Fall 2019 Exclusive

Day Drinking with Willem van Waesberghe

By Lew Bryson

This Brewmaster “reverse engineered” the world famous lager to perfect the only 69 calorie, NA beer good enough to be called Heineken 0.0.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’d like a beer, but alcohol is out of the question. And you think, ‘Hey, I’ll try a non-alcoholic (NA). It might be okay.’ And then you likely find that no, it isn’t really okay. It’s watery, or it has a strong sweetness to it or it just tastes… funny.

All Heineken imported into the U.S. is made at the brewery in Zoeterwoude, Netherlands.

I’m here to tell you that a new age of NA has arrived, and it begins with Heineken’s new 0.0 NA beer. The taste, feel and genuine character of this drink is nothing short of revolutionary. I recently went to Amsterdam as Heineken’s guest to learn more about 0.0.

If you like Heineken, you’ll find 0.0 an easy transition: it tastes like Heineken. That’s the result of a 15-year project by Heineken’s Global Master Brewer, Willem van Waesberghe. He’s a very matter-of-fact Dutch brewer. He doesn’t mince words, and he answers questions forthrightly.

His first task when he took over as Global Master Brewer was to “understand Heineken.” This was to make sure he could do his job: make sure that Heineken lager tastes the same no matter where it is brewed. Imagine that task: Heineken operates 160 breweries in 117 countries, and every one of them waits for a call from van Waesberghe. When that call comes, they have an hour to pull two random cases of Heineken off the production line and send them to Amsterdam… and they better taste exactly like Heineken! (Every drop of Heineken for the U.S. is brewed right under van Waesberghe’s nose in the main brewery in Zouterwoude, about half an hour south of Amsterdam.)

Heineken’s Global Master Brewer, Willem van Waesbergh.
Photo Credit: Vijay Slager

For van Waesberghe to know that, he had to know the taste of Heineken lager beer in every single aspect. For fifteen years, he headed a project to explore every aroma, every flavor in Heineken lager, and determine exactly where they originated in the process of making Heineken, no matter what recipe is used.

Wait, different recipes? “If the brewing equipment is different, you must have a different recipe,” he explained to me, adding the possible variations in water, grain, weather and so on. “It is the same taste around the world, not the same recipe.”

Heineken 0.0 tastes so much like Heineken that I’ve been reaching for a cold 0.0 at lunch…

Stable Walk at the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam. Heineken is still delivered by horse-drawn wagon in Amsterdam every weekday.

Heineken 0.0 then grew out of the project, and it was the key to its revolutionary flavor. Once van Waesberghe knew exactly what Heineken tasted and smelled of, and where it all came from, he could make sure that 0.0 had every bit of those flavors and aromas. (How he does that is a proprietary secret; he wouldn’t say much about it other than it starts with the Heineken yeast.)

To illustrate this, he had me drink a 0.0 draught: smell it, taste it, think about it, take my time. It was 0.0, but I smelled Heineken: the fresh, bread dough smell of the grain, the mouth-watering scents of light fruits from the renowned Heineken yeast. I tasted Heineken: lightly sweet malt, more of that delicious fresh bread and the sweetness kept in check with an appealing bitterness. I’d been drinking a lot of Heineken on the trip and would drink a lot more before I came home. The only difference I was noting was a slightly lower intensity of flavor.

The main, and largest Heineken brewery in Zoeterwoude, Netherlands is 35 miles southwest of Amsterdam.

Then van Waesberghe poured a glass of Heineken lager draught and asked me to smell it. I was shocked by that first whiff: all I smelled was alcohol! The taste of Heineken was there, but again, the sweet flavor of alcohol leaped out at me. What kind of weird green magic was this?

“The alcohol is the only difference,” van Waesberghe explained. “Your brain is designed to notice differences, changes in patterns, so your ancestors could see the lion hiding in the grass. When the only difference between the two glasses is the alcohol, it pops out.” Sure enough, as I continued to drink the draught (I wasn’t going to waste it!), my palate re-calibrated, and Heineken, happily, tasted like Heineken again.

Heineken 0.0 tastes so much like Heineken that I’ve been reaching for a cold 0.0 at lunch, just like the workers at the brewery. It tastes like beer, and it doesn’t make me sleepy in the middle of the day, even if I have two. By the way, 0.0 only has 69 calories. That’s another reason I might drink two.

The original brewery in Amsterdam, founded in 1864 by Gerard Adriaan Heineken has been preserved as a museum.

But what I think of it isn’t the question. The question is, will Americans, will Pennsylvanians, buy even a good-tasting NA beer? NA sales have never gone above 0.5% of total beer sales here. Europe is different. There are much tougher drunk driving laws, a stronger “good-for-you” culture with non-GMO & organic foods as a big part of that, and a drinking culture that is much more about moderation than ours. NA beers have become very popular in some countries and with younger demographics. For instance, in Spain, 12% of total beer sales are NA, and the numbers are growing.

U.S. sales of NA were up last year, but industry expert Bump Williams advises caution about that. “NA sales were up 12.6% in dollars YTD through the end of May,” he said, but then reminded me that it’s growth from a tiny base. “It’s still one-third of total cider sales, and 0.3% of total beer sales.” It doesn’t take much to get 12% growth on tiny numbers like that.

The question is, will Americans, will Pennsylvanians, buy even a good-tasting NA beer?

Williams sees the growth of NA beer as part of the same kind of health and wellness trend that is benefiting sales of hard seltzers, low-carb beers and alcoholic kombucha. “Health and wellness in beverage sales are here.”

There is a small but growing number of craft NA brewers. Athletic Brewing is right in Williams’ backyard in Connecticut, and he had to admit they are successful. “These guys are selling $20 six-packs,” he said, “and the retailers say they can’t keep it on the shelf. I think we’re on the precipice, but we’re not there yet.”

Maybe all NA sales need is good NA beer. The founder of Athletic Brewing, Bill Shufelt, noted that Heineken 0.0 has been a benefit for his beers. “I’m very impressed by 0.0,” he said. “It really complements our beer on the shelf. When they’re both on the shelf, they both do really well.”

Try some 0.0. See if it doesn’t taste a lot like Heineken lager. It might just be the non-alcoholic beer you’ve been waiting for. And if you didn’t ever think you’d be waiting for an NA, you might find that when the beer tastes right, there are occasions for an NA after all.


Lew Bryson has been writing about beer and spirits since 1995. He was the managing editor of Whisky Advocate from 1996 through 2015, where he also wrote the American Spirits column, and reviewed whiskeys. He is currently a Senior Drinks Writer for The Daily Beast, and writes for TheWhiskeyWash.com, ScotchWhisky.com and two new magazines: American Whiskey and Bourbon+. He has also written four regional brewery guidebooks: Pennsylvania Breweries (4 editions), New York Breweries, Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Breweries and New Jersey Breweries (with Mark Haynie).

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