There has been a…uh…problem with Non-alcoholic beers…
Ever since the first fumbling attempts, back in the Buckler and Beck’s Blue and O-Doul’s and Kaliber days, the same problem afflicted every single beer made with no octane involved:
They all sucked.
Not that they were all undrinkable. I used to down a Buckler, once in a while, such as the two years in the mid-90s when I went dry, and I liked Buckler. But it was NOT, by any definition, beer. It didn’t taste much of anything like real beer unless you took a watery domestic Pilsner like Coors Light and cut it by half with club soda. But it was crisp and refreshing and you could taste some hops, if very little malt, and on a hot summer day, it would do. Unless you wanted a beer and then it would not.
The original idea for making a non-alcoholic beer said that lighter beers – Pale ales, lagers, etc. – would be the medium for the omission of alcohol from the brewing process. It DID seem logical: as you introduce malts, with all that sugar, into your yeasts, alcohol is the result. A LOT of what has been missing from NA beers is Body (no pun intended), richness, depth.
For the past two years, I have been INUNDATED with samples from a couple dozen producers, 36 beers in all, and tasted about another fifteen that I found and bought. ALL but one were TOTAL disappointments. MAJOR fails. I suspected, however, that if anybody did finally come up with a NA beer than actually TASTES LIKE BEER (That is ALL I ask: drink it and not have to say, “Not bad, for an NA.”) it would be Deschutes or Reuben’s Brews or Cigar City or Stone or some certifiably GREAT brewery.
All the current attempts – even a couple of ridiculously bad darks – were all shallow and unconvincing. NOT credible as beers at all. NONE was produced by a great brewery; most from start-ups seeking to capitalize on a non-alcoholic craze just coming into its infancy. The “beers” were more like weak, slightly (or OVER) hoppy grain/hops tea with almost no backbone. And ALL the PR materials trumpeted the peripheral aspects of the beers:
“The PERFECT choice for after-workout refreshment, when you don’t want something packed with calories!“
“Will NOT weigh you down!“
“If you’re watching your caloric and alcoholic intake, these are the beers for you!“
“Want a GREAT IPA but don’t want to risk a DUI? Try ___________!!“
It got to the point at which I started sending PR firms a form letter saying, “If you REALLY, honestly feel that these beers you’re promoting taste enough like regular, full-alcohol beers that they fooled YOU, please send them on. If you have ANY hesitation about that, please just keep ’em.” Magically, the shipments of samples largely dried up. NONE, except for Crux “No Mo”, even came close.
Honestly, I began to think making a beer without alcohol that tastes exactly like an actual beer was not going to EVER be possible and was wishing everyone would stop even trying.
THEN…UPS just delivered a Box. I Opened it and there were four cans of beer lying there: Two Deschutes Black Butte Porter…and two labeled “Deschutes Black Butte Non Alcoholic” I became genuinely nervous. I firmly believe, if ANYBODY in the Pacific Northwest could make an NA beer that tastes like actual beer, it would almost have to be Deschutes. I’m holding a can of each and prayin’ this works but…so far, out of almost two dozen brands and fifty total beers, NO ONE but Crux has come at all close. A bit of sweat. A couple of hours refrigeration. Fingers crossed…
A lurking thought: with all these breweries trying to do this, doesn’t it figure that somebody would eventually do it? That seems logical, right? I mean, hundreds of brewers are working at eliminating alcohol. If it’s possible, somebody will eventually find it, right?
Deschutes got there first.
SO…here it is, folks: a genuine freakin’ Landmark, one of those Moments in the evolution of…well, I was going to say “beer”, but really anything. When something comes along that just plain changes the paradigm of a culture or school of thought or even a product class, like Deschutes Black Butte NA absolutely has done, the bar, the minimum requirement for quality moves in an almost visible way.
The folks at Deschutes have a particular fondness for the OG Black Butte and why not? It WAS, after all, their flagship beer, the very first one released by the new brewery in Bend, flying in the face of a brewing landscape dominated heavily by light ales. And Black Butte has become the largest-selling Porter in America – been that for a LONG damned time. In terms of a beer that they understood well enough to reengineer, it was logical to use Black Butte.
Folks, Black Butte NA is not QUITE identical to Black Butte but, as a Porter, a dark ale, and just simply a beer, it is absolutely legit – MILES better than any other NA that I have tasted yet. Black Butte NA IS REAL BEER. If I hid the can and gave you one, you’d never guess it’s an NA in a million years. I have tasted a LOT, a depressing number, actually, of real Porters and Stouts in the past ten years that did not have the body, depth, roasted flavors, and nice, edgy hops of this beer. I have BOUGHT and paid for Porters that were not as nearly good as this.
I wrote a couple of fanatical posts on Facebook before pasting most of it into here and, in the wake of those, got a message from Gary Fish, Deschutes founder who told me that this beer is the result of a new process which is secretive enough that there is little information available to the general public. The company which sells the process had this to say about it:
“…a unique technology that gently manages alcohol.
It is a unique process to multi-brew the beer while maintaining flavor and aroma.
The Beer fully ferments to create the most mentally satisfying non-alcoholic beer drinking experience.“
I’m an adequately intelligent man and I have NO idea what gently managed alcohol would be or how it would be mentally satisfying. I’ve always just sipped it and swallowed it and I’m just hoping that this doesn’t involve either pouring it into your ear or rubbing it on your head. Gently, of course. And while the choice of description may have me a tad stymied, if this is the process that resulted in Black Butte being a transcendent NA, these folks (whose name I have left out because, well, y’know, secrecy) can do whatever they like with my beer, any time.
This removal of the alcohol is a sort of Holy Grail of the NA challenge. It’s been tried before, a LOT, but has flopped harder than Trump University. If someone truly has managed to invent a process by which, theoretically, any beer could have its rocket fuel extracted, then that opens up genuinely exciting possibilities and means that I will have to drive to wherever they are and kiss this person right smack on the mouth…and I may use some tongue. The idea of being able to drink five Jubelales in one day is sorta MY Holy Grail, and this revives that little fantasy that I had tragically hit over the head with a crab mallet and buried in the landfill of my subconscious.
Please understand that I cannot claim to have tried every NA beer now being made. There are 8,000 breweries in the US and the number TRYING to make NA beers is growing FAST. One of the people I trust most about brewing, my FB friend Wayne Wambles, Cigar City brewmaster, told me about his low-alcohol beer and I betcha it’s also excellent but I can’t find it anywhere around these parts. There may well be some NAs around that are in a league with BlackButte NA but I promise you they are not better.
I am literally slapped flat by this stuff. Given my age and a dire illness in 1995, my body chemistry has been scrambled in a way that makes it almost impossible to drink more than MAYBE two beers in any given day. (I had all my blood replaced during my eight weeks in the hospital and was on dialysis for four weeks) Now, on the downside, I will, once again, have everyone who reads about this stuff convinced anew that I am either a blind fan boy or even on the take from Deschutes. Neither is true but here I am raving about Black Butte NA.
Make no mistake about this: the liquid that I poured out of the can in the photo is a slam-dunk Achievement; the first effective volley in the exploration of beer without the delight/curse of alcohol. Suffice it to say that this is a bona fide Game Changer in non-alcoholic beers and, if you love dark ales at all, one you should try, anyway, and never even miss What’s Not There.
To Gary Fish and his crew down there in Bend, BRAVO. I am pleased almost beyond words…
As a non-alcoholic beer: 100 Points