We’ve officially hit the time of year when beer and spirits writers are now bombarded with samples and press releases about non-alcoholic and low-alcohol offerings, and for me it comes at a fortuitous time.
Never in my adult life have I been more interested in alcohol replacements than I am now. For a combination of health and lifestyle reasons, often shared with my wife, I first became interested in reducing my alcohol consumption a few years ago. But rather than simply cutting back on overall consumption, I’ve now become more interested in replacing a portion of that consumption with compliant products. This has become increasingly possible, because the state of non-alcoholic beer is indisputably the best right now that it’s ever been.
If you’re an observer of the alcohol market, you know this to be the case. For decades, non-alcoholic beer was the stuff of punchlines, associated with bad-tasting products consumed by nebbish, timid drinkers. Today, however, with the advent of Dry January, Sober October and other initiatives by the “sober curious,” and coupled with a generational shift that sees Millennials and Gen Z consuming less alcohol than in previous decades, the N/A beer space is being taken far more seriously than it ever was before. Major craft players such as Lagunitas (via Heineken) or Brooklyn Brewery are brewing non-alcoholic craft beer styles, and entire breweries such as Athletic Brewing Co. are thriving on the concept of exclusively producing N/A beer. We’re essentially entering the golden age of non-alcoholic options—perfect, I must add, for a 34-year-old alcohol writer who can no longer drink like a 25-year-old alcohol writer.
Another major craft player looking to expand their foothold in the growing N/A market is Scotland’s BrewDog, which has massively expanded its U.S. presence in the last few years since opening its first brewery/taproom in Columbus, OH in 2017. Just a few years later, the company now has three Columbus-area locations (including craft beer hotel The Doghouse), and bars in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, in addition to its many bars and breweries worldwide.
The company has made forays into N/A beer in the past, most notably with its “flagship” non-alcoholic beer Nanny State. But in time for this year’s Dry January, BrewDog has unveiled a new lineup that is vastly expanded in terms of its reach and variety, including N/A pale ales, IPAs, stouts and even sour ales. Although we sadly haven’t been able to taste the latter—the idea of an N/A fruited sour is especially wild—we did get to run through half a dozen other N/A BrewDog beers, which they actually refer to as “AF,” for “alcohol free.” Like other standard non-alcoholic beers (and unlike say, Heineken 0.0), these are not completely alcohol free, but rather contain very low levels of alcohol below 0.5% ABV.
I should perhaps note: BrewDog has not always been my favorite craft beer company in the past, and I tend to find their marketing, gimmickry and faux “punk” culture unappealing, but I was still eager to give these beers a try to see how they stand up by their own merits. And by and large, I found myself pleasantly surprised. With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
Nanny State is the “AF” beer that BrewDog has been producing longest, and it’s actually one of the most interesting in this group, which you might not expect. There are multiple riffs here on the same IPA/hazy IPA theme, but Nanny State is distinct and original by comparison. Whereas some of the other AF beers such as Hazy AF, Punk AF or Ghost Walker are all tightly focused on hop flavors, Nanny State is an attempt at genuine malt balance, with no shortage of supporting bitterness, making it unusual among non-alcoholic craft beers.
Not that you would know this from the label, which is an odd aspect of all of these beers. For whatever reason, the AF series of cans decline to include stylistic terms on their labels, which makes it very hard for the average consumer to know what styles of beer to expect. When a label simply says “Nanny State” or “Elvis AF,” without using the terms “pale ale” or “IPA,” how is the consumer supposed to have an expectation of what is in that can? I can’t help but wonder if U.K. or U.S. law has something to do with this omission from all the cans.
On the BrewDog website, on the other hand, Nanny State is described as a pale ale, but it’s thoroughly an old-school American pale ale in construction. This beer pours a very deep amber, and if I was approaching it blind I’d say it sits somewhere between hoppy American amber ale and old-school American pale ale, of the sort you would have expected to find in any American brewpub in the early 2000s.
On the nose, Nanny State is deeply resinous, fresh and floral, with aromatics that powerfully call to mind homebrewer memories of sticking my nose into a bag of freeze-dried hop pellets. On the palate, though, it finds more malt balance, with hints of buttered toast supporting resin, grapefruit zest and dank notes. Bitterness is substantial, which does indeed evoke the pale ales of yore—all in all, this could pass for a classic pale ale except for how thin of body it is. Like many N/A beers, it’s also very dry, but that again works for this particular style. All in all, Nanny State is stimulating to the palate, and a solid food accompaniment thanks to its malt balance and bitterness in particular.
With a mere 37 calories per can, Punk AF is a thoroughly miniaturized version of BrewDog’s flagship Punk IPA, and overall it’s one of the most successful encapsulations in this series of the type of beer it’s mimicking. The nose is full of grapefruit and orange essential oils, with light resinous notes that are quite fresh, but less omnipresent than the pine cone nose of Nanny State. This one is quite bright in terms of aromatics, suggesting a very zesty (if not exactly “juicy”) citrus profile.
On the palate, Punk AF is decidedly softer than Nanny State out of the gate, with markedly less supporting bitterness and a slightly smoother texture. There’s a tiny bit more perception of residual sweetness, although the overall flavors of citrus (slightly candy like) are fairly mild. A wisp of graininess runs through the beer, but there’s no deeper malt to speak of, as there is in Nanny State. Rather, this beer drinks appreciably like a brewery’s very light session IPA, and it genuinely has very few tells that it’s a non-alcoholic product. Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely easy to drink, and it feels like you could kill a can of this in a couple of long swigs. It feels ready made to step in to supplant your citrus seltzer, if you also want the suggestion of a very light beer. I could certainly see stocking my fridge with this.
This is where things start getting a little weirder. Hazy AF is an attempt to legitimately pull off non-alcoholic hazy/juicy IPA, which hasn’t exactly worked well in examples I’ve tasted in the past. In particular, these beers seem to run up against the problem of residual sweetness, which is a major factor in hazy IPA, but largely absent from most N/A beers due to their lack of residual sugars. Nevertheless, BrewDog describes Hazy AF as “the juiciest alcohol free near beer in town,” and they make use of oats and wheat in an attempt to fill in the smooth texture/fuller body the style is known for.
On the nose, this one can be a little bit baffling. There’s citrus, sure, along with some florals, but one of the dominant players is a mustier, more exotic profile of tropical fruit that seems to alternate between enticing and unpleasant each time I raise the glass to my nose. The word “overripe” comes to mind in terms of describing this tropical fruitiness, although there are more conventional notes of pine needles and florals as well. On the palate, I actually get a little bit of crisp grain, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting, but there’s something about the fruitier flavors that is slightly uncanny. Bitterness is minimal, and from sip to sip it’s hard to form a permanent impression of how much residual sweetness there is, but it evokes a certain artificiality.
All in all, I find this one a little bit confounding, and difficult to evaluate. I think this particular beer style simply presents more of a challenge to replicate in a non-alcoholic format, but this is as successfully as I’ve seen it done to date.
Ghost Walker is BrewDog’s collaboration with metal band Lamb of God, which is a pretty freaking 2020-esque sentence if you ask us—a legendary heavy metal band with their own non-alcoholic beer. That’s certainly a fun novelty, although in terms of profile, this beer is actually quite similar to the previous Hazy AF. They don’t necessarily play up the “hazy” aspect, but the flavor profile it’s going for hits very close to the same tropical fruit-driven IPA.
On the nose, this one has huge aromatics of musky tropical fruit—I’m thinking like overripe papayas and passionfruit, along with grapefruit, joined by grass and resin. I feel like this one is actually a bit more aromatically intense than the Hazy AF, although just as inscrutable at times. I expect the slightly funky nose is likely to be a “love it or hate it” experience for most beer geeks, and that goes double for the initial flavor on the palate, which is sweet in a way that is quite unusual for N/A beer. It’s a slightly off-putting, candied tropical fruit flavor, although it’s joined by some toastier, black tea-like maltiness that gives Ghost Walker at least a hint of balance. Mild bitterness rounds out a beer that continued to grow on me as I worked my way through a 12 oz serving.
All in all, Ghost Walker evokes some of the same notes as Hazy AF, but I think it may be the superior presentation of a similar profile, thanks to the suggestion of some malt balance you would have expected from an earlier generation of India pale ale. That additional element grounds this one more squarely in the arena of “beer.”
Non-alcoholic porter or stout is a field I’d desperately like to see executed with greater success, because it’s one of the niches that is most often glossed over, even among breweries that have demonstrated an interest in N/A beer. Perhaps this is because they believe consumers expect an even fuller body in porter and stout than they would in other styles, or a higher level of residual sweetness—particularly at a time when pastry stout has come to be so intimately associated with the term “stout” in general. Those aspects may make it even more difficult to make effective non-alcoholic stout than with other styles, but as time passes we’re seeing a few more attempts at N/A dark beers. I’m hoping that trend will continue.
BrewDog’s Wake Up Call, meanwhile, is effectively meant to be an AF coffee stout, “brewed with milk sugar, oats and chocolate wheat.” On the nose, it smells quite nice—strong coffee impressions reminiscent of coldbrew extract, implying a sweet roastiness. There’s also underlying notes of caramel, cocoa and something akin to French vanilla ice cream. On the palate, we come back down to Earth a bit—the flavors are there, but unsurprisingly it can’t quite replicate the texture you’d be expecting in your typical stout with lactose. There’s no shortage of coffee flavor, however, although it’s a bit less sweet than the nose would imply—roastier and more dry, with a bit more “fresh pot of coffee” flavor than the sweet cold brew I was expecting. There’s a bit more roasty astringency at the same time, in a way that is not unpleasant, but whatever malt profile is present is difficult to pick up beyond the coffee.
This leads to Wake Up Call perhaps ultimately reading more like “iced coffee” than it does coffee stout, per se, which isn’t such a bad thing for a non-alcoholic beer. It might not specifically scratch the “stout” itch, if that’s what you’re craving, but it certainly delivers on the coffee. Unlike these other beers, this might be one I’d be reaching for not when I really wanted a stout, but when I wanted a twist on iced coffee.
Elvis AF is simply the AF twist on the company’s year-round Elvis Juice, which is a grapefruit IPA. I’ve written before about how I’m not terribly fond of that particular style—it really flared into popularity and faded out faster than most—but I’m not sure I’ve ever sampled BrewDog’s take on it, so I’m not terribly sure what to expect here. I’m mostly just hoping that it doesn’t taste overwhelmingly artificial.
On the nose, I am pleasantly surprised—it is very bright, and it gently evokes either grapefruit candy or many non-alcoholic grapefruit seltzers, which I blind tasted earlier in 2020. This has an unmistakable “ruby red grapefruit” flavor to go along with its slightly muddy, moderately opaque orange color, but the nose also has unexpected elements of herbaceousness or salinity, which puts me in mind of blanco tequila. On the palate, these notes follow through, with initial sweet grapefruit leading into salinity and slight peppery spice, along with black tea maltiness. It reminds me of nothing so much, in fact, as “beer meets Paloma.” The slightly artificial candy note does grow with time as it heats up, so this is one that is perhaps best served cold, but it’s no more uncanny in terms of flavor than the grapefruit seltzers I already drink every day. As weird as it sounds, this one might even be pleasant over ice! I can scarcely believe I just wrote that, but here we are.
At the end of the day, this is a pretty impressive lineup of non-alcoholic beers. The ones trying to go hardest for “juicy” may still leave some drinkers scratching their heads, but the more subtle, or bitter, or roasty examples here work out better than expected. It’s indicative of the way that the N/A (or “AF”) beer space has made so much progress in the back half of the 2010s, and the reason why more and more people are excited about this market going forward. If you’re curious about reducing your consumption while still enjoying a distinctly beer-like beverage, there’s never been a better time to give products like this a try.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.