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Hopping Your Way to Better NA Beers (and Waters)

Plenty of evidence suggests that skillfully applied hop character can make NA beers more satisfying. While making them both tasty and food-safe is a challenge, the knowledge base is growing alongside the number of hop products that can help.

Stan Hieronymus Jul 8, 2024 - 11 min read

Hopping Your Way to Better NA Beers (and Waters) Primary Image

Photo: Courtesy Roaming Nobles

Not surprisingly, the ubiquitous lagers of the biggest brewing companies often frame the discussion about what constitutes “beer flavor.” Meanwhile, those same companies have long dominated the market for nonalcoholic beers because they had the resources to safely produce and package them.

Yet the breweries that shaped our idea of “beer flavor” never quite seemed to master it in their NA products. Consider a recent survey of northern California beer drinkers, who generally said they don’t care for the “beer-like” aroma, taste, or mouthfeel they associate with NA lagers.

In contrast, the consumers said they were more satisfied with NA beers they perceived as similar to soda or flavored sparkling water. Generally, these beers have fruitier aromas associated with terpenes, esters, and aldehydes—all of which can be found in hops.

“The big question [brewers] should ask themselves is, ‘Why are people drinking the product?” says Scott Lafontaine, lead author of the paper that came out of that research, which examined “volatile and nonvolatile factors” that affect flavors and preferences in NA beers.

Hops are part of the equation. However, before deciding how to use them, you should “divorce yourself” from established recipes and think of NA beer “as its own thing,” says Anna Buxton, brewmaster at Portland, Oregon’s Steeplejack, which has the contract to brew for the NA craft brand Roaming Nobles.

Please Read Before Assembly

While new hop products, yeasts, and other innovations provide opportunities for brewers to make appealing NA products, there is no product on the horizon that can protect them the same way that alcohol does beer.

Each is a food product, and each is a target for pathogens and bacteria that pose a serious health threat. “If you see it as a beer product, you are making a mistake,” Buxton says.

Equipment for pasteurization—the final step in assuring that NA beers are safe to drink—is expensive, but contract pasteurization is increasingly easy to find. Yet that doesn’t reduce the need for careful cellar practices, the usefulness of preservatives and stabilizers, or the importance of monitoring pH. A pH of 4.2 or lower and 40 to 50 pasteurization units are “clear lines in the sand,” Lafontaine says.

What Do Drinkers Want?

The study characterizing American preferences was a collaboration among researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Berlin’s Brewing Research and Training Institute (better known as VLB). Other research conducted at VLB—on how the production technique of pilsners affects their chemistry and flavor perception—provides additional insight into consumer preference.

Lafontaine participated in both. After defending his Ph.D. at Oregon State—for research focused on determining quality metrics for aroma hops—he served as a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis. There, he worked on determining consumers’ preferences toward NA beer before conducting additional postdoc research at VLB. Lafontaine is now an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas.

He says the collaboration study offers proof that ester- and terpene-forward IPAs represent the “sodafication of beer,” even while consumers are moving away from sweet sodas.

The project included a soda, a seltzer, and a diverse set of 42 NA beers. After the researchers collected initial sensory and chemical data, they chose 12 NA beers that represented the most diverse flavor and chemical profiles, and they presented them for consumer analysis (by 129 northern Californians). A few takeaways:

  • Consumers were less satisfied with products—two lagers and a wheat beer—that they found stale and bitter, with malty, skunky, and stale aromas. They were more satisfied with NA beers—different lagers and wheat beers—that were sweet, cloying, and thick, and had aroma profiles that were more honey- and fruit-like.
  • They were less satisfied by a pale ale and an IPA that were hoppy, herbal, or grassy, with cheesy and black-tea notes, or had taste/mouthfeel profiles that were bitter, astringent, or thin. In contrast, more were satisfied with an IPA and a wheat beer that were less bitter and had aroma profiles that were hoppy, citrusy, stone-fruity, tropical, or floral. A citrusy, sweet radler was the most preferred.
  • The volatiles driving the aroma profiles of the preferred NAs were monoterpenes, terpene alcohols, esters, and aldehydes. These volatiles were negatively correlated with aromas of wort, malt, Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, dried yeast, and banana, indicating that they mask or suppress these aromas.
  • The compounds most positively correlated to citrus, lemon, and orange aromas were limonene, octanal, decanal, geranyl acetate, nerol, linalool, terpineol, and benzaldehyde.

The profiles that some IPAs share with soda should be obvious.

Trust the Process

Methods for producing NA beers fit into two main categories. One is a physical process that relies on removing ethanol from fully fermented beer. The other is a biological process that relies on restricting the formation of alcohol, and it doesn’t require significant capital investment. Popular approaches include arresting fermentation by producing unfermentable (or slightly fermentable) wort or pitching maltose- and maltotriose-negative yeast strains.

Lafontaine’s lab is evaluating 11 such strains to determine how their volatile profiles differ, and they’ll present the results in August at the World Brewing Congress in Minneapolis.

Research in Germany found that NA beers that are physically de-alcoholized have the lowest taste and aroma intensities and are the sourest, thinnest, and least sweet. Those produced by restricted fermentations, on the other hand, are more worty, thick, and sweet. However, the sampling of German NA beers might not be the most telling when it comes to craft brewing. Of the 20 NA beers examined, 19 were “nonalcoholic pilsner beer” or “nonalcoholic lager beer.” Only one was an IPA.

The researchers observed that combining treatments—for example, by blending de-alcoholized beer with beer kept below the legal NA limit—could produce NA beers with more harmonious profiles. The NA beers that had increased hop aroma were the most harmonious—particularly the nonalcoholic IPA. The researchers wrote that “even though dry-hopped character might be atypical for a pilsner-style beer” in Germany, dry hopping appears as a simple application to improve flavor in NA beers.

It is also an easier application for smaller brewers than blending. “Even a low amount of alcohol is important for flavor,” Lafontaine says. “But I don’t know if [many] craft brewers are ready to do this on a small scale. It is an extreme challenge.”

Hop Helpers

For the NA beers produced under contract for Roaming Nobles, Steeplejack uses arrested fermentation. “We are all trying to find ways to make arrested fermentation more delicious,” says Buxton, who discussed production and sensory in-depth at the MBAA District Northwest spring meeting.

“Fermented food tastes different and feels different in your mouth,” she says. Unfermented hop flavor is often one of the first unwanted qualities drinkers notice in NA IPAs. Dry hopping can help create more harmonious beers by masking worty, sweet flavors, but it doesn’t necessarily add texture or the flavors that occur during the biotransformation of hop compounds.

Advanced products—whether new or among those you may not have considered using before—may make up for some of those shortcomings. Buxton says she gives Roaming Nobles IPA a solid dose of CO2 extract in the whirlpool, “for the back-of-the-throat bitterness,” she says. “It helps your brain know it’s an IPA.”

Water-soluble oils provide many options for brewers seeking to boost aroma or other hop character. While the transfer of some hop compounds into beer is alcohol-dependent, research by Hopsteiner indicates that that’s less true for esters and terpene alcohols. There is a relatively small difference between NA beers and those of 3.5 percent ABV.

Because Steeplejack is in the Northwest, Buxton has greater access to new hop products. That might be an oil that adds texture, “like you get with first-wort hopping.” It might be one that tilts an undesirable tea-like character to one that’s more desirable herbal and grassy. “When I am talking with hop suppliers, that’s what I’m talking about,” she says. Those are discussions any brewer can have with suppliers.

The Other NA

There are good reasons for breweries to consider making hop waters instead of brewing NA beers, as well as lessons to be learned from them. They don’t have alcohol to add flavor or to make them as food-safe as beer itself, but they are “a lot easier to make consumer-safe,” says Paul Schneider, head brewer at Cinderlands in Pittsburgh.

“We saw the need for a nonalcoholic offering in our product range,” he says. “It’s very important for our vision, for hospitality.”

He began researching the production of hop water before he knew he would be making one. “There was that explosion of new hop products,” says. “I was deep into bench trials.” He estimates he tried more than four dozen cold-side hop products.

Hop Run hop water, released at the beginning of 2024, showcases the names of Citra and Mosaic. However, Schneider says he actually uses five different varieties in the hop water. “I don’t want to call attention to [the others] because they are more subtle,” he says. He’s open to changing those, but maintaining a consistent flavor is important. “I don’t see us doing varietals,” he says, but he is working on developing a second brand.

The recipe is proprietary, but he does share his intent and much about the process. “A lot of [hop waters] are low in intensity,” he says. “I want a ton of aroma. Modern hop flavor. A lot of them lose me when they start tasting like tea or like fruit.” Acidity and carbonation add structure.

He uses two-thirds pound per barrel of T-90 hops (most often Sabro) in the whirlpool. He adds cold-side products from three different providers—one for mouthfeel, one a fractionated hop oil, and one variety-specific—between the heat exchanger and brite tank.

Hop Run’s rent is cheap—the hop water ties up the brewhouse for only one day and a brite tank for only three.

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