Designated driver

Revisiting ‘near beer’ category

By Pete Brown

- Last updated on GMT

Getting better: Alcohol-free beer is progressing
Getting better: Alcohol-free beer is progressing

Related tags Beer

Are brewers finally managing to create no and low-alcohol beers that are genuinely palatable, rather than the curate’s egg we have endured for so many years before?

It’s time to revisit the pros and cons of making love in a canoe.

In my lifetime as a beer drinker, there have been many attempts by brewers to establish a no or low-alcohol beer category, but the similarity between ‘near beer’ and a fruitier description of committing carnal acts close to water has always previously seen off fads for no or low-alcohol beers until the next generation of beer marketers comes along and decides to ignore the mistakes of their predecessors.

Now, they’re back again, in force: AB Inbev reckons 20% of its volume will be alcohol-free by 2025 (I’ll let you add your own jokes here) and the mainstream press is full of articles where tasting panels put on a brave face and dive in, trying to find something good to say about beer without the booze.

The thing is, the drinking public has an ever-increasing awareness of the dangers of drink driving (and the penalties for doing so). The need to stock something that will satisfy the noble designated driver, as well as the growing number of people who have declared themselves to be teetotal (21% of Britons claim they no longer drink, a figure far higher than that which can be accounted for by people who have renounced alcohol for religious or health reasons) adds to the call for something that looks and tastes like beer but doesn’t deliver its coup de grace.

From a pub’s point of view, the creep of organised teetotalism now also presents a serious threat. Dry January has been joined by No-vember, Stop-tober and a lame pun about September I won’t even dignify by bothering to Google and check.

Low or no-alcohol

Rightly or wrongly, a pub that still doesn’t offer decent no or low-alcohol adult drinks is a pub that is creating an unnecessary problem for itself.

No-alcohol beer, though – it’s rubbish, isn’t it? Why not just have a soft drink?

As a Dry January veteran, I’ve repeatedly called for better alternatives on that score. There are reasons why drinking five pints of beer is a more pleasurable experience than drinking an equivalent volume of a carbonated drink, cranberry juice or J20, and alcohol is not the only one.

The balance of flavour – the fruitiness, crispness and bitter, drying finish of a beer – is designed to be drinkable in volume in a way sugary drinks simply cannot replicate.

And yet, until now, I’d still rather weep silent tears of despair into my glass of criminally overpriced, disgustingly made, life-sapping, cruelly mocking, bland, joyless lime and soda than even contemplate the stunted, impotent shame of a non-alcoholic beer.

Now, I’m forcing myself to re-evaluate my position (gently encouraged by the editor). And I have to say, there are glimmers of hope.

Tasted so bad

There’s a good reason most no or low-alcohol beers have traditionally tasted so bad. The way they’re normally made is to brew a perfectly decent beer and then remove the booze. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so if you make a beer and then cook it, the alcohol will boil off before the beer itself. Mmm, let me at one of those frosty bad boys.

The problem, of course, is that if you cook a beer, you cook the rest of the ingredients too. You boil off the hops and you stew the malt extract, leaving a delightful beverage that evokes the stale, over-cooked veg of your old nan’s Sunday roast.

The no and low-alcohol beers that are still made this way still mostly taste horrible. But boiling the alcohol off is no longer the only way to do it. There are new techniques that are more contrived but don’t affect the flavour in the same way.

Also, just as the experimentation in craft brewing is transforming conventional beer styles, it’s also inspiring new approaches to alcohol-free beer. BrewDog’s Nanny State uses specially chosen, flavourful malts that will retain some character on the other side of the de-alcoholisation process, and is as aggressively dry-hopped as many other BrewDog beers so that detoxing craft beer fans can still enjoy their resiny, piney awesomeness.

Some of the new German low-alcohol lagers have, like Nanny State, been getting reviews along the lines of “I’d drink this even if I was allowed to drink full alcohol beers on this occasion”.

So it’s worth exploring what’s available, separating the stewed veg and burnt hops from the lighter version of beers you recognise, so you can choose the best, and happily sell no and low-alcohol beers with a straight face. It’s a dirty job, but it needs doing.

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