“I was out for a barbeque lunch in Kumeu and was the nominated sober driver, so I bought a six pack of green-bottle zero lager and all I got from it was this over-bearing taste of wort, or unfermented beer,” says the Bach Brewing founder.
“It gave me a bit of a rocket, an inspirational challenge to try to make something that was better.”
Released during lockdown in September, All Day is the first zero ABV craft beer commercially available in packaged format. Garage Project have a zero beer ready for official release on November 1 and have been sending out samples to customers. And Sawmill Brewing is not far away with their zero offering.
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Cooper said he’d been getting a lot of inquiries about the beer since word started to filter out in social media channels that a kind of holy grail had been found: a zero ABV beer that tasted great. (In my opinion, both the Bach and Garage Project zero ABVs are light years ahead of any other zero beers I’ve had).
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from people wanting to buy it – greater than we’d get for any new release. There’s definitely a lot of people out there keen on a zero alcohol beer with more flavour.”
Like many in the brewery business, Cooper had been watching overseas uptake of zero ABV beers.
“Having worked internationally in the liquor market, I always kept an eye on what goes on there and over the past five years I’ve been well aware that alcohol-free has been really booming in Europe – particularly in Germany and Spain.
“Spain’s really interesting because 70 per cent of liquor is consumed on premise and when they changed their drink driving laws over five years ago that’s really driven alcohol-free beer.
“And I saw Brew Dog got into alcohol free a couple of years ago with some clever branding and then I’ve seen a number of Australian breweries making non-alcohol beers – Heaps Normal, Nort, Mornington Brewery.”
Cooper gathered as much information as he could about the market in Australia but admits he couldn’t find much about brewing methods used to make zero beers as they remain quite closely guarded techniques.
Most breweries use a combination of arrested fermentation and vacuum distillation to reduce the alcohol but it’s an expensive and difficult process to get right.
Starting from scratch he asked the team Steam Brewing, his contract partner, to have a go at creating such a beer and put together a brief for brew team leader Chris Ward.
“What we agreed on included a couple of a critical go/no-go gates.”
First, the beer had to be under 0.5 per cent ABV, to be legally sold as alcohol-free. Second, there had to be little to no wort character.
“It had to be clean. I was absolutely adamant we wouldn’t go anywhere without nailing that,” Cooper said.
Other criteria included generous fruit driven hop aroma and flavour, golden straw in colour, and filtered – “we had some discussion over whether we’d go hazy or filtered and we felt strongly it had to be filtered.
“Chris developed the brewing methodology and we fine-tuned that across a number of 200-litre trial batches over six months.
“In terms of sharing technical details, we’re keeping our lips tight on that. It looks like we’re the first to release a non-alc IPA in packaged format – there have been a couple that have been on tap in the past – and there is a competitive advantage in being out there early.”
Ward and his team tried different yeast strains, different mashing techniques and different hop combinations.
“It didn’t happen all at once,” Cooper said, “but the one thing that gave us confidence is that we did nail the lack of wortiness early on.
“But at another point in the trials we didn’t get below 0.5 percent, and that was a disappointment, and we had another issue with overbearing bitterness – it was essentially undrinkable.”
The effort was worth it for the final rendition.
“We are all really happy with the flavour, hop character and balance. We would like more head, but it has a low level of malt and so less head retention proteins. I’m suggesting to people that they need a vigorous pour into the bottom of the glass; that will get a generous head. Don’t slide the beer down the side of the glass.”
Cooper did reveal that the beer was not “alcohol-removed or reduced like many of the European non-alc products, it is fermented to 0.5 per cent. It’s generously dry-hopped and that’s where most of the flavour comes from with Mosaic, Citra and Nectaron.”
Cooper paid tribute to Ward in bringing the beer to life.
“It was a team effort, and Chris would say as much as he’s a pretty humble guy, but I really want to emphasise the role Chris has played in developing the process for this,” he added.
Ward’s brewing career started almost 20 years ago in Hawke’s Bay, included holiday stints during his university days on the bottling line at Limburg, a now defunct brewery that Cooper would later become a shareholder in.
Ward also worked at the old Mac’s Brewery in Wellington before going to roles as brew team leader at Speight’s in Dunedin and head brewer at Loose Cannon in England.
“He’s another great man from the Hawke’s Bay,” Cooper said with a laugh.