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July 8, 2024
It’s Cool to Care About NA Beer
NA Beers Ice Bucket 3

Previously an embarrassment and sometimes an apology, the age of zero-brew innovation has arrived from all shores.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun and that our 21st-century lives amount to little more than mimetic sequels to the original IP, whose rights and residual payments have been restructured to hell out from under us. We keep doing the same shit over and over again. Oh, somebody made a new smashburger, or released a new Jurassic Park sequel, or wrote another tortured millennial relationship novel—how adorable. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

This is why I’m so particularly excited about nonalcoholic beer, and the wider NA drinks movement in general—because it represents a rare and real example of true differentiation in our lives today. The story goes like this: for the last 100 years, since its invention as an industrial brewery profiteer pivot during the 13-year dry spell of Prohibition, nonalcoholic beer has enjoyed (I’m using this verb cruelly) a drinks status somewhere between pariah and cry for help. “Oh, there must be something wrong with him,” the chattering classes would mutter, as one guy (and it was usually a guy) ordered his lonely bottle of O’Doul’s at the sports bar, which tasted awful.

The whole thing was wrapped up in the 20th century’s atrocious relationship with sobriety and alcohol consumption, with NA beers standing as an outcast bulwark for those not along for the drinking ride: Freddy Rumsen types, or worse. Nonalcoholic beer was shame-coded. You drank it as a woebegone last resort. And for those who did imbibe it under duress, it was not a delicious experience.

If you haven’t had a nonalcoholic beer in five years, you are fucking up, my friend.

The story of how this changed in the 21st century is so annoyingly 21st century that I almost resent it, but here goes: a hard-charging multimillionaire hedge fund fella named Bill Shufelt was looking for something nonalcoholic to enjoy amid a series of mega-marathons. (No shit, that is the actual story.) Being a hedge fund fella, his access to Obama-to-Trump-era pre-inflationary flimflam capital was towering and absolute, and so he set forth to boldly fund the creation of a new nonalcoholic beer producer called Athletic Brewing Company, which sold its first bottle in 2017.

The genius of Athletic Brewing—and it really is genius—was in the work of brewer and cofounder John Walker, who developed an innovative process for making nonalcoholic beer that required no dealcoholization or osmosis. Up until that point, NA beer tasted boiled and rubbery—think Sharp’s or O’Doul’s or the queasily dealcoholized offering from St. Pauli Girl. Athletic beer tasted nothing like that; instead, it simply tasted like a crisp, fresh, delicious beer.

Best NA beers Athletic Brewing

The exact process Walker pioneered is paradoxical in that it, one, remains a closely guarded secret by Athletic, and two, could not be patented or secured as intellectual property by the company. Athletic has enjoyed unbelievable, eye-popping growth over the last seven years and has now attracted celebrity investors and so forth, leveraging its first-mover advantage (I maintain that every millennial journalist is at least one-third nonsense tech reporter) into a beer brand now valued at half a billion dollars. But it couldn’t build a moat, even one filled with its iconic pilsners and hazy IPAs. And in the last five years, Athletic’s astounding growth has represented a sort of Oppenheimer moment for the wider possibilities of nonalcoholic beer. These guys cracked the atom, and it’s led to a uranium rush of entries into the NA beer and near-beer marketplace.

This huge whoosh of new cans and new options is why I think NA beer is perhaps the single most exciting product category in drinks today. I can go to somewhere like John’s Marketplace—Portland’s legendary beer superstore—and gaze upon not a dozen, not two dozen, but more than 200 individual SKUs for nonalcoholic beer. NA beer is a global phenomenon: it is simultaneously craft and corporate, yet it is somehow still underground, and it has gone largely ignored by the usual signifiers of millennial gustatory discourse (they’re barely selling it at Erewhon; I never see it on Instagram), which to me feels like a very good sign of something actually being cool in 2024.

That’s the biggest point I want to make—because this moment won’t last forever, and it’s important to stake a claim now. NA beer has achieved rocketing escape velocity from its own old stigmas with startling effective thrust. We went from a dusty old bottle of unrefrigerated O’Doul’s to NA goses and hazy IPNAs in less time than it takes to split the G.

The movement has been whiplash-inducing, and, best of all, the results are overwhelmingly delicious. No longer are these things to drink because you’re “not drinking” (whisper, whisper), or something is wrong, or however judgy people used to be awful to each other about these sorts of things.

Nonalcoholic beer has become a truly self-actualized—yes!—and utterly delicious drinks category of its own. We can talk about NA beer without talking about sobriety if we want. We can enjoy it as something delicious and satisfying that can be paired with food, that’s equally fun to drink at a fine-dining restaurant, a cool-kid cocktail den, or the Superiority Burger bar, and that makes for great socializing. You can drink lunch-pail name-brand global beers that taste great NA. You can drink teeny-tiny striving locals offering intense expression of taste of place. You can dive into the craft beer dork trough of smoothie rye pale ales and peanut butter stouts and the rest of it, all without alcohol, all without missing a beat.

We went from a dusty old bottle of unrefrigerated O’Doul’s to NA goses and hazy IPNAs in less time than it takes to split the G.

If you haven’t had a nonalcoholic beer in five years, you are fucking up, my friend. Here’s a short list of the good ones. However you say “cheers” where you’re from, it’s time to say it.

A note on methodology: So as to fully immerse himself in the crisp culture of NA beer, the author of this feature drank more than 40 different varieties of near beer over the course of the last six weeks. He would like you to know that this included visits to dive bars, fancy restaurants, a Texas food festival, and one of his wife’s high school friend’s weddings—all worthy venues in which to crack open a can of the soft stuff.

Best NA beer macro beers

The Big Guys

Global beer brands offer a unique form of satisfaction—from Timbuktu to Tualatin, these beers taste like beer. The world’s biggest beer brands have significantly upped their NA games in recent years, and NA beer connoisseurs consider these some of the best.

Heineken Zero (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Heineken Zero is available in two formats: long-neck green bottles and sleek bullet-shaped cans. This one does what it says on the can: it’s a reliable simulacrum of the good old Dutch courage, with astounding hydrational and food-pairing properties (particularly with fried, crunchy things). A recent use case suggested Heineken Zero’s ideal utility: snuggled into an Austin dive bar booth, tired and thirsty after attending the first night of the Hot Luck food festival, my wife enjoyed two tequila sodas while I availed myself of several Heinie Zeros. Both of us left refreshed and happy.

Guinness 0 (Dublin, Ireland)
The zero-proof Guinness is shockingly good. It comes in a pint can with a foam widget, so the beer pours with a nice, proper foamy head, and it has that lovely, slightly sour stout flavor and creamy texture you’d dream of from a nice pint of Irish breakfast. Line up a Guinness 0 next to a standard-issue Guinness, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference, even while splitting the G.

Corona Cero (Mexico City, Mexico)
It looks exactly like a Corona, tastes exactly like a Corona (a touch skunky by design), and you can put a lime in it, which is the greatest piece of physical marketing in the history of beer. No complaints.

Best NA lifestyle beers

The Lifestylers

Athletic Brewing’s savvy brandy helped establish NA beer as part of a “healthy lifestyle.” I’ve got news for you: drinking three of these bad boys over a plate of Buffalo wings is only very questionably healthy, but the marketing has been effective. These are beers that might slide into the water bottle holder on your next Tour de Fancy Bike.

Athletic Brewing Upside Dawn Golden Ale (Milford, CT)
Athletic helped create the modern moment for NA beer, and its flagship golden ale remains a goddamn delight to crack open and drink. I find myself craving this exact sort of beer at the end of a long housework project or after the gym; it’s just hoppy enough, just malty enough, and just clean enough to feel replenishing and tasty without being forgettable—a new modern classic.

Best Day Brewing Kölsch (Sausalito, CA)
A huge part of NA beer’s growth comes down to having access to distinct styles and expressions of beer. Kölsch is my very favorite summer style of beer, a lightly hopped drink with toasty malt tones and unexpected complexity. It’s a thinking man’s summer beer garden session, wonderfully pursued in near-beer form by Best Day.

Untitled Art Italian-Style Pils (Waunakee, WI)
This is a beautiful beer for the backyard grill or as a pairing with a nice spicy pasta. I’ve been uniformly impressed by the NA beers from Untitled Art—their Oktoberfest seasonal is especially good—but this is my favorite from the brewery’s core lineup.

Best NA beers Force Majeure

The Rare Imports

One of my favorite things about beer is its ability to transport us around the world. I’ve guzzled the cult brews of Westvleteren and Hitachino Nest, and I’ve stalked the rare bottle listings for Cantillon; these delicious NA options scratch that same itch.

Force Majeure Kriek (Genk, Belgium)
Yes, it’s an absolutely delicious cherry beer from Belgium, brewed nonalcoholic. It’s a deep, dark red; it looks beautiful in your fancy glassware; it drinks like something between a fruited kvass and a cherry soda. There’s sweetness, yes, but it is a deep, malty sweetness, distinctly satisfying and interesting.

Brasserie d’Achouffe NA Chouffe (Achouffe, Belgium)
Belgian beer never stopped being cool to me, and this is my personal favorite of all the NA beers I tasted throughout the research process for this story. It’s golden and sweet and complex and piquant. Brasserie d’Achouffe’s iconic gnomes grace the label art. I could be sitting at Amsterdam’s Cafe Gollem or Brooklyn’s Spuyten Duyvil (RIP), enjoying one of these out of an elaborate, glowing imported glass goblet, and be utterly at peace with all people and things. This beer is a powerful testament to the remarkable diversity of experience and flavors that can be found in modern NA beer.

Hitachino Nest Yuzu Ginger Non Ale (Konosu, Japan)
Hitachino Nest, the much-loved Japanese brewery with the instantly recognizable owl labels, makes a gorgeous NA beer with heady tealike notes and a shocking spike of fresh ginger flavor. I chilled this until the bottle was frosty and did the same with my glassware, and once I poured it, it was gone in an instant.

Best NA Beers Good Times

Regional Stars

For me this is the most exciting section among NA beer, and it speaks to the truly multifaceted growth of the category. When I’m in Texas, I want a Texas beer that tastes great with tacos or barbecue; when I’m in SoCal, I want a SoCal beer that tastes great on the beach or at an awesome modern restaurant. You get the idea—beer becomes a part of the moment you drink it in, and these local NA beer heroes abide.

Rick’s Near Beer Original (Austin, TX)
On a recent trip to Texas, I stumbled upon Rick’s Near Beer, a brewed-in-Austin delight that’s ready-made for enjoying alongside Texas cuisine. Rick’s Original drinks like a pilsner and goes especially well with hot weather (which ain’t in short supply there). Usually when I come to Texas, I’m drinking Lone Star and Spoetzl Shiner Bock, and Rick’s is a worthy addition to the pantheon of fine Texas ales.

Rancho West Premium Non-Alcoholic (Malibu, CA)
Malibu waves are lapping on sun-flecked shores. Beautiful Californians frolic effortlessly on the beach, designer surfboards in hand, electric vehicles at the ready. The number-one-selling beer brand at Erewhon is Rancho West, a vibes-forward, deeply SoCal beer brewed in Malibu, and its NA lager tastes like a clean, fresh set of morning waves at Point Mugu. The rest of the world just kind of falls away. This is the NA beer to drink when California is everywhere you want to be.

Roaming Nobles IPA (Portland, OR)
My home city of Portland, Oregon, is well-known as a beer town; a healthy portion of the wider craft beer movement in America got its start here, dating back to the pioneering indie breweries of the 1980s. It’s only fitting that Portland should have a great dedicated independent NA brewery, and that’s Roaming Nobles; these beers have become the go-to for Portland’s discerning craft beer scene, and you can find them sold across the city at top brew pubs, restaurants, bars, and markets. It’s hard to get a nonalcoholic IPA (or IPNA, if you will) quite right, but Roaming Nobles’s version nails it. This has become my standard order around Portland.

Good Time Brewing IPA (New York, NY)
New York’s new Good Time Brewing is a serious entry to the NA brewery scene, and this beer is the perfect thing to sip while walking around the city on one of those hot Brooklyn summer days. Its IPA is my personal favorite IPA that I tasted for this article; it’s got 40 IBUs (international bitterness units), which is a nice amount of bite, but it’s dry hopped, which makes it really easy to drink. This is the ideal backyard burger beer for me, flavorful and generous, but I would also absolutely crush a six-pack of these in the park like the mildest dirtbag you ever met.

Best NA Beer Self Care

Best All-Around NA Brewery

Self Care (Olympia, WA)
Olympia, Washington’s well-regarded (and oft-awarded) Three Magnets Brewing Co. launched a sub-brewery dedicated to NA beer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today it’s one of the very best NA breweries in the country, full stop, offering a kaleidoscopic range of beers in every style and flavor, from hazy IPAs to goses and coffee stouts. Its website sports dozens of distinct releases, changing and selling out and updating all the time, like any hype brewery worth its salt. I’ve never had a bad beer from Self Care, but their Citra Circus Cerveza in particular is a triumphant Mexican lager–style beer. What other NA beer brand is naming IPAs after Ween songs and collaborating with Ben Gibbard?

NA beer is a force, a product category unto itself, with room to grow and miles to run. I drank 40 beers for this article and barely scratched the surface. Along the way, I’ve begun hunting for grails—the surest sign of a maturing product category—and would particularly love to try beers like Heaps Normal and Beavertown’s Lazer Crush IPA, both of which are as yet unavailable in the United States. I remain on the hunt as well for NA offerings from iconic breweries like Hite, Kloud, Sapporo, and Asahi, which are difficult to find stateside.

Got a tip about delicious NA beers in your neck of the woods? I’m on Instagram @suitcasewine—pass along your tips for the soft stuff, and let’s clink one together soon. I won’t predict the future, but I do know you’ll find something like a glimpse of what’s next for the NA category in the recommendations above, and in the growing selection of near beers at your local craft bottle shop. Happy drinking.

Jordan Michelman

Jordan Michelman is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and author based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, T Magazine, Portland Monthly, Eater, Noble Rot, and Sprudge, the international coffee and wine publication he co-founded in 2009. His debut book, The New Rules of Coffee was released in 2018 with Ten Speed Press. jordanmichelman.com