In the last two years, I’ve tasted a very wide variety of non-alcoholic beer in what we might refer to as “craft beer styles,” and yet not a single one of them has ever been labeled as “light beer.” Those words represent an idealistic gulf, a co-opting of terminology associated for decades in the minds of beer geeks with the “enemy,” that nebulous entity known as Big Beer. And yet, those words are also potentially a valuable tool of branding. People know what a “light beer” is, or they at least believe they do, which is ultimately more important. A non-alcoholic version of that, from a craft brewery? That’s a concept that could have some serious cache. Leave it to The Athletic Brewing Co. to finally execute that idea.
Athletic is one of the biggest names in the NA-only beer space, and one of the earlier companies that came along with a focus on brewing exclusively non-alcoholic beer. I’ve tasted their wider product line before, and if I’m being honest, I typically feel as if their products fall somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of what is available in the NA beer market. Their hop-forward styles in particular have not been my favorite among non-alcoholic IPAs, but I do appreciate their pioneering work in developing styles such as their stout-like NA dark beers.
This new Athletic Lite, though? This feels like a breakthrough. This is something I legitimately haven’t had in the NA beer scene up to this point—an extremely refreshing, crisp, subtle and satisfying NA beer that is also extremely low in calories. When I tasted this beer for the first time, my initial thought was that there are probably millions of Americans out there who have been waiting for something just like this. And pretty soon, it will be widely available. Just another reason why we’re now in the golden era of non-alcoholic beer.
What is Athletic Lite, exactly? Well, this is a non-alcoholic lager, brewed with a mixed grist of organic barley, rice and wheat, along with some noble hops. Incredibly, it weighs in at only 25 calories and 5 grams of carbs per 12 oz serving, which is a level I’ve only really seen from Canada’s Partake Brewing. None of those Partake beers, though, could really stand up to this one.
From a marketing standpoint, it does make perfect sense that this brew would be pitched as “light beer,” and even use the “Lite” term first made famous by Miller Lite. That terminology is going to have a much broader appeal to the average drinker, and is most likely to get someone to try this product. The fact of the matter, though, and the thing that the craft beer geek/lager geek will want to know, is that Athletic Lite is in reality maybe the best overall approximation of non-alcoholic pilsner or helles lager that I’ve tasted to date. Whereas the name would probably make you expect an insipid American adjunct lager, the actual beer is a delicate, lightly hoppy little wonder.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Athletic Light features pleasant, delicate impressions of milled grain, light florals, buzzy hop spice and a bit of lemon citrus. I’m reminded more than anything else of pilsner from what one might call a “legacy” American craft brewery—this tastes like a classic lager from a large, regional craft brewery that has been around since the 1980s or 1990s, if you get my comparison. The hop presence is light and subtle, but there are unmistakable noble hop notes that make this decidedly different from some kind of non-alcoholic take on macro light adjunct lager. Instead, it’s more like a non-alcoholic helles.
On the palate, I’m getting more of that crisp grain, along with slightly more bready or yeasty notes, along with florals and more of the lemon citrus. There’s a bit of hop bitterness; just enough to register faintly. It’s a crisp, clean profile with a low threshold of flavor assertiveness, but that’s exactly what it intended for the style, so I certainly don’t see it as a detraction. Indeed, this is one of the more delicately executed and subtle NA beers that I’ve had to date—and that’s not really an easy profile to pull off in the non-alcoholic world, where weird off flavors are often covered up by big hop rates or stronger flavors. I’m impressed here both by the restraint and the decision to genuinely feature some noble hop notes, which are able to shine through because everything else is so crisp and clean.
This is a beer that could have been extremely boring, and it’s not that. In fact, I think this is pretty handily the best beer that I’ve had from Athletic Brewing Co. to date. It’s exactly the sort of non-alcoholic beer that has been missing from my repertoire; something that I can feel better about buying than the likes of Heineken 0.0. I’m really glad that this stuff exists, and I can see myself drinking quite a bit of it in the future. If you’ve been on the hunt for some quality NA lager, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
Brewery: The Athletic Brewing Co.
City: Stratford, CT
Style: Non-alcoholic lager
ABV: Less than .5%
Availability: 12 oz cans, available online
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.