No-alcohol beer – all the flavour without the booze
If you had told me two years ago that I’d be drinking a no-alcohol beer with as much pleasure as a full-strength one, I’d have said you were bonkers, but the quality has improved to such an extent that some are now almost indistinguishable from their fullstrength equivalents. The rate of growth is such that breweries such as Big Drop, Small Beer Brew Co and Infinite Session have been able to set up solely on the basis of selling alcohol-free and very low-alcohol beers. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the UK’s best-known breweries are getting in on the act.
I guess it shouldn’t be that unexpected. Unlike wine, beer is well-suited to being delivered with lower levels of alcohol – in fact, historically, when beer was safer to drink than water, “small beer” was the norm. Take the alcohol out of wine, and you’re left more or less with sugar, but do the same to beer, and its main flavouring ingredients – hops and malt – are still present.
That said, making a palatable no- or low-alcohol (“nolo”) beer to the standard of today’s best brews is no easy matter. “The version of Big Easy we’re selling now is batch number five,” says Simon Webster, CEO of Thornbridge brewery. “In the development, we ditched four entire brews, which was like pouring 60,000 bottles down the drain.” Thornbridge’s solution, in addition to using some first-class hops (amarillo and cascade), was to build body by playing around with specific malts (maris otter, munich and crystal).
Such ingredients can make nolo beers much the same price as a full-strength craft beer, despite the fact that beers with an abv below 1.2% are exempt from duty and that those under 2.8% attract a lower rate. I’m sure some readers will balk at the price of the Mikkeller in today’s recommendations, but it’s so good, I simply couldn’t leave it out. (If you’re looking for a bargain, Lidl does a decent 2.6% abv French lager under the Argus label at £1.99 for a pack of eight.)
The good news is that, with the growing interest in alcoholfree drinks, the market is bound to expand. When you think this means you can have a drink at 10am should the mood take you, go for a beer at lunchtime even when you’re at work and have a pint before you drive home, demand can only grow, particularly when the presentation and packaging of many of these are as slick as they currently are. Now we just need pubs and restaurants to give us a better choice when we drink out. The infusion takes three days, but is well worth the wait: the sugar snaps impart a pale green colour and a gorgeous, fresh flavour to the gin, and complement the botanicals in the alcohol. Half a bottle of infused gin will make enough for about eight servings, but it keeps well.
To make the gin infusion, crack the sugar snaps in half, put them in a Kilner jar and pour in the gin. Leave to steep for three days, then strain back into the bottle.
To build the drink, take a tall glass, wet the rim with lime juice, then dip into the smoked paprika salt to coat (I usually apply it to only half the rim, so customers can make up their own minds whether to drink with or without). Put all the liquids bar the prosecco in a shaker, shake, then strain into the glass over ice. Top with prosecco, garnish with pea shoots and serve.
Julien Billet, bar manager,
The Salt Room, Brighton