Philip Brandes doesn’t want to tell folks how to live their lives. He just wants them to have access to great beer — even if they don’t drink alcohol.
Brandes didn’t have any experience in the beer world when he began brewing non-alcoholic beer in his garage in 2015. A former software programmer who worked long hours alone in front of a screen, he says he could feel that his chosen profession was killing him — figuratively and literally. When a close friend began drinking non-alcoholic beer after battling alcoholism, Brandes decided to put his analytic skills to work by finding the perfect method for making it. A year later, he filed to form an LLC, and Bravus Brewing Company became America’s first exclusively non-alcoholic craft brewery.
In 2016, Bravus expanded out of Brandes’s garage into a 1,400-square-foot production brewery in Santa Ana, Calif. Then, in mid-2020, the brewery expanded again — this time, into a 23,000-square-foot facility in Anaheim’s Platinum Triangle neighborhood, less than a mile from Angel Stadium and big-name breweries Golden Road and Karl Strauss. Since then, Bravus’s year-round brands have earned shelf space at Total Wine stores across the country.
Brandes attributes much of his brewery’s success to the quality of the beer, which is made using a proprietary brewing method. He’s also ventured into ultra-limited beer releases, producing the world’s first non-alcoholic bourbon-barrel-aged brew, Gravitas, which medaled at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival. Last year, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a consumer market looking for healthier choices, Bravus saw a 300 percent increase in direct-to-consumer sales.
While NA beer competitors are targeting athletes or others looking to replenish electrolytes, savvy beer drinkers will find Bravus’s branding to be almost indistinguishable from a regular craft brewery’s. That’s because, according to Brandes, the audience is simply “anyone who wants a beer.”
1. Before starting Bravus, did you ever see yourself working in beer?
Never. I didn’t even think about it. But when I looked to change careers, I saw how much fun my brother was having. He was a sales rep for a local brewery and [part of his job was] driving to various breweries and tasting new beers. Everyone was always cheers-ing and drinking, and I could see everyone was having a bunch of fun. So, I thought, I want to do this, too.
2. What is Bravus Brewing Company’s mission?
As you know, there is such a stigma surrounding not drinking alcohol, to the point where it can be pretty alienating in a social setting. I had a friend who would whisper to the waiter and order O’Douls, then turn the bottle promptly around when it arrived at the table so that the label faced him, preventing others from knowing he was drinking a non-alcoholic beer. It was that awkwardness, along with the fact that non-alcoholic segment has consisted of poor-quality choices, that gave me the inspiration not only to launch, but really take it to the next level by creating an ultra-rare, limited-release beer that was not only extremely enjoyable, but something you could show off.
I think the mission is to give someone something that tastes like a beer, looks like a beer, feels like a beer, and allows them to fit in with the rest of us. We want people to have a beer they can be proud of, not embarrassed by.
3. Is there a beer that Bravus Brewing Company makes that best illustrates who you are and what you do?
One summer, I came up with this crazy idea to attempt the world’s first non-alcoholic bourbon-barrel-aged stout and release it to our customers around the holidays. This isn’t an easy feat because barrel aging normally imparts quite a bit of alcohol to the product. After a lot of testing, I developed a method that didn’t impart alcohol. I took it a step further by creating a luxurious package around it, and really making it a labor of love.
And so, “Gravitas” was born, named after our corporate entity, Gravitas Brewing Company, LLC. The product is truly craft beer: It is brewed in a small batch, hand-bottled, hand-labeled, and hand-capped, all by me. It’s a chance for me as the brewer to really connect with our customers and give them something they can proudly display on their table. Side note: I believe it became the first non-alcoholic beer to be traded among alcoholic beer aficionados!
4. What goes into Bravus’s brewing method that makes it so different from other NA breweries?
What makes us different is that we just don’t have a lot of alcohol production with our process in the first place. Most non-alcoholic brewers take an actual beer and filter out the alcohol, but when you take an alcoholic beer and burn off the alcohol, you’re burning or filtering out all the flavor and aroma — all the things that make the beer taste good. I think when you start putting stuff in and removing it, it’s like a chef taking ingredients out of a dish. We’ve developed a process that mimics alcoholic craft beer production as much as possible. There’s a lot of intellectual property around it, and we’re still learning new stuff about it every day, but I’ll say that we don’t vacuum distill, we don’t remove the alcohol, and it’s not arrested fermentation. It’s just a completely unique way of brewing that, at the end of the day, produces some pretty good beer.
5. A growing interest in “better-for-you” brews has caused a lot of brands to pivot into the non-alcoholic beer category — Samuel Adams, Lagunitas, Budweiser, and Heineken, to name a few. In the past year, has Bravus changed to address growing consumer interest in these beers?
Yes, and no. I think the concept of NA still kind of confounds people, especially [with] macro producers coming into the market. We’ve always maintained that, in the long run and to fight off competition, it has to be about two things: flavor, which we have everyone beat on; and brand, which is probably the hardest part. But there’s just so much desire to have high-quality, small-batch options, and that’s what we do. We made that choice a long time ago and haven’t really pivoted away. In the long term, these more-of-the-same macro beers aren’t going to last.
6. What do you think about the trend toward “better-for-you” beer?
I don’t think it’s a trend. This is what it is. People want and demand healthier drinks. The days of sugary sodas and high-calorie foods, I think those days are close to being over. And that’s a smart thing. That’s a good thing. And I think people should be mindful of what they do, but not at the sacrifice of taste. That’s the trick. I’m impressed with a lot of these offerings now that are coming into the space. So, I think it’s great and here to stay.
7. Where do you see this segment going next?
Even “better-for-you” isn’t really good for you. I think shifting in that direction is great, so it actually becomes a good-for-you category that has some health benefits to it. And that’s what’s so great about us. There’s nothing really terrible about our products, and there’s a lot of really great things in NA craft beer, like polyphenols and certain vitamins. So, I think it’s a good thing to go towards.
8. What else is Bravus doing that’s different from other exclusively NA breweries?
I’m interested in just being a beer for beer drinkers. I don’t want to be a recovery drink or a Gatorade or a Red Bull. I think people want a beer. And it’s funny, because investors and marketing people don’t like beers that appeal to everyone, right? They want you in a box. But I kind of like the fact that we have such a diverse market. I’m not here to tell you what to do, so if you want a non-alcoholic beer, I mean, hey, pick this up.
9. What’s your long-term vision for Bravus?
The non-alcoholic space and better-for-you space is really hot right now, so I think using our technologies to look at some other opportunities, like spirits and wines and things like that, would be great. I feel like we can just do such a better job at making these by using the technology that we’ve developed. But there are also a lot of cool things that NA beer can do that alcohol can’t. You can find niches, like the military, food trucks, things like that. We’re looking at maybe expanding at some point to the Middle East, because there’s a huge market for non-alcoholic beer amongst the Muslim population [there]. There are all these cool little opportunities ahead that I’d love to explore.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.