Should NABLAB be sensory tested differently?

By Keith Lemcke
September 14, 2023

There was a time just a few decades ago when the range of characteristics found in beer was quite narrow, regardless of the brand you drank. Then came the craft beer revolution, which broadened the scope of flavors and aromas found in an ever-widening selection of ales, lagers, and specialty beers. Over the last decade, consumers have been spoiled by the vast range of choices in beer and alcoholic beverages, and now we are seeing a new wave of beers brewed and processed to present no, or low, alcohol. This new generation of non-alcohol beers and low-alcohol beers (NABLAB) can be challenging to brew and, as with alcohol containing beer, they need skilled sensory analysis throughout their production to assure consistently high-quality results.

Why is NABLAB sensory different from alcoholic beer sensory?

Many consumers expect that NABLAB will have similar or identical characteristics to their alcohol-bearing counterparts, yet achieving such a feat is quite a challenge for even the most talented brewer. If the brewer seeks to limit the production of alcohol in the first place through brewing ingredients, techniques, and/or fermentation-related practices, the resulting beer can have “worty” aromas characterized as aldehydes with “grainy” being a commonly perceived aroma as well.

Typically, fermentation of conventional beer results in the robust reduction of compounds like diacetyl and H2S, something that can be of concern to a brewer that chooses to limit fermentation as these off flavors may not be eliminated during the process. A big issue during the production of NABLAB is getting an ester profile that consumers associate with high-quality beer. Esters may be suppressed or modified due to controlled fermentation of NABLAB beers. In the practice of removing alcohol from beer with some ethanol content, a wide range of esters may also be removed resulting in a less flavorful and aromatic beer.

Key factors for operating a NABLAB sensory panel

A lot of experimentation with different recipes and processes is needed to find a method of NABLAB production that will yield the best result. While those involved in taste panels used in developing NABLAB beers need to have sensory training in the same wide range of compounds as with alcoholic beers, some special emphasis should be placed on learning characteristics common to NABLAB products. Firstly, smell and taste wort! Raw, full-strength wort can be used but diluting it in
water can yield a result closer to what remains in an incomplete NABLAB fermentation.

Overt sweetness can be common in NABLABs, usually coupled with worty compounds, so tasters should be especially observant of the
sweet/dry/bitter balance of beers that exhibit overt worty characteristics. It is common for breweries to acidify these beers to drop the pH in an effort to make them more microbiologically stable. This can make achieving balance more of a challenge as sweetness/dryness, bitterness from hops, and acidity are now factors in taste and in mouthfeel.

Sensory training in a full range of esters is important as the lack of esters can be notable in NABLAB beers. Practically any brewing method that results in a non- or low-alcohol beer will result in ester profiles that are different than what consumers expect from traditional beer, so tasters need to know the characteristics of major brewing-related esters to assess their contributions to these beverages.

Lastly, it is important to not only spot all these characteristics as individual contributors to beer character but also to know how they work together to form the finished products. Consumers don’t generally take apart their beverage characteristics but rather consider them within the matrix of the finished products. Taste panelists should take the time to go through an entire can or bottle of each brand to see how the beer characteristics change as the product warms up. After all, it’s what the customer perceives that is most important. Understanding the house flavor of what is expected for the product is key for establishing a sensory baseline. This is true for all products within a sensory program. The rest of the sensory analysis can be to ensure you are hitting the set targets.


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