The rise of alcohol-free beers
More and more people are choosing to cut out booze, but that doesn't mean saying goodbye to beer. We survey the nascent low and no-alcohol brewing scene
At first glance, there's not much to distinguish Nirvana Brewery's headquarters from London's many, many similar-looking craft beer hubs. Nestled in something of a Google Maps black hole on the fringes of a Leyton industrial estate, it has the gleaming tanks, pungent hop-scented air and vaguely Breaking Bad paraphernalia (giant rubber gloves, whirring machinery – you know the type) that help mark it out as a cathedral of floral IPAs, malty pales and chocolatey stouts.
But there's an unseen yet very important distinction that sets Nirvana apart from the estimated 100-plus other breweries in the capital.
In a move bound to confirm plenty of outsider preconceptions about London's bottomless appetite for any number of esoteric food and drink innovations, this is the country's first non-alcoholic brewery. No beer made behind Nirvana's shutter doors will ever have an ABV of more than 0.5%.
Even a few years ago, this would have been the kind of doomed business plan that had a Dragon's Den researcher gleefully rubbing their hands. But in the last 18 months – and especially towards the tail-end of 2017 – there has been a detectable wind of change blowing through London's drinks industry.
Young people, as we're repeatedly told, are drinking less (according to the Office for National Statistics, more than a quarter of 16 to 24-year-olds are now teetotal) while, on a macro level, other groups appear to be following suit (general alcohol consumption is the lowest it's been since 2005). That's in addition to the fact that we're in the age of personal challenges like One Year No Beer, Go Sober for October and Dry January; and then there's the Mindful Drinking movement.
This buzzy, thoroughly modern phenomenon involves scrutinising and altering your relationship with alcohol, and it has birthed enthusiastic collectives (Club Soda), spin-off events (Spitalfields' biannual Mindful Drinking Festival) and a rash of recently published books (Mindful Drinking, The Sober Diaries and The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge, to name a few).
It was this atmosphere of resurgent temperance, coupled with a stomach condition that required a period of abstinence, that prompted Steve Dass – a former rep for a Belgian beer brand – to launch Nirvana.
"I've worked in the industry for the last eight years," says Dass, pouring me a morning pint of 0.0% Karma pale ale in Nirvana's dinky upstairs taproom, "and when I talked to buyers I'd be getting feedback and feeling the vibe that there was a shift going on.
"Craft beer is great, and it's booming, but there's a section of the population that doesn't drink. It may be lifestyle, it may be for health reasons or maybe religion. Personally, I wasn't well a few years ago so couldn't drink, and the only alcohol-free beer I could find was horrible. So I just felt it had to be done."
Craft beer is booming, but there's a growing population of non-drinkers
After an unsuccessful, "bloody soul-destroying" crowdfund in late 2016 , Dass's dream was saved by Becky and Joe Kean, sibling benefactors with a personal passion for low-alcohol beer.
Nirvana launched its core, four-beer range in summer 2017 – which, as well as Karma, includes Sutra IPA, Tantra pale ale and Kosmic, one of the few alcohol-free stouts around. So far, the gamble appears to be paying off – Nirvana beers are now available in Whole Foods and on tap in various London pubs including The Cock Tavern in Hackney and Strongroom Bar in Shoreditch – and Dass isn't the only brewer prospering thanks to a new generation of flexibly abstemious drinkers.
Where once the mention of 0% beer conjured images of unappetising, dusty bottles of Kaliber (or the potent Simpsons joke in which it's revealed that the Kwik-E-Mart's utopian garden is hidden behind an unused refrigerator door marked 'Non-Alcoholic Beer'), these days fans of intriguingly hopped alcohol-free alternatives in London are spoilt for choice.
From market leader Becks Blue to Slough-based low-alcohol brewer Big Drop, Square Root Soda's artisan shandies and a new London operation reviving the 18th-century tradition of 'small beer', there are varied practitioners working hard to erase the memory of their acrid alcohol-free forbears.
Nirvana's beers are a case in point. Malty, complex and lacking the chemical backnote of some alcohol-free brews, they're incredibly close to the real thing.
"We knew there was a huge market for low-alcohol beers but they'd only really existed as flavoured water before," adds James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, who launched the original version of their 0.5% hit, Nanny State way back in 2009.
"Our goal with Nanny State was always to create a flavour-packed, hoppy, low-alcohol option that could rival any full-blown alcoholic beer," Watt continues. "Basically, our beer has always been about pushing boundaries and challenging perceptions. And Nanny State proves that beer can still be beer at the lowest end of the ABV spectrum."
Watt's confidence is backed by some impressive statistics. According to Nielsen, Nanny State is the ninth most popular craft beer of any kind in the country and, thanks to Dry January, it actually outsold the brand's popular 5.6% Punk IPA on its online shop during January 2016.
As with the mainstream craft movement, Big Beer's mega brands have taken notice: Budweiser's alcohol-free Bud Prohibition Brew recently joined Heineken's new 0.0% spin-off in a bid to dominate a market that some analysts are claiming could be worth £300m in ten years.
It's a challenge. But if it wasn't everyone would be brewing these beers
"I think it's great that the bigger companies are on board with it," says Club Soda's co-founder Jussi Tolvi. "It brings more visibility and credibility to the whole sector and I think there's still room for more beers."
Dass, on the other hand, is fairly disparaging about both the methods and motivations of these newly virtuous multinationals. "They have these machines that cost half a million quid and run a process called reverse osmosis," says Dass. "It strips the alcohol, and everything else, from the product. If they want to brew a zillion litres they just press a button."
Conversely, small-batch alcohol-free brewing is a fiendish, meticulous process involving slower fermentation times, lower sugar levels, canny over-hopping and a lot of ditched batches. "If there's too much alcohol in it, it goes down the sink," says Dass, ruefully. "It is challenging. But if it wasn't, then everyone would be brewing these beers."
So, can alcohol-free beer's journey, from pop culture punchline to unlikely mainstream sensation, continue? Well, buoyant sales for the likes of Nanny State (up, according to Watt, by 160% in the last year) point to something that's more than a passing fad. But, more than this, the destigmatisation of abstention in general – and non-sugary booze-alternatives in particular – feels tied to a wider cultural moment.
Healthification. Mindfulness. Being conscious. However you bracket them, these changes are a growing part of how we live today. And alcohol-free beer is just a small component of a collective behavioural shift that potentially encompasses much, much more.
"Listen, we're not telling people to not drink regular beer," says Dass, smiling from behind the bar in an improbable dream he has somehow turned into a successful reality. "But I don't think you need to have alcohol if you want to get a buzz."
Could alcohol-free booze be the future? We spoke to some more industry experts to find out what the 2020s hold for the future of drink.