• Tasting Victoria
  • Posts
  • Free Beer* bike cart carries brews you can (legally) enjoy in public

Free Beer* bike cart carries brews you can (legally) enjoy in public

Victoria musician Aidan Knight wants to bring locals craft beer without the cost of a hangover

📸: Aidan Knight serving nonnies from his Free Beer* cart / Provided

For a couple decades now, Victoria’s award-winning breweries have been a huge part of the craft beer revolution. That creative explosion has brought an emphasis on flavour and experience into beer drinking.

Could the next evolution be delivering all that taste and variety without beer’s defining ingredient—alcohol?

Drinking less is becoming a trend, with consumers cutting out booze for personal or health reasons. With the new lower health recommendations for drinks per week, people are turning to no- and low-alcohol beverages (also called “non-alcs, “NAs,” and in some cases “near beers”). In response, some of Victoria’s most popular craft brewers are expanding into NAs, such as Phillips with its iOTA beer line.

Local musician Aidan Knight thinks the time is ripe for more brewers—and more drinkers—in this craft mecca to explore this other side of beer.

Check out the live interview with Aidan Knight here:

Raised in Victoria, Knight’s been playing and touring for 15 years. His single “Jasper” became one of the anthems of 2010-era indie rock and Canadiana, and his 2020 self-titled album garnered two Western Canadian Music Awards nominations. National and international tours have meant plenty of shows in bars and other venues where alcohol was central.

“Part of being in music is sort of being around free beer all the time. [Even] being paid in beer sometimes,” he told Tasting Victoria. “It’s always backstage. I ended up using beers to get through shows.”

He grew uncomfortable with drinking, and stopped in 2016. He still genuinely liked craft beer, but the non-alcoholic options were “pretty uninspiring” at the time.

“The landscape has changed a lot since,” he said. “I wished that I could try these [new different beers], and also have them with friends and out in beautiful locations.”

The cart before the hops

Knight decided to combine his desire for better non-alcoholic beers with his passion for cycling, and created a free beer cart.

He built the cart and stocked it with some of his favourite craft non-alc beers, from BC-made pilsners to experimental drinks from the East Coast and the US. He hooked it onto his e-bike, and cycled to local markets, beaches—anywhere someone might want to sip a beer but might not want (or be legally allowed) to have alcohol.

He built the cart himself, with mostly aluminum and wood. Laminate and Douglas fir strips cover insulation foam to make it as light as possible. With 60-70 cans of liquid, a fridge, a compressor, and a battery aboard, it approaches 250 pounds—so the e-bike’s motor comes in handy.

The cart business is cheekily titled “Free Beer*” with the all-important asterisk clarifying that it’s alcohol-free.

“I couldn’t believe nobody had registered the trademark ‘Free Beer’ in BC before,” Knight says.

It’s cheeky, almost a Nathan For You gimmick—the actual drinks are 4 or 5 bucks—but it gets people intrigued and sparks the conversation about alc-free beer.

So how exactly do you make beer without alcohol?

“In order to make a great non-alc craft beer, first you need to make a great beer, period,” Knight says. Traditionally the beer is brewed and then the alcohol is removed.

“It’s kind of a similar thing to when your grandma would make a rum cake and boil [the alcohol] off in the oven.”

But boiling off the alcohol can take with it some of the compounds that produce the great flavour. Thus, some standard non-alc beers can end up tasting flat and musty as a result.

Newer techniques, Knight says, get around that by changing the pressure to alter what temperature will cause water to boil, or managing the yeast such that less alcohol is produced in the first place. Even when extra flavour isn’t lost, part of beer’s taste comes from the alcohol itself. Knight says some non-alcs have a certain emptiness without it. So, brewers are finding different ways to fill that absence.

Different limits lead to different ideas

Brewers are making innovative beer-like drinks that take similar ingredients in a different direction. Some are like kombucha, others are made with grapes and are almost halfway between wine and beer. One approach involves cranking up the hops to make intense flowery, fruity, or spicy flavours.

“If you love hops in your beers you can find some [NA] beers that have more hops than any double-IPA craft beer,” says Knight.

Other brewers go the other direction, using hops but toning things down for a lighter drink such as “hop water,” which Knight calls a “bougie Bubly” for its similarity to seltzers.

Some hardened beer drinkers don’t want a “near beer” to substitute their main drink, but they do like something distinct that they can drink in between cans to slow down and mix things up. Because NAs are typically much lower-calorie than true beers, they’re easier to drink without feeling full.

The infamous sign that Knight says often provokes jeers and cheers. 📸: Ryan Hook / Tasting Victoria

Knight keeps a spreadsheet of the different NAs he tries and their nutritional specs (unlike beer, information is displayed on the can). He keeps track of which variables he thinks are producing which results, like whether one is thicker, more intense, sweet, and so on.

The spectrum these days ranges from flavourful, high-cal Euro beers to thick fruit beers. Increasingly, it reflects the spectrum of craft beer as a whole (though most breweries limit their NA experiments to replicating one or two of their brews, not the full lineup).

BC’s current NA offerings hew fairly close to its alcoholic ones: West Coast styles, Czech pilsners, sours, goses, and some radlers—though in general there aren’t many NA dark beers such as stouts.

This summer, Knight’s main stock was Vancouver’s Nonny, along with Hopped Up from the peninsula’s Category 12, and grape-skin-based wine-beer hybrid Piquette from Nova Scotia.

Knight showing off his product. 📸: Ryan Hook / Tasting Victoria

BC isn’t as much a forerunner in this game as it was in the initial craft beer one, but Knight thinks we’ll catch up in the coming years as more and more breweries get in on it.

“Maybe I’m a naive optimist about this, but I think this is a new wave of beer.” People who are sober, pregnant, or allergic “still want to drink something that tastes good” and isn’t just pop or tea.

“We’re still probably another four to five years away from [NA beer] bubbling up and being a major thing. And if it doesn’t then… damn!” Knight’s wife jokes that he can always just drink it himself.

Cart wraps first full summer

In the meantime, he’s betting that there will be enough interest to keep biking the cart around in the summers as a side gig. He has a bike vendor licence, often used by hot dog or ice-cream stands, and everything is above-board with the health authority (NAs are essentially just regular drinks). He hopes to qualify for farmers markets, but his unconventional cart has been in a bureaucratic limbo so far because he doesn’t produce the goods himself or represent one producer (which markets usually require).

Knight might produce his own non-alcs some day—although he’d be happy to settle for the less-demanding role of taste-tester for someone else’s batch.

“I have family and friends in the brewing industry, so I do know some of the headaches with brewing.”

The Free Beer* cart was at this summer’s Eventide music series and was lining up some September spots. But a broken rib ended Knight’s season early. That’s now put him, a few weeks earlier than expected, back onto his main passion—setting up an accessible studio to help other local musicians record and produce music. The project is Knight’s way to help keep the arts scene going in a city where the time and money needed to make art are increasingly squeezed.

“I’ve had a really satisfying career playing my own music all over the world,” he says, “and now I’m most interested in playing facilitator for other people.”

With the cart parked until next summer, Victorians looking for a non-alc beer can still find local options such as Nonny, iOTA, Hopped Up, and more at local liquor stores, some drugstores such as London Drugs and Cridge, and local bars and restaurants including Superflux and Whistle Buoy.

Want to read the full article?

It's simple: subscribe to our weekly newsletter giving you the best local eats and drinks.

Already a subscriber?Sign In.Not now