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“I never drink…wine” – Dracula, Dead and Loving It.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’re probably aware that we deal with craft beer quite a lot, sometimes spirits, and occasionally coffee. This is our first foray into non-alcoholic versions of traditionally alcoholic beverages. Yes, there’s a trend sort of thing happening. Yes, there are all the hashtags for dry January or sober October (terrifying). To me, those are quite beside the point. However, I am a fan of the idea of people having options, and that seems to be important to Surreal Brewing Company.
Both of the founders are, for their own reasons (I didn’t really ask), non-drinkers. Of alcohol, anyway. But after some important life events (recovering from cancer, that sort of thing), the couple wanted to celebrate with a craft beer. Not the stuff from the macro breweries, and also not something with alcohol. They didn’t find what they wanted, and decided to create it.
What’s the deal with Surreal?
We did the tasting (all the comparison notes are further down in the post) a couple of weeks before our corner of the country started having shelter in place orders. With stuff like that starting to happen, it made me want to actually talk to the people of Surreal, not just write about their beers. In between running the brewery and keeping her school-aged children occupied at home, Donna Hockey graciously made some time to talk with me.
When I asked how they were holding up, Donna replied that they were, “Holding up as well as can be expected. Trying to stay home, and coming up with ideas to help people who are working on the front lines.” They’d been increasing their deliveries to customers’ homes. Since Surreal brews only non-alcoholic beers, they can do eCommerce and delivery, without going through distributors, which is not an option for most breweries. This was a point I hadn’t previously considered.
Naturally, I wondered why they’d started a non-alcoholic craft brewery. Having decided at some point to eschew alcoholic drinks, Donna and Tammer had accepted not going to happy hours and the like. Life events have a way of changing one’s goals. After Donna survived breast cancer, and the couple subsequently couldn’t find a celebratory yet non-alcoholic beer they wanted to drink, they decided to develop their own. Donna noted that beer is a large and important part of American (U.S.) culture, and everyone should be able to experience it.
Their desire to include people who might otherwise not get to celebrate with a craft beer is what I admire about Surreal. During this time when people need to be socially distanced, I’ve observed communities pulling together in unexpected and touching ways. When I asked Donna how their community in Santa Clara County was faring, she replied, “We’re all very related as a community.” Local businesses have been coming up with ideas to work together, including restaurants selling some of their excess food supplies as groceries.
Since California is hardly lacking in craft breweries, I wondered how the other brewers had received Surreal. Donna related that they’ve not experienced any negative reactions in the brewing community, but distributors have been reluctant to pick up their product, fearing that it would sell about as well as macro-brewed near-beers do. Grocery stores, on the other hand, want to offer more variety to customers, and that’s been a reasonable market for Surreal.
Overall, when I spoke with Donna near the end of March, they were doing well on the eCommerce side, increasing home deliveries in their local area, and doing their best to offer a craft brewed alternative to folks who want one. As Donna said, “There has to be something for everybody.”
They’d sent us a mixed six-pack of their brews to review, so we grabbed half a dozen similar-style beers with alcohol in, for comparison. To make it more interesting, we invited a couple of friends and colleagues over to join in the tasting.
The label says it contains less than 0.5% ABV.
“It was okay. It didn’t do anything impressive. It was sweet like a regular scone…” – Blair Ballard
This porter has a pleasant nose, with the expected roasted barley, cocoa, and hints of vanilla. The mouthfeel is thin; there’s not much body. That’s also to be expected, as it’s pretty tough to nail the right amount of body for a porter anyway. There’s also a bit of extra astringency.
“Like a toasted cocoa tea…you’re better off with a Dr. Pepper.” – Ben Wilson
“It’s like a flavored coffee without the creamer…If the point of a non-alcoholic beer is to taste like beer without the alcohol, it doesn’t do it.” – Ryan O’ Shaughnessy
“Smells sweet. Tastes non-sweet…does still taste more like beer than like a flat soda. Chocolate brown color. Thin. Yeast.” – Ami Melaine
Compared against Founders CBS.
We admit, this is an unfair comparison. CBS has 11.7% ABV, but that’s kind of how you want a dessert beer to be.
“Thick, sweet, similar nose. Nearly instant pleasant alcohol warmth. Not harsh; no burn, similarly low carbonation.” – Ami Melaine
17 Mile Porter
This one also has less than 0.5% ABV.
The 17 Mile has more viscosity than the Pastry Porter, and a bit more head retention. The body is thicker, but I found it a bit more bitter than I’d expected. Not having sugars is all well and good when you want to cut calories, but beer tends to have a little residual sugar; it’s an expected component of the flavor profile.
“It’s amazing what alcohol will do for beer…it kinda tastes like when you make hot cocoa, and it’s too thin and watery, and then it gets cold, and you still try to drink it.” – Ami Melaine
There is also a sour note that one doesn’t usually expect from a porter. Still, as Blair said, “I think I’d prefer these styles to usual non-alcoholic beers.”
Compared against Bell’s Porter.
Somewhere in the 5% – 6% ABV range is normal for a porter, so this comparison is a bit kinder than the previous one. Bell’s Porter is also pretty dry.
“Deep, dark, rich, roasted grain, bitter in the back, no syrupy sweetness.” – Ami
All our tasters prefer the Bell’s Porter, but it’s not as much of a landslide.
Chandelier Red IPA
Also less than 0.5% ABV
Very piney nose, very full of Cascade hop notes. This brew is most assuredly hoppy, and the color is, yes, red.
“It’s like a dry hop soda or barley and hop tea.” – Ben
“It doesn’t feel like a red ale at all to me.” – Ryan
The nose is like a beer in the middle of brewing day, with the barley and hops. That’s a delicious smell, but to me, the flavor is incomplete. Perhaps it’s the lack of yeasty notes.
Compared against Sierra Nevada Flipside
Somehow, the Flipside manages to have a hoppier profile. A well-rounded IPA doesn’t taste like a hop tea; the flavor is quite a bit more complex, with the malt, hops and yeast (and, yes alcohol) contributing to a balanced profile.
“Nose – yeast! Tastes like an IPA and a hair salon…red, smoky, hoppy, sharp…deep hop [flavor].” – Ami
Juicy Mavs Hazy IPA
Also less than 0.5% ABV
“I kind of like that. It tricks you into thinking it’s a beer first.” – Ryan
The nose is quite juicy, with plenty of tropical hop character. The taste is fairly astringent, like it needs more malt backbone to balance it out. That’s also a feature of a number of hazy IPAs that do include alcohol; hazy IPA is a tough style to nail, with or without alcohol.
“Fave? Smells like juice, kinda sweet. Tastes like a watered-down IPA, bitter in the back.” – Ami
“I didn’t mind the Juicy Mavs at all. That may have been my favorite of these [Surreal beers] overall.” – Blair
Compared against Firestone Walker Mind Haze
The flavor is more balanced, with less astringency. We also chose Mind Haze specifically because neither Ben nor I are particularly fond of the hazy IPA style, and Firestone Walker generally makes clean, reasonably well-balanced West Coast IPAs.
“Delicious. Less juicy, not bitter, mild. Not a giant difference in flavor. Pleasant alcoholic warmth. Less sweet.” – Ami
The consensus is that Juicy Mavs is the best Surreal brew we’ve tried thus far.
Natural Bridges Kolsch
You guessed it; less that 0.5% ABV.
Good head. Fluffy, with fine bubbles and decent head retention. The nose reminds me of a mild hop tea. Yeast isn’t just what you need to create the alcohol. Alcohol is a byproduct that the yeast produces as it noms on all that tasty malt. Yeast contributes quite a bit to a beer’s character, and all of these beers have been pretty low in any characteristics they would get from yeastiness. Even so, this is much like a lawnmower beer, and could be quite refreshing on a warm day.
“They should market this as a lawnmower beer.” – Blair Ballard
“Tastes like PBR…” – Ami Melaine
Compared against Alaskan Kölsch
While their Alaskan Amber is one of my favorite beers, this kolsch has some serious faults. Banana esters in the nose, which Ryan identified as isoamyl acetate, are not supposed to be a characteristic of the kölsch style. The flavor was also nearly straight-up banana. It did make Ami want a Wells Banana Bread Beer, and Blair kinda liked the “watered-down banana.” Kolsch does suffer if it’s not fresh, so that could be an issue. Regardless, I was glad we only picked up one can of this.
Surreal wins this round. If Natural Bridges were marketed as a lawnmower beer, that would probably work quite well, though Blair also opined that Surreal beers could be marketed as, “the new cut-off liquid.”
Overall impressions? These IPAs and the kolsch are much better than the macro-brewed near-beers we’ve all tasted. The porter examples showed a tendency toward astringency. Since we compared them against alcoholic beers from successful breweries in a number of regions, it was a tough match for Surreal. Even so, they flat won one round, and held up well in two others. If you’re curious about other breweries producing non-alcoholic beers, Esquire.com did a round-up you might find interesting.