They might be one of the lesser casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the once-regular blind tastings we've been holding for years at The Crafty Pint were among the myriad things to fall by the wayside in 2020. With the core team based in Melbourne, even as gatherings became possible in other states we still couldn't meet in the relatively small numbers required until last month.
But, as soon as circumstances changed, we figured it was time to get straight back into action, especially with so many new beers and a fair few new styles / categories rising to prominence over the year.
We only had time to squeeze in one tasting for 2020, however, and, given the year it's been, what else could we turn to other than non-alcoholic beer? How better to reacquaint yourself with friends from the industry you've not seen in more than nine months than with 25 booze-free beers?
In doing so, there were a couple of changes to our normal approach. For one, given the relative novelty of such beers in Australia – at least in the craft sphere – it meant we opened things up to include both international and big beer offerings. Secondly, we also featured beers in more than one style; while they were united by being 0.5 percent ABV or less, there were lagers, pales and other styles too, meaning the stewards had to indicate when we were moving from one to another, and when adjuncts were present. We also included more than one beer from producers who have a range rather than a solo offering.
In all other respects, the tasting was conducted as in the past. We put together a panel of experts from the industry, this time made up of beer writers / commentators, reps and a brewer, who were presented with the beers in flights of three (plus one set of four). Tasting and scoring then proceeded as outlined here.
The beers were sourced from a range of places: some from retailers; some direct from producers or distributors. This information, as well as the best before dates are recorded and indicated in the results below.
What sort of expectations does one have as you dive into a lineup of alcohol-free beers? Probably, a hope that at least some of them offer a reasonably decent impression of being beer. We know how challenging it can be to carry off a light or even mid-strength beer without signposting the lack of booze content, so how do brewers manage when there's next to nothing on that front to play with?
From pretty damn well to, well... let's just say there were a few on the lineup we couldn't quite get our heads around and wouldn't wish to revisit. Also, that we made sure we cracked something fancy once we were done as an extra special thanks to our panelists.
Yet it was a fascinating experience, particularly as it's one we couldn't have done on anything like this scale twelve months ago. Sure, there were some odd aromas and flavours, some extremely watery offerings, and a fair bit of astringent bitterness. But there were also some beers you might be able to pass in a glass to an unsuspecting mate and have a decent chance they'd not notice it was non-alcoholic.
As a rule, the pales and other craftier styles fared better than the lagers, although one of the biggest brands of them all featured very highly; would a craft beer drinker want to drink a 0 percent ABV macro lager when avoiding alcohol? Maybe not, but when a beer is put together this cleanly, credit where credit is due.
Given the quirkiness of what we were assessing, there was a fair bit of discussion around some of the entries, not to mention some interesting descriptors, with at least a handful proving polarising, including some of those in the upper reaches. But, for a sector of the market still in its infancy in Australia – and the craft beer world as a whole, there was a fair bit of promise on display.
The Top Twelve
In keeping with recent years, we're just featuring the top half of the field in order, with the remaining beers from the tasting listed in alphabetical order below. And, at the end of it all, congratulations are in order for one of the new local producers.
UpFlow produce a range of non-alcoholic beers – as well as playing in the "sports beer" realm – and, while two of their quartet landed outside the top half, their stout and IPA topped the pile.
Is it unfair to have such "big" beer styles featured alongside those designed to have less impact? Not really, as surely it's just as much of a challenge to get IPA and stout characteristics into such small beers without creating a mess.
UK producer Big Drop's Pine Trail Pale has claimed many an award in recent years and, were it not for a little disagreement across the panel, might have finished higher than its fourth. Meanwhile, Tinnies – the Liquorland brand brewed by Brick Lane – performed well, as its beers have done in past global beer competitions. What's more, you'd have found at least one or two panellists willing to go into bat for pretty much any of the beers in the twelve.
Certainly, it will be interesting to see how this space looks in a year or two if demand is there and brewers focus more attention on such beers.
1. UpFlow Stout (AU) – from brewery – best before date (BBF) 15/04/22
2. UpFlow IPA (AU) – from brewery – BBF 15/04/22
3. Heineken 0.0 (NL) – Dan Murphy's, Collingwood – BBF 04/02/21
4. Big Drop Pine Trail Pale Ale (UK) – from distributor – BBF 01/07/21
5. Tinnies Ultra Low Alc Hoppy Ale (AU) – Liquorland, Brunswick East – BBF 19/09/21
6. Pistonhead Flat Tire Dry-Hopped Lager (SE) – CraftZero, BBF 11/05/21
7. Hawkesbury Brewing Co Prohibition Pale Ale (AU) – from brewery – BBF 22/09/21
8. NORT by Modus Operandi (AU) – Dan Murphy's, Brunswick – BBF 05/06/21
9. Heaps Normal XPA (AU) – Blackhearts & Sparrows, Brunswick East – BBF 10/11/21
10. Weihenstephan Non-alcoholic Original Helles (DE) – Dan Murphy's, Brunswick – BBF 04/06/21
11. Australian Sports Brewing Co ZERO+ Pale Ale (AU) – from brewery – BBF 11/09/21
12. Athletic Brewing Co Run Wild IPA (US) – CraftZero – packaged on 19/08/20
The other beers featured in the tasting were Adnam's Ghost Ship (UK), Big Drop Uptown Lager (UK), Carlton Zero (AU), Coopers Birrell (AU), Holgate Love All (AU), Mornington Peninsula Brewery Free (AU), Peroni Libera (IT), Sobah Lemon Aspen Pilsner, Pepperberry IPA and Finger Lime Cerveza (AU), UpFlow Pale and Draught (AU), Weihenstephan Hefe (DE).
You can view past blind tasting features here. Thanks to the panelists and three stewards for giving up a Thursday evening to make it happen.