Non-alcoholic beers have improved, and San Antonio stores carry some worth a sip

Dogged experimentation has led to the creation and marketing of some surprisingly successful alternatives to standard brews.

click to enlarge Athletic Brewing, Nada, Samuel Adams and Best Day Brewing all offer non-alcoholic beer options. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
Athletic Brewing, Nada, Samuel Adams and Best Day Brewing all offer non-alcoholic beer options.

My experience with Dry January, conducted a couple of years ago, was unconvincing, especially in the realm of no-alcohol cocktails. No Nogronis for me, thanks. Several bottles of dispirited spirits — some attempting to pass for tequila, others striking out in entirely new directions — currently gather dust on my bar.

And yet, the drum beat for cutting back on booze continues, and new — and perhaps actually improved— products appear on shelves every day. Among them are an ever-widening selection of non-alcoholic beers. Just to be clear, "non-alcoholic" beers can contain up to 0.5% alcohol. Only "alcohol-free" beers have absolutely none. How brewers achieve either of those gets a little complicated.

We don't need to go into it in depth — except to say that there are five basic ways alcohol can be removed, and two of them, reverse osmosis filtration and vacuum distillation/evaporation, are so expensive that only large brewers can usually afford to use them. All of these methods risk stripping out flavors, or not generating them in the first place, which can end up with off-notes not masked by alcohol.

Dogged experimentation, though, has led to the creation and marketing of some surprisingly successful alternatives to standard brews, among them several produced by Athletic Brewing, a pioneering brand well represented in San Antonio. The company makes more than a dozen styles, roughly half of which have turned up on local H-E-B, Central Market and Whole Foods shelves.

Having been bitter-bombed by overly hoppy West Coast brews in the past, IPAs aren't usually my first choice in beer. Unexpectedly, both Athletic's Run Wild IPA and Free Wave Hazy IPA come across as refreshing, not punishing. The Hazy further balances its hoppy dryness with tropical fruit notes. You might not mistake them for the "real" thing, but in my estimation, that's not so bad.

There's a modestly hazy hoppiness to Athletic's Upside Dawn Golden, reflected both in aroma and taste. It gave a clean and balanced impression overall with any bitterness mellowing as the beer warms. The maker also advertises Upside to be "crafted to remove gluten."

A healthy but not too exuberant foam precedes the Cerveza Atletica Light Copper, which seems positioned somewhere between a typical Mexican lager and a darker brew such as Negra Modelo. There's good, prickly carbonation and a pleasant, malty molasses quality that results in an appealing style all its own. A chance encounter with an Athletic representative at Central Market revealed that some darker expressions, such as the All Out Extra Dark should appear later, and that I should look for the personal favorite Oktoberfest again in early September.

The packaging of Best Day Brewing's White Belgian Style Wheat would have you believe that orange played a huge part in the aromatic and flavor profile. Not for me. Although I did get a whiff of grapefruit and even more of the advertised chamomile. Hazy and yeasty, the overall impression is pleasant, though not especially convincing as a witbier. Its calorie count of 65 is typical of many non-alcoholic offerings.

I was predisposed to like Dallas-brewed Nada "near beer" for the name alone, but nothing's in a name, it appears. For me, at least, the Pils was "clean," as advertised, but lacked character. Nada's Hazy IPA, which counts "dank" among its virtues, has an appealingly dry and hoppy aroma and a crisp flavor with a citrus peel kicker but little else. It does, however, clock in at just 30 calories.

Samuel Adams is a brewing behemoth in craft clothing, and for that reason I was predisposed not to like its Just the Haze IPA. Wrong. It poured with a big, foamy head and aromas of piney hops. There was a tamed bitterness on the palate further softened by a unique and almost creamy mouthfeel. I didn't feel I was sacrificing anything for virtue when it came to this "malt beverage."

Even more of a surprise came from a beer I never order in its full-octane form, the immensely popular Corona. The straightforwardly labeled Corona Non-Alcoholic opened with a little vegetal funkiness, I thought, but nailed the taste with a burst of lightly hoppy flavor that was bright, thirst-quenching and convincing — maybe even better than the original. Add lime and, January to July and beyond, nobody would know you were cheating.

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