Brew A Great Non-Alcoholic Beer

For those times when you’re dying for a beer but don’t want to get bogged down, you can make a beer that is low in alcohol but high on flavor. You don’t even need any fancy equipment. Just a large pot (like your brew kettle) and a way to heat it (like your oven).

You can turn any beer you make into a non-alcoholic brew. You say you can’t find a non-alcoholic stout? Then just whip up a batch of your favorite stout and convert all of it, or just part of it, to a non-alcoholic version. It just takes a few simple, extra steps.

You are in control of the amount of alcohol left in your beer. The basic idea is to brew a batch of you favorite beer, heat it after fermentation to drive off the alcohol, then pitch fresh yeast and prime for bottling. The resulting beer isn’t really completely alcohol free, but it can be very low in alcohol content.

The temperature and duration of the heat applied to drive off the alcohol will be one factor in determining how much alcohol is left in your beer.

The other factor is the amount of priming sugar used to carbonate the beer. If you use 1/2 to 3/4 cup of priming sugar, it will contribute less than 0.25 percent alcohol to the beer. If you strive to remove virtually all the alcohol, the alcohol content of your finished brew will surely be less than one percent and most likely will be around 0.5 percent.

Caught in the Act

Low alcohol and non-alcoholic beers have been around for quite a few years. In fact in 1917 President Wilson attempted to pacify the prohibitionists by limiting the alcohol content of malt liquors (except ales and porters) to 2.75 percent. Of course this did not satisfy the prohibitionists, and the Volstead Act was passed by Congress in 1919. Under this new law no brewed beverages could contain more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. This led to the brewing of a wide variety of “tonics” as the breweries struggled to stay in business. Once Prohibition was repealed, in 1933, the breweries were again allowed to brew beer with higher alcohol levels.

More recently, beers with lower alcohol content have become popular. The advertising for many “light” beers heralds them as having fewer calories than regular beer (and they do, because alcohol is high in calories).

In addition to the low-alcohol beers, non-alcoholic beers have also become popular. Even the major US and European breweries are producing and advertising their non-alcoholic lines. This is just fine, but many of these brews taste pretty much like their light-bodied, higher-alcohol brothers. So where can you get a good tasting non-alcoholic beer? The answer is to brew a flavorful non-alcoholic beer yourself.

Make Beer, Not Soda

You may guess that non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beers would be made by using much less malt. On the contrary. Reduction in malt results in truly bland taste. Remember that the malt not only contributes to the fermentable sugar content but also to the overall taste of the beer. If you want the beer to have a beer taste, you need to have a reasonable malt content.

There are some beer-like soda kits from Europe that contain malt extract and hops, among other flavors, to produce a type of beer-flavored soft drink. A typical kit is surprisingly small, with only 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of ingredients. You dissolve the kit in 2.6 gallons of hot water (10 liters), boil for 10 minutes, add 1.3 pounds of sugar (600 grams), strain, cool, pitch the yeast, and bottle. The brew is ready to drink in three to five days.

The resulting brew will be a slightly sweet, beer-flavored beverage that should be kept cold, or consumed quickly, after the initial fermentation. The alcohol potential for this mixture is around 1.6 percent – that is, if the entire 1.3 pounds of sugar were allowed to ferment. However, since all the fermentation takes place in the bottles, this would turn them into hand grenades. The mixture would be seriously over-carbonated.

Save the Flavor

A better tasting and safer approach is to take an existing beer recipe and use it to produce a non-alcoholic brew. Since the process of converting a beer to a non-alcoholic brew takes place after the initial fermentation is complete, you can convert part of your next batch just to see how it works.

Certain types of beer recipes tend to make better non-alcoholic beers than others. In selecting a recipe consider the amount of unfermentable sugars (dextrins) in the beer. The simpler sugars found in beer wort, such as lucose and maltose, are readily fermented by common beer yeast. More complex sugars, such as dextrins, are not fermented by beer yeast. These dextrins will not contribute as much to the sweetness as they will increase the fullness of the beer. If you’re going to take out the alcohol, you might as well give it a little more body. The more dextrins there are the better.

The dextrin content can be controlled during the mash by holding the grains at the high end of the mashing temperature range (158° F) for a longer period. This causes the starch conversions to stay in the dextrin range, producing a more full-bodied beer with less alcohol.

Extract brewers will not be able to control the dextrin content of the mash. That’s all right. Just pick a recipe that doesn’t use any corn sugar, since this is used to boost the alcohol content without adding any flavor or body to the beer.

Once the recipe is selected, brew the batch as you normally would. (The mashing changes mentioned above are optional.) Allow the beer to ferment completely. You may want to let the fermented beer settle an extra day or two before proceeding to the next step.

At this point you should decide how much of the batch will be converted to a non-alcoholic brew. Whatever quantity you choose should be siphoned off and separated from the quantity that will be primed and bottled normally.

In the conversion process you want to evaporate the alcohol from the fermented beer. The best way to do this is to heat the beer to the boiling point of ethyl alcohol (173.3° F) and hold it at that temperature until all the alcohol is gone (about 30 minutes). If you can, do this in your oven rather than on the stove top. Using the oven gives you more control over the temperature and allows you to heat the beer more evenly. This results in fewer changes to the beer’s overall flavor.

If your intent is only to reduce the alcohol content of the beer, you can shorten the heating time. When the alcohol evaporates, you will lose four to six ounces of liquid per gallon, depending on how strong you make the beer and how long you heated it in the oven.

To maintain the same overall body and flavor of the brew, you can add water to make up for the volume of the alcohol that is lost. A good technique is to add the water to the beer before it is heated. This way there are fewer problems with sanitation. If you prefer, you can add the water during the priming instead.

Actually, if you want to make a low-alcohol rather than non-alcoholic beer, instead of evaporating the alcohol you can simply water it down.

Many of you are probably cringing right now, but if you started off with a full-bodied beer, this can be a reasonable option. This may well be how many of the commercial breweries produce their low-alcohol beers.

Turn Up the Heat

If you opt for the evaporation method, preheat your oven to its lowest setting. The target temperature is around 180° F. It is a good idea to use an oven thermometer, because it is not unusual for oven settings to vary by 25 degrees or more. Once the oven is preheated to the desired temperature, you can place the fermented beer into a stainless steel or enameled pot (your brew kettle should do nicely for this purpose) and put it in the oven. Leave the beer in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

You should be able to smell the alcohol being driven from the beer quite strongly during the first few minutes. Progressively, the alcohol smell will become weaker. After about 30 minutes you can remove the beer from the oven and give it a final stir. You may want to take a teaspoonful, let it cool a bit, and taste it to make sure all the alcohol flavor is really gone. A word of warning, though: Hot, flat beer doesn’t taste that great. But the intent is simply to check for any remaining alcohol.

Remember, once you touch the spoon to your lips do NOT use it to stir the beer any more. This is a sure-fire way to contaminate your brew with all sorts of nasty bacteria.

Once you are satisfied that the alcohol is all gone, you can cover the pot and start the cooling process. This is similar to the cooling process that takes place when the initial wort boil is completed. The easiest way is to place the brew kettle in ice water and wait a couple of hours.

During the heating of the beer, the alcohol was not the only thing that was driven off. Some may complain that a lot of the beer flavor is lost during this heating. If your beer had any hop flavor or aroma before the heating took place, then these flavors and aromas will most likely be driven off. The only thing left from the hops will be the bitterness.

The hop aromas will usually be driven off within the first five minutes, while the hop flavors will be gone within the first 15 minutes. But there is a nice bonus to all this heating. Along with the intoxicating alcohol, the higher alcohols – including the headache-inducing aldehydes and aromatic esters – will also be spirited away. Overall, the malt flavor and bitterness from the original beer will remain pretty much unchanged.

Carbonating Your Brew

As you may have realized, the heating of the beer not only drove off the alcohol, it also killed any active yeast that was present.

If you plan to carbonate the beer by using forced carbon dioxide, then this is not a problem. Once the beer has cooled, just bottle or keg and pressurize as you normally would. If you don’t have carbon dioxide pressurization equipment, you will have to carbonate the old-fashioned way, by using natural yeast action. This means you will have to add some fresh active yeast along with priming sugar or malt to your cooled concoction.

There are several options available related to how you prime and repitch yeast into the flat beer. The easiest is to prime with sugar or malt and add active yeast to the mixture. Try dissolving the priming sugars in the fermented beer before the beer is heated (the sugar will not be affected by the heat). The advantage is that you reduce the possibility of any bacterial contamination from this addition.

Once the beer has been primed, it is best to pitch actively fermenting yeast to ensure that the yeast will do its job quickly. Poorly activated yeast may take many extra weeks to carbonate your brew. The active yeast can be either an actively fermenting starter (the preferred method), or you can use rehydrated dry yeast.

To rehydrate dry yeast, dissolve it in about 1/2 cup warm water, cover, and let it sit for about 20 minutes before pitching.

Another option is to use the kraeusening method. This involves setting aside a portion of the original wort and using it to make a starter that will also act to prime the beer. If you plan to use the kraeusening method, be sure to set aside about 10 percent of the original wort for kraeusening.

Once the yeast is added to the cooled beer, you should bottle and cap as you normally would.

Now comes the hardest part of all homebrewing – the waiting. You still have to wait a couple of weeks while the beer carbonates. Finally, you will be rewarded with a homebrewed, naturally carbonated, non-alcoholic beer. So the next time you want to have that same great homebrewed taste but not the buzz, try converting part of one of your batches into a non-alcoholic brew. That way you’ll be ready for the refreshment without the worries.

Issue: October 1995