Major rice-producing state Arkansas could benefit from burgeoning local research into using rice to brew beer and aromatic rice to improve nonalcoholic beer flavors.
Consumers are getting more interested in locally made beverages such as craft beer and nonalcoholic beer, said Scott Lafontaine, assistant professor of flavor chemistry for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
At a craft brewers' conference last week among approximately 10,000 brewers, Lafontaine spoke on panels related to nonalcoholic beer production.
"With craft beer nowadays, you have 9,000 brewers in the U.S. and most of those brewers are small mom-and-pop shops, they are not producing that much and their beer is not necessarily going outside of the community," Lafontaine said.
"A lot of the Arkansas brewers are fitting into that. They are growing and the industry, I would say, is still quite small relative to other states."
NielsenIQ data released in October showed consumer interest in nonalcoholic beverages has been trending upward.
Total dollar sales of nonalcoholic drinks in the U.S. grew 20.6% between August 2021 and August 2022. Out of three sectors -- nonalcoholic beer, wine and spirits -- nonalcoholic beer comprised 85.3% of nonalcoholic beverage sales with a market worth $328.6 million as of August 2022, the data found.
Beer producers in the U.S. could offer nonalcoholic beer options out of a sense of responsibility, but should also ensure the product is creative and interesting to customers, Lafontaine said.
Referencing Athletic Brewing Co. -- a leading American nonalcoholic craft brewer -- which was named the 26th fastest growing private company in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine in 2022, Lafontaine said nonalcoholic beer is making its way to the U.S.
A few commercial brewing companies began marketing nonalcoholic beers in the last few years: Heineken 0.0, Bud Zero, Samuel Adams Just the Haze IPA and Stella Artois Liberte.
"Anheuser-Busch has said 20% of their products are going to be low [alcohol], which means under 3%, or no [alcohol], which means under 0.5%, by 2025," Lafontaine said.
"So the line is being drawn and we're seeing development in this space; there's brewers that tend to say they don't need to make this product but this is coming."
In Arkansas, Lost Forty Brewing and Stone's Throw Brewing use rice in some of their beer products.
Brewers are increasingly producing beer with less commonly used grains like rice, though Lafontaine said it appears craft brewers have only recently begun looking at using rice in the brewing process.
"I see two different directions for rice, you have rice that's aromatic and you have rice that's going to have a neutral flavor, which really plays well with nonalcoholic [beer] because ... you want a clean-tasting product with a good mouthfeel. So that's one direction, and with the aromatic rice like jasmine, nobody has really played with that with beer, there's not much research publicly available on it," Lafontaine said.
"My goal is to start to test these aromatic varieties and see what type of aromas can you get from that, and we haven't done that yet, that will be stuff that we start to get into in summer."
Rice is already used to brew beer in the U.S. by Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob Ultra -- which are all owned by Anheuser-Busch -- as well as Asian beers like Sapporo, Kirin Lager and Asahi.
According to a statement from Anheuser-Busch on Wednesday: "As the largest end user of rice in the United States, Anheuser-Busch buys more than $150 million of rice each year. Our rice mill in Jonesboro, Arkansas mills approximately 2.6 million pounds of rice a day. Rice helps provide a clean, crisp taste, and has been part of the Budweiser recipe since 1876."
Rice is one of the more sustainable grains to use in brewing, Lafontaine said.
Recent research found rice yields through 2025 appear to be relatively stable in terms of climate change, particularly with innovations in water usage in farming, but barley may not fare so well, Lafontaine said.
"Barley is really susceptible to climate change, so you're looking at yield loss possibly around 30%, and this is an industry that was already highly impacted by climate change for the past two years; this past year, they had a pretty good harvest, but the previous two before that were not good so what you're seeing right now in the industry is barley prices increasing pretty significantly," Lafontaine said.
Arkansas is the No. 1 rice-producing state in the U.S., and Lafontaine said there is potential for this area to drive new research into the utilization of rice in beer brewing.
"I would say this area is probably going to be driving most of the research in that space; with that said, most of the publicly available rice research for brewing stopped in the 1970s, so in terms of a research outlook, there's huge potential in terms of increasing utilization with rice," Lafontaine said.