As thoughts turn to ‘Dry January’, the reinventions of ourselves and our habits (again), we take a look at the complexity of flavour in non-alcohol drinks.
As children, we all loved sugar. We spent our predated cents on penny jellies. We ate Freddos three in one go. We thought ourselves the evil mastermind behind the periodic, mysterious disappearances of treats from the kitchen press. We felt Einstein-level genius when we discovered a tin of Roses in the wardrobe, only to be disappointed to find it was a sewing box. That children love sweets is no secret. It’s par for the course.
But as we grow older, we grow disillusioned with our first love, sugar. Though we may not all have worshipped as fervently as described at the altar of sugar, nearly all people graduate from a childhood love of sweets to more complex flavours as adults. When surveyed, people were likelier to choose a starter and main than a main and dessert. Most people, if feeling the order to finish a feast with a sweet treat, will split one because the touch of sweetness is enough.
The mystery of why individuals like or hate specific foods still fuddles the scientific community. Typically, as we grow older, we pursue complexity. The linear taste of childhood favourites becomes monotonous. We are a species who are quickly bored with all things, including drinks.
As we age, taste becomes more a matter of our minds and memories than our physical reaction to umami, sweetness or bitterness. So when we make the switch to non-alcoholics for drying out, be it in January with hashtags and support or for ourselves, we get bored.
Most of the complexity in the flavour of spirits, wine, beer, and all the combinations and variations we make from them, comes from the fermentation and ageing processes. The majority of non-alcoholic drinks don’t go through these processes, so trying to make the switch from your martini to the non-alcoholic version tastes like something is missing. Obviously the alcohol, but also the complexity.
Low and no alcoholic drinks used to be all about situations where you can’t drink (designated drivers, pregnancy, recovering alcoholics), all historically ignored subsets of people. So, the industry standard was to give them existing drinks that don’t contain alcohol. 7UP, orange juice, and Coke are the go-to stand-ins. While all have individual merits, moments and drawbacks, they are all united by the same limitation – simple sweet flavours. This means they taste lacking when we taste them in the pub. They taste like we’re missing out. We seldom recognise experiences of pure taste but notice when we have to go without.
Flavour is not so straightforward though. There can be complexity in what we regard as simple, though. Vanilla is thought of as a simple flavour. It’s the basic bitch of the ice cream section, and yet it outsells everything else. That said, good vanilla ice cream is derived from the bean of the vanilla orchid. Every bean contains hundreds of flavour compounds, making it surprisingly complex. Vanillin is an organic compound and it is the dominant component of the vanilla bean. Vanillin is also found in the wooden barrels where we age our wine, whiskey, rum, etc. The understanding and using chemical compounds such as this have led to a rise in beautifully complex non-alcoholic cocktails.
In recent years, however, as the low and no trend has continued, people have been developing more and more exciting alternatives to the pint of plain that’s anything but. While non-alcoholic beer has been available to some extent for years, there are now more options available than ever before. The big brands, like Guinness and Heineken, have hopped in with mass offerings of de-alcoholised versions of their OG’s.
De-alcoholising is relatively new. By which I mean it landed on our shores in the last 10 years or so. This means removing the alcohol after fermentation. This is done through complex chemistry and filtering. However, what it doesn’t extract is all of the complex flavours. Many compounds produced by the fermentation process linger. Previously, many companies have tried to make non-alcoholic drinks without fermenting them. These resulted in dull, sweet beverages that could be thought of as hop soda and, by which many felt cheated.
Fuelled by the pursuit of complex flavours, innovators come up with all sorts of ways to produce drinks that are as diverse and captivatingly tasty as a 6.5% crafty beer. Small batch brewers now regularly use innovative yeast strains such as kombucha yeast to brew zero-alcohol beer without losing flavour to de-alcoholising. This typically takes longer and results in slightly more expensive offerings but evokes the flavour of beer to the richest extent. So much so that some tasters can’t actually discern it from an alcoholic offering.
A large wave of non-alc spirit innovations with flavour sophistication as their focus has broken. There are now artisanal products made with high-quality ingredients that result in full, bold flavours similar to the spirits they mimic. But many are hesitant to stock them. Cost is a factor. Because many of these innovations are new and small, their initial cost runs similar to that of an alcoholic beverage, and stockists are worried Irish people won’t pay for that. But if the non-alcoholic bar that has just taken the place of MVP in Harolds Cross is anything to go by, then maybe they will.
People are literally thirsty for better non-alcoholic options. By pursuing complex flavours and bringing people decent drinks, we remove the unnecessary archaic stigma surrounding not drinking alcohol. The sales trends, the memes and the internet at large has shown that the interest, support and demand for this is growing. Across this industry, the conversation is slowly changing from Why aren’t you drinking? To what are you drinking?
Words: Shamim de Brún