Monday, 2 October 2017

Too low for zero?

There’s a growing interest in non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers, or “NABLABs”, with an increasing number of modern craft brewers getting involved in the sector. However, it seems to me that much discussion of the subject ends up grasping the wrong end of the stick.

The fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. Yes, it may be tasty, it may be refreshing, but even the most inoffensive mild or light lager will have something of an effect on you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t drink it in the same quantities, or on the same occasions. Take away the alcohol, and it loses its raison d'être. However flavoursome it is, it’s never going to be quite the same as a normal-strength beer, and is always going to be regarded as something of a distress purchase on occasions where for whatever reason an alcoholic drink is ruled out. Alcohol, even in small quantities, also always adds something to the essential character of a drink. It is never just about the flavour.

However, adults consume soft drinks on a wide range of occasions when they’re not thinking to themselves “all things being equal, I’d really rather be having an alcoholic drink now”. So NABLABs should really be seen as an alternative to conventional carbonated soft drinks, not as something that is always going to be a pale imitation of beer. I understand that, in Germany, alcohol-free beers are much more widely consumed and accepted on “soft drink occasions” than they are here.

Added to this, most standard soft drinks, even the sugar-free ones, are extremely sweet. Many people don’t necessarily want something so sickly, and so a drier alcohol-free beer may well appeal. There may also be more opportunity to introduce the unconventional flavours that often seem out of place in normal beers.

The way to present them should be as a superior, more mature alternative to standard carbonated drinks, not as just an emasculated version of normal-strength beer. Maybe, if you’re in Spoons, consider having the Beck’s Blue rather than a Coke as part of your soft drink meal deal. But, realistically, they’re never going to attract anything like the same level interest and connoisseurship that alcoholic beer does.


  1. The best thing about low alcohol beers is that they make very good sports drinks - lots of electrolytes, low carbs and almost no sugar.

    1. Erdinger Low-Alcohol Wheat Beer, which is definitely one of the better LA beers I have tried, is actually marketed as an isotonic drink. The fact that these beers contain very little sugar, is another plus point when it comes to selecting a soft-drink for an evening’s abstinence.

  2. Having just returned from a trip to Bavaria, which included a visit to Oktoberfest, I can vouch that “Alkoholfrei” beers are widely available. My non-drinking wife, happily chugged a litre of the stuff whilst at the festival, and later during the holiday, enjoyed a further half litre in a beer garden.

    Restaurant and pub menus, all offer this option for those who are either unable, or do not wish, to imbibe alcohol.

  3. I noticed the other day that Jever's low-alcohol beer (I think it's 0.5 ABV) is called "Fun". Contradiction in terms. But yes it is more acceptable over there.
    I recall Billy Connolly's adverts for Kaliber. He never touched the stuff!

    1. In this country, a group of office workers in the pub at lunchtime (if they're still allowed to go at all) will be mostly on Diet Cokes or suchlike. In Germany, my impression is that quite a few of them will be on alcohol-free beers. That's the difference.

    2. I think there is a marked contrast with Germany here. In this country (and probably even more so in the US), drinking a non-alcoholic beer is almost invariably seen as somebody who wants a 'proper' beer settling for second best. And with the current downer on lunchtime drinking, that will set off alarm bells and call your character into question. Because wanting a beer at lunchtime is almost as much of a no-no as drinking a beer at lunchtime.

      I remember my first day working for a US company (and this was back in 2000). A large group of us went out for lunch. The place did beer, so I ordered a beer, thinking nothing of it. Then I noticed that everybody else had a soft drink and many were staring at me in a 'who the fuck have we just hired?!?' kind of way.

      So on another occasion I opted for a non/low alcoholic beer, Clausthaler, I think it probably was. And I *still* got the looks. What sort of dangerously alcoholic subversive was I?

      And yet this very same organisation did Friday afternoon beer runs for the office, encouraged copious drinking of shots etc. after work and thought nothing of it. The unwritten rule was: loads of alcohol on a Friday evening is perfectly normal, expected even, but a tiny 330ml non-alcoholic beer on a Tuesday lunchtime is a big no-no.

    3. While we are often accused of having a culture that encourages drinking, at the same time we are also often incredibly sanctimonious and censorious about it. It seems to me that Germans, for example, are much more relaxed about it. They're far less likely to get utterly bladdered, but also far more accepting of it as a part of daily life. In this country, a visibly pregnant woman drinking an alcohol-free beer would get dirty looks, but it wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Germany.

  4. Completely agree they should aim for having one of these as an alternative to a soda or pop or carbonated drink (or whatever one calls it). And agree with Paul that it would be great for non-drinkers (such as my wife) to have something like this, especially when it's warm and sunny.

    What I take issue with (and it might just be here in Canada) is flogging it for the same price as beers that are 5% or higher. Take a look at this from my local (government run) liquor store:

    The Holsten 0.15% is as expensive as their 5.2%, 7% and 7.5% cans. Sheesh!


    1. There's no price differential in Germany. The alcohol-free stuff is priced at exactly the same level as the "full-fat" real thing.

      At Oktoberfest, my wife’s Maβ of Alkoholfrei Bier still cost €10.80; the same price as the 6% Festbier my son and I were drinking!

    2. Beer duty is much lower in Germany, of course, so the cost differential will be less.

      As we know, cost is only one factor determining price. It seems to be the case that, in the UK, alcohol-free beers are priced not much below the equivalent normal-strength ones so they will be perceived as something of equal worth rather than a cheap alternative. Not saying that's right, but that's how it is.

    3. The pub price of a pint of Coke or Pepsi is also extortionate, similarly with the old 'favourite' Orange Juice and Lemonade. Plus, they are very sweet and it is difficult to drink any of them all session if you have to drive or work.

      I too am not keen on drinking beer without alcohol, especially considering the cost. So, when I'm 'not drinking' Blackcurrant & Soda Water is my poison of choice and usually less than £1.50p a pint.

    4. Soft drinks have to bear the same share of pub overheads as alcoholic ones, so I have little sympathy with the argument that their prices are extortionate. See this blogpost. And the prices of soft drinks in restaurants are, if anything, even higher than those in pubs.

  5. Earlier this year I gave up proper beer for a bit (on a fitness kick) but used it as an opportunity to try a load of NABLABs.

    Some of the German offerings were... OK, plenty were not. The Rothaus Tannenzäpfle was decent, as was Erdinger.

    Away from Germany, Brewdog’s Nanny State - especially when fresh - is good, especially for those who like a bitter beer. Less successful was a non-alcoholic stout, which tasted like cold Ovaltine. Points for effort, I suppose.

    The best of the whole bunch was Mikkeller’s Drink’in The Sun pale ale - this would genuinely fool a seasoned drinker I think. Further investigation reveals use of a specific, proprietary yeast strain which ferments the wort only to about 0.7%. The downsides are that it’s relatively hard to come by and is relatively expensive.


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