Consumer demand for no- and low-alcohol products is skyrocketing. According to leading drinks market analysis firm IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, the low-alcohol category increased by almost 20 percent last year in the U.S. alone, with the no-alcohol market experiencing nearly twice as much growth. The no- and low-alcohol category is currently valued at nearly $2 billion, equivalent to a small yet rapidly expanding one percent of the total beverage alcohol market.
The industry is responding accordingly by researching more quality-driven production methods and investing in technological innovation across all drinks types, albeit the diverse nature of wine, beer, and spirits means that the average quality of lower-alcohol alternatives tends to fluctuate across categories.
Wine’s flavors and aromas are often supported by a sizable amount of alcohol—typically between 12% and 14.5% ABV—meaning its complete removal has a dramatic impact on the liquid’s texture and overall balance. Beer, on the other hand, starts off with a significantly lower alcohol content, meaning there is simply less to take away to make a lower-ABV product. Furthermore, while wine relies on grape juice as its sole ingredient, beer’s aromas may be enhanced by highly perfumed hops, which can help mask potential off-flavors deriving from the dealcoholization process.
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While non-alcoholic beer and wine, as beverages resulting from the dealcoholization of their full-strength counterparts, are definable and regulated, there are no comparable standards in the production and marketing of spirit-like, non-alcoholic products. Many never involve the production of alcohol; they are made by simply adding aromas to a neutral, non-alcoholic base liquid and are designed to mimic the flavor profile of full-strength spirit categories such as gin and whisky. Lyre’s products, for instance, result from the addition of natural essences and extracts to a proprietary non-alcoholic liquid. Others, such as Spiritless, do involve distillation and dealcoholization processes and are designed to replace actual spirits in non-alcoholic cocktails, yet they cannot be labeled as the full-strength category they take inspiration from. Some would even argue that non-alcoholic spirits don’t actually exist.
For beer and wine, the array of production methods for removing alcohol is expanding to cater to growing consumer demand for high-quality no- and low-alcohol alternatives. Understanding the evolving science behind these methods offers an opportunity to examine the progress that’s been made for improving non-alcoholic beer and wine, and which category each method is best suited to.
From Perfume to Wine
Alongside a growing range of proprietary technologies, beverage manufacturers employ two primary methods for alcohol removal: reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation. The latter is one of the most popular dealcoholization techniques, particularly within the wine industry. Here, the distillation process is carried out under reduced pressure, significantly reducing ethanol’s boiling point; the lower temperature means that alcohol evaporates before all volatile compounds are boiled off, leaving a lower-alcohol liquid with flavors and aromas close to the original product.
Initially developed to extract aromas for perfume making, the spinning cone method is essentially a type of vacuum distillation and is now regarded as ideal for retaining a liquid’s integrity, particularly when applied to wine. “Compared to other methods, the spinning cone has shown that it is far superior in preserving the flavors and texture of the original wine,” says Mark Naim, the director of enological projects at leading Cava firm Codorníu.
The spinning cone method relies on a stainless steel column containing a central rotating shaft and a series of alternating spinning and stationary cones. The process involves two stages: the first stage is conducted around 30 degrees Celsius and is aimed at stripping the liquid of its volatile compounds, while the second is carried out at higher temperatures (40 degrees Celsius) to allow the removal of the alcoholic content. Aromas and flavors are blended back into the dealcoholized liquid at a later stage.
To separate volatile compounds or alcohol from the beverage, the liquid is pumped into the top of the column under vacuum while steam is introduced to the base of the vessel. The spinning cones generate centrifugal force creating a thin liquid film that the steam strips of the desired elements (volatile compounds or alcohol). The resulting vapor flows out of the top of the column and is then condensed into a liquid form.
“Alcohol gives a sweet, rich, round flavor and texture to the wine,” explains Naim, “and when you remove the alcohol you lose this sweet, rich texture. But this can be replaced, to some degree. [At Codorníu] we add concentrated grape juice, tannins, and some flavors.”
Marlborough, New Zealand-based Ara Wines supports the spinning cone process too, which it employs to produce a clean and zesty no-ABV Sauvignon Blanc. Chief winemaker Duncan Shouler argues that starting with a very aromatic base wine is key for the finished product to show a satisfactory varietal character. “One of the greatest challenges [in making no-alcohol wine] is imparting good varietal aroma,” explains Shouler, who also makes Giesen’s 0% range of no-ABV wines. “By removing the alcohol, some of the flavor is always lost, and with that you lose some of the varietal typicity. We have learned to use our spinning cone technology in ways that allow us to capture that aroma and add it back to the product.”
A Controversial Technique
While spinning cone technology is winning over the wine industry, no-alcohol beer is often obtained by reverse osmosis. Osmosis occurs naturally within the human body as it allows water to move into and out of our cells. The “reverse” process is based on the same concept of water removal and has multiple applications beyond dealcoholization, including turning seawater into potable liquid.
The technique involves a membrane that separates alcohol and part of the water from a beer, but that does not remove larger molecules such as flavor compounds. The beer’s initial volume is commonly restored by simply adding fresh water to the liquid, however, some manufacturers distill the beer’s original water, then blend it back into the drink once the ethanol has boiled off.
U.K.-based Adnams brewery employs the reverse osmosis process on its no-alcohol beer, but resorts to spinning cone technology to produce its range of 0.5% ABV wines. “There are legal issues in some countries around adding water to wine, which is an essential part of the reverse osmosis process to reduce the ABV to below 0.5%,” says Fergus Fitzgerald, Adnams’ production director. “This is a major stumbling block around using reverse osmosis for wine … [so the wine industry’s] research and development tends to focus on processes that are more widely accepted.”
Indeed, while the addition of small quantities of water to incorporate enological substances that come in solid state is widely accepted, larger amounts—such as those unavoidably required by the reverse osmosis process—are generally prohibited.
Vacuum distillation and spinning cones are still the most popular means of manufacturing no- and low-alcohol beer and wine, yet the beverage industry is increasingly on the lookout for innovative technologies.
Athletic Brewing Co., a Connecticut-based, non-alcoholic beer brand, relies on a proprietary process that, rather than removing the alcohol from a full-strength beer, prevents the fermentation process from generating ethanol in the first place. Last year, news site Bloomberg reported that the brewery had gained over 60 percent of the non-alcoholic American craft beer market, a success that led the brand to open a second production site in southern California.
Meanwhile, Colorado-based Sustainable Beverage Technologies’ BrewVo system blends lower-ABV brewing with revolutionary logistics solutions. The patented brewing process produces fully fermented, six-times dense beer stripped of its CO2 and most of its alcohol content. Not only can the beer be consumed in its no-ABV form, it can also be rebuilt to the chosen strength either immediately before bottling or just before consumption at the point of sale by using the company’s NexDraft Tap System.
“You have the ability to reconstitute it straight away, adding water, alcohol, and CO2,” says Gary Tickle, the CEO of Sustainable Beverage Technologies. “You can add no alcohol and you have a beer with an ABV of less than 0.5%, but you can also add just part of the alcohol, making a session beer.” BrewVo’s bag-in-box format takes one-sixth of the room needed for a keg, weighs much less, and can even be frozen and defrosted just before use. “The kegerator looks like a normal kegerator, but inside you have six different beers because each only takes one-sixth of the space,” says Tickle.
After a successful initial trial with an Irish-style dark ale, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery now employs the BrewVo technology to craft the non-alcoholic version of its Black Butte at BrewVo’s facility in Colorado.
As Athletic Brewing and BrewVo suggest, the beer industry is leading no- and low-alcohol technological research, but the wine sector is rapidly catching up. Indeed, last year the EU gave no- and low-ABV wine its most promising endorsement yet, contributing to fuelling innovation across the wine sector: As of January 2023, all denominations across the EU will be allowed to integrate dealcoholized wine into their own regulations.
Codorníu’s Naim reveals that recent trials of the new GoLo dealcoholization system are showing promising results. Developed by California-based BevZero, it consists of a single-step process that separates 100 percent of the volatile compounds while removing the alcohol down to 0.05%. “This new technology reduces the alcohol but leaves more of the flavor and texture that we currently lose via spinning cone technology,” says Naim. “This means that we could have a lower-sugar, zero-alcohol product in the future, with more of its original wine flavors.”
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Dr. Jacopo Mazzeo is a U.K.-based freelance drinks journalist, consultant, and photographer. He contributes to leading trade and consumer publications including Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, Whisky Magazine, and Good Beer Hunting. Jacopo consults on consumer trends and marketing strategies, is a former sommelier, and judges international wine, beer, and spirits competitions. Before he embraced full-time journalism, he studied musicology at the University of Bologna and took a PhD at the University of Southampton. Follow Jacopo on Instagram @jacopomazzeophoto