I’ve already written enough about non-alcoholic beer as 2020 comes to a close that I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but with Dry January upon us you can expect to see more N/A coverage as I continue to explore reducing my own alcohol consumption. Having said this all quite frequently recently, I won’t get into the surge in N/A brands available now; I’ll simply summarize with the following.
In 2021, non-alcoholic beer is both:
A. More widely available than ever, from a greater array of breweries, and in a wider variety of recognizable craft beer styles, and
B. Higher quality, on average, than it’s ever been before.
Thus, you might consider this to be a golden age for non-alcoholic beer, which has left behind much of its stigma and improved itself in the process. And naturally benefitting from the upswing is a company like Stratford, CT’s Athletic Brewing Co., which was founded to exclusively explore the possibilities within non-alcoholic craft beer styles. While many other companies were producing only a single, non-alcoholic light lager, Athletic was experimenting with non-alcoholic IPA, stout and more, laying foundations for N/A offshoots that become much more common since Athletic was founded in 2017. Indeed, since I started at Paste in the middle of the 2010s, the non-alcoholic beer scene has changed to such a degree that it’s practically unrecognizable now.
And yet, I’ve never actually had a chance to do a full tasting of the Athletic lineup, until now. I’ve got five beers here, falling into an array of styles, from a stab at “Mexican lager,” to an approximation of non-alcoholic stout or the vague concept of a non-alcoholic “double” IPA. Let’s taste each and see which styles translate best to their non-alcoholic versions. As with “standard” non-alcoholic beer in the U.S., these are all less than .5% ABV.
You can guarantee that any non-alcoholic beer producer will have either a lager or basic golden ale at the heart of their lineup, being the building block of the segment and the first thing that your average beer consumer is likely to sample. For Athletic, that’s Upside Dawn Golden Ale, which the brewery describes as “refreshing, clean, balanced, light-bodied,” with subtle aromas and “floral and earthy notes.” This is clearly meant to be your consummate easy drinker.
On the nose, Upside Dawn hints at both grain and hop impressions, with notes of crisp grain (think like rolled oats, or oatmeal) and slightly catty, fresh hop pellets. All in all, it’s fairly mild an unobtrusive. On the palate, this is slightly malty in nature, with mild sweetness and a citrus/earthy combination that evokes lemon zest and lemongrass. There’s a “wortiness” to the malt profile that becomes something of a consistent presence in all of these beers—to those who aren’t homebrewers, “wort” is the sugary liquid you have after steeping your grains, before the beer has been fermented. I can see this being a somewhat divisive flavor to drinkers, but if you can acclimate to it here it’s fairly pleasant. Also present is a subtle spiciness, which reminds me of the sort of barley spice you might find in a Single Pot Still Irish whiskey that makes use of unmalted barley.
Athletic’s year-round IPA clocks in at 70 calories, and I assume this is likely the company’s top seller, if not the golden ale. The priority here seems to be that Run Wild is gentle and approachable, rather than bombastic in its flavor presentation.
On the nose, this one evokes honey, black tea maltiness and wort, with a light sweetness. There are some delicate florals, and a thyme-like herbaceousness, but the nose isn’t really a star vehicle for hop aromatics, which some drinkers might find surprising. On the palate this is likewise on the more delicate side, with a gentle honeyed sweetness and light florals. In comparison with some of the other non-alcoholic IPAs I’ve been consuming recently, this is far less bitter. In fact, the overall profile doesn’t really scream “IPA” to me—it might be more accurately described like an old school, session-strength pale ale. Regardless, it’s a light, pleasant profile that is easy to enjoy.
Like several other non-alcoholic stouts I’ve seen, the word “stout” doesn’t appear anywhere on the can of this beer from Athletic, but it is used in the descriptions online, making me wonder at the rationale for that particular choice. Regardless, this is a non-alcoholic beer style to which I’ve been paying extra attention lately, as the idea of a sessionable, non-adjunct, guiltless dark beer is one of my personal fantasies for weeknight drinking. To date, I’ve found beers in this style to be something of a mixed bag, but there’s a sense that progress is always being made toward future breakthroughs.
On the nose, this one reads as pleasantly roasty, with a lightly malty aroma. It seems perhaps a bit less overtly sweet than the others, with hints of nuttiness and a slight tinge of smoke. Pretty on the money, as far as porter/stout aromatics go. On the palate, the first things to register are nuts and moderate roastiness—no shortage of that—although they lead into a slightly odd aftertaste that evokes slight grassy or vegetal notes, along with hints of sour smoke. There’s something slightly metallic or mineral about the profile that is hard to put one’s finger on, but ultimately it’s far more genuinely “stouty” than the non-alcoholic coffee stout concept I recently tasted from BrewDog—that one tasted nice, but was overtaken by coffee to the point that it evoked “iced coffee” more than “beer.” Here, there’s no question of what this is meant to be. It still feels something like an embryonic concept, but if I had to stop drinking tomorrow I’d be glad that beer like this existed.
This is an interesting choice for a non-alcoholic spin, as this beer is described on the label as “light copper” in style (which means nothing to us, really) but is clearly meant to evoke amber Mexican lagers—think Dos XX Ambar or Victoria. The brewery notes it was brewed with German Vienna and Munich malts, in a nod to Mexico’s roots in German brewing tradition and Vienna lager. In general, this isn’t a style I’ve ever seen attached to non-alcoholic beer before, so Athletic has hit on something fairly novel here.
On the nose, this one has a similar “black tea”-like maltiness that is found in several of these other beers, along with subtle bread crust, honey and caramel notes. On the palate it’s malty sweet, with faint honey and breadiness, along with light grassiness and green tea. Bitterness is very low, and overall this seems calculated for easy enjoyment. It’s not the most complex of the group, but it drinks effortlessly if you enjoy a little malty sweetness. In fact if you’ve ever enjoyed the drink known as Malta, this one might be right up your alley.
This is where things start getting esoteric in an odd way, because really, how can you define the idea of “double IPA” in a beer without alcohol? Which is to say, if a regular craft brewery brewed a beer that was 5% ABV, and then labeled it as “DIPA” with the simple justification that it had “double the hops” in it, the consumer would naturally respond with “woah, wait a minute, it doesn’t work that way.” Some styles, such as DIPA, imperial stout, Belgian tripel or quad are simply defined in part by their alcoholic strength, and it’s an integral part of what makes them unique. Hence, Athletic skirts the issue a bit here by changing the wording to “double hop IPA,” but the concept still reads a little strangely. Regardless, it’s at least clear what you should expect: A beer that is significantly more hop forward and defined by hop flavors than the relatively judicious Run Wild IPA.
And indeed, that is what Free Way delivers, although its execution seems to reflect Athletic’s overall preference for balance and approachability rather than outright bombastic flavors. On the nose, this one is fresh and dank, with some resin and grapefruit juice, as well as a more herbaceous lemon thyme component. It’s a nice nose; a bit of a throwback that makes me think of some of the West Coast DIPAs we all used to love, in the vein of say, Firestone Walker Double Jack. On the palate, there’s a bit of balancing tea-like maltiness and traces of honey, but this is overall on the drier side, nicely balanced with a mild bitterness. It’s nowhere near as punchy in terms of either bitterness or explosive hop flavors as some of the non-alcoholic BrewDog IPAs I tasted recently, but it’s very well balanced, trying less to replicate modern hazy IPA (an extremely unbalanced style) while still making something that prioritizes hop flavors nicely. Overall, I would find myself reaching for this one over Athletic’s own Run Wild because it’s more of the hop showcase I want in an IPA, and I appreciate its delicate, lingering bitterness.
All in all, this might actually be my favorite of the bunch, which I wouldn’t have expected. It’s yet another instance of non-alcoholic beer succeeding in generally replicating another style we would likely have thought impossible in the past, and as such another reason why I remain excited about the N/A beer market.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.