Generally, alcohol free beer is produced using either reverse osmosis or vacuum distillation, and the equipment for each of those processes isn’t cheap. Which means that its production is limited to the much larger breweries, who are also unlikely to release the more unusual beer styles because they just can’t guarantee sales volumes and margins.
There are a few smaller breweries about though who are producing some different varieties of alcohol-free beer and the market is starting to grow. It’s still limited, but that’s all about to change.
Muntons have recently released a Premium Alcohol-Free Malt Extract, and we got some to try out and see what it was like. If it works well it could really open up the alcohol free market to all the smaller breweries who just don’t have the cash for the equipment to make alcohol-free beers in the traditional methods.
The wort that Muntons use to make the extract isn’t fermented but concentrated using vacuum evaporation to remove the water without affecting the colour. They then treat the enzymes to modify the sugar and flavour profile and add some hop extracts for a little bit of bitterness, but also to inhibit microbial growth and make it a much more stable product, and a much more stable beer. It sounds really quite simple but is actually quite clever.
We got some in to trial and I’m pretty impressed with it as a start. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t make a “great” beer on its own, but then neither does extra pale malt, which is what it resembles in both colour and flavour profile.
The process is pretty simple, and very easy. Heat up some water, mix the extract in, boil for ten minutes with your late addition hops, chill, condition for clarity (a step I skipped), and package.
The energy savings are quite impressive. There’s no liquor loss to grains, and you’re not having to reheat mash liquor either. So you’re saving a lot of water, and the energy to heat it. There’s also no temperature control needed during fermentation – because there is no fermentation. You’re also not using a mash tun so there’s no cleaning it or offloading the spent grain to a local farmer.
The beer it made though was, well, it was kinda what you’d expect. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. And it wasn’t beer. It was a slightly malty hop flavoured soda. But what did I expect?
At the moment there’s nothing wrong with the extract, if you want to brew a thin lager or IPA style beer. And I think we’ll see a lot of microbreweries doing just that. But what if you want to brew a stout? Thicker bodied, darker, roasted flavours… The extract doesn’t provide that out of the box, and there’s no obvious way to alter it to do so.
Muntons do suggest a few things brewers can do, such as adding small amounts of chilli in the cellaring stage to replicate the slight ethanol burn that you don’t get with no ethanol present. They also suggest adding yeast metabolite flavourings to replicate the esters you’d get during fermentation, probably not something that smaller breweries will do, let along home brewers.
There are some limitations to beers made in this way, mostly because they don’t have alcohol in them. People keep going on about hops being a preservative which is why they’re used in beer, but they’re nothing compared to alcohol.
So when using this extract it’s recommended to add some Potassium Sorbate to inhibit microbial growth that alcohol would otherwise do, and some Ascorbic Acid to prevent deterioration of the flavour profile due to oxygen that residual yeast would normally do. This sounds very chemistry lab stuff but is pretty common in soda and several commercial ciders.
The beer we made was on the bar at the now rather aptly named Temperance Street Brewery and we got a lot of feedback from people who’ve been drinking a lot of different alcohol-free beers recently. The overall impression was that it was very middle or the road. I’m taking that as a win because there’s some truly shockingly bad examples on the market. The two issues that people had were that it had a bit of a cereal/corn smell and that it was very thin bodied.
Muntons themselves address the cereal aspect as an unavoidable effect of the manufacturing process and suggest that brewers mask it with high aroma hops, and the thin body is down to there being now alcohol in it – think of an American Lite beer.
Personally, I’m not too concerned about the aroma, as that will easily get masked by hops or other adjuncts, so I’ve been focussing on improving the body and mouthfeel.
In a normally produced beer the mouthfeel aspect is controlled during the mashing process, along with colour and alcohol content. By using the extract on its own without a mash we’re unable to control the thickness, so it seems obvious to add a mash. The problem is, normally a mash also introduces fermentable sugars, and even though we’re not going to be adding yeast there’s always a risk of a yeast infection that could start off fermentation once the beer is packaged, and that’s not a risk we’re willing to take. So we need to look at two methods of mashing that are usually avoided because they’re the complete opposite of what you’d normally want, which is saccharification, the conversion of starches to fermentable sugars.
The first method to look at is Non-Enzymatic Mashing, or NEM for short. It’s easy to think of this as a cold-steep. The water used is chilled and therefore too cold for the enzymes in the grain to start converting the starches. Beta Amylase activity starts at about 45c through to about 70c, and Alpha Amylase is from around 60c to 75c. By mashing in at a much lower temperature brewers can steep some malt flavours and the colours from the grains. Although there will also be an element of fermentable sugars. Using NEM it’s easily possible to produce a beer at around 1.5% abv.
The second method is hot mashing. This is similar to NEM, but outside the upper end of the enzyme activity window where it’s too hot for the enzymes to convert the starches to sugars.
The choice of which method to use comes down to what grains we’re looking at to try and improve our alcohol-free extract beer.
By using the extract in place of a base malt, we’re really just looking at our specialty grains, and for most beer that’s likely to be a variety of Crystal, Roasted, Chocolate, Black and Oats.
The main grain we’re looking at here though is the oats. Unmalted oats can provide beta-glucans to a beer, usually referred to as “smoothness” or “creaminess” which is perfect for what we’re looking for. These grain gelatinise between 60c and 72c so we’re definitely looking at a high temperature mash. With no base malts in there we don’t have to worry too much about production of fermentable sugars either. So we should be able to use unmalted oats in a hot mash with our liquor to bring some of these beta-glucans to the beer. At that temperature too we should be able to add small amounts of grains such as light crystal to adjust the colour of the beer as well as the dextrin that will be produced from them at a high temperature, giving a bit more “body” to the beer as well as a little bit of balancing sweetness. This is our next step in working with this new alcohol free malt extract, to initially do a hot mash with specialty grains of oats and light crystal, to transfer the wort over to the copper and add in the extract before bringing it up to the boil and adding our late addition hops, probably Fuggle. Then we’ll recirculate the wort to cool it down before transferring it to a conical bottomed fermenter to cellar and have the protein drop out of it prior to packaging. This process will definitely be more than the previous four-hour brew day, but we’re after produce the best possible alcohol-free beer we can using standard brewing equipment now, not seeing how quickly we can make a beer.