Pilsner seems simple. The pale lager, light and refreshing, is the beer of choice at ballgames, on hot summer days, or with sweet-spicy Asian food or barbeque. But that easy-drinking style belies a whole lot of craft.
“Pilsner is very delicate beer,” says Chris Lohring, founder of Notch Brewing in Salem. “So, if there are any variables that would impact the flavor, they are going to show right away in a pilsner.” A massive variable? Removing the alcohol to create a zero-proof option. Yet despite the high degree of difficulty, a nonalcoholic pilsner was likely always in the cards for this brewery, which has focused primarily on low- and moderate-alcohol session-style beers for its 13-year history.
“I think it was a natural extension for what Notch has been doing,” says Lohring. “A lot of people come to Notch because they want to have the experience of drinking beer but don’t want to have a higher-alcohol beer or want to be able to have a couple. For that reason, I think [nonalcoholic beer] made more sense for us than for a lot of folks.”
Back in 2010, Notch was at the forefront of what has become a vast sea-change, with more and more people seeking lower-proof adult beverages every year. And the experience of crafting beers full of flavor with less alcohol provided a boost when it came to removing the booze entirely.
“We discovered that a lot of what we’ve been doing at Notch for over a decade, making modest alcohol beers, could be applied to nonalcoholic beer,” Lohring says, noting that it took three years of experimenting with a variety of methods to preserve the flavors and experience of drinking beer without the alcohol.
Expanding on experience
Every part of the process—the way they treat the water, the way they ferment the beer, the types of sugars that they create, and the fermentability of those sugars—all contributed to being able to preserve that experience. “One of the big detriments of most nonalcoholic beers is that people call them thin,” Lohring says. “Alcohol [lends] perceived sweetness and body. When you remove it, you’re left with something that doesn’t taste as full. And, so, you need to supplement that with something else.”
The Notch team faced a similar challenge when crafting modest-alcohol beers, Lohring says—and years of experimentation and experience led them to create sugars that are nonfermentable, along with water treatments that create palate fullness, both of which contribute big mouthfeel despite lower alcohol content. “It was basically us taking our skill at making beers with alcohol and melding that with newer technology to come up with an NA that tastes like a beer,” he explains.
All that expertise, combined with a state-of-the-art membrane filtration system, has led to a pair of brews—Notch Non-Alcoholic Craft Pils and Notch Non-Alcoholic Hazy IPA—that are rich in flavor without the alcohol. “I’m happy with the beers, because I’ve been brewing professionally for 30 years, and while I still like the habit of coming home and cracking open a beer, I don’t always want the alcohol,” Lohring says.
He’s not alone. The beer has been flying off the shelves in local stores and is very popular at both the Salem and Brighton taprooms. “They’ve been really successful in a way I never envisioned,” he says. The customers are a mix of people who are choosing not to drink alcohol, those who are cutting calories, and those who want to hang out socially but want to take a round off. “People are thrilled that they can come in to a social environment and drink a beer, yet not have alcohol.”
283R Derby Street, Salem, 978-412-7674, notchbrewing.com