Doing dry January or just trying to cut down on your drinking? We put the supermarket’s no-booze beers to the test
At this halfway point, dry January has got to be hard going. However, if you are taking part, and if you have swapped to an alcohol-free version of your usual tipple, then take heart from the fact that you are ahead of the curve. You hipster. While the UK dealcoholised drinks market is tiny (alcohol-free beer is worth a mere £51.3m annually, compared to about £17bn for beer proper), its popularity is growing, especially among younger drinkers. AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, has pledged that, by 2025, 20% of the beer it sells will be lower-alcohol or alcohol-free.
But, outside of that dreary standby, Beck’s Blue, do any of the widely available non-alcoholic beers (0.5% ABV and below) bear comparison with the real thing? Historically, such beers were made by heating them to drive off the alcohol, a process that cooked out flavour, but as alternative processes have developed, they have gradually improved. The age of mass-market, low-alcohol beer is coming, it seems. Whether we like it or not.
M&S, Czech lager 0.5%, 500ml, £1.50
As both are brewed at Staropramen, I assumed that this was the same product as Sainsbury’s Czech low-alcohol lager (500ml, £1.20; 5/10), but perhaps not, as the M&S version is far superior. Sainsbury’s version tasted shrunken, where M&S’s is fresh and flamboyant. The lemony, herbal saaz hop flavours that distinguish Czech pilsners shine through remarkably well. OK, it tastes cardboardy at the back, but this has more character than many alcoholic big-brand lagers. Shockingly good.
Bavaria 0.0%, 4x330ml, £2, Tesco
That Bavaria is made in, erm, Holland is the least of it. Family owners the Swinkels may have been brewing for 300 years, and they may have patented their own alcohol-free fermenting process, but they have failed to nail palatable no-alcohol beer. Bavaria 0.0% is spectacularly unpleasant. The aroma is stewed vegetables and the flavour is all syrupy sweetness and hot, wet grains with just a fizzle of hop bitterness at its edges. Imagine the most juvenile, mass-produced, malty US lager, but worse. I would happily pay hard cash never to drink this again.
Brewed in Germany, where they are supposed to know a thing or two about good beer, Clausthaler is bizarrely musty on the nose. It smells (and, to a lesser extent, tastes) of damp, rotting hay and horses’ stables. The flavour is split three ways between that, a lemon sherbet taste reminiscent of cheap lager shandy and jangling bursts of metallic hop notes. Yet, despite this, Clausthaler – not too sweet, reasonably thick mouthfeel – is one of the better non-alcoholic lagers.
These days, Brewdog sounds like craft beer’s equivalent of The Fast Show’s Colin Hunt. “We have a terminal craziness to make beers we want to drink,” announces the wacky label blurb, nonsensically. But, nonetheless, with Nanny State they knock this non-alcoholic beer thing out of the park. This looks (treacle toffee colour) and smells (piney, resinous, tropical fruits) like serious beer. While the flavour is less well-rounded than in a genuine IPA – it splits too dramatically between gently tarry, smoky flavours and bracing citrus pith/grapefruit bitterness – it is still a fantastic achievement.
Hilariously, but with some success, apparently, alkoholfrei Erdinger is being promoted as a healthy, correctly carb-loaded, post-workout refreshment in Germany, hence the “isotonic, vitamin-rich, reduced calories” labelling. The problem is, it doesn’t taste so impressive. It is not as offensively sweet as some alcohol-free beers, but the spiciness, the tartness and the banana flavours that you expect in a German wheat beer are mere whispers on the wind. That sweetness is still the dominant characteristic. It may be preferable to the usual isotonic sports drinks, but this is not great beer.
If your dad made homebrew in the 1980s, you will be familiar with Cobra Zero’s appalling smell: yeasty and malty, like sodden breakfast cereals and mouldy fruit bread. Little in drinking history, however, could prepare you for the taste. It is as if someone started to make beer, got bored and decided to bottle unfermented wort (the hot, sugary liquid that is the basis of beer) straight from the mash tun. It is all musty, malty sweetness and peculiar fruit flavours. Hops tinkle in the distance, as ineffectual as a wind chime. Awful.
A 660ml bottle? Seriously? I am not sure anyone loves low-alcohol beer so much that they demand it in such volumes. Saint Omer is sweet, thin and watery, and what flavour there is beyond that sweetness – and, frankly, there is not a lot – is metallic, acrid, unpleasantly bitter hop oil compounds, clanging around in a highly unstructured way. It is less challenging than the worst examples here (although there is a weird, dank maltiness going on in the background), but still terrible.
You might assume that the “radler” concept is a marketing wheeze, but no, mixing beer with fruit juice is a very much a thing in Germany. This is veritable Um Bongo concoction, which mixes lemon, orange, lime and cherry-like acerola juice with alcohol-free beer and carbonated water. You would happily chug it down on a hot summer’s day, but it tastes like fizzy pop, not beer. You cannot taste beer to any discernible degree, which, given the beer in question is Foster’s, is a considerable bonus.
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