A little less booze goes a long way.
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It’s official: Americans are drinking less. A 2018 Nielsen's report shows that people are spending less on beer, wine, and spirits than they were even two years prior. While teetotaling and cutting back on booze is nothing new, millenials are looking at sobriety differently than previous generations. Aside from cutting calories and spending, younger generations are interested in mindfulness and tasting complex flavors that aren’t drowned out by the astringency of alcohol. The demand is creating a market for nonalcoholic beers and mocktails to thrive.
But we were interested to see how nonalcoholic beer in particular stacked up taste-wise against its boozier counterparts. As beer drinkers, could we really appreciate brewed hops and barley without a drop of hooch? We gathered nine different beer alternatives, all with less than 1% ABV, to find out.
For any beer alternative that’s actually brewed, the answer is no. Typically, when a bottle of nonalcoholic beer leaves the brewery, it contains about 0.5% alcohol by volume. However, the fermentation process continues while it’s on the shelf so the actual alcoholic content can actually be up to 1%.
Nonalcoholic beer goes through the same brewing process as regular beer. The difference comes when it’s time to remove the booze. Brewers can heat the beer mixture to boil off excess alcohol, taking advantage of the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling temperature (173°F) than water. They can further widen the boiling-temperature gap by heating the brew in a vacuum. This lessens the effect that excess heat has on the taste of the beer.
Brewers worried about using any extra heat or looking to remove 100% of the alcohol, can use a method called reverse osmosis where beer is pumped through a filter that only allows water and alcohol to pass through. After all the liquid is filtered out, a “beer syrup” is all that remains. The brewer then takes the sticky concoction and reconstitutes it until it’s drinkable. However, even with this method, some alcohol will remain in the brew.
Inquisitive minds that we are, we decided to try out some nonalcoholic beers and beer alternatives to find out if any of them can stand up to the real thing.
We designed a blind taste test of nine different beers, asking our panel of both beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers to judge each brand on its ability to masquerade as beer as well as its overall taste.
Run Wild IPA from the Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Company topped our list Its floral scent and hoppy taste wowed our tasters. Whether or not the tasters identified as beer drinkers, all said Run Wild impressed them with how much it tasted like the “real thing.” We also liked the can design. A lot of the other brands on this list sport a very loud “nonalcoholic” label, which is understandable. But if you don’t want your personal preference to become a topic of conversation at your next barbecue, subtlety is appreciated. Based on taste and design, we’d describe Athletic Brewing Company’s Run Wild as a true beer, just without the alcohol.
If the pale-yellow color visible through the clear bottle isn’t enough of an indication, allow us to explain that Hoppy Refresher is technically not a beer—it’s a seltzer spiced with hops. It has a light citrus flavor that coats the tongue with just a touch of bitter notes. Since it isn’t brewed, it contains zero alcohol. The non-beer drinkers liked it for its fruity notes and the beer drinkers enjoyed the hoppy flavor. As one of the most affordable options we tested ($5.49 for a four-pack), Hoppy Refresher jumped its way to second place.
The German import Bitburger Drive took third place for its imitation of the finer points of a German lager—both the positive and the negative. Our tasters noted the malty flavor and crisp mouthfeel, and when you pour Drive into a glass, it has the perfect pale amber color and the right earthy smell. However, as a German beer, it can be plain to an American palate, especially amongst millenials who gravitate toward craft brews. Germany has fairly strict laws regarding how beer can be produced, which is why the country produces brews of such consistent quality, so there’s very little variety and variation. No notes of citrus or chocolate here, just a quality nonalcoholic lager.
As far as nonalcoholic beers go, we found St. Pauli to have the strangest smell: The majority of tasters noted an overwhelming herbaceous aroma. However, once they took a sip, most liked the flavor, which was light with a touch of sweetness. Detractors disliked how watery the beer tasted.
A Missouri brewery that focuses on only nonalcoholic beers, WellBeing brews its Intrepid Traveler ale with Mississippi Mud coffee, flaked oats, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and lactose. The end result is a stout that’s reminiscent of nitro coffee. It was a bit on the bitter side for many of our tasters, and the dark flavor confined Intrepid Traveler to sipping status. But if you want a complex flavor that can compete with a craft beer, this is a strong contender.
OK, hear us out. According to our data, a large portion of people who search for nonalcoholic beer are interested in learning about ginger beer. And while there are many other reputable ginger beers out there, we chose Gosling’s for its wide availability and moderate price tag. As far as sodas go, we found Gosling’s to be pretty good. Its level of spice was tolerable for most people and it wasn’t too sweet. If you ever wanted a ginger ale that kicked it up a notch, Gosling’s is a solid choice.
Beer snobs keep Coors in low regards. Let’s be real though, Coors is fine. The thin flavor and metallic aftertaste won’t kill you. The nonalcoholic version easily mimics the real thing. Our tasters said it reminded them of college, keg stands, and being broke. The best way to describe this near-beer is that it’s weak but not offensive.
According to several tasters, Penn’s tasted like a can of beer that had been diluted in a barrel of water. While it has a weak taste, it is by far the most affordable. We picked up a six-pack for less than $3. After reviewing all the opinions of our tasters, we think Penn’s is perfect as a movie set beer: It looks like the real thing, costs less than water in some cases, and won’t get anyone drunk.
Perhaps one of the more famous nonalcoholic beers, O’Doul’s did not fare well in our taste test. Our tasters found it to be malty and filling, but still very mild. We detected a hint of sweetness that was drowned out by the liquid bread flavors. O’Doul’s didn’t really stand out in any way and thus couldn’t rise in the rankings.
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