As I wrote recently in a story about Heaps Normal, a new Australian non-alcoholic brewery, the non-alcoholic beer shelf used to be a sad place. You could have Heineken, Peroni, Corona or another generic international lager, and that was it. The German wheat beers Erdinger and Weihenstephaner were the only saving graces.
That’s changing with incredible speed. Established craft breweries such as Holgate and Modus Operandi are adding NA beers to their rosters and more significantly, breweries that make nothing but alcohol-free beer are opening everywhere there’s an existing craft beer culture.
California’s Bravus Brewing launched five years ago and claims to be the first non-alcoholic brewery in North America. That would almost certainly make it the first in the world, too. Close behind were Sobah (Gold Coast, 2017), Partake Brewing (Calgary, 2017), Nirvana Brewery (London, 2017) and others too numerous to list here.
Big Drop, founded in 2016 and based in the UK town of Ipswich, sits in this trailblazing group. But where its peers are happy dominating their local markets, Big Drop is expanding aggressively. Last year the company sold a million pints and this year plans to double that. In its home country its beers are already stocked at major supermarket chains including Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. They can also be found in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada and, as of last month, Australia.
“We think there’s a real opportunity to be the leading dedicated, independent alcohol-free brand out there and give people the choice beyond the mass-produced Budweiser Zeros and Heineken Zeros and Peroni Liberas and that sort of thing,” says co-founder James Kindred.
In the UK Big Drop sells 10 different beers, including a sour, golden ale and milk stout. The company is starting off with just two here: its Uptown Craft Lager and Pine Trail Pale Ale. A citra-hopped IPA will join the ranks soon.
Both beers impressed me. When alcohol is absent, a beer’s body and mouthfeel suffer the most. But by using extra grains and other common beer additives such as lactose and maltodextrin, Big Drop has mostly made that a non-issue. The lager, which contains rye and wheat in addition to the usual barley, is clean but not watery, with a hint of reddish spice from the rye. The pale ale, with its pine-y, robust, resinous character and lingering bitterness, has become a regular addition to my shopping lists.
With just 14 employees, Big Drop is surprisingly small but punches far above its weight using a clever model: it doesn’t have its own brewery and has no intention of acquiring one soon. This runs counter to the mindset of most craft brewers, whose endgame is usually their own facility. This offers lots in the way of creative freedom, yes, but at the cost of drastically reduced financial freedom.
As big-name beers such as Corona and Asahi are brewed to a recipe in their local markets, Big Drop instead partners with contract brewers to service large swathes of the world and keep the local stuff as fresh as possible. Australia’s beers are being brewed in Melbourne, with regular lab tests to ensure our Big Drops are consistent those made elsewhere.
“Unless you’ve got some serious money flying behind you, you’re never going to be able to spin up your own brewery in each of those locations and create beer particularly quickly,” Kindred says. He founded the brand with long-time friend Rob Fink, a lawyer whose job involved hours and hours of drinking with prospective clients – a lifestyle that became less and less viable after his first child was born.
“He decided he wanted to knock the drinking on the head, be the modern dad and literally get his hands dirty,” Kindred says. “Every bar he went to, he was having to pick and choose his way through Beck’s Blue or Bitburger Drive or mineral water or incredibly sugary soft drinks. That’s no fun for anyone who’s in a pub for a particularly long time.”
Neither founder had any brewing experience, but they found someone who did: Johnny Clayton. In addition to brew consulting, he previously worked at one of the UK’s most experimental breweries.
“One of the big things he brought to us was an understanding of balance,” Kindred says. “He was making very challenging sours – like, nine per cent ABV raspberry sours – at The Wild Beer Company, using lactobacillus, which is an incredibly volatile microbe, and creating these incredibly punchy evening-finisher beers.”
The way Clayton sees it, anyone can make a well-balanced 4.5 per cent ABV IPA. The challenge lies either side, making an IPA drinkable at 0.5 per cent or eight per cent ABV. Like other non-alcoholic craft brewers, Clayton doesn’t boil off the alcohol or use a centrifuge or other technology in his recipes. Every Big Drop beer uses a particular yeast that naturally ferments to 0.5 per cent.
With the technical stuff mastered, the main challenge has been marketing the beers.
“Back in 2016 there was no real alcohol-free market over here,” Kindred says. “Alcohol-free was kind of a commiseration prize to the drinker. ‘They probably won’t be searching this out, but we should probably stick it somewhere they can eventually find it,’ was the mindset with a lot of the supermarkets over here. They’re slowly coming round to it now, where they’ve got a dedicated, very focused, very premium location for alcohol-free.”
Big Drop beer is available at Dan Murphy’s and BWS. Though it’s legally non-alcoholic, in Australia it’s being marketed as “ultra-low” alcohol and may be displayed separately to the other non-alcoholic beers.