- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2020

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - The next big thing in craft beer may not be beer.

The first inkling of change Vintage Cellar beer buyer Jeff Owens said he got was during a party at his own house. A friend of his was expecting a baby and brought her own drinks to a birthday celebration. He was intrigued.

“I was like, what are you drinking? I’ve never seen that before,” Owens recalled. “She said, ‘I ordered it online.’”

His first taste was a surprise.

“It tastes like beer,” he said. “I thought this would be perfect for the store.”

That hadn’t always been the case.

“If somebody has tried one of the (NA) beers in the past, they wouldn’t be nearly as good as the ones that they make today,” said Sean O’Keefe, who teaches in Virginia Tech’s brewing science program. “So the technology is getting better.”

As quality has improved, production and sales also are rising. While NA, also known as “near” beer remains a small part of the overall market, it is growing fast.

According to Nielsen, nonalcoholic beer sales in the U.S. rose 39 percent from 2018-19, and according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI, off-premise sales of non-alcoholic beer grew more than 23%, to $132 million.


At Vintage Cellar, Owens said they’ve gone from stocking about four imported NA brands six years ago to more than a dozen types today, many of them made in the U.S. And they’re always looking to add more, he said.

The particular brew that Owens’ friend first offered him came from Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co., which only makes NA beers. Today Athletic brews two IPAs and a golden ale, and sales are so brisk that Owens said he has trouble keeping them in stock.

At Vintage Cellar, Athletic shares shelf space with a number of other U.S.-made NAs, including a stout produced at Ohio-based BrewDog and an NA made by Brooklyn Brewery called “Special Effects.” Both those breweries do standard alcoholic beers, too.

“We have a lot more options available to us,” Owens said. “We have a lot more velocity of sales for certain brands. I’ll reorder the Brooklyn after two weeks, rather than a month and a half.”

It’s a similar story at Barrel Chest Wine & Beer in Roanoke.

NA has “grown exponentially in the last year, and it helps because there’s a lot more options now,” owner Martin Keck said. “We used to have one or two, and we have at least a dozen on the shelf now.”

Keck said he thinks the rise of craft brewing created excitement around American beer, expanding the market. But that enthusiasm spurred some overindulgence.

“I think people are realizing that they get really excited about trying a bunch of craft beers, and they don’t really take into account the calories or the alcohol. It’s easy to get carried away,” Keck said.

NAs can bring balance because “people like having an option of similar taste and less calories and no alcohol,” he said.

For sellers, “I think it’s a must-have now, and it certainly did not used to be,” Keck said.


Brewing near beers goes back at least to the 1920s and ’30s, when Prohibition outlawed production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S., O’Keefe of Virginia Tech said. To stay in business, brewers began experimenting with ways to reduce the alcohol in beer.

To be classified as NA today, a brew must have no more than .5 % alcohol. In the past, brewers would make a standard beer and then try to remove the alcohol from it, either by heating it to drive off the alcohol or using vacuum extraction techniques, O’Keefe said. Both methods change the flavor of the beer, and often not in good ways.

But over the past decade, he said brewers have begun to focus more on making low-alcohol beer from the start.

At its most basic, beer is made by heating grains like barley in water to create a sugar-rich liquid that is then strained off. To it brewers add flavorings like hops, but the most important ingredient is yeast. It’s the yeast that eats the sugar during fermentation and creates the alcohol.

Instead of removing alcohol from beer, today NA brewers use yeast strains that produce less alcohol during fermentation, O’Keefe said.

And they’re also working to better control the amount of sugar they start with, changing the type and quantity of grains as well as other factors. This allows brewers to create more flavorful beers with little to no alcohol, he said.

And these better-tasting NAs appeal to a range of people, from those focused on exercise and weight control, to women who are pregnant and nursing, to recovering alcoholics, to people who want to drink with their friends but drive home safely.


Amy Smerick of Christiansburg said she stopped drinking alcohol about two years ago for weight control and better health.

“I do love craft beer but drinking alcohol just doesn’t agree with my system anymore,” she said. “But that wasn’t very good for my social life.”

Suddenly, going out with friends wasn’t as much fun anymore. For a while, kombucha, a low-alcohol fermented tea drink that some local brewers have added to their menus filled the gap, Smerick said.

But she missed the flavor of the dark beers she had favored when she was drinking alcohol.

“I have some friends that are recovering alcoholics, and some of them will occasionally drink nonalcoholic beers,” she said.

But the readily available commercial brands didn’t taste good to her, so Smerick said she ordered NAs online and bought them at Vintage Cellar. Today she’s finally found a stout NA that works for her.

“It takes a lot of tasting to find the right ones, to get the right flavor to satisfy what it is you need because everybody’s tastes are so different,” she said.

James Mills, also a Christiansburg resident, said he’s been drinking NAs for about three years, despite not being impressed with the first brands he tried.

“I used to drink regular beer, and my whole family drinks,” Mills said. “I could see that it would probably eventually be a problem because there’s alcoholism on both sides of my family.”

So when he started a new phase of his career, he changed his relationship to alcohol.

“I took a managing job for a restaurant, so I had to be at work at 4 every morning, so you can’t be out drinking,” Mills said. “So I turned to nonalcoholic, and I realized I was getting the same taste without all the side effects.”

Mills said he regularly tries new brands to keep it interesting.

“I try to mix it up and jump around because I feel like if I’m drinking the same thing all the time, eventually I’m going to look for that real alcohol again.”

Appealing to this range of customer needs and desires could be a smart business move for brewers and sellers, especially if the COVID-19 shutdowns of bars and restaurants continue, O’Keefe said.

“Once brewers realize that they can make NA beers that have consumer acceptability with the equipment they have or with minor adjustments, I would expect that … every place would have at least one just to please consumers that are looking for that type of product,” he said. “Giving consumers choice is always a good thing.”

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