How Adnams made Ghost Ship 0.5%, by Fergus Fitzgerald

In a wide-reaching interview, Adnams’ Head Brewer Fergus Fitzgerald talks us through the thinking of Ghost Ship Alcohol Free and how he gets it so good.

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Why did you and Adnams decide to make an alcohol free beer?
It probably started when we brewed a beer called Sole Star at 2.7% several years back, when the lower duty rate at 2.8% came in. Lots of other breweries did likewise. We were really happy with it and although most other breweries offerings disappeared Sole Star did pretty well for us and stuck around.

We felt Sole Star was a little bit in no mans land in terms of alcohol, i.e. not being ‘low alcohol’ so we dropped the abv to 0.9% a few years ago. The brewers at BrewDog were very helpful with advising on what they were doing with Nanny State, just using a really low O.G. wort, underpitching, low fermentation temperature, lots of complex malts with low fermentability and lots of dry hopping.

Again we got a beer that we were pretty happy with but couldn’t quite get it to a place where we’d mistake it for a standard beer. We then went back to looking at what we could do make a better alcohol-free beer, not just the flavour but also to give the drinker something they wanted to buy rather than something they put up with.

Part of that was being able to enjoy the same flavours as something you already liked to drink but just with lower alcohol. That led us to the realisation that a normal fermentation is critical if we wanted it to be the same as an existing beer and therefore we needed to remove the alcohol.

Does cask or keg make a difference to alcohol-free?
We aren’t doing cask, but I believe there is a Belgian brewery doing a 0.5% beer in cask. We are filling kegs which we don’t sterilise or pasteurise, so we need to be more careful with the shelf life and also be aware of throughput in a pub. You have to remember that at < 0.5% we aren’t really dealing with beer anymore, neither legally or practically, we’ve taken out one of the critical features of beer that makes it microbiologically safe. But from a drinker’s perspective, there seems to be a huge benefit if it’s on keg: you still get a pint and it is served in the same way as any other keg beer; I guess there is an element of the ritual of getting a pint poured being as important as what it is.

Which system have you used to eliminate the alcohol?
We went with reverse osmosis. We looked at vacuum distillation but decided early on that even at the lower temperature it would still be too high on something like Ghost Ship as we found that higher hopping levels are increasingly affected by heat. So having already decided that a normal fermentation was essential to being able to mimic the flavour in Ghost Ship we were left with reverse osmosis which is carried out at essentially zero Celsius. It was much gentler on the hop character and left the malt character intact.

Was there much investment in this system?
Circa £500k. The kit we went with is pretty expensive, but we felt it offered the best flavour and if the low and no alcohol is going to succeed it has to do it based on the quality, we don’t have the budget to market like the multinational brewers.

Why did you decide that Ghost Ship would be the beer you started with? And are there plans to launch any more?
As Ghost Ship was and is our best-selling beer we decided that was the beer we should do first, also there weren’t many pale ale style beers at 0.5% at the time. We will look at some others, but we need to increase capacity first as its running flat out on Ghost Ship 0.5% at the moment.

Did you feel a sense of innovation when brewing it? Did you enjoy the challenge?
We’ve changed the brewery so much in the last five years that it just felt like a continuation of the rebuilding of Adnams. Two years ago we couldn’t condition, filter or keg beer on site, we knew before we finished the cellar project that we wanted to add the dealcoholiser in as well.

Dan Gooderham, my lead brewer and the rest of the brewing team, really took to the challenge, running lots of trials and babysitting the process during its 24-hour cycles. We started with a standard Ghost Ship recipe and then as we went through the trials modified the recipe many times as well as changing the de-alcoholising process. We’re used to making a change in a recipe and seeing that change giving you sometimes unexpected results, adding the complexity of the reverse osmosis in as well makes that more challenging and to be honest we are still learning every time we make a change.

Do some beers or styles lend themselves to alcohol-free?
Weissbier seems pretty robust to most dealcoholising processes, lager can be ok if treated gently, and isn’t overly hopped.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d told yourself before you started on this project?
I took us longer than we thought to get as close as we wanted before launching, so I’d allow a bit more time. The main thing I wish I knew is how the review into low and no alcohol descriptors would turn out. We had hoped and expected that the UK would adopt the rule common in most of the rest of the world, including the rest of the EU, that <0.5% is alcohol-free, we didn’t.

So although beers produced from outside the UK can be called alcohol-free at <0.5%, beers made in the UK at <0.5% are either called de-alcoholised or low alcohol, to be called alcohol-free it needs to be less than 0.05%, which we could make but it would use a lot more water and reduce the quality of the beer for no discernible benefit.

I wish I didn’t feel I needed to understand the EU rules of mutual recognition or how much alcohol is in a banana milkshake, or the fact that some burger buns wouldn’t even classify as low alcohol in the UK let alone alcohol-free, but on the plus side I can now bore myself to sleep.