I love to drink and brew craft beer, but over lockdown I’ve become increasingly cautious about my alcohol intake. Annoyingly, while there’s plenty of good alcohol-free beers (Mikkeller’s Limbo series and Weird Weather IPA are exceptional), lagers (my preferred beer) are consistently the most disappointing.
There’s a reason for this: All alcohol-free beers start life as a normal beer, but to ensure the brew falls below 0.5 percent ABV (the “alcohol-free” cutoff point since Prohibition times), there’s either an extra heating step to separate the alcohol from the beer or they use a yeast that doesn’t ferment maltose (the main sugar in beer), which means sugars are converted into alcohol. Either way, it massively impacts the flavour. With other styles, such as IPA, you can add hops to the second heating stage, or when the brew has cooled (known as a “dry hop”). It won’t affect the strength and will make the beer hoppier in flavour and aroma. The reason lager often falls short is that it’s a surprisingly delicate beer. There are very few hops relative to IPA — no additional flavourings, as with sours. It’s a pure balance between water, malted barley, yeast, and the hops. This is why while low-alcohol IPAs taste of bitter citrus, sours are sour, and the stouts are sometimes on par with the real thing; lagers very often taste like impossibly thin, liquified bread.
In the summer, I tried all breweries from micro (the revered Lucky Saint) to macro (Heineken 0.0 percent is the best totally alcohol-free lager I’ve had), hunting for an alcohol-free lager — to no avail. Then, while browsing my local bottle shop (Indiebeer on Holloway Road), whose stock I deplete time and time again, I saw a new-to-me beer in the fridges: Bavarian Helles Lager (0.3 percent) from Nirvana Brewery, alongside their Dark & Rich Stout (0.0 percent), and figured, Why not? I picked up one of each and took them home. I opened the lager first, anticipating disappointment, but then my senses lit up so much that I checked the bottle to make sure it was alcohol free. It was. Honestly, I don’t remember drinking the other beer that evening (though I’ve had it since, and it’s great). I went back the next day and picked up six of the lager. Then, having raved about the beer to my housemate, group chats, and my girlfriend relentlessly, I decided to ship a dozen alcohol-free beers from different brewers to her and her father. A little while later, she sent me a photo with the caption “This one is great.” It was the Bavarian Helles from Nirvana Brewery.
Formed in 2017, Nirvana Brewery is family owned and based in Leyton, East London. Their story began in 2017, when one of the founders’ dads went teetotal. Their aim was to ensure that his face lit up again when handed a bottle — so they started the brewery, employing a head brewer who used to work at 360° Brewing Company, a microbrewery in Sussex, to guarantee expertise and quality.
In Nirvana Brewery’s lager, the balance of a great lager is there: It’s slightly sweet, floral, and malty, and there’s a refreshing but mellow fizz. What’s more, there’s none of the metallic, salty, and yeasty imbalances that make alcohol-free lager subpar. Last summer, I was seldom without a bottle in my fridge, and a stockpile of the beer made my dry January a relative breeze. As winter turns to spring, and the sun begins to poke out of the clouds, summer still feels a long way away, but whether I’m heading to a solo pandemic picnic or standing by the window at sunset with the brisk air floating in, I crack open the golden bottle and everything temporarily feels like a holiday.
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