Honestly, I’d had one of the best days of my life—the golden-tinged type you remember fondly many years later. It was probably around 10 pm, the sky still solstice-bright, as I coasted into my campsite, blissfully sweat-crusted and dehydrated. I’d managed to sneak in a weeknight bike ride up Glacier National Park’s Going-To-The-Sun Road to Logan Pass just before it opened to cars for the season. Taking my time, I had dilly-dallied at each pullout that beckoned, snapping photos with an Instax camera and inhaling deep alpine breaths. And the first thing I pulled out of my trunk when I got down, along with the campstove, was a cold beer. A cold non-alcoholic beer.
Twenty-something me would have scoffed as I glugged those crisp, semi-cold gulps (from Athletic Brewing Co., in case you’re wondering). What’s the point, if it doesn’t have alcohol? Even as I type the headline to this story, it sits a little funny. But by the time my potatoes browned in the skillet, I was crushing the empty can and rummaging in the cooler for another. Almost-40-year-old me was floating in an endorphin-filled pool of wellbeing, and it felt good knowing the hoppy beverages quenching my thirst wouldn’t sabotage my sleep that night or hammer me with a hangover.
Writing this, I’m aware of the masses who find the very premise of non-alcoholic beer absurd—my younger self included. To those folks I say, To each their own. I will happily clink cans with you at the trailhead or takeout. And you still might see me with an, ahem, real beer occasionally, too. But the thing is, I’m not my younger self anymore, and a few things have changed since I last shared sips from a flask at the top of a mountain bike ride. Namely my age.
Unless you’re Benjamin Button, or 21 years old, you probably know what I mean. Big days in the mountains, late nights, and dehydration all seem to hit a bit harder than they used to—and the idea of feeling good, feeling rested and clear-minded, has never seemed so appealing. Perhaps because it feels more fleeting than it used to. Enter: non-alcoholic beer.
If you’re struggling to “get” the appeal of a buzzless beer, it might help to think of it less as a beer substitute and more like another option akin to fizzy water. When I handed a cold bottle of Lagunitas IPNA—ha—to a friend recently, he took a few sips and summed it up: “Not bad. But also, you know, not real beer.”
Right. If you’re really, truly looking for beer, it might not fly for you. Fair enough. But if, like me, you’ve been slamming more La Croix lately than Sierra Nevada, it’s lovely to have a non-fruity adult-flavored option. I see it as one more tasty addition to the lineup of refreshing drinks I can crack after a long run, ride or float—or even while wrapping up a workday during a heatwave—without getting drowsy. Bonus points for actually being hydrating instead of a diuretic.
The choice whether to imbibe or not is deeply personal, and I certainly bring my own baggage to the human-beer relationship. From what I can tell, I’m not alone. Even before the pandemic added stress and isolation to the mix for everyone, conversations were already bubbling in the outdoor world about how enmeshed inebriation is in our culture.
For some, I imagine a nonalcoholic beer might help bridge the gap between a drink they should maybe be avoiding and the awkwardness of standing around empty handed at the barbecue or at the trailhead. In my own household, it turns out that as the light drinker in the family, I’m the one who loves having them in the fridge alongside the fizzy water. My husband—who’s 18 years sober—tried one sip, shrugged, and decided they were not for him.
Obviously this is no crusade to convert beer drinkers out there. It is simply a word in praise of a small recently discovered joy. That night in Glacier, scarfing down a late dinner as darkness finally fell, having those two cold beers to celebrate just felt right, alcohol or not. And, you know, waking up to the cacophony of hermit thrushes whistling at 5 am the next day with no headache wasn’t so bad either.
Our round-up of good non-alcoholic beer options
Athletic Brewing has a solid and expanding lineup. Their All Out Stout is one of very few non-alcoholic stouts out there. That’s one to check out for sure.
Clausthaler Dry-Hopped is another great choice. It’s a bit darker than most n/a beers, with a lot more toasted malts that masks the unusual tea-like flavor most n/a beers have.
Brewdog, out of Scotland, has been at the top of the craft brewing game for years now. They have a FANTASTIC lineup of n/a beers, and if you can get them in your area, check them out. Not cheap, but on par with standard craft beer prices.
Photo: Will Stewart/Unsplash