Growing up in the English countryside of Cornwall, Rich Lloyd was introduced to ale at a young age, and his affinity grew bolder in the bars of London, where he worked in the legal field for many years. He even met his wife at the end of a bar crawl here in Santa Barbara and relocated here in 2010, just in time to watch our region’s craft brew scene explode.
For a number of primarily health-related reasons, Lloyd quit drinking alcohol in March 2021.
“At first, it felt like a loss,” he explained, “giving up the craft beer scene, all the good times checking out different breweries, tasting different beer styles, attending beer festivals and suchlike.”
Then he remembered an article about the nonalcoholic (NA) beer company Athletic Brewing scoring $20 million in funding less than two years after its 2018 opening, which piqued his interest since he didn’t know craft brewing had moved into the oft-ridiculed near-beer category, historically a bastion of watery, mass-produced fakes. (Athletic has since raised $50 million more, opened a second brewery in San Diego, and was named Craft Brewery of 2021 by Brewbound.)
“After trying a couple of the newer NA craft brews, I was hooked,” said Lloyd. “It seemed I could satisfy my interest in beer, just without the alcohol.” So he dove into the NA world and started @ZeroBeerGuy on Instagram to track his discoveries. He tells us more below.
Why is the non-alc craft beer scene only now emerging? Two things I think halted adoption: It just wasn’t cool, and they also weren’t great-tasting.
The latter was often due to the method of de-alcoholization, which traditionally involved cooking off the alcohol leading to a loss of flavor, or halting the fermentation early, which led to an unpleasant sweetness from the unfermented wort. That has been addressed in recent years by the adoption of low-temperature de-alcoholization processes such as vacuum distillation and/or membrane filtration. Other NA brewers have adopted specially engineered low-alcohol yeast strains or have tweaked the brewing process at various stages to produce better-tasting beers with great taste but no alcohol.
As for whether it’s cool: Even pre-pandemic, there were market reports on declining consumption of alcohol among young people and growing interest in nonalcoholic beers. Athletic Brewing really jolted the market with their Run Wild IPA in late 2018. It showed that craft styles like IPAs were a real possibility in the nonalcoholic beer world.
Do they appeal to alcohol drinkers as well? The idea that you can enjoy the ritual of cracking open a cold beer after work or at the beach, yet not worry about getting up the next morning or being able to drive your kids to a playdate is a pretty attractive proposition. It even works for die-hard craft beer fans, who may want to sub in an NA beer here and there, in-between their 12 percent triple-IPA hop-bombs, to make their session go longer. Another great demographic is pregnant women: At least two NA breweries, Rightside Brewing from Georgia and Busty Lush from Oceanside, were founded by women reacting to the lack of options for them while pregnant.
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What are some favorites so far? Athletic Brewing Company’s Run Wild IPA or Free Wave Hazy IPA are my no-brainer recommendations. They are both great-tasting NA IPAs, and you can usually find them in Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, and Ralphs, as well as BevMo or Total Wine. In fact, Eureka Burger downtown just started offering Free Wave last summer. Their Upside Dawn Golden Ale is also great for people who prefer less hops.
For those that like a more full-flavored, German-style ale, San Diego’s Two Roots Brewing has a fabulous Enough Said Helles. Their Straight Drank IPA and New West Hazy IPA are also excellent.
Finally, Self Care Brewing, an arm of Three Magnets Brewing in Olympia, Washington, have released some great NA beers, most recently the Freak Flag IPA and an incredibly crisp and hoppy Chalice of Wisdom Pilsner.
Aside from markets, where else can you find them? Unfortunately, the availability in bars and restaurants in Santa Barbara is extremely limited. The options are invariably O’Douls, Heineken 0.0, or a single Euro NA brand like St. Pauli or Bitburger.
Notable exceptions are Riviera Bar, which offers Brooklyn Brewing’s Special Effects Hoppy Amber. Eureka Burger and The Lark sell Athletic’s Free Wave. And Sama Sama has some NA spirit options for their cocktails.
Hopefully that will start to change, but apparently it’s proving difficult to win over the middle-men distributors, who ultimately have a lot of say over what restaurant and bars can make available to customers.
Are there any Santa Barbara breweries excelling in this field? Topa Topa Brewing have dabbled, releasing a limited-run NA lager in March last year, and also offered a low-ABV 2 percent beer last fall. Draughtsmen Aleworks are aware of the field, and they have offered several hop tea varieties which are pretty refreshing. Captain Fattys released a THC-infused Grapefruit Seltzer last year, which is a whole different story!
I even recently learned that Firestone released an NA beer way back in the late 1980s, but not sure if any bottles are still knocking around. [Editor’s Note: Firestone was initially going to be a non-alc brewery.]
My understanding is the equipment for NA brewing requires a pretty substantial investment ($200,000-plus) as well as space, time, and resources to dedicate to getting the recipe correct. But I’m confident it will come, and when it does, I’ll be first in line to order!