An interesting distinction in the world of non-alcoholic beer has formed in recent years, in which companies that solely produce NA beer are now competing against more traditional craft breweries that have recently added NA beers to their lineups. One is left with an obvious question of which style of company is likely to produce NA beer more effectively—the young ones focusing exclusively on mastering the art of infusing flavor into non-alcoholic beer? Or a storied craft brewery that can apply its decades of beer knowledge toward the latest advancements in beer made without alcohol?
One thing that is certain is that newly branded non-alcoholic breweries are springing up left and right, seeking to occupy a position within the surging NA marketplace, which still constitutes less than 1% of total U.S. beer sales, but hopes to smash past that milestone sooner rather than later. Many of these young companies believe that they have plenty of “runway” in the category, but it’s simultaneously important for them to gain their footholds as soon as possible—the market will ultimately only support so many would-be nationally available NA beer brands, and there’s only so much room on the typically one shelf in a store devoted to NA beer. We’re already getting to the point where simply launching another new NA beer brewery isn’t enough—you have to differentiate it in some way, and produce a novel product.
That’s something that California’s newly opened RationAle Brewing can accurately claim to achieve, though they have only two products on the market. Both, though, subtly tweak NA beer expectations, and arguably exploit niches that aren’t yet being highlighted in the segment. And it doesn’t hurt that the branding is good, either.
A bit about the company: RationAle Brewing is newly launched, available online and in select stores, and is without a brewing facility of their own. Their beer is produced by Windsor, California’s Barrel Brothers Brewing Co., using the method of vacuum distillation, which has become increasingly popular for the fact that it leaves more volatile aromatic and flavor compounds in the de-alcoholized beer. As stated previously, they have just two offerings to date: A lager and an IPA. Sounds pretty standard, yes? RationAle, however, mixes things up a bit by styling the lager as an NA Mexican lager, while the IPA is infused with fruit puree, something that I can’t recall having seen before. They likewise stand out on the shelf for their 16 oz wrapped cans, looking more like a local brewery’s “fresh can” release than a brand with big national ambitions.
So with that said, let’s get into tasting both brands.
MSRP: $16 (4-pack of 16 oz cans)
It’s interesting to see a non-alcoholic lager specifically style itself as Mexican lager, though this obviously speaks to the brand’s California roots. As for what that means in a more practical sense, it’s hard to say—”Mexican lager” in the craft world is more of an aesthetic than an actual beer style, and many brewers struggle to define the term—what it means to one brewery is totally different than what it means to the next. Many are adjunct lagers, while other breweries will try to historically tie the style to the Vienna lagers of Germany and Austria. Many are simply American adjunct lagers by another name, which is what I’m assuming this likely is. Still, it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve had a new NA lager, and not just another Heineken 0.0, so I welcome the idea. And personally, I love this label.
In the glass, this one has decent clarity, though a slight haze settles over the golden pour. The nose is quite grainy and “husky,” with notes of corn and something slightly toasted and buttery. I’m not sure if this is diacetyl, but there’s a definite “buttered popcorn” impression that I can’t quite lose, along with a hint of something slightly more spicy, like clove.
On the palate, though, I found this one actually improved nicely—I’m not getting the “buttery” not so much here, and instead it reads as a nicely balanced, grain-forward lager, perhaps with a hint of lemon citrus. Notably, it’s not too sweet, and the “wort-like” flavors found in many NA beer brands are absent, instead making way for more of that corny, husky grain notes. If I was given this completely blind, I don’t believe I would ID it as a non-alcoholic beer at all, in fact—I would probably think that I was drinking a more intensely flavorful Miller High Life. And for an adjunct lager, that’s not a bad comparison at all.
MSRP: $16 (4-pack of 16 oz cans)
I found myself scratching my head while reading the can and marketing materials for this beer, which denotes itself a “citrus hazy IPA,” and mentions its fruit flavors, without ever specifically noting whether the beer contains actual fruit. I asked for clarification, and it turns out that yes, it does indeed—this could perhaps be made clearer on the can. Regardless, RationAle manages to boost its fruit profile via the use of tangerine, pineapple and “citrus juice” puree, with a company representative saying the following when I inquired:
“After the beer has been completely brewed to 6% ABV and then gone through the 24 hour de-alcohol process, we add back in fresh hops for 12 to 24 hours, allowing the fresh hop oils to soak into the beer alongside 2% organic puree. RationAle’s organic puree consists of tangerine, pineapple and citrus juices, which helps pull the oils out of the hops. We then do one more transition into a new tank and then can the beer.”
The result is a wildly fruity beer, though one whose dark and slightly sludgy appearance isn’t necessarily doing it many favors—it doesn’t have that bright luminosity that the most attractive beers have in this genre.
Regardless, the nose here is very clear and bright, with massive citrus aromatics—tons of orange juice, passion fruit and mango-like notes. Underneath, you’ll find more dank notes and grass clippings. Immediately, I began to wonder if it was fruited or flavored when smelling it—the intensity of the citrus notes is impressive and attractive, but subtly artificial in a way that suggests it comes from more than just hops.
On the palate, the big tropical and juicy citrus flavors carry though, particularly heavy on the orange and peach nectar. It’s fairly sweet, as regular hazy IPAs so often are these days, but thankfully not cloying. Like the lager, it’s akin enough to standard beer that I could probably believe this contained alcohol if I was handed it blind, thanks to the single-minded focus on juice and fruitiness. All that is absent is the fuller texture that the alcohol would provide, but if your goal is to replicate the flavors of hazy IPA as closely as possible, this may be the most accurate attempt to do so that I’ve seen yet.
All in all, it’s a pretty impressive debut for a brand new company, one that is demonstrating its willingness to push the envelope on NA beer formulation and marketing. I’ll be curious to see how RationAle might go on to expand the brand in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.