A few years ago, asking for ‘no or low’ alcohol beer, wine, or spirits at a bar might have elicited a blank stare, or a recommendation for a soft drink.
But now it seems that every beer brand has their own NoLo version of their product, and wine, and spirits might not be far behind. A partnership between the University of Adelaide and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has been recently announced, in part to create better NoLo wine.
These NoLo products aren’t being marketed to those who don’t drink, rather as an option for those who do drink, who want to drink less, or have something that’s a healthier choice.
So, what’s the science behind NoLo wine and beer, and how do they even work?
Let’s start with beer, arguably the easier of the two to make.
Professor Benjamin Schulz, a University of Queensland biochemist, is a self-confessed ‘craft beer snob’.
Last year he was part of a team that published a study which used mass spectrometry to analyse the proteins in different types of beer.
He explains that NoLo beer isn’t just beer flavoured soft drink, but a regular beer – made with grain, hops, yeast, and water, with the alcohol removed afterwards.
“One approach is to make a normal full strength alcohol beer, but then remove the alcohol with a process like distillation, or reverse osmosis. It’s my understanding that’s the techniques that’s used by most big commercial breweries around the world,” he says.
Distillation is a process where the ‘regular’ beer is heated up – because water, alcohol, and other elements of the beer have different boiling points, you can evaporate some parts of the beer but not others. You can then mix the water and other elements of the beer back together but leave the alcohol behind.
Reverse osmosis on the other hand uses a thin membrane that lets through only water and alcohol.
These processes work relatively well for simple beers like lager. However, for more complicated hoppy beers, distillation ‘destroys’ the beer – removing many of the delicate flavour compounds. To do this with less flavour compound removal, distillation is sometimes done in a vacuum at higher pressure. This makes the boiling point lower and produces less changes to the flavour of the beer as a result.
Reverse osmosis is better but still isn’t perfect. These floral, fruity or bitter compounds might not come through the same way in a NoLo beer.
Schulz notes that there are other – more experimental – ways of making low alcohol beer.
One approach is to just start with less sugar. Less sugar means less food for yeast to snack on to then turn into ethanol.
There’s also the yeast that’s used in the beer. The genus used, called Saccharomyces is normally very good at turning a sugar product abundant in beer, called maltose, into alcohol. However, other yeast strains – such as Saccharomycodes ludwigii, or Zygosaccharomyces lentus are ‘maltose negative strains’. This means that they don’t use maltose to produce alcohol, and therefore they produce much less alcohol in the end product.
These methods are more commonly used among craft beer producers who don’t have the expensive equipment and can more easily experiment with different strains or ways to create their product.
If you’re looking for a new NoLo beer to try, Schultz says these craft beers using different yeast strains could be the way to go.
“I have tasted a couple of non-alcoholic craft beers, sort of trying to use the style of an XPA, and they were made with yeast that didn’t ferment maltose, and they actually tasted amazingly good,” he says.
“They weren’t as spicy and sort of flavorful as the alcoholic equivalents, but they were really, really tasty and refreshing.”
As the alcohol concentration of a product goes up, the harder it is to make the equivalent non-alcoholic version taste like the original. This means that NoLo wine is more difficult to make taste like wine than what beer, and spirits are even harder again.
Dr Wes Pearson is a research scientist at AWRI, who also makes wine at a McLaren Vale boutique winery. He knows better than most that their work is cut out for them to make better NoLo wine.
“We’re trying to make a wine that looks and smells and tastes like traditional wine, but it’s a healthy choice,” he told Cosmos.
“Those that have been drinking wine for 20 or 30 years … you’re not fooling them with the current products that are available.”
Part of the reason it’s so tricky to get right is because wine is around 12% alcohol, compared to beer’s 5-6% alcohol. This higher percentage means the ethanol is much more prominent in the way the wine tastes and feels. Remove it, and the wine suddenly isn’t really wine anymore.
“Ethanol provides a texture or viscosity. It makes the wine thicker. There’s also a sensation of burning or heat that you get from ethanol,” says Pearson.
“Plus, beer has ingredients. Wine doesn’t have ingredients – it’s just grape juice that’s been fermented. So, your tools to rebuild that mouthfeel and that texture that you lose when you take the ethanol out [is significantly less than beer].”
Making NoLo wine is done in the same way as beer, you can either use distillation or reverse osmosis. However, maltose negative yeast strains aren’t useable for wine because grape juice is full of sucrose – which all yeast can easily devour to turn into alcohol.
Using just distillation, some wines fair better than others when becoming NoLo. Pearson suggests that light white wine varieties like sauvignon blanc lose less of their flavour compounds than heavier reds.
“I’ll be the first to admit, if you had a NoLo wine five years ago, and you had one today, today’s are miles and miles better. So, we are making headway,” he says.
“There are some excellent sauvignon blancs what you wouldn’t even know are low alcohol. In my opinion, the sparkling wines and the sauvignon blancs are probably the closest currently to their traditional counterparts.”
The expansion of NoLo wine in the last few years has been immense – according to Wine Australia NoLo production has grown 593% between 2017 and 2021. Still, only 1% of grape wine drunk in Australia in 2021 was NoLo wine.
Pearson hopes that as NoLo wine improves and the demand gets higher, it’ll not only be a bigger market share, but also able to be sold at a similar price point to regular wine.
“These products, they’re actually expensive to make. You have to get the grapes, ferment them, store them, and then you have to have this expensive technology to remove the ethanol. And then you also lose volume!”
“You can go out and buy an $1000 bottle wine tomorrow, but there’s no $1000 bottles of non-alcoholised wine. There’s not a lot of premium products in this space.
“If we can solve the mouthfeel problem we can start to make these wines look a lot more like traditional wines, that opens up that whole realm of premiumisation.”