Since the initial release of Brooklyn Brewery’s first non-alcoholic Special Effects beer in 2019, the NA segment has continued a pretty significant evolution in the U.S. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could put a dent in its growth, in fact—even during a period when the bottom fell out from the greater craft beer industry, NA beer still found a way to grow, and Paste continued tasting new NA beer brands. Although the segment still makes up only a tiny fraction of the overall beer market, it has become a more and more viable part of the lineups of many small American breweries, and a significant moneymaker for the likes of Brooklyn, who say that the broader Special Effects brand now makes up more than 10% of their total sales. That’s real money we’re talking about here, being generated by a corner of the beer world that was once universally seen as a joke.
It’s only natural, then, that Brooklyn would want to expand their Special Effects brand to capture some more potential crossovers and demographics, and fittingly they’ve released a new variety pack to do so, just in time for the annual NA beer festival that is Dry January. To the already existing Special Effects Hoppy Amber and Special Effects IPA, the variety pack adds two new brands, a pilsner and an NA take on hazy IPA. All are traditionally brewed non-alcoholic beers, which means they do contain some small amount of alcohol, legally defined as less than .5% ABV in each 12 oz can. We received samples of all four, so this is clearly the perfect time to revisit the existing brands and taste the new ones as Brooklyn angles to become one of the country’s biggest purveyors of non-alcoholic craft beer styles.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
Originally released as simply “Special Effects,” this one now bears the title “Hoppy Amber” to distinguish it from the rest of the series, and it’s a well-chosen name. Functionally a hop-forward amber lager, this original entry in the series is still my personal favorite, and one that can occasionally be found in the NA section of my beer fridge. Assertively hoppy for the genre, Hoppy Amber reads as a tribute to the hop-forward American amber ales of yore, a style that has almost faded away into obscurity at this point. As we’ve previously written when tasting it:
On the palate, Special Effects features a solid balance between malt and hop impressions. Mildly sweet and toasty, it gives off impressions of crusty bread and black tea maltiness, along with mild floral and grassy hops, chased by a clean note of grapefruit. More than anything, it’s an uncomplicated palate in terms of your average U.S. beer release, but among the N/A world it’s actually more complex than most. Special Effects is ultimately quite easy to drink, with a subtle sweetness and well-balanced hops that never threaten to demand its reclassification as “India pale lager.”
I find this lager to be pleasantly versatile, and it makes a great substitution for standard beer when paired with the likes of pizza or burgers. Ultimately, I wish that I liked the entire brand as much as I like this original beer.
Non-alcoholic India pale ale can be a pretty difficult category to pull off satisfyingly, although I’ve had a few in the last year that I feel have significantly raised the bar for the style, from breweries such as Crux Fermentation Project and Flying Dog, who have done a better job than their predecessors of crafting beers that genuinely taste like common examples of modern IPA. Of course, if you’re going to make an NA IPA, you first have to decide if that beer is meant to reflect hazy, juicy IPA, or an earlier IPA style. In the case of Brooklyn’s first Special Effects IPA, the latter was clearly the call—this is more akin to a translation of the dry, bitter IPAs of yore than it is to juicier modern IPAs, which have their own brand in this same variety pack.
In execution, this one strikes me as so-so, making me miss the greater heft of flavor contributed by the malt backbone of the Hoppy Amber, which at the same time isn’t hurting for hop presence either. As I wrote when first tasting this one:
Tasting this Special Effects release, the initial impressions are of crisp grain and toastiness, with a malt profile of toasted bread crusts and tea-like maltiness. However, it strikes me as a bit more “green tea” than black tea, with more herbaceousness that segues into significant bitterness. This is very dry, and the hop flavors aren’t as pronounced as one might be expecting, reflecting some of the grass/florals from the nose. I find myself again thinking of juniper berries, along with lemongrass, but there’s also a flinty, more mineral character as well. The bitterness, meanwhile, isn’t that assertive, but it seems more intense than it really is due to the way that it lingers, and the lack of balancing residual sweetness/juicier hop flavors.
The first new addition in the Special Effects Variety Pack is this non-alcoholic take on pilsner, which Brooklyn says is for “if you’re craving clean, crisp refreshment,” which I can’t help but think hints at who they’re seeing as the target demographic for NA pils—not the beer geeks who are crazy for craft pilsner, but the rank-and-file drinkers who still associate that word with the likes of Miller Lite.
This suspicion feels at least partially confirmed as soon as I put my nose to the glass, finding very mild aromatics in the process. It’s kind of a shame, as I had been looking forward to the idea of a noble hop-forward non-alcoholic beer—not something I’ve often seen, nor is “NA German pils” in general—but instead, the nose of Special Effects Pilsner is very neutral in comparison with most any regular European pilsner. It’s slightly corny sweet, with hints of grainy huskiness, and faint traces of floral or grassy notes, but you really have to search to find them.
On the palate, this one is likewise quite mild, though never objectively unpleasant. Mild graininess (corn pops!) forms the background noise, upon which there are faint flashes of grass or florals, but it’s definitely missing a more vivacious hop presence that would have made it feel more genuinely like an attempt at pilsner. The beer is easy, effortless to drink, which is presumably the whole point, but I wish it reminded me more of the style whose name is on the can. At the very least, it’s indeed as “clean and crisp” as promised.
This is the unusual one, the brand that is taking a swing at doing something novel. There are a handful of non-alcoholic, hazy-esque IPAs on the market today, but trying to translate those types of hop flavors into a beer without alcohol is a much more pertinent, challenging and cutting edge question than trying to produce a basic, NA lager these days. I’ve had a few engaging, “juicier” takes on this style so far, but just as many that miss the mark.
This one … well, it’s almost difficult to say whether this one is a success or not, but one can genuinely say that it’s marching to the beat of its own drum at the very least. The nose is fascinating, striking me as quite reminiscent of fresh lemonade, crossed with mandarin orange sweetness. There’s a certain juiciness there, and impressions that are somewhat tropical in nature, along with undertones of grass and maybe faint grain, but each note has a tendency to be present for brief moments before then receding again.
On the palate, this same sort of peekaboo game continues, with candied lemon and flashes of orange juice providing the front notes on a flavor profile that is nevertheless still quite dry, which is a persistent refrain of most non-alcoholic beer, and one of the harder things about translating hazy IPA to NA beer in particular. Again, the flavors here seem to pop up and then dissipate just as quickly, and the citrus profile ultimately reminded me more and more over time of almost a dry citrus soda or seltzer, an impression that is amplified by the overall lack of malt character. That likely sounds like criticism, but the effect isn’t really unpleasant—Special Effects Hazy IPA instead reads like an extremely drinkable citrus seltzer, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but simply one that takes some getting used to. What it doesn’t remind me of, though, is hazy IPA. For better or worse, this seems calculated for maximum drinkability.
Perhaps that’s just what some new Dry January drinkers will want. Regardless, my favorite entry in the Special Effects series remains the reliable Hoppy Amber, which still displays the most genuine balance between malt and hop flavors, and is most evocative of the beer style from which it originated.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.