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Major in Beer

A Month of Sundays: Non-alcoholic craft beers don't suck

by | Jan 8, 2021

photo/Tom Major

 

Dry January®. Yes, that symbol at the end is now warranted. Unlike the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge, the Tide Pod Challenge, and all those other viral fads, this one was actually trademarked by Alcohol Concern, a British non-profit organization. Both Dry January and its Australian cousin, Ocsober, which encourage people to abstain from alcohol for a full month each year, have gained popularity in the U.S. Since booze consumption in America increased 14 percent in 2020, it seems a good time to look more closely at this particular trend.

Advocates claim there are many benefits to Dry January, including clearer skin, better sleep, and a chance to reset your relationship with alcohol. That last benefit is a stumbling block for lots of folks, who pair beer with a host of fun activities: grilling, eating, visiting friends, viewing or playing sports. And they still shudder with revulsion as they remember the time they tried a Sharp’s or an O’Doul’s, the non-alcoholic (NA) beers offered by Miller and Anheuser-Busch, respectively. There’s a reason the Great American Beer Festival repeatedly withheld the gold medal, but awarded silver and bronze medals, in the NA category. At best, NA beers were judged drinkable, but not gold-medal material.  

Apprehensive about raising a challenge I couldn’t meet, I visited my friend Nate Williams, the beer specialist at RSVP Discount Beverage, on Forest Ave. in Portland. A former brewery tour guide, as well as co-host of WMPG’s “Beer in ME,” Nate is well qualified to discuss the 900+ labels RSVP stocks. Plus, he’s been sober since last March, so he’s the right guy to ask about NA beers.

All those benefits that Alcohol Concern claims for Dry January? Nate confirms they’re true, and adds a few more to the list. But let’s focus on the beers.

The first label he touts is Athletic Brewing, a Connecticut-based company that exclusively brews NA beers. RSVP is the top independent retailer in America of Athletic’s products — a significant statistic, since the company is currently distributing in 20 states. Since opening in 2017, Athletic has outgrown its 10,000-barrel brewery and purchased the former Ballast Point brewery in San Diego. Matt Place, the company rep for Northern New England, notes that many consumers are so impressed with Athletic’s Free Wave IPA that they join The Athletic Club, a monthly subscription service. Membership grants the sort of insider privileges that thrill beer geeks: exclusive access to limited brews and pilot batches, as well as social media clout.

IPAs comprise about a third of the total craft-beer market, so Nate pointed out a few other options. Brooklyn Brewing’s first NA was a hoppy amber ale, but they are currently rolling out an IPA. Lagunitas offered Hoppy Refresher, a zero-calorie, seltzer-like beverage, but also recently rolled out a hops-drenched, West Coast–style NA IPA. Missouri’s Wellbeing offers wheat and amber ales, in addition to an IPA. Partake Brewing, a Canadian company, offers the classic ale range: blonde, pale, IPA, red, stout. Boston Beer Company is promising their Just the Haze IPA will be out soon, and their junior partner, Dogfish Head, is launching a lemon wheat ale.

In short, you could drink a different craft NA beer every day of Dry January and never have to choke down a Coors Edge.

Two breweries whose NA beers are available to Maine consumers only by mail deserve to be mentioned. The iconoclastic Scottish company BrewDog launched Nanny State Pale Ale in 2009, and now offers a coffee stout and several excellent hop-bombs, including Punk AF, Elvis AF, and Ghost Walker (a brew made in collaboration with the metal band Lamb of God).

For those craving a pilsner but still grimacing at the memory of that sip of Beck’s Blue, consider Point 5, from Woburn, Massachusetts. The brainchild of Ronan McGovern, an MIT engineer who was researching how to concentrate beer to reduce shipping costs and energy consumption, Point 5’s only beer at present is its eponymous pilsner.

“We see that there are quite a few craft and IPA-style non-alcoholic beers out there,” McGovern said. “However, we see a large — maybe more silent — market out there that is more interested in an offering that is refreshing and classic.”

If you’re thinking you already blew your chance to participate in Dry January this year, don’t give up. You can still take part in February AF (AF means Alcohol Free; what else did you think I meant?). I haven’t actually trademarked that yet, but here’s the sales pitch: Everything you always wanted in a hiatus from alcohol, in three fewer days.

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