There’s no denying that non-alcoholic beer has come a long way in the last half-decade in particular. It’s been been a renaissance, helped along by a double-pronged revitalization of the category, via both improved taste profiles and rehabilitation of N/A beer’s deeply uncool cultural image. The category itself had simply been the butt of jokes for so long that the enthusiasm we’ve seen for N/A beers in the back half of the 2010s feels fresh and exciting. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that there’s far more variety in the category than there’s ever been before.
One arena where N/A beer has struggled more, however, has been in accurately translating beloved craft beer styles to satisfying non-alcoholic versions. Whereas several big brewers have pretty much nailed the profile of a crisp, drinkable N/A/ lager at this point—I still feel like Heineken 0.0 honestly tastes better than Heineken’s flagship 5% ABV lager—exemplary brands of N/A pale ale, stout or wheat beer have been harder to come across. It hasn’t necessarily been for lack of trying, but all too often these attempts at styles such as non-alcoholic IPA end up stranded in craft beer’s own uncanny valley. One might conclude that alcohol is simply a more important aspect of these styles than in light lager, whether we realize it or not.
Progress has been made, however. Brooklyn Brewery, for instance, released one of the better N/A craft brews I’ve had to date last winter, in the form of their hoppy amber lager Special Effects—and word on the street is that there’s another version coming this winter as well, with Dry January firmly in mind.
But there are also companies that have built themselves entirely around this emerging market, and it certainly seems like the demand has been there to see them thrive. One of the most notable is Stratford, CT’s Athletic Brewing Co., which focuses entirely on N/A versions of classic craft beer styles, including golden ale, lager, IPA and even stout. They’re one of the few companies that has hitched its wagon entirely to the N/A horse.
Now, to date I’ve never had a chance to sample Athletic Brewing Co.’s product, although I’ve always been curious to do so. I’ve had some other attempts at non-alcoholic styles such as IPA, and although I’ve wanted them to be satisfying, they can rarely make that claim. And so, when I received a press release about Athletic Brewing Co.’s newest release, an N/A IPA brewed in collaboration with farm-to-table chef Chris Cosentino, I was particularly intrigued. This seemed like the time to revisit the concept of non-alcoholic IPA once again, and see how things have progressed. Here’s how the company describes what they’re calling AfterShift IPA:
The limited-release IPA, AfterShift, is a crisp and complex beer born out of an unlikely camaraderie between chef and brewer—both rule-breakers and taste-makers colluding to bring something to the table like never before. AfterShift boasts a refreshing blend of Lemon Verbena and Bay Leaves, made even more dynamic with Cascade hops. A delicate malt profile made of Triticale and Organic Vienna varieties plays backup to the assertive and aromatic symphony of the hops and herbs. The finish is a bright and effervescent burst of freshness and is both fragrant and mouth-watering.
AfterShift is less a straight-up attempt at mimicking IPA, then, and more of a culinary chimera with the addition of lemon verbena and bay leaf. Let’s get to tasting, and see how this plays out.
Before I even stick my nose in this glass, you have to note the hazy appearance and what that is meant to imply to the consumer. We’re in the middle of the hazy, juicy IPA era, and the physical appearance of a beer like this has clearly been calculated to fit the mode of what is currently considered aesthetically pleasing. This would be fine with me, except for the fact that the actual profile of AfterShift does little to evoke the hazy IPAs it wants to visually reference, potentially setting up the drinker to expect something this beer isn’t going to deliver. Personally, I think it would have been more fitting to the taste profile if this was a clear beer.
On the nose, AfterShift displays a one-two punch of herbaceousness and bright citrus. The lemon note is strong and piercing, unmistakable, but then gives way to a very green profile of fresh herbs, which gives the nose an oddly savory dimension. I’m not a big fan of the use of “fresh” as a catch-all descriptor, but it fits here—the combination of grassiness, citrus and herbaceousness makes AfterShift smell distinctly like an herb garden or greenhouse.
On the palate, it quickly becomes clear that this is not an attempt at making an N/A version of modern hazy IPA—”juicy” this is not, despite the appearance. The citrus has a much more bright but brittle dimension, a combination of zest and pith that also contribute moderate bitterness. There’s an astringency that is slightly soapy, but it’s also quite herbal, with prominent notes of bay leaf and resinous rosemary. It’s quite dry overall, which likewise pushes the profile further away from what we expect in “hazy IPA,” and more in the overall direction of the West Coast IPAs of yore—albeit, much more herbaceous than most of them ever were. It’s crisp on the palate, and somewhat thin of body, which is something you sort of expect in N/A ales when compared to the real thing.
All in all, AfterShift has a profile that was something of a shock to the system on first sip, but one that I began growing to appreciate on subsequent sips. There will be drinkers who see the beer in their glass, expect something juicy and semi-sweet, and are instantly repelled. But those who are able to frame the beer more in the mold of a moderately bitter, uniquely herbal West Coast IPA may actually find it right up their alley. It strikes me as a beer that simply demands a certain period of adjustment to its style of presentation—once you get there, it has its charms.
Would I still prefer to simply find a non-alcoholic IPA one of these days that tastes exactly like the real thing? Sure. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get there, but I’m far more optimistic about the prospect now than I was five years ago, I can tell you that. The progress is real, and this category is getting more attractive every day.
Brewery: Athletic Brewing Co.
City: Stratford, CT
ABV: Non-alcoholic (less than .5% ABV)
Availability: Limited release, 12 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.