Heaps Normal beer, extraordinary science
Despite a varied market internationally, alcohol-free (AF) beer options in Australia were long restricted to the bland malt water that you find on the supermarket shelves. However, a recent boom in the industry has seen established craft breweries adding non-alcoholic options to their range and the opening of several new breweries specialising in alcohol-free brews. Heaps Normal is one of the booze-less breweries leading the transformation thanks to the brewing abilities of Head Brewer Ben Holdstock.
“Alcohol-free beers have been around for a while but have not really been on the radar here in Australia – kind of weird for a country that loves beer so much,” explained Ben. “I think there are a whole range of factors coming together that has helped the growth of the category recently. The craft beer movement changed the way people drink and what people expect from a beer. In a way, this has paved the way for all kinds of different beers and AF beers are no exception. I think COVID-19 may have also played into it a bit. 2020 was a tough year and many people have reconsidered their priorities in life as a result.”
Their first (and currently only) beer, Quiet XPA, is an easy-drinking hop-forward ale that could easily be mistaken for a full-strength brew. So how exactly do they achieve what so many have failed before?
Many of the stock-standard alcohol-free beers ditch the booze using physical methods for dealcoholisation, in which the alcohol is removed after fermentation. One of the oldest ways to do this is based on the fact that alcohol is more volatile (easily evaporated) than water, so by simply heating the beer after fermentation the alcohol can be evaporated away. Breweries can also use vacuum evaporation which lowers the boiling point of the alcohol and therefore allows the alcohol to be removed at lower temperatures, decreasing some of the impacts on the final product. Unfortunately, many of the original aromas and flavours of the beer are lost or altered due to the extreme conditions of these physical processes. This leads to the often bland and thin beers that most associate with alcohol-free. However, Heaps Normal avoid this loss of flavour by using a range of biological processes that limit ethanol formation during beer fermentation.
“We make a few tweaks at specific points in the process to control the amount of alcohol produced,” clarified Ben. “We brew like this, so we don't have to remove any alcohol post-fermentation. The beer retains a lot of the natural flavour compounds produced during fermentation but without any of the alcohol.”
Those specific tweaks that Ben mentions? He’s understandably holding onto the secret, however, a large player in the process developed by Ben and the Heaps Normal team is a certain strain of our favourite single-celled organism, yeast.
“We are currently brewing with a Saccharomyces cerevisiae variety that is selective in the carbohydrates that it can metabolise,” explained Ben. “This is part of how we control the alcohol produced during fermentation. We are also trialling a bunch of new yeast strains at the moment. We are hoping to find some new strains that will be suitable for a range of alcohol-free beer styles.”
While most brewers are only familiar with Saccharomyces yeasts, scientists have been testing the beer-producing ability of several non-traditional yeast strains, with promising results for cold-adapted yeast genera collected from East Antarctica like Mrakia. These cold-tolerant strains are ideal for alcohol-free brewing techniques like “Cold Contact Fermentation”, which limits the formation of alcohol by combining a long fermentation time with low temperatures. Another well-used biological process for dealcoholisation is “arrested fermentation”, in which brewers inactivate or remove the yeast before they can produce alcohol in high amounts. By exposing the brew to almost freezing conditions, the brewer can rapidly cool the fermenting beer down and limit the yeast's activity.
“We are looking at releasing more beers soon - we are working on a new beer right now and have plans to release a few more into our range as we grow,” said Ben. “We have a lot of R&D work ahead of us for every new beer we brew. It is a bit of uncharted territory to brew alcohol-free for a lot of beer styles. For so long lagers have been the only option. I also think we can't downplay the role of ethanol as a flavour compound in beer and the way it interacts with other ingredients so there will be some challenges with big flavoursome beers like IIPAs and stouts for example.”
Yes, that’s right, we can expect more styles to join Heaps Normal’s solitary XPA. And with more alcohol-free options at bottle shops and bars across Australia, we anticipate that many of the expectations and social pressure within our drinking culture will continue to shift.
“Alcohol has become ubiquitous in our culture, whether we are celebrating or commiserating, it is around us and sometimes it can be hard to avoid,” said Ben. “We want to empower people to be able to make a choice around their drinking habits and drinking occasions whilst still being able to enjoy all the things they love in life. We want to help make that option a normal choice rather than a judgement.”