The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of
also called NA, low-alcohol, near beer, small beer, or small ale, is a malt beverage with very low alcoholic content. Although the name might lead one to believe that a non-alcoholic beverage contains no measurable alcohol, this is not true. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as non-alcoholic beer because beer contains alcohol by definition. In the United States, although these products are colloquially called non-alcoholic beer, the actual labels read “non-alcoholic malt beverage” or “non-alcoholic brew.” These NA products may contain up to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), although there are global differences that can lead to confusion. In the United States, the term “non-intoxicating” was applied to all beverages with less than 0.5% ABV during Prohibition and has since morphed into “non-alcoholic.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not consider the terms “non-alcoholic” and “alcohol-free” synonymous. The term “alcohol-free” may be used in the United States only when the product contains no detectable alcohol. In the United Kingdom, alcohol-free or zero- alcohol beverages may contain measurable alcohol up to 0.05% ABV. Beverages labeled as dealcoholized, alcohol-removed, or non-alcoholic may not contain more than 0.5% ABV and those labeled low alcohol may not exceed 1.2% ABV. The European Union standard is wider than that of the United States or UK because alcohol-free applies to all beverages containing less than 0.5% ABV. Although there is no global agreement for reduced alcohol beer or wine, the worldwide codex standards for ethanol in some fruit juices, soft drinks, and baked goods are 0.3% to 1.0% ABV maximum; hence, interestingly, these products may contain equal or higher levels of alcohol derived from the use of flavoring extracts or natural fermentation than some categories of beer and wine.
There are hundreds of non-alcoholic and alcohol-free beers in the global marketplace today, currently representing less than 1% of total worldwide beer sales. Many brewers think of NA beer production and sales as part of their overall corporate citizenship effort because profitability can be lower for these products as a result of higher equipment and energy costs. In the United States, NA beers are produced exclusively by large mass-market brewers. Recently, stricter drunk-driving law enforcement and increasing awareness of the reduced calorie content of NA beers (generally half of regular alcohol beers) have resulted in higher volume sales in some markets. Spain has recently reported alcohol-free beer sales as 8% of total beer sales. Several NA beers in the global marketplace are even specifically marketed for dogs.
Alcohol can be reduced and NA beer produced by modifying many different parts of the brewing process singly or in combination, as follows: (1) limiting the malt/water ratio in mashing to yield a calculated lower original gravity and subsequent alcohol level; (2) using lower fermentable brewing materials to retain original gravity, yet yield higher finished beer dextrins with lower ethanol; (3) controlling the dextrin content by warmer infusion mashing in the 70oC–80oC (158°F–176°F) range, which inactivates heat-sensitive enzymes like beta-amylase and slows the conversion of starch dextrins to maltose, thereby lowering the fermentability of wort; (4) fermenting the “second runnings” from a stronger beer mash (e.g., Imperial or Scotch Ale); and (5) using the “cold contact” method of fermentation by pitching brewer’s yeast into wort at or near freezing temperatures, effectively limiting fermentation but allowing some beer flavor development. Beers produced in this manner are often reported as having a “worty” flavor character thought to be caused by aldehydes, such as 3-methylthiopropionaldehyde. Another modification includes (6) interrupting fermentation when the desired gravity and alcohol content are reached via pasteurization or crash cooling or removal of yeast from beer or beer from yeast as in immobilized yeast fermentations. (7) Following a normal fermentation, ethanol can be boiled from the finished beer at temperatures above ethanol’s boiling point of 173.5oF (78.6oC) and below the boiling point of water for a minimum of 30 min. Some hop volatiles will be lost by boiling along with higher alcohols and aldehydes. Malt flavors and hop bitterness will remain generally unchanged as long as the beer is not allowed to “cook-on,” leading to off-flavors from furfural products. (8) A more elegant but complex method involves passing the finished beer over a semipermeable membrane either under its own pressure (a form of dialysis) or pressure-boosted (reverse osmosis), where small molecules like water and ethanol are pulled away from the larger sugars, proteins, flavor, and color compounds in beer. Ethanol is then evaporated or distilled through application of low heat under a vacuum. Finally, the residual water is recombined with the beer flavor, carbohydrate, and color “soup” to make a dissected-then-reassembled NA beer. (9) Diluting finished beer with deoxygenated brewing water to the desired alcohol level as an extrapolation of the method used by high-gravity brewers is the simplest method of producing non- or lower-alcohol beer, but this method dilutes all beer color and flavor compounds concomitantly. (10) Recognizing that ethanol itself is a significant contributor to beer flavor and mouthfeel and that removal of all or some of it by any method can result in dramatic flavor changes, some flavor houses offer concoctions that claim to make NA beer taste more like real beer. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages of complexity, capital, and operational and energy costs.