As these aren’t 100 per cent infallible, technically speaking, zero-alcohol may contain up to 0.5 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume), though regulations vary between countries and states. For reference, that’s the same amount in the average commercial kombucha. We also regularly consume traces of alcohol in many everyday foods including overripe fruit, bread, vinegar, fermented foods, flavourings and extracts. Drinks manufacturers aren’t required to mention such negligible amounts on the label but most do.
For beverages containing over 0.5 per cent ABV, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code requires manufacturers to state the proportion of alcohol present on the label. Those with concentrations up to 1.15 per cent can be labelled “low-alcohol”.
A win for the mindful drinker, most of the top players in the industry now offer sober-friendly versions of wine, beer, spirits and more.
Just like regular wine, the non-alcoholic version is made of crushed and fermented grapes. And, like regular wine, it commonly goes through an ageing process where the wine matures and improves in taste. Where it differs is in the addition of a crucial, complex extra step that removes the alcohol created by fermentation of the sugars by microbes. The main methods for doing so are based on distillation and filtration. As described by academics in microbiology and fermentation technology at Federation University Australia, distillation essentially involves heating the wine, which evaporates off the alcohol. Filtration uses high pressures to pump the wine through filters with tiny holes that sieve out first the smaller volatile aromatic compounds, and then ethanol. Multiple hybrid approaches are often employed. In the final stage the de-alcoholised wine and the captured aromatic compounds are reunited.
A key challenge is controlling temperature, as too much heat can cause oxidation of the wine, generating an unpleasant taste. Thus, technologies are used to reduce the temperature at which processing occurs, such as distilling the alcohol within a vacuum, known as vacuum distillation. A new technique pioneered in Australia is “spinning cone technology”. This involves placing the wine in a centrifugal column of cones that spin at high speeds. The force causes the wine to form a thin membrane, while nitrogen gas added to the column helps extract the aromatic elements. In a second spin, temperature is increased in the column to extract alcohol.
Like alcohol-free wine, zero beer contains essentially the same ingredients as its inebriating counterpart: water, malt or other sugars, barley and/or other cereals, hops and yeast. In craft versions, herbs, spices, honeys and even fruits and flowers may be added to create unique taste profiles, flavours, aromas and colours.
Methods of production remain much the same: grinding the grain, mashing, boiling, cooling, fermentation, maturation and microbial stabilisation. Stripping beer of alcohol is performed after production, using the same techniques used in nonalcoholic wine.
In producing low-alcohol beer, there are additional strategies to prevent or reduce the formation of alcohol during the fermentation phase using different techniques. As explained by the Federation University experts, these involve changes to the mashing regime, arresting fermentation or replacing the yeasts with microorganisms that are inefficient at producing ethanol.
Suggesting the taste can’t be too bad, in 2021 the Australian Financial Review reported a doubling in sales of no-alcohol beer at liquor chains Dan Murphy’s and BWS over the previous year.
Sober spirits, mixers and more
More options at the bar and beyond include a plethora of alcohol-free spirits, straight or mixed into combo drinks. Everything from gin, rum, whisky, margaritas and tequilas to craft cocktails and mixers can be enjoyed minus the familiar buzz of alcohol. Like noalcohol wine and beer, these are all made in their usual fashion then subjected to a secondary process to remove alcohol.
Alco-free isn’t just for beer, wine and spirit drinkers. Non-alcoholic kombucha, cider and innovative fermented botanical drinks are also on offer. For the home front, there are even books such as The Seedlip Cocktail Book to guide you in creating your own cocktails from their award-winning non-alcoholic spirits.
Of course, if you haven’t yet experimented with sober alcohol you’re probably stuck on one question: what does it taste like?
In a 2019 sampling of six non-alcoholic beers by 30 CHOICE staffers, reviews were mixed. Ranging from positive assessments to those that were downright scathing, tasters described their samples variously as “mild”, “light”, “fruity” and “bland”, “watery”, smelling like “rotting fruit”, tasting like “old socks” and worse. Sixty-nine per cent of the samples received a “dislike”. Some brands rated more favourably than others. In a recent tasting of six different brands of non-alcoholic wine by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, opinions varied widely depending on the product. Ratings ranged from no stars to 3.5 out of five. Comments swung from “avoid” and “really, really, flat savvy with no complexity on the midpalate” to “balanced oak and acid, aromas of stewed fruit, and toffee”. According to an article in Wine Lover Magazine, zero wine tends to feel thin and light and possess less intense flavour, because alcohol gives wine a heavier, more viscous feel in the mouth and also transports flavour.
Those fishing for recommendations should check out Drink Easy’s 2021 awards for the best non-alcoholic drinks in Australia. Another pointer is liquor.com’s nonalcoholic spirit award. Guidance from others can also be gained from reviews left on online stores like Sans Drinks, CraftZero and Alcofree. The take-home: not all non-alcoholic alcohol is created equal.
Pros and cons of going zero
Weighing it up, booze-free alcohol seems a good compromise and adds to the landscape of alcohol-free options. Finding a product we enjoy allows us to savour our brew and have it too. We can drive safely, sleep better and avoid the hangover and the health and social costs of alcohol.
One concern that’s been raised: in those with addiction issues it’s been hypothesised that no- and lowalcohol beers, spirits and wines may trigger relapse or yearning for the real thing. A 2022 study of seven journal articles looking at the issue found no concrete evidence for the view. The study, by Liquor & Gaming NSW, suggests zero alcohol is frequently marketed to and used in occasions where we don’t normally imbibe. These include weekday lunches, fitness and sporting occasions and driving. Common targets of marketing include pregnant women, non-drinkers and minors.
In favour of zero, it’s said to contain fewer calories.Alcohol has seven calories per gram, compared to four for carbs and nine for fat. Cancelling out this positive, some non-alcoholic drink varieties may harbour higher sugar levels. And research suggests alcohol calories may not count as highly as we think because of the different way it’s metabolised by the body. However, as a Swiss university hospital research paper concludes: “[Alcohol] may represent a risk factor for the development of a positive energy balance and thus weight gain.” Either way, labelling requirements do mean you can check both alcohol and sugar proportions.
What’s certain: zero-alcohol wine has a shorter shelf life, as one of alcohol’s functions is as a preservative.
Health benefits galore
Alcohol is associated with an increased risk of cancer including that of the throat, larynx, breast and rectum, liver cirrhosis, intentional injury, heart disease, stroke, sleeping problems, accidents, violent behaviour and other problems, according to an analysis of around 6000 peer-reviewed studies by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). Take note: seven standard drinks a week is enough to put you at “high risk” of such negative outcomes. “Science is evolving, and the recommendations about alcohol use need to change,” the report explains in relation to its revised guidelines. “Research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health.” Serious health effects aside, there’s also the smaller, still significant gains: less bloating, reflux, snoring and so on.
Studies reported by Horizon Clinics in Canada suggest aspects of non-alcoholic beer could even be good for your health. It can offer hydration, improve dopamine (thus enhancing mood) and sleep (due to the hops) and it causes less pro-coagulatory effects — so it’s better for your heart health.
A disincentive to more of us enjoying zero-alcohol is taste, and to some extent a higher price tag due to greater production costs, consumer surveys suggest.
Preprocessing and post-brewing factors can all make a significant dent in flavour and the volatile chemicals that help characterise the tastes and aromas we’re used to. Removing alcohol, which contributes to flavour, particularly impacts wine, which contains about 13 per cent alcohol compared to about 5 per cent for beer.
With so much at stake for the sober industry, a good deal of effort and research has gone into improving taste. According to an article by the University of Copenhagen, it’s the missing aroma of hops — reduced when alcohol is removed — that saps zero beer of its punch. In a game-changer for the industry, a solution to the issue has been discovered by Sotirios Kampranis, a professor in biochemical engineering at the University of Copenhagen, and his colleagues. The team have produced a hops aroma and flavour from molecules called monoterpenoids. Released from bakers’ yeast cells, these are collected and added to the beer after production. The technique also reduces the need to grow, water and transport the water-hungry hops.
Industry members are also creating their own successful flavour additives for beer. Early consumer research by Federation University suggests these days some experienced drinkers can’t tell the difference between a no-alcohol beer and the traditional kind.
Continued investment into the quest for the perfect commercially popular non-alcoholic booze will likely yield more products identical in taste to the traditional brews. Cheers to that.