In the eyes of Suckerpunch founder Andy McMillan, the great nonalcoholic craft beer boom is coming. Beers account for 85 percent of zero-proof beverage sales. Noteworthy breweries like Crux and 10 Barrel have debuted their first alcohol-free IPAs. And Athletic Brewing, the Connecticut-based nonalcoholic brewery, has become ubiquitous on beer lists around the country.
McMillan, whose zero-proof cocktail pop-up drew national attention within the sober community, has tried his fair share of n/a beverages, ranging from spirits to wines to yes, beers. And as Suckerpunch gained traction last year, he started fantasizing about opening a dedicated nonalcoholic brewery. A friend connected him with Hopworkers alumnus Justin Miller, and the brewer started working on developing a booze-free beer. Now, the two are getting ready to introduce Heck, one of the Pacific Northwest’s first 100 percent nonalcoholic breweries — and one they think could truly compete with Athletic. “We have the talent, the ingredients, the facilities to bring a really strong nonalcoholic option to Portland,” McMillan says. “We genuinely believe we’re on to something.”
Heck will start with an IPA and a lager, both made using Washington-grown Citra and Cascade hops. The Pacific Northwest grows 99 percent of the country’s hops by acreage, and 25 percent of the world’s; Miller and McMillan see the region’s natural assets — hops, grain, yeast labs — as a major asset, lending credibility to the project as a whole. “This is where all the good craft beer comes from,” McMillan says. “We have that credibility. We want to serve something that’s really grounded in the Pacific Northwest.”
Historically, dealcoholization was one of the more common ways of producing nonalcoholic beers — large-scale breweries would make alcoholic beer and then remove the alcohol after the process was complete, often through steam distillation or reverse osmosis. However, the cost of dealcoholization equipment makes it inaccessible for many craft brewers. Others, then, attempt to control the fermentation or avoid fermentation altogether to produce no-proof beer. At Heck, the beers will use brewing processes that are as close to traditional methods as possible. “We are not distilling our beer to produce it; we’re using modified brewing processes,” Miller says. “We want beer to be hoppy and punchy, not this compromised version where it’s like, ‘I might as well be drinking a bubble water.’ It tastes like a beer.”
Like Suckerpunch, Heck will first appear at a variety of pop-ups hosted by Portland restaurants and bars, though the team is tight-lipped about the locales — for now. McMillan, a co-founder of XOXO Fest, is passionate about events, and wants the brewery pop-ups to be collaborative with the hosting businesses, developing beer cocktails and food pairings with their partners. “We don’t want to just hand out cans,” McMillan says. “We want to do something that feels really special.”
Once the team settles into a pop-up cadence, McMillan and Miller want to start getting their beers in grocery stores and bottle shops, also selling cans online. Down the line, they’d like to open their own production brewery, distributing Heck around the world. “There’s no point in doing this if we can’t make the best beer,” McMillan says. “Can we make something better than Athletic? Do we think we can improve it? We can.”
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Correction: Wednesday, April 26, at 10:13 a.m.: This story has been corrected to show that Heck will not be the first nonalcoholic brewery in the Pacific Northwest; another brewery, Roaming Nobles, was founded in 2021.