In 1978, U.S. law deregulated the brewing industry, ultimately opening the door for today’s microbreweries, which exist in the thousands and capture a sizable share of the U.S. beer market. Lately, however, there has been a surge in popularity of other types of fermented drinks. Some of these “beer alternatives” are low in terms of alcohol content, with less than 0.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) and are often marketed for advertised health benefits, while others are well in the “adult beverage” category and compete with beer and wine. Most of these alternatives are based on traditional fermented drinks, and differ from beer (fermented from hops, barley and malted grain) and wine (fermented from grapes) in the fermentation source and process.
A well-known Japanese drink made from fermented rice, sake is making inroads in the U.S. market. Sake exports for Japan doubled from 1.9 million to 3.7 million gallons from 2002 to 2012. Viewed by many as a ceremonial, low-alcohol drink, some sake brands can pack a punch, reaching an ABV of 20%.
A traditional fermented grain drink from Russia, Kvass is commonly made using leftover rye or black bread. Kvass differs from beer in that malted barley or wheat and hops aren’t used, and ABV for Kvass is typically low, in the 0.5 to 1.2% range. Kvass is another low-grade fermented beverage touted for health benefits, and small niche brands occasionally turn up at cultural fairs and health food stores in the U.S.
A traditional drink fermented from tea, Kombucha is starting to appear in many U.S. health food stores. Kombucha made news a few years ago when Whole Foods pulled several brands from the market for its high ABV content (3%, about in the range of light beer) content. If you’re a beverage with more than 0.5% alcohol content in the U.S., you’re required to be marketed as an alcoholic beverage and regulated as such by law.
Pulque is fermented from the nectar of the agave plant that hasn’t yet been distilled for tequila. Common in Mexico, pulque is hawked by street vendors in towns and villages. Producers make the milky drink daily, and pulque spoils easily, which means it must be consumed immediately; for that reason, it will probably never be a mass-market favorite. One Mexican company has found a way to can pulque and offer it in the U.S. Pulque typically has a 3-8% ABV. Beer — and the U.S. thirst for tequila, which by law is only produced in four states in Mexico — has since surpassed pulque in popularity across Mexico, although there is still a small niche market for tourists who extol its health benefits and consume the drink in traditional bars referred to as pulquerias.
Originally an offshoot of mead, this Finnish beverage was traditionally fermented using honey for sugar. Modern sima is made using virtually any kind of sugar available — rhubarb or lemon sima is especially popular — and its short fermentation cycle of three to seven days guarantees a low ABV in the range of 0.5 to 1%. In Finland and some Finnish U.S. communities, imbibers consume sima during the Vappu spring season festival.
A traditional Turkish drink made of fermented corn, Boza production probably predates beer. Records show boza originating in Mesopotamia over 8,000 years ago. Often, farmers will use a starter batch of boza to carry on the fermentation process in new batches. Boza usually has an alcohol content around 1%, looks like eggnog, and has an acidic-to-sweet flavor. Like many other milk-based drinks, boza spoils rapidly, and must be consumed shortly after production. It’s also a seasonal summer drink, similar to the tapioca-like sahlep also common in Turkey. Common in Turkey and Eastern Europe, seekers of true homemade boza can occasionally find it in the United States in Turkish or Greek restaurants.
4. Ginger Beer
We’re talking about the real stuff, as opposed to ginger ale soda. There’s ginger beer the soda, the non-alcoholic carbonated soft drink flavored with ginger, and ginger beer, the mildly alcoholic (0.5 to 1% ABV) drink made from fermented ginger beer plant. Actually a fungus, fermentation leaves a gelatinous residue; that sounds rather questionable on whether or not you would want to drink it, but ginger beer fans don’t care. Although true ginger beer is solely the domain of home-crafters and not marketed in the U.S., traditional ginger beer containing alcohol is available in the United Kingdom.
A traditional fermented milk drink, kefir traces its roots back to the northern Caucasus Mountains. Fermentation is carried out using the kefir grain, which is actually a symbiotic union of bacteria and yeast. Farmers would typically hang a fermenting bladder of kefir in the doorway of a home, where it would be jostled repeatedly as people walked through, assuring a good mixture. The short fermentation period also assures a low alcohol content for kefir of 0.2 to 1% ABV. Yogurt-like in appearance, kefir can be found in some health food stores, which market kefir for its probiotic bacteria content.
2. Hard Cider
Fermented from apples, hard cider is starting to capture a portion of the beer market in the U.S. in part because of the gluten-free craze. While standard ABV for cider runs about 3-5%, some fortified brands of ice cider can top 13%. Distilled cider is known as Applejack. Made since colonial times, cider production in the U.S. tripled from 2011 to 2013, from 9.4 million to 32 million gallons. A 2012 Nielsen report found that cider should continue to see a rise in popularity as a beverage of choice for young, affluent millennials. In some cities, such as Portland, Ore., a number of cider bars have sprung up in trendy neighborhoods, much the way brewpubs once sprouted.
The legendary drink of the gods, mead is fermented from honey. Mead can be stout stuff, with an ABV from 8% to 20%. Fermentation of mead dates back to antiquity, with records tracing its use to at least 7000 B.C. Although mead has enjoyed a small renaissance since the 1978 deregulation, this growth has been stalled as of late due to problems at the source: beekeepers have lost an average of 30% of their hives each winter over the past few years to a mysterious disease targeting bees.