Is Non-Alcoholic Craft Beer any Good for Mountain Bikers?

I investigated if non-alcoholic beer might be better for mountain biking, how it's brewed, and most importantly, how it tastes.
Photo: Jeff Barber.

They say that beer is an acquired taste, and based on my observations, it’s one that many mountain bikers have developed through countless post-ride celebrations. Non-alcoholic (NA) craft beer promises the same great taste without the effects of alcohol, but is it a worthy substitute? I decided to investigate if NA beer might be a better choice for mountain biking, how it’s brewed, and most importantly, how it tastes.

Risks associated with consuming alcohol

Anyone who has taken a middle school health class can likely rattle off a list of the potential risks associated with consuming alcohol. To recap, the CDC says one of the main, negative short term risks to alcohol consumption is injuries, and considering that mountain biking is already a dangerous sport, adding alcohol to the mix only increases the risk. Looking long term, the CDC also notes that excessive alcohol use can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver damage, a weakened immune system, mental health problems, and multiple types of cancer.

That last part about cancer risk was particularly surprising to me, and apparently others too. A recent study found that 50% of Americans didn’t know about the link between alcohol and cancer risk. Back in dry January of this year, Gloria Liu wrote an excellent article for Bicycling that got me thinking about modifying my own post-ride rituals, especially given the compelling health arguments against it.

For mountain bikers in particular, alcohol presents additional challenges given that it doesn’t support hydration and is known to disrupt the sleep patterns that help with recovery after a big ride. Don’t get me wrong, craft beer is delicious and it’s relaxing to drink after mountain biking. But as with everything in biking (and in life) there are pros and cons, and tradeoffs to be considered. For some, NA craft beer strikes the right balance.

Photo: Jeff Barber.

What is NA beer?

Non-alcoholic beer, which is also referred to as near beer, is beer that contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). Compare that to traditional, alcoholic beer which is generally 4-7% ABV, though it should be noted that it’s not unusual for a craft beer to contain more than 7% ABV.

There are a few different methods used to make NA beer; the two most common are controlled fermentation and de-alcoholizaition. Controlled fermentation involves tweaking the brewing process so that alcohol is not produced, or is produced in very limited amounts, during fermentation. Dealcoholizaition takes beer that’s been brewed in the normal manner and removes the alcohol through steam distillation, reverse osmosis, or gas stripping. With either method, NA beer can be crafted in a wide variety of beer styles from IPA to lagers and everything in between.

Removing the alcohol, or preventing it from forming in the first place, does affect both the taste and the mouthfeel. NA beer tends to cost just as much as traditional craft beer, and you even need to be 21 years old to purchase it in almost every US state. (According to this chart, Colorado is the only U.S. state that allows 18-year-olds to purchase 0.5% ABV beer.) And since most NA beers still contain some alcohol, it’s not an option for those who must abstain for religious or other reasons.

For me, and an increasing number of my mountain bike friends, NA beer is an appealing choice for the reasons outlined above. Let’s dive into the tasting notes!

My favorite NA beers (so far)

I’ve been meticulously rating and tracking the beers I’ve tried over the years using the Untapped app, and that includes NA beers. My highest rated NA beer so far is Free Wave Hazy IPA (4.5⭐️) from Athletic Brewing Company. Calling any beer ‘Athletic’ is a bit like naming a drink with 27g of added sugar ‘Vitamin Water,’ but this is the world we live in. Athletic says their beer “undergoes a full fermentation, but by closely monitoring and adjusting variables along the way, such as temperature, we maintain very low levels of alcohol.” Free Wave Hazy IPA contains 70 calories which is a good bit lower than a regular craft beer, but still obviously higher than water.

I found that Free Wave Hazy IPA tastes hoppy and familiar, albeit not as smooth or as sweet as a full alcohol hazy IPA. The carbonation levels are bitey, like a seltzer water. I also like Athletic Run Wild IPA (4.0⭐️), though I’m not really a fan of Athletic Upside Dawn Golden.

My next favorite NA beer is Brewdog Hazy AF (4.0⭐️) . Brewdog Hazy Jane is a top choice among our regular Tuesday night ride group, and the NA version tastes surprisingly similar. It’s hoppy with a little extra dankness that almost fools the taste buds into thinking it’s the real deal. To stay sharp I never drink beer before a ride, but for me a cold Hazy AF is a tasty way to pre-hydrate.

At Sea Otter this year I tried three NA beers from Best Day Brewing, a brewery that like Athletic, is focused on producing NA beers only. Unlike Athletic, Best Day uses a dealcoholization process to produce their beers, which include a Kolsch-style beer, a West Coast IPA, and a hazy IPA.

“The method used to make Best Day beer is a membrane separation dealcoholization technology that is pretty new to the scene,” Ron Lindenusch, head of product innovation tells me. “In this process, the beer never rises above fermentation temperature, and is much gentler on the beer as the alcohol is removed.”

Of the three Best Day NA beers I tried, the Kolsch-style beer was my favorite. It has a bit of sweetness to it balanced with the right amount of carbonation for a smooth overall flavor. I’m not normally a fan of Kolsch-style beers, and I thought I would like Best Day’s hoppy, West Coast IPA best, but that one ended up being my least favorite.

My eyes were first opened to NA beer in February of this year while bikepacking the Huracan 300. My friend Chris Kelly met us in the morning, about 20 miles into our first day of riding, with cans of Budweiser Zero. I don’t remember the last time I drank a Budweiser beer so I can’t say how the taste of Bud Zero compares to the original, but on that day it was a great choice. Cold, wet, and not sugary-sweet like the Powerade and Arizona Green Teas I would guzzle over the next three days, I found Budweiser Zero to be a refreshing, mid-ride beverage alternative.

Brooklyn Brewery Special Effects IPA is another NA beer I tried recently, and though it doesn’t taste much like IPA to me, it has a semi-sweet, yeasty flavor that’s unmistakably beer-y.

Lagunitas Brewing Co is known for their piney, West Coast style IPA and in addition to their non-alcoholic IPNA, they also make the sparkling hop water pictured above. Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher isn’t beer at all; it’s zero calorie and zero alcohol, essentially a hop-flavored LaCroix. It tastes fruity and almost sweet to me, not like beer — or hops for that matter. It does have a hoppy smell though, and is very refreshing.

At the moment my fridge has more NA beer than regular beer, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out. If anything, I feel better about riding this summer than ever before. And my search continues for the best-tasting NA brews.

Your turn: Do you love it or hate it? Tell us what you think about NA beer in the comments below, and share your favorites.

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