How to Brew Low ABV Beer

Working in the beer industry means far too many opportunities for most of us to crack open a cold crispy brew. Craft brewing can be a very manual and arduous process. When things are going according to plan, brewing and packaging can be relatively chill. 

But if you’ve ever worked in a brewhouse, you also know that an easy day can turn bad faster than a zombie in 28 Days Later! It could be a stuck mash, a broken pump, or a bad filling head. Either way, you better be alert, ready, and expecting the unexpected!

What we’re saying is, you need a clear head to work in a brewery. Besides all of the problems that can arise, you also have to navigate industrial hazards like dangerous chemicals, boiling liquids, highly pressurized containers, speeding forklifts, zombie apocalypses and much more. Talk about a hangover cure!

Rule #3 of craft brewing survival: keep it chill--this means low ABV beers that are heavy on hydration. But also don’t forget Rule #4: only brew beers that are flavorful and balanced. And finally, don’t forget Rule #9, only drink a beer if it’s worth drinking! 

It’s not quite Zombieland, but the smartest and fittest brewers adhere to the laws of the land (most of the time). Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to conserve and moderate your alcohol intake, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

What is Low ABV beer?

Beer is cultural and is shaped by the communities that drink it. In the US, any beer that is below 5% ABV is considered a “session” beer, and most American light lagers are around 4% ABV. In Britain, a cask ale at 5% may be labelled a “strong ale.”

In reality, there is no definitive guide to what is called “low ABV beer”. It depends on personal preference. And it’s relative to time and place. However, for the sake of this article, we will consider low ABV to be 1-3%. And we will categorize beer below 1% as non-alcoholic beers.

The Challenges of Low ABV beer

Low alcohol beers come with many challenges and inherited limitations.

Flavour

To create less alcohol, brewers need to use less grain per litre of product. Beer is mostly water, and in a way, low alcohol beers are just watered-down versions of the higher strength counterparts. 

Think about when you have been given a giant mug of tea that is filled to the brim. Doesn’t taste right, does it? 

Body

The body is the weight or mouthfeel of a beer as we sip it. This can be full and heavy, light and thin or somewhere in between. Using fewer ingredients incurs a great debt on proteins, starches and other factors that contribute to the mouthfeel. 

Aroma

The aroma of low abv beers is most affected when it comes to pale and hoppy styles. This is because it can take huge doses of dry hopping to create the olfactory landscapes we’ve all come to love. But with less malt backbone and sweetness, brewers can easily use too many hops and make a beer bitterly undrinkable. 

Balance and Drinkability

With lower strength and sessionable beers, there is a lot less to hide behind, so if a beer is watery, bitter, sweet, phenolic or anything else, these flaws will be magnified. Overpowered, these beers don’t draw you in for another sip. We would say these beers are lacking “drinkability.”

It’s All About Taste

We can talk about flavour wheels and chemical compounds all day. However, most of us just want to drink something that tastes good. (We’re not all BJCP judges, sommeliers or self-qualified beer wankers).

And while taste is subjective, it’s up to the brewers to coax attractive flavours and aromas that build drinkable low alcohol beers.  

lager day saints alcohol free lager

How to solve the problem of taste and drinkability

While more challenging than full strength brews, low alcohol beers can be just as tasty as anything else! Creative brewers need to find ways to push their beers further at each step of the brewing process.

Recipe creation

Many new to the world of homebrewing can become obsessed with recipe creation. Some pro brewers even believe they have magic or “secret” recipes akin to Colonel Sanders of KFC. This belief is mostly folly backed with unearned brewing hubris.

Has anyone heard of the internet? We’re pretty sure you can find homebrew recipes online for just about anything. Go ahead and try to come up with something new. Then Google it. And be disappointed. 

Recipes can be tweaked, altered and substituted with great flexibility. However, remember rule #26 of beer apocalypse survival; hygiene (personal and professional!). There is no substitution or shortcut for good sanitation, hygiene and healthy fermentation. However, low ABV brewing does require more thoughtful and careful recipe creation.

Base Malts

Lighter and neutral flavoured malts are great for IPAs and Lagers. But low alcohol beers require something extra. Use more flavourful varieties like Maris Otter, Vienna, Munich and dark wheat malt to elevate your low ABV beer to a sheep in wolf’s clothing beer.

And boost the beer’s body by tossing in heaps (10-30%) of high-protein grains like oats and rye. Use these in their unmalted form to extract a fair amount of beta-glucans to add mouthfeel and haze (good for the modern juice merchant).

But unless you are doing Brew-in-a-Bag (BIAB), make sure you don’t go overboard and get a stuck mash! And always remember that rice husks are your friend!

Speciality Malts

Speciality malts are a good way to add character to a lower ABV beer. Crystal malts, roasted malts and other grains come in increasingly unique varieties. When scaling a full-strength receipt to low ABV brewing, keep the specially malts at or near the same total amounts. This will raise their percentage in the grist and add more flavour. 

Water Chem

When brewing classic craft pales and IPAs, gypsum is the key to the hearts of most hopheads. Also known as calcium sulfate dihydrate (CCaSO4·2H2O), brewers add this mineral to acidify the mash and enhance the bitterness and dryness of a beer. 

Instead, focus on adding calcium chloride (CaCl2) which will lower your sulfate-to-chloride ratio. Aim for a minimum of 50ppm of both sulfate and chloride in your wort. And then add enough calcium chloride to boost the ratio well under one. Anything between .4-.8 will work well to enhance the flavour of your low alcohol beers.

Hops

What hops you decide to use is always down to the style of beer and personal preference. But we will re-emphasize, it’s all about flavour. So it makes more sense to use hops that are packed with oils and compounds for aroma.  But always aim to maintain a balanced bitterness to gravity ratio (BU: GU) of around 1.

Adjuncts

Adjunct can still be recipe dependant. But consider adding things like maltodextrin, fruit and lactose to boost body, sweetness, colour and aroma. Bear in mind how much each adjunct will affect the starting and/or finishing gravity. Using fruit additions, we were able to brew a lovely cherry stout at 2.8% ABV. (We will have to brew it on a large scale so you can taste it for yourselves).

shetland pony pale ale

Brewday

There are many steps in the production of wort where brewers can elevate low alcohol beers.

The Mash 

Brewers control and refine the enzymatic processes occurring during infusion by adjusting the temperature of the mash. For British-style single infusion mashing, this is done with resting at one target temperature. 

The ideal range is between 63 C and 70 C. The two catalysts of concern are beta- and alpha-amylase. These two enzymes cut down long-chain starches into simple sugars. Later, the yeast will eat these sugars and create alcohol and other by-products.

Lower mash temperatures encourage beta-amylase to produce highly fermentable wort. While higher temperatures denature beta-amylase allowing more of the alpha-amylase produced medium-chain sugars to remain for extraction. These sugars aren’t sweet or fermentable but can add body to the beer.

When using dark and roasted malts, you can try cold steeping instead of adding them to the mash. Do this for 6-12 hours and you should end up with the speciality malt character but none of the astringency that can quickly put a weak beer out of balance. 

Sparging

By rinsing the grains with hot water, more sugar and colour are extracted from the grains. However, so are more tannins. As we continually sparge, the liquid extracted has diminishing returns and dilutes the overall flavour profile of collected wort.

So an alternative would be to decrease the amount of sparge water, or even better, don’t sparge at all! Of course on a commercial scale, this would require upping the amount of grain considerably. But it would also produce a much more flavourful beer! 

With the scale of costs much less important, the no-sparge method can work wonders for home brewers looking to make tasty low alcohol beers. Just be prepared for a far lower efficiency than you would normally expect. 

Kettle and Hop Additions

The first place to eliminate bitterness is any boil additions. Aim for no more than 5 IBUs in kettle additions. Focus on late hopping and dry hopping to push as much aroma as possible. 

Feel free to keep flameout and whirlpool additions close to normal, but they will contribute a lot of bitterness. 

Fermentation and Conditioning

It can be said that brewers produce wort and yeasts make beer. Fermentation and conditioning are what will normally make or break the beer. 

Yeast Selection

It’s become the norm to use more expressive yeasts in hoppy styles. But whatever style of low ABV beer you are brewing, it pays to ferment with character-driven yeast strains. Remember that with lower starting gravities, many expressive yeast strains will still produce cleaner flavours than they would in higher gravity worts. 

Dry Hopping

Whatever the style, don’t be afraid to push your dry-hop dosing. The modern mindset of NEIPAs is the key here. But you may find that you need to reduce hopping rates to reach a drinkable balance. Our experiments showed that the hop reduction did not scale directly to reductions in the grist and ABV. Be brave, take risks, and be ready to adjust accordingly. 

Carbonation

For many of the more popular beer styles like lagers, pales, and IPAs, higher carbonation helps to bring a crispness and palate-cleansing effect. However, for low alcohol beers, too much carbonation can lead to an abrasive and thin soda water finish. 

Like home brewers and lambic producers, many craft breweries have opted to re-ferment their beers in the package. One such brewery is The Kernel in Bermondsey. Evin O'Riordain believes that this type of secondary fermentation adds additional character to their flagship Table Beer (3.2%). 

Packaging

Whether you're a home brewer or a professional, you shouldn’t be taking any shortcuts at any step in the production of beer. 

Sanitation/ Hygiene

Every brewer should ensure optimal and best practices when it comes to sanitation and hygiene. And when brewing low alcohol beers bear in mind that any off-flavours due to “dirty” yeasts will be amplified many times over. Don’t cut corners.

Dissolved Oxygen

Oxygen is the enemy of fresh beer. Maybe some of you fancy an old double IPA that taste like your naan’s Christmas sherry. But it shouldn't taste like that after two weeks! 

Just like microbe-produced off-flavours, low alcohol beer is much more fragile. It will not be able to mask the oxidative products of paper, cardboard, and dead hops very well. If possible, make sure to use an inert gas like Carbon Dioxide or Nitrogen to flush out any pipe or vessel your liquid gold may come in contact with on its way to being bottled or kegged. 

Store Cold, Drink Fresh!

This should be a no-brainer. But when the beer is in the package, keep it stored properly at around 4-7 C. And don’t procrastinate opening/ serving that beer. Low alcohol beers will lose flavour at much the same rate as anything else. But they have a lot less to lose! 

And. Always. Drink. Fresh.

viking sheepie

Final Word

When it comes to brewing low ABV beers, more is required to push the beers into the boundaries of their full-strength counterparts. But the brewer must accomplish it with a deft hand.

Here at SIWC, we have spent countless hours in the lab perfecting our recipes and brewing techniques for each of our core ranges. For our low alcohol 2.8% range, we have been able to create beers that leap out of the glass with flavour and aroma. And all while punching above their ABV and enticing you to take another sip.

But we’re not geniuses or savants. As part of the beer community, we want everyone to be able to experience the joys of low ABV brewing (and drinking). Try scaling down a full-strength recipe using our words of wisdom. 

And trust us, we are still refining our recipes and developing more rules to survive the beerpocalypse!

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