Put simply, you make alcoholic beer or wine, and then remove the alcohol. You do this by distilling the beverage as if you were going to make liquor. But rather than save the booze and throw out the rest, you throw out the booze.
When you make alcohol, you typically heat up whatever it is you’re distilling to boil off the alcohol (which you collect in vapor form, then cool back into liquid). It doesn’t matter all that much if the water, syrups, herbs, and whatever else that’s in your base get a little cooked in the process, because you’re tossing out most of that in the end anyway. When making nonalcoholic beverages, though, maintaining the flavor of the base is important, because you’ll save that part, and you want it to taste as much like real beer or wine as possible. So you don’t want to cook it.
There are two ways to get the booze out that don’t require high heat. The first is a process called vacuum distillation. The beer or wine is put under a vacuum. The change in atmospheric pressure allows the producer to boil the liquids at a lower temperature, or in some cases with no heat at all, and distill off the alcohol.
The second process is called reverse osmosis, and is the same method often used to purify drinking water. It doesn’t require any heating. The wine or beer is passed through a filter with pores so small that only alcohol and water (and a few volatile acids) can pass through. The alcohol is distilled out of the alcohol-water mix using conventional distillation methods, and the water and remaining acids are added back into the syrupy mixture of sugars and flavor compounds left on the other side of the filter. Bingo—a nonalcoholic (or dealcoholized, as winemakers call it) brew.
But do nonalcoholic beers and wines taste the same as alcoholic ones? Almost. Most of the flavor of real beer and wine comes from the grain or grapes, plus flavor compounds from the fermentation and aging process. Nonalcoholic beers and wines still have all that. Alcohol in the real stuff contributes mouthfeel and a small amount of flavor. It actually makes wine taste sweeter, says Jeff Meier, director of winemaking for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, which makes Ariel nonalcoholic wines. This means that a dealcoholized wine needs about 2.5 percent residual sugar content to best match a completely dry (no residual sugar) alcoholic wine.
“Nonalcoholic” beverages still contain some alcohol, because it’s difficult and prohibitively expensive to get every single bit of it out. In order to be called nonalcoholic under federal laws, a beverage can contain up to half a percent of alcohol by volume. (Something with no alcohol at all is called alcohol-free.) So people who are forbidden to drink alcohol, like devout Muslims, can’t partake in so-called nonalcoholic beer and wine. Nor can people under the age of 21, according to the law. It takes about 10 nonalcoholic malt beverages to equal the alcohol in one American-style lager, says George Reisch, a veteran brewer with Anheuser-Busch and the former brewmaster of O’Doul’s.
One last point, about carbonation: When making nonalcoholic sparkling wine, producers do a secondary fermentation just like they do with regular sparkling wine. But the alcohol it produces is less than .5 percent, so the wine is still considered nonalcoholic. As for the carbonation in beer, like in most alcoholic beer, it’s “forced” with a charge of carbon dioxide at the brewery.