New Waves in Craft Beer
Portland entrepreneurs Rob Barrett and Will Fisher have opened a non-alcoholic craft brewery called Kit NA, and it’s making beer like you’ve never tasted.
It’s summer: pool parties, barbecues, and days at the beach. At each of these, you might be tempted to reach for an icy pilsner or a crisp IPA. “Entrepreneurship comes from a place of need,” says Rob Barrett, co-owner of Kit NA, Maine’s first non-alcoholic craft brewery. Three years ago, Barrett made the decision to “be more present in my personal life, to be a better father, be a better husband, be a better boss, coworker,” and he gave up alcohol. He calls it, “One of the best decisions I’ve made.” People who drink less sleep better, have more energy, and experience fewer negative side-effects of alcohol, such as heart, liver, and kidney disease. Barrett is part of a larger trend among Millennials and Gen-Z moving away from drinking.
That’s why Barrett and his business partner, Will Fisher, co-owner of Austin Street Brewery in Portland, have launched Kit NA. After Kit, there aren’t many other craft breweries for NA beer, period.
Non-alcoholic beer makes up less than one percent of the U.S. market, and 60 to 70 percent of that is covered by just two companies. That’s changing quickly, as for the last two years running, the number of NA offerings has grown by roughly 40 percent.
Since launching in January 2022, Kit has expanded into five Northeast states, and is reaching another three this year. “We try to visit all of our distributors, every other month,” says Barrett. “We’ve never had to beg to work with anybody,” says Fisher. “Everybody we’ve talked to is very interested in craft NA.” Kit also does direct-to-consumer shipping anywhere in the U.S. “The best place to find us is where you live,” says Fisher. “We’ll ship right to your door.”
Here, we talk to Barrett and Fisher about their vision for the future of NA beer, their new R&D tasting room, and how they put consumers first.
What do you want consumers to know about NA beer?
“No more hangovers,” says Barrett, laughing. “Non-alcoholic beer, for most people, it’s an afterthought. Or there’s a stigma behind it. This gives people a positive reason not to drink. Beer tastes good,” he says, noting that the taste of craft beer was what he missed most when he gave up alcohol. “We don’t want to tell people to give up alcohol. They can easily switch to this if they need to drive home or get up early. The craft beer market obviously is big here in Maine, but also across the country and the world. There are a lot of good beers out there and there’s also a very high alcohol content, and high calorie content.” Kit is for those who are pregnant, trying to lose weight, or simply want to enjoy the taste of craft beer without the negative side effects. Technically, Kit is gluten free as well, due to the way it’s made: in most NA beers, alcohol is extracted from the finished product after brewing, but with Kit’s process, alcohol never develops in the beer at all. This gentler process results in a lower gluten threshold.
Who are the people behind Kit NA?
“I wanted to partner with someone who knew the operations of the brewing industry,” says Barrett, a Portland entrepreneur who owns several other companies like the architecture and construction firm Barrett Made, and the venue and co-working space The Public Works. They met when Fisher hired Barrett Made for a job at Austin Street Brewery. “Will was a diamond in the rough as far as brewers go,” says Barrett. They realized they worked well together, and when Barrett found out that Fisher was also exploring his own relationship with alcohol, they began talking over his idea for Kit. “It’s kind of like starting a friendship,” says Fisher, joking that they found themselves interviewing each other and realized they had a lot in common. Now, their team includes two brewers who are veterans of the industry. Their location at 52 Alder Street is a tasting room as well as a research and design (R&D) facility, “a little brewery lab where we create these recipes on a small scale, which allows us to fine-tune them without wasting a ton of materials,” says Barrett.
Why is Portland the right place to launch an NA brewery?
Barrett grew up in Portland, and Fisher is from New Gloucester. “We love Maine, and the beer scene in Portland is known around the world,” says Barrett. “I think for most people, growing up in a town, you want to leave as soon as you can. I left to find something better than Portland, but I couldn’t do it. Portland’s got it all.” Barrett and Fisher knew that if they launched Kit NA in the city bragging more craft breweries per-capita than any other in the U.S., they could grow “through first-rate feedback out of the gate.” At the same time, their products would have to be the best, to compete in the saturated Portland market. “We didn’t want to launch something that we weren’t super proud of.” He sleeps better knowing they’re doing good for their neighborhood, too, he says. “We feel with a non-alcoholic offering, there’s community benefit.”
What distinguishes Kit’s flavor profiles?
“In my opinion, it tastes even better than regular beer,” says Barrett. “Water, hops, and yeast. That’s it. Simple and straightforward ingredients. No additives, no chemicals, all natural.” Fisher adds, “Other breweries get into it knowing what their market is.” Not so with NA beer, since there have historically been so few people making it, and since many of Kit’s first sales have been direct-to-consumer. Tasting rooms are an opportunity for breweries to get feedback, though, and Kit is no exception, which is why they’ll continue to host them at their Alder Street location. They’re learning what their customers want. “They want beer that does the best job of replacing what they’re used to,” says Fisher, “to make that transition as seamless as possible when it comes to flavor.” Along with a Blonde Ale, the Get Set IPA is one of Kit’s two flagship brews. It has a “bright tropical and mandarin, crisp, resinous finish,” says Barrett. He situates it in Portland tradition. Foundation Brewing may have been the first to coin the term “Maine IPA,” and Barrett says, Maine Beer Company’s Lunch and their Peeper are two other great examples of the category. “Low bitterness, light in color, but really hoppy,” he says. Places like Austin Street, Goodfire Brewing, and Thistle Brothers have released more modern takes on the IPA, “Very hazy, very hop-forward.” Barrett and Fisher say that with Kit’s first releases, “We really want to push the category of NA beer.”
What can people expect from Kit in the coming months?
Kit NA will be hosting pop-up tasting rooms at their location at 52 Alder Street in Portland from July through September, and they want you to come. July 14th will be their first, with eight beers on draft. “They’re interactive, so guests can chime in and rate beers, providing feedback right in the tasting room,” says Barrett. “We create these recipes on a small scale, which allows us to fine-tune them and experiment with our products. We’ll have some really cool and interesting beers on draft.” They have a Hazy IPA going into production this fall and are excited to release a variety pack with all three brews. Two new varieties are forthcoming in 2023, and they’ll be on draft at the tasting rooms, along with some surprises. Stay tuned.