One night last week I had twelve beers, and then I drove home. It’s not as wildly irresponsible as it sounds. For one thing, I was sharing the beers with a few friends. More to the point, though, the beers were non-alcoholic. We’d gathered to try a line-up of non-alcoholic stouts, porters and other dark beers to see how they compare to the real thing.
Stouts and porters are a relatively small part of the beer market, so their non-alcoholic counterparts are even more niche. But the non-alcoholic beer category is growing rapidly with some surprisingly good renditions of lagers, IPAs and pale ales, so as a fan of dark beers it was natural to wonder if there were worthwhile adaptations of these more malt-forward styles too.
We discovered a wide range of quality, indicative of a product category that’s still finding its feet. Some offerings were too light and effervescent to be truly comparable to a stout or porter, coming across as more of a bready soda than a beer. Others had off-putting flavors and aromas that led us to pour them straight down the drain after a few sips. But there were pleasant surprises too, beers that we would gladly consume sans alcohol on a chilly night.
Our advice? If the idea of a non-alcoholic dark beer appeals to you, the category has some worthwhile offerings. The best ones we tried often used additions like lactose to achieve a heavier body, brought in additional flavor with ingredients like cacao nibs, and tended toward higher calorie counts. These are the non-alcoholic dark beers that won us over.
This stout from Denver-based Gruvi was one of our unanimous picks as a top beer, offering aromas of dark caramel, molasses, and coffee that tasters loved and a strong malty, roasty backbone. While its palate is distinctly different from a traditional stout, it’s eminently enjoyable to drink.
Big Drop Galactic Extra Dark
Our second unanimous top pick is from Big Drop, based in the UK and contract brewed for the United States in Chicago. Their Galactic Extra Dark impressed us as the most true-to-style rendition. Dark roasted malt abounds, along with subtle notes of fruit and cacao. It’s heavier bodied than most, likely due in part to the smart use of lactose in its brewing process.
Surreal Pastry Porter
One of the challenges of making non-alcoholic beer is achieving the body of beers brewed at full-strength. Surreal’s Pastry Porter achieves a higher weight with lactose and monk fruit, along with adding vanilla and cacao for depth and complexity. We enjoyed it for its silky body and fruit-forward coffee aroma and found it to be one of the most complex and flavorful beers in our tasting.
Athletic All Out Extra Dark
As the commercial leaders in the non-alcoholic beer business, we were curious how Athletic’s stout would measure up. We found it has a pleasant aroma, hints of black cherry, mild bitterness, and good balance: a solid all-around stout that’s worth picking up. Bonus mention: Athletic’s Lodge Life is a rich dark beer with cinnamon, cacao, vanilla, and smoke, well-suited for a night by the fire.
Deschutes Black Butte
This one is unique for being modeled on an existing beer, Deschutes’ own incredibly successful Black Butte Porter. How does it compare? While not an exact match, it offers an enticing winey aroma, and fruity, dark roasted malt on the palate, with a honeyed bittersweet finish that lingers pleasantly. Though we all preferred the original Black Butte, it’s still a commendable non-alcoholic porter we’d be happy to keep on hand.
Bravus Peanut Butter Dark
Bravus gets points for truth in advertising with their Peanut Butter Dark. It’s nutty all the way through, with a powerful hazelnut aroma and loads of peanut butter on the palate. One taster described it as a hazelnut truffle. It’s sweet and rich, and like regular pastry stouts, it’s probably not the beer one would reach for every day. But when the desire for a sweeter, unusual dark beer strikes, this one hits the spot. Bonus mention: Bravus also makes Gravitas, the first barrel-aged non-alcoholic stout. They wouldn’t let us in on the secret of ageing a non-alcoholic beer, and it divided our tasting panel, but devotees of richer beers may want to seek it out when it’s released each winter.
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