An interview with Rene du Toit, Brew Master at Darling Brew

1) Why did you begin producing alcohol-free beverages? Is it response to lockdown bans, or was it always a plan?

Our very first non-alcoholic : Jinja, was created in 2018 and was actually inspired by finding a 100-year old ginger-beer recipe from one of the farms around Darling. The concept of non-alcoholics was tossed around a few times since then, but the need to respond to the alcohol bans last year really accelerated the development of more products in order to save the business. 

2) For the wines - how do you retain the characteristics of a certain variety? I’ve heard some drinkers find the absence of aromas a stumbling block to their enjoyment.

It is an exceptional challenge to recreate the true aroma of a beer in a non-alcoholic version. There are methods of retaining much of the fermentation aroma compounds of a fully-fermented beer (or wine) by fractional distillation. In these cases it is generally not possible to go completely alcohol-free, but at least keep the alcohol below 0.5%. This is easier in wine, as most wines handle oxygen and heat stress better than beer, where the process needs to be  100% oxygen free and at very low temperature. So brewers often rather brew a beer to 0.5% alcohol to create some of the fermentation aroma compounds, and work then with good hops, which are a major aroma component of beer, to create a close-to-true beer flavour.

3) Please tell me a bit about how your alcohol-free drinks are made?

We either create a drink without any form of fermentation (e.g. our Malt Cross, Apple Bomb and our Navigator Seltzers), or by means of a stopped fermentation, keeping the alcohol content below 0.5%, yet allowing the yeast to impart some of those all-important fermentation aromas and flavours. The rest of the flavour balance is kept interesting by tweaking the base ingredients to create a full-flavour experience.

4) What are your thoughts on the alcohol-free/low alcohol drinks market? As related to lockdown bans, and in general.

During an alcohol ban, obviously a low-alcohol drink is a way for an alcohol producer to keep their business afloat and prevent job losses. In general, however, low alcohol or non-alcoholic drinks should still have a solid future. In other parts of the world, this segment is gaining huge traction. In SA, we are lagging far behind, as we love our dop a little too much, and I think this market segment will grow more slowly here. We have seen sales of non-alcoholics soar during the first and second ban and then plummet once alcohol sales were allowed again. But as people become more health-conscious and more socially conscious, the demand for "grown up" drinks, without an alcohol buzz, or with only minimal alcohol, will continue to grow and become a significant part of the drinks landscape.

5) For those making alcoholic drinks as well, some comments on the addition of non-alcoholic to their range.

If you can do it, and do it well, it will pay off in the long-term. Take the time to create a truly good product that speaks to the conscious consumer. We really don't need more fizzy sodas.

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