Why you should care
When it comes to beer, boozeless needn’t mean flavorless.
Not everyone drinks beer for the buzz. Many like the taste but don’t want the booze — like expectant mothers or detox dieters who might chug nonalcoholic beer so they don’t feel left out when everyone else at the BBQ busts out the Bud. And its popularity has begun to runneth over in Muslim countries that prohibit drinking.
But boozy beer still outsells the sober stuff. The main consumer complaint? That nonalcoholic beer tastes … well, pretty tasteless. That’s why scientists in Spain have developed a technique to make nonalcoholic beer more flavorful by using chemical compounds extracted from the real thing. “Beer companies are asking us about this research,” says Carlos Blanco, a professor of food technology at the University of Valladolid who co-authored the study describing the method, published in the Journal of Food Engineering last year.
Eight out of 10 tasters said they preferred the enriched nonalcoholic beer to the nonenriched version.
Alcohol traps compounds called aromas that give regular beer its flavor — which explains the blandness of the nonalcoholic variety. Brewers make true nonalcoholic beer with techniques that involve evaporating the alcohol. Or they can make low-alcohol beer by stopping the fermentation process early, bottling the beer before the yeast have made much alcohol.
Blanco and his colleagues looked to regular beer for help, using a technique called pervaporation, often used to make nonalcoholic wine. They used a porous membrane and a vacuum to extract three aromatic compounds — in gas form — from each of two types of regular beer, while the alcohol remained as a liquid on the other side of the membrane. Then they cooled the gas, causing it to condense, like what happens when droplets form on the bathroom mirror after a steamy shower. Finally they added the aromatic-containing liquid to alcohol-free beer. The whole process takes around six to eight hours, Blanco says. The study also found that pervaporation consumes less energy than other dealcoholization techniques and doesn’t require chemical additives.
But would the aroma-infused beer pass the taste test? To find out, the team served their concoctions and nonenriched counterparts to a panel of 10 trained tasters. Nine out of 10 said they liked the enriched low-alcohol beer more than the nonenriched low-alcohol beer, and 8 out of 10 said they preferred the enriched nonalcoholic beer to the nonenriched version.
Although the researchers are collaborating with beer companies to optimize the process to extract more of these compounds, they still have far to go to include all of them. And for now, the pervaporation unit is too small for mass production. Whether the technique makes its way to breweries will depend on “the economics behind that,” says Tomáš Brányik, an associate professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague. He notes that equipment for other dealcoholization techniques is expensive, the most likely reason why the Czech Republic has more low-alcohol than nonalcoholic beer brands.
It might be too soon to say whether beer snobs will ever stop snubbing the booze-free stuff. Still, the technique is promising news for those who want to stay sober without skimping on flavor.