Melbourne’s first lockdown didn’t go well for me. Like the rest of the city, I felt stressed, anxious and frustrated – feelings I tried to banish with alcohol. A glass of wine with dinner often turned into a bottle finished on the couch. And “a couple of beers” was reliably several cans followed by several whiskies. The bad feelings didn’t go away.
When the second lockdown was announced, I knew I couldn’t do it again. Not that way. I started looking more seriously into non-alcoholic beers, an area I’ve been vaguely interested in for a couple of years.
For people used to drinking craft beer, the options used to be grim: Heineken, Corona, Peroni and a bunch of other bland international lagers. Germany’s Erdinger and Weihenstephaner were the only two I ever bothered with, with a preference for the wheated versions. Wheat imparts a thicker, fuller mouthfeel in a beer, which is important when alcohol is absent (pure ethanol has a rich, almost oily consistency).
Things improved in 2017, when Queensland-based Gamilaroi psychologist Clinton Schultz launched non-alcoholic beer brand Sobah with a lemon aspen pilsner, and later a pepperberry IPA and Mexican-style finger-lime “cerveza”.
Melbourne’s Upflow joined the sober party in June 2020, with a stout, a wheat beer, a pale ale and a session IPA. Canberra’s Heaps Normal followed quickly in July 2020, with its flagship Quiet XPA (extra pale ale).
I’ve drunk all three brands extensively, but over the past month of sobriety, it’s the Quiet XPA’s fresh, mildly tropical mix of Cascade, Simcoe and Kohatu hops I can’t get enough of. It reminds me of Balter Brewing’s genre-defining XPA, which in my opinion is one of the most exquisitely balanced and versatile beers in Australia. A touch of wheat malt almost, almost makes up for the lack of alcohol (we’ll get there one day).
I’ve now drunk two of my local bottle-os dry (find your closest stockist here) and have a slab on backorder directly from the company itself. Some nights I drink a fourpack and still want more.
Beyond taste, Heaps Normal’s playful, old-timey branding (by Melbourne artist Pat Rogasch) and catchphrase (“too good to be wasted”) make sobriety seem genuinely cool and inviting, without being preachy. In this country, no one has ever done that with a beer.
“Part of our mission is to normalise mindful drinking,” says Heaps Normal CEO Andy Miller. “That doesn’t necessarily mean sober. It just means reflecting on why you’re drinking and making sure you get what you want out of it. And, you know, minimising the downsides.”
This is a niche position, but won’t be for long. Low and mid-strength beers make up 25 per cent of CUB beer sales by volume, up from 10 per cent five years ago. And Coles/Liquorland and Woolworths/Dan Murphy’s/BWS are said to be working on their own non-alcoholic beers.
Miller has been in beer marketing and strategy for some years. His co-founders are brewer Ben Holdstock (formerly of Sydney’s 4 Pines and The Grifter), designer Peter Brennan, and Brennan’s childhood friend, the pro surfer Jordy Smith.
All four men have their own reasons for getting involved. Holdstock is excited by the technical challenge of brewing flavoursome “nonalcs” (as Miller calls them), alcohol abuse is an issue in Brennan’s family, and Smith is chasing a world title and needs to keep fit.
“We’ve all got our own personal stories,” says Miller, who’s a young dad and wants to stay sharp for his family. “But we found the common ground was we all really enjoyed beer, but had struggled to achieve that goal of reducing our alcohol consumption.”
Although the crew has ambitions to establish a brewery in Canberra, Heaps Normal is currently contract-brewing at Melbourne’s Brick Lane. Rather than boiling off or filtering out the alcohol like the major brewers do, the beer is fermented with a specific yeast that consumes very few sugars, resulting in a final alcohol content of 0.5 per cent. This makes it legally non-alcoholic.
“That’s no more alcohol than what you would find in orange juice that’s been open in the fridge for a couple of days, or kombucha or any of that. Any beverage, I guess, where there’s available fermentable sugars,” Miller says. “Wild yeasts exist everywhere.”
Holdstock is already working on more beer styles, and once the world has dealt with coronavirus (whenever that may be), you might see them on tap at your local. That was the original plan, before the pandemic hit. The group sees a lot of potential in this space, despite Australia’s entrenched drinking culture.
“I think it’s really exciting for the non-alcoholic beer category in Australia to be finally catching up to the rest of the world,” Miller says. “And more than that, I think you’re gonna see some really amazing non-alcoholic beer getting produced in Australia that can compete on the world stage.”
In August 2021, Heap Normal’s Quiet XPA took out the Australian prize in the low-alcohol category at the World Beer Awards.