When you feel like being social but sober. When you don’t want a pity brew. If you’d like one with lunch, or after a workout. When you want something with character, or if you always thought non-alcoholic beer tasted like malty water, if you wanted an independent craft beer as opposed to a multi-national … at last there’s something for you.

Maybe you’re making lifestyle choices, trying to cut down on alcohol — adopting mindful consumption or leaning towards moderation — or trying to see if you can do Dry [insert month of your choice here — there’s even Sober October now]. Or maybe just making sure you can be the designated driver for one night without feeling like a complete square. In any of these pursuits, it’s good to know you’re not alone and the evidence for that is mounting in the sales of non-alcoholic products.

Sales of low-alcohol beer have increased by more than 1000 per cent in the past five years, according to study published the Brewers Association of New Zealand.

It found a sharp rise in no-alcohol beer sales is behind the jump, as well as an increase in products and brands. Zero-alcohol products account for 2 per cent of supermarket sales but that share comes off a tiny, almost non-existent, base.

Data from Stats NZ shows the non-alcoholic category grew 177 per cent last year on top of a 100 per cent increase in 2020.

Non-alcohol beer boom suggests responsible drinking

Garage Project co-founder Jos Ruffell said they couldn’t keep up with demand for a non-alcohol hazy IPA Tiny, released in November.

“The response to that has been overwhelming — it’s flying out the door,” he told Radio NZ. “It just seems to be hitting the right note at the moment. It’s full flavoured. It’s very aromatic. It’s a beer that you can have and you don’t feel like you’re missing out at all.”

New Zealand was mirroring the global move toward low- and no-alcohol beers, Ruffell said. “I just think it’s a progression of the trend, quality over quantity, people being more conscious of their consumption, maybe even the lifestyles people are leading coming out of lockdown.”

Craig Cooper of Bach Brewing said the reception to All Day IPA has been “quite humbling, really”.

“I believed there was a market there, but the extent of the market has surprised me,” he says after six-packs of All Day continually sold out over summer.

How Bach Brewing created their non-alcohol IPA

What is Zero ABV anyway?

By law in New Zealand, zero ABV means less than 1.15% ABV.

That might sound like a lot but the crazy thing in life is that lots of things contain alcohol without us knowing … including, right now, you!

The human body produces alcohol, 24/7. The food you eat has sugar in it and through the process of digestion some of that sugar is turned into ethanol. It’s only a small amount, around 3-4g per day or the equivalent to a quarter of a standard drink or about 80ml of a 4 per cent beer.

Ripe fruit can produce alcohol. A very ripe banana, for instance, can be about 0.4% alcohol by volume.

Vanilla Extract is a classic “I bet you didn’t know that” product. It contains at least 35 per cent alcohol (in America, by law it must contain that amount at a minimum). It’s just when you use vanilla extract, it’s usually in baking and the alcohol burns off, but if you’re sweetening your cream with vanilla, it’s going to have some alcohol in it – though admittedly very little.

Kombucha is a fermented product that, when sold as soft drinks, have to be under that 1.15 per cent ABV but most will have some residual alcohol. Breath freshener strips are another source of small amounts of alcohol.

Humans have expertly evolved to be one of the few creatures able to process ethanol, although that doesn’t stop some wild animals from getting tipsy (we’re looking at you kereru) but increasingly we’re all becoming aware that a little less alcohol in our lives is a good thing.

But, because we’re human, we like to be social, which is where decent tasting non-alcoholic offerings come in. A few years ago, if you were the sober driver it could mean a long and slightly lonely night drinking water or an overly sugared juice or soft drink. The psychological difference that comes with holding a cool-looking branded non-alcoholic can or bottle can significantly enhance your enjoyment of a night out.

And what’s more, these zero ABV drinks are tasting better than ever: changing consumer trends and technology are moving in step — as demand for zero alcohol products increases so does the creativity of manufacturers.

On that note, come over the laboratory, we have a science lesson.

How do they make zero alcohol products?

We won’t get too techy here, promise, but the past decade has seen huge advances in the science for reducing alcohol in beverages.

The Spinning Cone Column (SCC) is an Australian invention originally created to remove sulphur from wine.  But like all good technologies, people soon found better and more widespread uses for it, like taking alcohol out of wine.

It’s a two-step process of low temperature distillation in a vacuum. First, full alcohol wine is poured into the column and the spinning motion creates a thin film of liquid. At around 30degC the system captures the delicate aromatics of the wine and stores them. The liquid is passed through for a second time and alcohol is removed at a slightly higher temperature. The two captured batches of liquid are blended back together and voila, zero-alcohol wine.

The beauty of the spinning cone column is that the wine only reaches temperatures around 35-45°C and only for around 25 seconds so it’s not effected by the heat.

California wine-makers first used SCC technology to reduce the alcohol in their famed Zinfandel wines. In perfect weather these grapes produce lots of sugar, leading to super-high ABV and the vintners felt it disrupted the balance of the wine so they used SCC to take away around 2 per cent of alcohol and bring the wine back into balance.

Europeans were less enamored with this new technology, and reduced alcohol wines made by this method were banned in the European Union for a number of years. Many critics argued that wine without alcohol is not actually wine and the French go further, saying wine has to be at least 8 per cent ABV.

Spinning cone columns are also used in making coffee and flavour essences.

What about beer, what happens there?

There are many traditional alcohol removal or reduction methods for beer: vacuum distillation, reverse osmosis, and arrested fermentation. Spinning cones, or variations on them, are becoming more widely used in the beer industry.

Brewery manufacturer Alfa Laval have recently created a plug-in de-alcoholisation unit similar to SCC technology. It removes and captures aroma and flavour before removing alcohol at a low heat and then the aroma is blended back in.

Historically, even with all their money, big global breweries struggled to remove the alcohol without altering the taste of beer. Even a low heat can strip away flavour in the distillation model. Ditto super-filtration. And the arrested fermentation method means the beer doesn’t get to develop full flavours in the first place and they’d often taste worty (or unfermented).

My favourite quote on what non-alc beers used to taste like comes from American beer writer John Holl: “The non-alcoholic beers of the past tasted like punishment.”

During vacuum distillation, water and alcohol “boil” at lower temperatures. If you heated the beer the alcohol evaporates out first. Modern technology means the beer only has to be warmed to around 20degC instead of 80degC to “boil” off the alcohol which helps preserve aromatics and flavour.

Reverse osmosis operates like a kidney dialysis machine: beer is pushed through a filter with microscopic pores where alcohol molecules and water are separated. Water is then added back in.

With arrested fermentation, brewers can remove yeasts or stop them from becoming active, which stops the production of alcohol. This is usually done by rapidly cooling to deactivate the yeast.

Modified, low-attenuating yeasts and speciality malts can also be used as well as playing with temperatures in the mash.

the athletic non-alcoholic range

Athletic Brewing, in the United States, produces only zero alcohol beer and they rely on a combination of methods founder Bill Shufelt says.

Most of these technologies are still quite expensive, so remain the domain of the big global brands. The fact that Lion got Steinlager Zero brewed in Australia tells you all you need to know about the costs.

Why put alcohol in just to take it out?

Fermentation is an amazing thing, it not only converts sugars into alcohol but adds an array of flavours and compounds that enhance the experience. So producing an alcoholic beverage first and then removing the alcohol creates and entirely different product than just – for example – crushing grapes or apples into juice.

Jody Scott, head cider-maker at Zeffer, says making his 0 per cent cider was the hardest thing he’s done, both technically and from a perspective of sales.

“We wondered whether people would assume that a cider with the alcohol removed was simply a sparkling apple juice and this is not the case at all,” he said. “It tastes just like a crisp apple cider and of course we’ve made it in the same way we would any of our ciders using our signature cidermaking style of using local apples and crafting from freshly crushed juice, not concentrate.”

As Scott notes, once the cider has been fermented it’s quite dry and low in sugar, making it super-refreshing.

“We haven’t compromised on taste and this is a great option for those looking to moderate their alcohol consumption or avoid alcohol all together.”

The international players

Global breweries dominated the early years of the non-alcoholic beer market in New Zealand and many of them are excellent.

Every year, the New World Beer & Cider Awards finds the best beers and ciders in the country. Last year there were two zero ABV beers in the top-100. This is a remarkable achievement as these zero alcohol beers are judged alongside normal beers. To stand out in that crowd means the brewers who make them are doing an exceptional job.

Bavaria 0.0 Wit not only made the top-100 this year but also made the prestigious Top-30 in 2020 – that’s how good it is. The judges said it was beer that “blew their minds”. Wit is a Belgian-style wheat beer traditionally made with orange zest and coriander and relying on interesting yeast character to provide complexity and depth. With zero alcohol most of those great flavours are still there. Ditto the mouthfeel – nothing is lacking here thanks to the extra body that wheat brings. You get bubblegum and botanicals on the nose, a creamy body and a clean finish. It’s brewed with Acai extract which adds guava flavour. We guarantee you’ll love this whether you’re after zero ABV or not.

Bavaria – also do 0% IPA – and it’s a real gem. The Spinoff website rated it the best non-alcoholic beer on the market when they did a taste test in 2020: “I don’t think you could get a zero-alcohol beer tasting much better,” they said.

Heineken 0.0 was the other one that came through in the New World Beer & Cider Awards top-100. It tastes remarkably like the real Heineken which is huge kudos to the brewing team. The judges noted: “Great balanced example for a 0% lager, good hop character and super clean.”.

Heineken closely guard their “twice-brewed” technology but they make the point that there’s more to it than just stripping out the alcohol from normal Heineken, that, they say: “would have been easy but it wouldn’t deliver the same taste Heineken is known for”.  Many a drinks writer has tried to prise information out of them and it’s believed their approach includes blending back flavour compounds.

The Aussies are also well into the game with brands available here including the popular Heaps Normal XPA while Big Drop has a range of four beers but it’s worth noting that all of them are heavy on lactose which is added to aid mouthfeel.

Enter Kiwi brewers

New Zealand’s two biggest breweries DB and Lion both have zero percent. DB Export Gold 0.0 (and the citrus version) were the first Kiwi brands on the market. Lion is about to bring back Mac’s Stunt Double and recently released Steinlager 0.0 and Speight’s Summit 0.0.

The big shake-up on the domestic front came from the craft breweries. Given the prohibitive nature of the technology and the previously low demand, Kiwi craft brewers have taken their time to get on board the non-alcohol wagon, but we saw three releases in in the last quarter of 2021: Bach All Day IPA, Garage Project Tiny and Sawmill Bare Beer. They are all excellent, as good as anything made overseas. All three won bronze medals in the speciality/experimental class at the Brewers Guild Awards last year. Good George have been working on a non-alc beer as well.

Garage Project Tiny But Mighty alcohol free Hazy IPA

While there’s some protection of processes, Scott Sharp-Heward of Sawmill was quite open about how they made Bare Beer.

Sharp-Heward said he drew on the experience of brewery manager Rory Taylor, who previously worked at Fore Pure in the UK after honing his process skills at Fonterra.

“We have created this beer through fermentation, rather than reverse osmosis of a finished beer and subsequent pasteurisation like many big brands in the market.

sawmill bare beer“In essence, this involves producing a poorly fermentable wort and fermenting it with our lowest-attenuating house English Ale yeast. For recipe design itself, we have chosen to use a high proportion of specialty malts to build some intensity of malt flavour and high-protein adjuncts to provide body. Kettle hopping with low alpha varieties provides a robust bitterness with hop oils contributing to mouthfeel and palate weight, whilst the dry-hopping with NZ and USA hops provides citrus, pine, and tropical characters.”

The beer was initially marketed as <1.15 per cent ABV, the second iteration, just out, sits  at the <0.5 per cent mark. Sharp-Heward said lessons learned from the first batch allowed them to lower both the ABV and bitterness.

Sharp-Heward’s reference to pasteurisation is an interesting one. Alcohol definitely acts a preservative and without it breweries open the door on other bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella. The most likely outcome would be exploding cans.

What about a wine that won’t make me whine?

Taking a little alcohol out of beer is one thing — and a judicious use of grains such as oats and wheat, some residual sugar, yeast character as well as hop notes can go a long way to covering the missing alcohol in beer.

But there are fewer places to hide with wine. Taking out 12 or 13 per cent alcohol removes a lot of the wine’s character and you can’t go filling it up with other flavours as you can with beer.

“Whenever you remove alcohol from wine, you are ripping the backbone out of that creature,” Matthew Jukes, a British wine writer said. “Alcohol brings you mouthfeel and texture and glycerol, all of which create that slippery element we love when we drink wine.”

zero abv giesenPerhaps that’s why wine has taken longer to get zero percenters to market — it’s very  hard.

The first NZ brand to market was a 0 per cent Sauvignon Blanc from Giesen. The wine was driven by the same factors at play in the lives of many Kiwis —winemaker Nikolai St George was trying to cut back his consumption as he got ready for a fitness challenge.

“For the likes of someone like me, I still need to have something in my hand and not feel like I’m missing out,” he said. “So that sort of started the process, and then 12 months later we were able to make a zero per cent wine. A lot of that was because new technology had been brought into New Zealand about six months ago.”

New Zealand wine critic and Master of Wine Bob Campbell blind taste-tested the wine against two other no-alcohol Sauvignon Blanc wines and declared it “a giant leap forward”. He noted flavours of passionfruit and red capsicum, a pleasing sweet/sour tension, and the dryness typically associated with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

The wine was produced from using the Spinning Cone Column technology.

(Editor’s note: Aussie giant McGuigan has a range of zero ABVs and their 0 per cent Rose is actually rather nice.)

But wait, there’s more choice than ever

The idea of treating non-alcohol drinkers as real people with discerning palates is evident in the new range of zero spirit, cocktail, or RTD-type products.

British company Seedlip is an industry leader but there are now some great New Zealand companies delivering in this area as well.

zero abv fineryFinery, founded by Jane Allan, started with a range of canned vodka soda cocktails, with flavours such as vanilla and elderberry; grapefruit, cucumber and mint;  green tea, honey and mint; and lemon myrtle, lime and black tea.

While these are lower alcohol options at 5 per cent, Allan really wanted to lead the Kiwi charge on zero alcohol options. It took a while to figure out how to do it without using artificial flavours and added sugar but she now has the same range of flavours that are “zero everything” — no alcohol, no sugar, no preservatives and no gluten.

The trickiest part with a non-alcohol version was finding a way to replace the warmth of alcohol. After some trial and error that came via a capsicum extract that brings a delicate heat.

Allan says the heat brings a “placebo” effect and the feeling you’re really drinking alcohol.

“You’re drinking from product that looks the same, feels the same, and gives you slight heat at back of throat. We needed to think outside the box to make something a bit special without crossing over into artificial flavours.”

Allan is driven by changing the drinking behaviour of Kiwis. “The over-arching thing is that New Zealand needs it, we need to learn to drink in moderation. We want to be at forefront of that.”

A lifestyle change

Lisa King, the woman behind the charity Eat My Lunch, loved to drink gin & tonic but when she decided to give up alcohol she was desperate to find something that tasted the same but without alcohol.

King stopped drinking at start of 2020 and like so many others couldn’t find “anything good” to replace her fave G&T.

The non-alcohol market, she said, was “so poorly catered for”.

“At events if you’re drinking water, juice soft drink – you can’t hide from yourself that you’re having a kid’s drink.”

She wanted a drink she’d be “confident and happy to hold – that allows you to be part of that social occasion and not feel left out.”

AF, which you might think means one thing, actually stands for Alcohol Free. Rather than removing alcohol from a spirit, it’s made without alcohol from the get-go.

King couldn’t see the point of putting something in just to take it out. The trick was to recreate the depth and warmth that alcohol brings without bunging the drink full of sugar, which fattens the mouthfeel and the waistline.

AF created a bespoke, trade-marked heat extract called Afterglow.

“You can literally feel it rising up your face,” King says. “It gives you the sensation of having an alcoholic drink rather than flavoured sparkling  water.”

AF started with a classic G&T and now has a cucumber G&T, pink grapefruit G&T, Cuba Libre and Dark & Stormy.

With some sharp branding, King says AF is about making not-drinking “normal, fun, sexy, aspirational”.

She says Kiwis “don’t need alcohol to have fun – it’s so ingrained in our culture”.

What else is there for me to try?

Maybe the idea of non-alcoholic beer, wine or cocktails is just not you but still, you want something more than fizzy water or juice.

There are plenty of choices in this expanding market including the good-for-your-gut “living” drinks such as kombucha and kefir which are fermented products low on sugar but full of probiotics.

Both of these drinks are fermented products made with Scoby which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”. The fact these are fermented drinks makes them dry and refreshing and brings a complexity of flavour.

Redeem, from Hawke’s Bay, has makes three kefir sodas: raspberry hibiscus, ginger and mandarin yuzu. They are all low sugar and full of probiotics.

Alchemy & Tonic is a range of flavour-packed mixers in good-looking cans that can easily be consumed as a stand-alone drink rather than mixing it with a spirit.

Where do I find this stuff?

New World stores trialed a Zero Zone last July for those trying to go dry and many of their supermarkets now have a dedicated non-alcohol stand, which is useful because the laws around where these products can be sold is quite weird.

Under New Zealand law, supermarkets operate what’s known as a single alcohol area where all the alcohol products are displayed. But stores can choose to display beer, wine and mead marketed as “Zero” and containing less 0.5 per cent ABV or less inside or outside of the Single Alcohol Area.

Other products such as the alcohol-free spirits and premixed cocktails such as AF, Finery, Seedlip, Ecology, Lyres and others cannot be displayed in the Single Alcohol Area, as they’re not subject to the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 so they’d end up in another area.