Over the past couple decades, craft beer has undergone a creative renaissance. But its ugly cousin, non-alcoholic beer, refused to keep pace. Even though NA beer is actually growing in popularity—its sales are up 80 percent from five years ago—it's rare that anyone tries to revolutionize brewing techniques or flavors. Occasionally, though, someone will come along and say they have achieved the impossible: a NA beer that actually resembles beer. The latest group to make that claim is Radeberger, claiming most people can’t distinguish its Clausthaler Amber Dry Hopped from regular beer at blind tastings. I wanted to put that claim to the test.
First, a bit about how this particular non-alcoholic beer is made: Radeberger uses Cascade hops in a technique known as dry-hopping. For those not up on their beer lingo, dry-hopping is the process of adding hops after the initial brewing and cooling process. According to Radeberger, the late hop addition results in a taste that is more like modern craft beer.
To find out if this experiment passed muster, I recruited Crimson Krier-Glading, manager and beer buyer for Mission Dolores, one of Brooklyn’s top beer bars, for a completely blind taste test—I brought her a pint of the Clausthaler but never mentioned anything about non-alcoholic beer.
As she put her nose to the glass, she immediately knew something was up. “This smells like unfermented wort,” she commented astutely. Wort is essentially beer before the brewer adds yeast. As yeast eats through the wort, it creates alcohol. Therefore, though Krier-Glading never specifically identified the brew as being non-alcoholic, describing it as “unfermented wort” is about as close as you can come. Dry-hopping is intended mostly to add hop characteristics to a beer’s smell, but it wasn’t enough to cover anything up here. “It smells like grain,” Krier-Glading added. “Like Grape-Nuts.”
Tasting left the same impressions, as she once again compared it to wort. “It’s like what a home-brewer tastes before they pitch their yeast.” The verdict: Though there is nothing wrong with Clausthaler Amber Dry Hopped, it certainly doesn’t do a very good impression of beer, at least not on an experienced palate.
If you’re used to drinking non-alcoholic beers, all of this is probably moot. Similar complaints have been levied against NA beers before. And by typical NA beer standards, this Clausthaler is no worse than other drinkable NA brews like Bitburger Drive. But will dry-hopping be a game-changer for non-alcoholic beer? Not yet.
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