Why no-alcohol beer is 2024's hottest drink

There's a distinct trend emerging from the annual judging of beer and ciders.
There's a distinct trend emerging from the annual judging of beer and ciders. Photo credit: Supplied

Michael Donaldson knows a thing or two about beer and wine. 

The affable salt-and-pepper-haired journalist has been writing about beer for over 14 years. 

His social media is filled with shots of exquisite cans of alcohol, colourful concoctions aimed at satiating the casual drinker and the connoisseur, and his knowledge of the marketplace and trends is second to none. 

So, it's no wonder Donaldson has found himself at the helm of the the New World Beer & Cider Awards, serving as the chair of judges every year since 2016 (bar one). 

But even he isn't surprised at the most significant trend to emerge from this year's judging, which has just wrapped up in Auckland. 

Across two hazy autumn days, nine tables of four judges have come together to debate the merits of the submitted drops; swallowing, swilling and celebrating what breweries have on offer in a range of categories. 

Of the more than 600 entries from around 100 breweries and cidermakers, 7 percent of them this year are low or no-alcohol beers - double the number of booze-free entrants compared to this time last year. 

Donaldson revealed to Newshub while the increase was something he "absolutely" was a fan of, it had appeared to cause a split between the judges. 

"If you went into the room down there, there'd be some brewers who would just be, 'No, no, no, no, no, no'. And on the other hand, there would be others who embrace it," he said. 

Judges sample up to 50 beers a day.
Judges sample up to 50 beers and ciders a day. Photo credit: Supplied

"It's another way to reach a new audience. Whether you think it's really beer or not, I don't know. Some people in Europe would argue zero-alcohol wine is not really wine, because to be wine it has to have alcohol. But I think we're past that point of arguing the semantics; whether it's wine or beer, there is a market for it." 

Donaldson reckons the growing trend is all about perception - and peer pressure. 

"It's like when you go out and you're going to be the sober driver, and if you have a can that looks really cool from a craft brewery, that looks like an ordinary beer, but it's non-alcoholic. It has a bizarre sort of psychological thing; it actually makes you feel okay about drinking a non-alcoholic beer, whereas it used to be people got a little bit like, 'What's wrong with you, mate? Like, why are you doing that?'" 

Donaldson puts the rise down to customers who are aiming for a healthier lifestyle and "making a better choice for myself". 

"That's just another trend, that people are looking to be healthier and more active. Especially in America, a lot of these beers where they have different rules around the marketing, they are very much targeted at those involved in recreational [activities]." 

Judging beers and ciders is all about swallowing and appreciating the taste.
Judging beers and ciders is all about swallowing and appreciating the taste. Photo credit: Supplied

However, there is also serious competition from an increase in sour beers market; beers which have been layered with sweet flavours and are finding favour with Aotearoa's boozers. 

"You're back in that wine territory of a sweet, acidic balance, right? I always say, 'Think of it not like a lemon, but lemonade', you know? It's tangy and acidic, but it's sweet and it's got a lovely flavour. A lot of these sour beers now are just amazing. From what they call an ice cream sour sandwich, they've got lactose and vanilla in them to [those with] a fruit of some description like raspberry or boysenberry. And they create this perception when you smell it - it smells like a dessert." 

It's something the local brewers are quickly adapting to, attempting to cement a spot in the marketplace by broadening their horizons. 

"[Wellington brewers] Garage Project have a pickle flavoured sour, one that smells and tastes like dill pickles, and you either love it or you hate it. If you love that flavour, you're into it. It's refreshing - that kind of thing will appeal to wine drinkers." 

Donaldson laughs when Newshub suggests he has the kind of job most people would kill for. 

Michael Donaldson has a job many would kill for.
Michael Donaldson has a job many would kill for. Photo credit: Supplied

He - along with the selected panel of judges - sample 100 beers over two days, 50 of which will arrive at his own home later for him to write about. 

He is also happy to reveal to Newshub the secret of how the judges don't end up sozzled - or confused by tastes after so much imbibing. 

"We keep it simple. Sparkling water is quite good, just a little 'swizzle swizzle' around in your mouth. Dry crackers, cheese, a simple French breadstick. Also, a little bit of butter on a bit of bread won't hurt as the cheese and butter absorb the fats and flavour. There is such a thing as 'palate fatigue'." 

Applications to be part of the judging panel have also rocketed in the past few years. They open every two years; in 2023, 54 people from breweries around the country threw their hat in the ring for one of 27 positions. 

Mmmm beer.
Mmmm beer. Photo credit: Supplied

As Liam Neeson once said, Donaldson explains you need a "very particular set of skills" to become a judge. Unlike wine tasting, which is swirling, sniffing and spitting, beer and cider is all about swallowing and tasting, as the taste buds needed for judging sit at the back of the throat. 

"It's really hard. We look for a bit of experience, like, have you done it before? Have they judged in a lot of competitions? What makes them good is they just have a very high quality of palate and smell and they're able to really drill down and into flavours, but also pick out what we call faults." 

He also believes prospective judges need the qualities to form a "United Nations of judging", considering the heated discussions about who is right and wrong that can arise amid the experts. 

"They need an ability just to work with other people. Lone Rangers don't get off. If you've got a big ego and you think you know everything, you're not going to work in a team environment because it is collaborative and it's a back and forth, and there's diplomacy and politics to an extent. 

"You have to be able to not die on a hill if someone else thinks it's really good and you don't," he laughs. 

Despite years of trying various tipples, Donaldson has never been tempted enough to venture into the marketplace, even though he  dabbled previously in the past. He says he enjoys what others are doing too much to give it all up. 

Over 50 people applied last year to be one of 27 judges at the Beer and Cider awards.
Over 50 people applied last year to be one of 27 judges at the Beer and Cider awards. Photo credit: Supplied

"The first time I had a beer with kawakawa in it, I was just thinking, 'How's this going to work?' But it was used judiciously and that was a great flavour. Same with horopito - a lot of people like to use these native New Zealand flavours to provide a distinctive edge. It's something no one else in the world can do." 

Donaldson reckons those working within the New Zealand craft beer industry have creativity on their side when it comes to in-house marketing, rather than relying on big budgets as the major players do. However, he does believe a celebrity endorsement is all it would take to propel the Aotearoa craft beer market into the stratosphere. 

"I think marketing is inherently part of it. You have to be seen. You have to be heard, whether it's on social media, whether it's on a shelf where your label might stand out. But most craft breweries in New Zealand don't have marketing budgets. So, it's creativity as much as anything, and how you get yourself out there and get heard. 

"I'm kind of waiting for it to happen with beer. It would have to be a domestic kind of celebrity because there's not a massive export market from here. I know Ed Sheeran drank some beer while he was in New Zealand. Everyone pays attention to that - albeit briefly.  

"Yeah, I always joke, 'What if Richie McCaw or Dan Carter launched a beer?' You know, that might go off." 

The Top 30 ranked beers and ciders which will make up the 2024 New World Beer & Cider Awards winners will be revealed on May 20.