Portland is renowned for its craft beer scene, its brewery parking lots packed with cars with out-of-state vehicles.
But two newer craft beers – 1820 and Kit NA – are setting themselves apart in a fairly big way: they’re alcohol-free.
Non-alcoholic beer has come a long way in the past few years. Gone are the days when a beer lover’s only options were O’Doul’s or St. Pauli Girl. Now, the market for craft non-alcoholic beer is taking off, and even the biggest beer snob can probably find something they like, from hazy IPAs to dark coffee stouts.
Connecticut-based craft brewer Athletic Brewing exploded onto the regional scene by exclusively brewing non-alcoholic beers, while national brands such as Lagunitas have rolled out non-alcoholic versions of their IPAs. Even giants like Samuel Adams and Heineken have alcohol-free beers.
According to Beverage Industry Magazine, non-alcoholic beer sales have grown nationally by 24 percent from the end of 2021. And a survey by Future Market Insights said the market is expected to surpass $43.6 billion globally by 2032, compared to the $31.9 billion predicted this year; sales of non-alcoholic beverages now amount to just over $20 billion in the U.S. and are expected to account for just under 24 percent of the market.
Alan Lapoint, owner of Geary Brewing in Portland, recently launched 1820 Brewing Co. to exclusively produce non-alcoholic beer, which is defined as 0.5 percent or less alcohol.
Lapoint said 1820 was founded on the concept of giving sober-curious people an option to have a quality beer with the same taste profile as the craft beers they enjoy. He said it also provides an option for a person to have a few drinks and then switch to an NA beer without a dropoff in quality.
“We wanted an authentic beer,” Lapoint said. “We want people to say ‘Wow, I can’t believe there’s no alcohol in this.’”
Lapoint said it took about four years of discussion, research, and testing to launch 1820. The beer is brewed by Geary and doesn’t have its own tasting room, but is sold at Geary’s 38 Evergreen Drive tasting room and by local retailers including RSVP and Bow Street Market.
Lapoint said Athletic in particular helped pave the way for more brewers to begin exploring the NA market. He said it helped the market by promoting NA beer as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“If you want to go out for a hike and love beer, why not take a non-alc beer with you?” he said. “Maybe you want a nice, refreshing cold drink, but don’t want the effects of alcohol. It just allows you to have that opportunity to do that. It’s addressing how do I get the flavor of the beer I love so much without the alcohol so I can do the things I want to do and not be afraid if I’ve had too many.”
Lapoint’s 1820 Brewing brews four different kinds of beer: a raspberry sour, an American pale ale, an India pale ale, and a blonde ale. He said having a variety definitely matters in the market, where flavor profile is much more important now than it was in the past, when non-alcoholic beers were traditionally lagers.
“When you get into that craft environment, people want variety,” he said. “They are curious for more than just a lager style.”
Having different flavor profiles can also help make non-alcoholic brews more socially acceptable, Lapoint said.
“Someone would never know if they smelled or tasted this (that it’s non-alcoholic),” he said. “It gives them an option and I think people like that option. People want to go out but still be able to be active without having the effects of having a six-pack of beer. It lets you live a more active lifestyle on a more regular basis.”
‘A lot of room to grow’
While 1820 may be the newest entry in Portland’s craft-beer scene, it is not the first non-alcoholic beer based in Portland. Kit NA opened a beer laboratory on Alder Street last September.
Will Fisher, co-founder and chief executive officer of Kit NA, agreed with Lapoint that a lot of the success of the NA market has to be credited to Athletic Brewing, which has been open about its growth and what it hopes to accomplish in the marketplace.
“Anyone with business growth aspirations would see that and see the dollar signs,” Fisher said. “That I understand. But you won’t build the best non-alcoholic beer scene if it’s just a dollar-sign situation. Kit came from making a better NA craft beer and making it more inclusive for everybody.”
Fisher, who is also a co-founder and co-owner of Austin Street Brewery, said he founded Kit NA with business partner Rob Barrett, who stopped drinking several years ago. They sold their first case in December and now have distribution throughout New England.
While they develop the recipes for Kit NA in Portland, they contract with FX Matt Brewing in New York for the actual brewing. Fisher said they work alongside that company when they brew and package the beer.
“We have access to state-of-the-art equipment and large-scale brewing expertise that would typically be out of reach for a new brewery,” he said.
In the past, Fisher said, consumers assumed you either drink regular beer, or you drink a non-alcoholic variety. But people’s drinking habits are changing, he said, and people now look for alternatives to alcohol while still having the occasional drink.
While Athletic opened the door, Kit is not taking the same approach to promote active lifestyles and athleticism. He said while it’s unquestionable a non-alcoholic beer is better for you, Kit’s approach is that there are “all kinds of different reasons you would want to drink a non-alcoholic beer.”
“Maybe you want to replace a couple of regular beers a week,” he said. “We want to have that awesome tasting NA craft beer ready for you when you’re ready for it.”
Kit currently makes two beers, a blonde ale and an IPA. Fisher said they don’t have a fully dedicated tasting room, but will do pop-ups on Alder Street with tastings of new beers; two such events are planned on Aug. 11 and Sept. 22.
While it’s hard to predict the future of the market, Fisher said he imagines the NA scene will continue to expand. While many traditional breweries probably won’t get in for logistical reasons, he expects regional and larger craft brewers in the United States to eventually experiment with non-alcoholic beers or beers with very low percentages of alcohol.
“Anyone in the business would have trouble ignoring the potential for the market,” he said.
Both Fisher and Lapoint said a common misconception about non-alcoholic beers is that there are additives in them or that they are made differently from regular beer. However, both said that non-alcoholic beer has the same four ingredients as regular beer: water, yeast, hops, and malt.
The difference is that for a non-alcoholic beer, brewers will limit the alcohol-creating fermentation period. There are different ways to achieve this, including limiting fermentable sugars, using special yeast strains, and interrupting the fermentation process.
“We really have the same passion for our product,” Fisher said. “We want to treat our product like regular craft beer and we want our customers to feel like they’re getting the same treatment. Just because you’re cutting out alcohol doesn’t mean it has to be a sacrifice.”
But there is a logistical challenge, Fisher and Lapoint both admitted: Crafting a non-alcoholic beer that has a long shelf life. That can be a challenge when the beer is alcohol-free, so producing it on a large scale isn’t always feasible.
Lapoint said the way to achieve a lasting shelf life is pasteurization.
“If you don’t make it so the product is shelf stable and maintains the same flavor for eight to 10 months, you will run into challenges with people who try it and find it has an off flavor,” Lapoint said. “There are some nuances to non-alc craft beer. (Others) won’t have as good a product, and that will hurt the industry. The perception will be people don’t know how to make it. We’ve done a lot to maintain the flavor profile.”
But as the industry adapts, Fisher said he anticipates continued growth in the market.
“The NA beer market is growing rapidly,” he said. “It’s a small percentage of the beer sold in the United States, so there’s a lot of room to grow. I think it will be a crowded marketplace soon.”
The rise in popularity of non-alcoholic beer hasn’t been lost on competitors in Portland’s craft-beer universe, either.
Heather Sanborn, the co-owner and director of business operations at Rising Tide Brewing Co. on Fox Street, said an increase in “more responsible consumption” by beer drinkers has fueled the growth of beers with low percentages of alcohol and the NA market. Rising Tide’s popular Maine Island Trail Ale seasonal beer, for example, contains 4.3 percent alcohol by volume.
“We also offer non-alcoholic options at our tap room,” she said. “We want everyone to be comfortable and find something delicious and local to drink, whether they choose to drink alcohol or not.”