Alcohol free beer. Why would ya? Well, as it turns out, why wouldn’t ya?!
Updated: Nov 28, 2021
Written by HUB member Trent Maier
There has been a bit of a push in society towards low or no alcohol beers driven by a multitude of factors, but that’s not our main concern. Our concern is how to make it, and make it well. With your existing equipment and little change to your regular process, you can actually make alcohol-free beer that tastes almost exactly the same as regular strength beer! Let’s take a look.
I’ve often said that if I could make alcohol-free beer that tasted like regular beer, I’d do it. And with new understandings of yeast in relation to low alcohol beer, it’s become easily achievable. The first thing to know is that yeasts producing low alcohol beers are maltose and/or maltotriose negative. This means that they do not consume these sugars. Thankfully, in a regular all-malt wort, the composition is around 15% naturally occurring sucrose, glucose and fructose, so a completely maltose/maltotriose negative yeast will achieve about 15% attenuation. If you’ve ever had a beer stall out at 15-20% attenuation, you’ll know that it tastes awfully sweet, so we need to look at the process of making the wort…
Making wort for low alcohol beers can best be divided into 4 (or 5?) separate techniques. Each has their own drawbacks and benefits.
The “Nanny State” process made famous by Brewdog. This is basically a small grain bill in a regular-sized batch.
The “Hot Mash” process, where you mash hot (>72°C)* to create lots of dextrins, which cannot be fermented by regular yeast, and will leave a higher FG. *I have recently watched a tech presentation with Lallemand that states 82°C to be the best temperature for producing the least maltose while avoiding producing starches.
NEM - Non-Enzymatic Mashing. This process was made famous by Dan Bies from Briess Malt, and required mashing a standard 1.050+ grain bill for 12-24 hours in 4°C liquor, which liquifies colour and flavour from the malt, but only a portion (around 25%) of fermentables. This starchy wort is then brought up to sacch temps (65°C) for a rest before running off to the kettle for a regular boil. All of the colour, malt character and beneficial proteins seem to be cold water soluble, so this to me seemed like the best option for non alcoholic beer.
The remaining 2 options tend to be limited to macro sized commercials - vacuum boiling and membrane filtration - so will not enter into our sphere for this post.
Drawbacks to each method - The Nanny State process can result in a low alcohol beer, but it can taste pretty watery. The hot mash technique can result in beer that has a “worty” character, or taste under-attenuated, although it’s been pointed out to me that it can produce watery beer, rather than worty. To be honest, I’ve not recently tried a hot mash only beer, and it could be something you’d like to experiment with. NEM can result in beer that has a “grainy” taste, and as the wort is full of starchy fines, it can be easy to scorch them in the kettle, making the beer taste burnt. Surprisingly to me as a homebrewer - used to being able to contact a brewery, asking for and almost always receiving recipe advice for their beers - the NA brewing industry seems to guard its secrets jealously. On finding this out, I decided that the big boys like Athletic or Big Drop either use a completely unknown technique, or they use a blend of techniques. Not being very inventive myself, I decided to go with a blend of the only 2 techniques that I thought could possibly make good NA beer - hot mash, and NEM. My reasoning being that I could add my NEM wort (after resting at 65°C to convert the starches) to my hot mash bed and recirculate for 15 mins to filter out all the fines in the grain bed, then carry on my runoff and sparge as per normal. I calculated my grain bill on 50% efficiency, expecting 25% out of my NEM and 75% out of my hot mash. I used 2/3 of the grain bill in my NEM, and 1/3 in my hot mash. It was fairly close, but you’ll need to mess about on your system to dial it in. Yeast - Obviously, as mentioned before, maltose-negative yeast is extremely important. I believe that it is critical to achieving balance in a NA beer, but I have not experimented to confirm. There are multiple yeasts that are maltose or maltotriose negative. Saf's LA-01 is the only one I have used so far, but I will be soon trialing some of the White Labs strains as I can get my hands on them. WL 603, 618 and 684 are all good for low alcohol brewing. S-04 is maltotriose negative, as is Windsor. Wine yeast is another interesting avenue, and some other NA brewers I know have used white wine yeast successfully with great results. Some yeasts have been isolated from flowers, such as WLP 4650, and reportedly add very floral esters. I think that this sector of brewing is going to gain traction and grow quickly. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend the West Oz-based page that has just launched www.ultralowbrewing.com, or you can join the Facebook group NA Homebrewers. Without further ado, here is my recipe and process. This beer was tasted by several professional brewers and high level beer judges, as well as regular Joe’s like myself - although these “regular” Joe’s happen to be very good brewers. The feedback was unanimously positive, as well as unanimously surprised at how normal the beer tasted. Recipe for 45L knockout volume, 38L to kegs. My OG was 1.016, FG was 1.014. Approx 0.25% alcohol. 2.15kg Maris Otter 2.15kg Weyermann Vienna 0.5kg rolled oats (separate) 225g Galaxy 225g Mosaic 1mL per 10L water lactic acid 1 tsp per 23L finished beer Calcium Chloride or Sulfate 1 tsp per 23L finished beer Calcium Lactate Process - Take 3.3kg of grist and mix it into 16.5L cold water and store in the fridge overnight. (Called NEM or Non-Enzymatic Mashing). Drain off liquid from NEM*, taking care to leave as much sediment and fines behind as possible. Bring to sacch rest (anywhere from 65-73) either in kettle, or my preferred option to avoid scorch risk in starchy wort - add boiling water. Leave sit for 15 mins to an hour. Take 1kg malt and the 500g oats, add into your regular mash tun, and perform a single infusion rest at 73°C (I now recommend 82°C). After one hour, pour the NEM wort into the mash tun, and use hot or boiling water to bring whole mash up to 82°C. Vorlauf/recirculate for 15 mins to set grain bed and filter out fines. Run to the kettle, boil for 15-60 mins (whatever makes you comfortable). 2g each hop boiled 15 mins, or you can leave out the bittering charge altogether - the hop stand will add plenty of perceived bitterness. Add enough acidified water to the kettle at flameout to bring volume up to final, and wort temp below 80°C. Add 5g/L hops. Stand 15 mins. Run off to fermenter. Ferment using maltose negative yeast like Saf LA-01, or maltotriose negative like Windsor. Once primary fermentation has finished, crash chill and add 5g/L dry hops. I recommend using a hop bag - I lost a lot of beer to hop debris my first few batches. Rest 48 hours. Keg, carbonate and keep cold.
Hot mash initially done on stove top
Recirculating after adding heated NEM wort to hot mash in my old mash tun.
Running off to my kettle.
Putting hops into my hop back to run through as a filter after flameout.
Trub cine towards end of runoff.
Fines visible on top of grain bed during muck out.
Fines are surprisingly thick and highlight the need to filter them out before they get to the kettle.