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We're Totally Happy AF

8th Feb 2022... by Steve Keegan, co-founder

Our Juicy AF reviews - 4 star and blazing (Untappd: tough audience!!!)

The world of non- and low-alcohol drinks has really kicked on in the past few years. It’s always interested me -  initially from a curiosity perspective, when I was working in a pub at the age of 18 and we had a few customers who would drink Becks Blue and a beer called Kaliber; right through up to when I really started to get my head around controlling the ABV of Kombucha whilst still being able to create a big hitting flavour with all of the goodness and no shortcuts.  

Back in the 70s, non-alcoholic beers were made by just boiling off the alcohol; and whatever survived was what the beer was… you’d chill it, carb it up again and that was it.  It didn’t taste too good - quite a stinky, cooked-tasting beer.

We’re in a different spot today. As the market for a product grows, the development of the processes get a bit more focus, and so now we have quite a few ways of attacking an AF (alcohol free, obvs) beer recipe.

If you’re a big old unit like Brew Dog, you can afford some amazing bits of kit - typically something like a vacuum distillation unit.  I first met these things in a few cocktail bars in London (The Worship Street Whistling shop and The Bump Caves, under the Draft House in London Bridge). Clever mixologists were using a small vacuum distillation and rotary evaporator kits to get delicate flavours into their drinks.  As a liquid boils at a lower temperature in a vacuum, they discovered they could boil something like a rose petal and not simply burn off the aroma.  Cool huh!?  It’s a technique that had been used a while back - and probably on the likes of Beck Blue or a Kaliber, but they were lagers and they didn’t need to be treated with as much care as an IPA.

Well all this science stuff has now moved on and upscaled to the world of commercial brewing - with some of the bigger Kombucha producers using the same method.  We didn’t have a spare £500k kicking around at Only With Love headquarters, so I had to get my thinking cap on. I’d enjoyed some decent AF beers in the past, and had spoken with a few other brewers who shared their thoughts on how best to do a good AF beer.  I wanted to make a proper beer, otherwise there was no point. A weak tasting version of our APA was never going to do.

From a production standpoint, a few options are available for AF. One of them is a clever product from our friends at Muntons (our malt supplier). Basically they’ve made a beer, whacked it through a vacuum distillation unit and then reduced it into an extract. All you need to do is add water, CO2 and hops and Bob’s your uncle.  It’ll make a decent pale ale, no doubt, but the samples I tasted needed lots of flavouring to get a good punch and it didn’t tick all my boxes.

One interesting thing about today’s AF beers is that a bunch of the well known brands tend to contract brew their beers at other people’s breweries.  The beauty of Only With Love HQ is that we have a lot of room for experimentation and a cracking lab so that we can get right into the detail of our beers.  With this in mind, we put together a recipe that was born from our new Reboot Juicy (mango) Pale Ale - with some added wizardry to make it like the same fat beer, but easy on the ABV.  We found the best way to do it was to actually brew a beer like we would normally, but really keep a close eye on the fermentation so that it only does a little bit - just enough to give it a proper beery attitude.  

(Some brewers use a similar process, called arrested fermentation - a method where yeast eats the oxygen in the wort, eliminating the raw wort flavours but stopping the process before it converts sugar into alcohol.  Quite a few American breweries used this as early as the 80s.)

I knew that 0.5% was a good place to be: it could give our Juicy AF a distinct beer flavour and good added body.  Also, 0.5% ABV is where we sit our Kombuchas - it’s the same ABV as a ripe banana, and in such a diluted form our bodies deal with the alcohol super quickly, meaning you’d have to drink a lot of gallons of something that’s 0.5%, very quickly to even feel a little bit tipsy.

So, I ended up playing with the science of brewing a low ABV beer.  First we started with the mash: we manipulated it so that we created some fermentable sugars but a lot of long chain sugars.  Then we tweaked the boil and the transfer so that we got the sugars that we wanted and a lot of beta-glucans to give us a lot of haze and body. This is the one way that I wanted to beat the ‘thin and watery’ AF beers out there. Oats? YES! Wheat? YES!  YUM!

After that, we treated it just like Reboot: lots of big US hops and a lot of juice. We also controlled the fermentation temperature like mad, and we chose a yeast that was perfect for dealing with the sugars in the way we wanted it to. Beyond this, we developed other new processes specifically for the beer - such as new approaches to gravity and PH controls, rigorous ABV testing, and a slightly different approach to dry hopping which used even more hops than we’d normally use to better control aroma and any additional fermentation. Then we added the mango - and loads of it! 

The result is the most expensive beer we’ve ever made… by a long shot.  But I think this is where we’re different. We know what’s needed to make a big beer like this work, and we aren’t working towards an end game RRP as a lot of brewers do (those who tend not to have their own brewery, and who also have big contracts with supermarkets always need to keep their production costs as low as possible).

Juicy AF is a belter. It’s full of all of the amazing things you get in a NEIPA but wrestled into the shape of a 0.5% beer.  We’re very proud of it. So proud that it led to a new series of AF beers.

The next one will be called Happy AF. And what makes you happy? CAKE!!! This’ll be a  0.5% Black Forest Gateaux Stout - with lots of sour cherries, kirsch and chocolate from our friend Galia at Choc Chick

Then after that we’ll have Zippy AF - a tangy Strawberry and Lime 0.5% sour beer.  

Both of these new beers will present new challenges, but we’ve got a good plan for each one.  Happy AF is going to go through a rather unusual mashing profile similar to a Tmavý Ležák. (And off the back of this we’re working on our very own Tmavý Ležák. Dark lagers are great, but amazing dark lagers are tricky!)  

Our Zippy AF is a proper kettle sour beer, using lactobacillus with a blend of acidulated malts to get the right pH in the kettle - plus some advanced testing to ensure the alcohol level is right and the acids give us the exact zing we’re after… before blending in a stack of strawberries and lime.

Looking at all of this as a whole, I can say that AF beer is a million miles from boring. Getting it right is so satisfying, and such a good thing to do. We need a new world of proper, fat AF beers, with proper body and a proper mouthfeel - and making it happen is a brilliant challenge for all of us who care for new products and great beer options.


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