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Dry January, Now with Local Beer!

by | Jan 13, 2022

Patrick Rowan of Woodland Farms Brewery pours a pint of non-alcoholic Dark at the Kittery taproom. photos/Tom Major

Dry January is still a thing that mystifies some folks. OK, a lot of folks, or at least a lot of the folks I talk to, but then I talk to a lot of devoted beer-drinkers. Few, if any, of them seem comfortable with the idea of taking 31 consecutive days away from alcohol.  

It seems like a pretty good idea to assess and reset one’s alcohol consumption every once in a while. People have written a lot about their relationship to booze, but unlike other personal relationships, there should be no question who sets the boundaries in this one. There’s no equality to strive for here — if the drinker doesn’t control the relationship, the booze will.  

I participated in Dry January last year, mostly because I figured it would be dishonest to write about it and not do it myself. It was easier than I had imagined, mostly because so many good non-alcoholic brews were available to fill in for my regular beers. Yet, though I was pleased with the quality and variety of NA beers on the market, I was disappointed that no Maine brewers were offering NA options. 

Three months later, Woodland Farms Brewery, in Kittery, rolled out their first cans of Pointer, a hazy IPA. I would love to claim that my column last January [“A Month of Sundays”] inspired a local brewery to jump into the market, but Woodland Farms’ head brewer, Patrick Rowan, disabused me of that idea. “We were working on it for about three years,” Rowan said of Pointer, “even before we went to Munich.”  

Munich? Rowan explained that he took the brewery’s staff to Oktoberfest in 2019 to reward them for a phenomenal season, but also to meet with folks at the Technical University of Munich, who had been advising him on brewing non-alcoholic beers. It seems there’s a lot more to making an NA beer than just brewing it and then sucking out all the alcohol. 

One process uses heat to evaporate the alcohol out, resulting in a beer that, in Rowan’s estimation, is “kind of gross.” I won’t name names, but if you tasted an NA beer 10 years ago and didn’t like it, it was probably made with this process.   

Another process uses nano-filtration, or reverse osmosis, to remove the alcohol, but that also removes other elements of the beer. “You’re never going to get a hazy beer” by that method, Rowan explained. “It’s always going to be stripped, and since you’re replacing some of the beer with water, there won’t be any head retention.” It is much more challenging to make an NA beer with the body and texture of a typical craft beer using nano-filtration. 

Those two processes are also prohibitively expensive for smaller breweries like Woodland Farms. Rowan said his brewery made about 1,500 barrels of alcoholic beer in 2021, and another 1,500 barrels of NA beer in the nine months it was on the market. That production level sustains eight full-time employees, but it couldn’t justify a $250,000 reverse-osmosis system. 

A third process employs carefully managed fermentation with specialized yeasts, temperature rests, and a grain bill high in non-fermentable sugars. Although this method uses less malt overall, the beer is hardly less expensive for the brewer to make. The process is labor intensive, and the finished product must be pasteurized to prevent any subsequent fermentation in the keg or can.  

Charley Zimmerman (left) and Will Fisher serve up samples of Kit Brewing’s non-alcoholic beer.

The need for pasteurization is what led Maine’s other producer of NA beer, Kit Brewing, in Portland, to seek an out-of-state partner to contract-brew their beer while they scale up their operation. Kit Brewing was formed last February by Will Fisher, a co-founder of Portland’s Austin Street Brewery, and Rob Barrett, owner of Barrett Made, a construction contractor.  

Barrett, who stopped drinking alcohol a couple years ago, struck up a conversation about NA beers with Fisher while working on Austin Street’s Fox Street brewery and tap room. Jake Austin, Fisher’s partner at the brewery, was not interested in pursuing an NA line, so Fisher and Barrett formed Kit Brewing, hired staff, brewed multiple pilot batches and hit the shelves, all within 10 months.  

On Your Mark, their first beer, is an American blonde ale with a rich, hoppy flavor. Like Woodland Farms, Kit Brewing uses a fermentation method that results in a full-beer sensory experience with no alcohol. And just as Woodland Farms followed up their Pointer IPA with Witty (a Belgian witbier), Ruby (a sour ale), Dark (a stout-like beer) and West (a West Coast IPA), Kit Brewing plans to roll out a second style in March, and follow it up with several other varieties. By the time the next Dry January comes around, Mainers will have a wide selection of local craft beers to choose from. Cheers to that! 


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