Imbibe puts alcohol-free, low-alcohol and small beer to the taste test

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

02 January 2019

Non-alcoholic and low-abv beers are on the rise – and, on this evidence, a lot better than they used to be. Beer sommelier Sophie Atherton and a team of tasters took a look at what’s behind the mask


PANEL
Sophie Atherton,
journalist & beer sommelier;
Peter Kennelly,
Eebria Trade;
Toni Skinner,
Pig’s Ears;
Jonathan Webster,
The Drydrinker

Low- or no-alcohol used to mean light beers that were as low in flavour as they were booze, but they’ve been reinvented. Many now rock as many hops and pack as much flavour as standard-abv brews.

Whether someone’s pregnant, driving, training for a marathon or simply trying to pace themselves during an all-day beano, opting for a lower-alcohol drink is no longer the preserve of the party pooper.

Sales have risen significantly over the last year and both new and established breweries are getting on board with the category. Whether a drinker prefers standard lager, ale, or is more of a craft beer fan, there’s now a low/no alcohol version available for everyone.

RESULTS

ALCOHOL-FREE & DE-ALCOHOLISED

Alcohol-free beer must contain no more than 0.05% alcohol. Many, if not most, alcohol-free beers are actually ‘de-alcoholised’ and permitted to contain up to 0.5% alcohol. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

77 Schneider Weisse, Tap 3 Mein Alkoholfrei

The panel was impressed by this, a well-made Bavarian wheat beer with a lovely rich amber colour and big foamy head. It’s got all the aroma and flavour you’d expect from its alcoholic counterparts. ‘I think this could be mistaken for an alcoholic drink in its flavour and depth,’ JW. ‘Good solid mouthfeel,’ TS. ‘Classic German wheat beer,’ PK.
0.5%, £18.40/20x50cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

73 Mikkeller, Henry and His Science
This lemony brew scored highly and everyone found it both refreshing and thirst quenching, but the panel were unsure as to how beery it really was. ‘Sherbet, tart, subtle berry sweetness; good carbonation and mouthfeel,’ PK. ‘Light and fruity with a bit of champagne fizz,’ JW. ‘Too much like a soft drink for my taste, but perhaps one for the summer,’ SA.
0.3%, £33.97/24x33cl, Euroboozer, 01923 263335

71 Mikkeller, Energibajer
Craft darling Mikkeller also appears a force to be reckoned with when it comes to alcohol-free beers. The whole panel was enticed by this beer’s big, hoppy aroma and thought it offered a convincing alcohol-free alternative to American-inspired craft brews. ‘Could drink this and not miss the alcohol,’ TS. ‘Packed full of flavour,’ PK. ‘Well balanced with notes of lemon and passion fruit,’ SA.
0%, £34.44/24x33cl, Euroboozer, 01923 263335 

63 Big Drop Brewing Co, Stout
Big Drop only makes beers of 0.5% or less and is one of those in the vanguard of the reinvention of the category. Most of the panel picked up smoky notes in this very chocolatey beer, but were divided when it came to whether or not it had enough body. ‘Not one for the faint hearted, but good depth and flavour if you like dark beer,’ JW.
0.5%, £22.50/24x33cl, Cave Direct, 01622 710339

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

61 Harvey’s Brewery, Low Alcohol Old Ale
The whole panel really enjoyed this beer – its flavour gained it a lot of points, but it was let down by a lack of carbonation. ‘Dark, roasty malts with a brown breadcrust aftertaste,’ SA. ‘Liquorice and coffee notes over caramel and dried fruit,’ TS. ‘Nothing too telling to give away its low abv. Good, classic British-style beer,’ PK.
0.5% , £13.69/24x275ml, Harvey’s Brewery, 01273 480209

59 Erdinger Weißbräu, Alkoholfrei
A hazy look and bready aroma gave this away as a German wheat beer, but it seemed to have as much in common with a helles as it did hefeweizen. ‘Nice body, well-rounded mouthfeel, and soft banana-bread notes that linger,’ TS. ‘Easy-drinking and good for quenching the thirst,’ JW. ‘Malty and sweet, wants for some hoppy balance,’ SA.
0.4% £11.80/12x50cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

58 Fruh Kölsch, Alkoholfrei
The panel were split 50/50 on this beer. Some said they’d happily drink it, while others thought it too sweet and lacking in body. ‘Decent balance of light malt and floral hops,’ SA. ‘A good refreshing replacement for an alcoholic lager,’ JW.
0%, £19.10/24x33cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

57 Stiegl, Freibier
Another panel opinion divider. Some enjoyed its flavour and refreshment potential, but nevertheless instantly spotted it was non alcoholic. ‘Fruity and quite sweet with a hint of lemon and some hoppy character in the finish,’ JW. ‘Quite sweet with hints of lemongrass and honey. Has a nice gentle aftertaste and soft mouthfeel,’ TS.
0.5%, £8.13/12x33cl, Euroboozer, 01923 263 335

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

53 Nirvana, Kosmic Stout
There was a male-female split on this beer, with the men more in favour of it than the women. The female view was of something rather brown bread-like and salty, while the men enjoyed notes of chocolate, caramel and raisins.
0%, £28.25/24x33cl, Pig’s Ears, 01306 627779

50 Adnams, Ghost Ship Alcohol Free
Another 50/50 split panel, with half picking up flavours they thought were flaws. A great shame, because otherwise this beer had much going for it. Good flavour, good body, certainly could pass for being alcoholic. ‘Perhaps not as trendy as hoppy craft beer, but I think it will be popular,’ JW.
0.5%, £9.15/8x50cl, Adnams, 01502 727272

50 Krombacher, Pils Low Alcohol
Easy-drinking lager with pleasant aroma of biscuity and grassy malts with a touch of peppery lemon hoppyness. ‘Well-made beer. Body is the only obvious factor marking it out as not of standard abv,’ PK.
0.5%, £14.99/24x33cl, Morgenrot, 0161 925 9140; Oakham, 01733 370500

48 BrewDog, Nanny State
Bamboozled the panel as to what style it was. ‘Bitter,’ SA. ‘Porter,’ PK. ‘Smoked rye,’ TS.
At the reveal, everyone was surprised it was BrewDog’s alcohol-free effort. It suggests this beer has evolved as much as the category. Could easily pass as standard abv.
0.5%, £POA/24x33cl, BrewDog, 01358 724924

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

48 St Peter’s, Without Gold
The whole panel thought this beer had a lot going for it, but they all spotted weak points too. ‘One you will love or hate,’ JW. ‘Very floral and bitter, with better taste than aroma,’ SA. ‘Very good, fresh aroma. Decent bitterness and citrus notes,’ PK.
0%, £POA/8x50cl, St Peter’s Brewery, 01986 782322

47 Thornbridge, Big Easy
Most of the panel enjoyed the hoppy aroma of this beer, but were somewhat disappointed it didn’t deliver on its promise. It’s easy to spot that it’s non-alcoholic. ‘A pleasant beery flavour, but perhaps a bit thin,’ JW. ‘Quite peppery and herbal,’ SA. ‘Gives everything upfront [and leaves little behind],’ TS.
0.5%, £POA/12x33cl, Thornbridge Brewery, 01629 828 332

46 Jever, Fun Pilsener
The panel thought the aroma much the same as many standard-abv lagers, but were split on its taste and appeal. ‘Rather bitter,’ SA. ‘Unbalanced,’ TS. ‘Reasonable depth and good level carbonation,’ JW.
£0.5%, 11.70/24x33cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

44 Nirvana, Sutra IPA
The panel found the aroma of this beer overpowering, which undoubtedly affected their thoughts on how it tasted. ‘Not particularly complex, with a slight violet flavour,’ JW. ‘Strangely drinkable,’ SA.
0.5%, £30.71/24x33cl, Jolly Good Beer, 0800 043 2337

41 Harvey’s Brewery, Low Alcohol Sussex Best
This alcohol-free version of a well-known classic bitter confused the panel’s noses and tastebuds. Rather sweet and very light in body. ‘[Might] be popular with those who prefer something on the sweeter side,’ JW.
0.5%, £13.69/24x275ml, Harvey’s Brewery, 01273 480209

39 Fitbeer
Fizzy, lager-like, fairly standard offering that aroused no strong feelings from the panel. ‘Certainly not unpleasant,’ JW.
0.3% , £31.80/24x33cl, Pig’s Ears, 01306 627779

LOW-ALCOHOL & SMALL BEER

To be labelled low-alcohol in the UK, a beer must be 1.2% or lower. Small beer isn’t a legal category, but we decided to open up our tasting to anything at 2.8% or below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

78 Wiper & True, Small Beer

The panel loved this hoppy beer and would be happy to drink it regardless of its abv. They enthused that something so low in alcohol could be so tasty. Rather hazy in appearance, its only real downside. Mango, pineapple, zingy orange and stone-fruit aromas and flavours made for compelling drinking. ‘Fruity, punchy, tasty, good mouthfeel and balance,’ TS. ‘Low bitterness, but still
hop forward,’ PK.
2.7%, £18.60/12x50cl, £22/20x330ml, Wiper & True, 0117 941 2501

72 Gadds’/Ramsgate Brewery, No 11 Anytime Pale Ale
It’s amazing that a beer so low in alcohol is so full of flavour. Only the lightness of body gives this away as a low-abv brew. ‘Good hop aroma and good malt sweetness lingering behind,’ PK. ‘Strong on flavour, if not depth,’ JW. ‘Powerfully and pleasantly hoppy, with shades of passion fruit and lychees,’ SA.
1.2%, £12/12x33cl, Eebria Trade, 020 8004 6789

67 Siren, Half Mast
Another low-abv craft offering likely to appeal to those who like a hoppy session beer.
Fairly well-balanced despite the strong hops. ‘Juicy fruit hop flavours balanced by malt sweetness,’ PK. ‘Fairly easy drinking, but the strong hop flavour will stay with you,’ JW. Leafy hops and tropical fruit; zingy carbonation adds to refreshment,’ SA.
£2.8%, 30.29/24x33cl, Siren Craft Brew, 0118 973 0929

67 Stiegl, Radler Grapefruit
Radlers are the German answer to shandy, but tend to be much more fruity than beery. This one fitted the mould to a tee. ‘Unique beer, perfect for a hot summer day,’ PK. ‘Super easy-drinking and insanely refreshing. I could smash a few of these in summer!’ TS.
2.5% , £23.53/24x50cl, Euroboozer, 01923 263335

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

56 Small Beer Brew Co, Steam

Decent enough beer that’s likely to appeal to those who favour traditional English ales. ‘Not challenging, but you could drink a few,’ JW. ‘Well-rounded amber style, mellow with some caramel notes,’ TS.
2.7%, £35/24x35cl, Speciality Drinks, 020 8838 9444

Sophie Atherton,
journalist & beer sommelier

‘The best thing I used to be able to say about low- to no-alcohol beer was “doesn’t taste too bad”, but things have changed dramatically in the last few years. Sales of no-alcohol beer are on the increase and as long as brewers continue to rise to the challenge, I’m expecting a boom in low-alcohol and so-called small beer too.’

Peter Kennelly, Eebria Trade
‘I think you definitely need to stock a 0.5% or below, which is legally alcohol-free – as we saw there’s some really good options out there. However, the category that is really exciting is low-alcohol and small beer... there’s a lot of flavour in these low-abv beers and that could keep people in the pub a bit longer, rather than stumbling out!’

Toni Skinner, Pig’s Ears
‘The need – and the market – for low-abv or no-alcohol beers isn’t necessarily just for people who can’t drink, but want beer. It’s now drunk by people who want to stay out a bit longer, but not get drunk. There’s so many options and a load of different styles, so it seems silly not to make sure you have a style that people will like.’

Jonathan Webster, The Drydrinker
‘People are drinking non-alcoholic beers for different reasons. Some people want to abstain, some want a lifestyle that is low-calorie and some want the flavour without the intoxication. Not everyone wants it all the time; it’s a whole trend towards looking for variety. I wouldn’t have a massive range in a pub to start off with. I’d think about having two or three very, very good ones, rather than a huge range and not getting the throughput.’

54 Torrside Brewing, Sto Lat

A grodziskie, Polish-style smoked beer. The smokiness was a bit overwhelming, but some will enjoy it, and it may have food matching potential. ‘Smoky with a tart finish; lots of flavour for its abv,’ SA. ‘Surprisingly accessible,’ TS.
2.8%, £16.80/12x50cl, Torrside Brewing, 07539 149175

54 Small Beer Brew Co, Dark Lager
This beer was a bit of a chameleon, with each of the members of the panel experiencing it differently. Imagine a fruity schwarzbier with forest fruits and nutty flavours and you won’t be far off.
1%, £35/24x35cl, Speciality Drinks, 020 8838 9444

46 Schöfferhofer, Grapefruit Hefeweizen Bier
A peachy-orange colour, this brew immediately grabs the attention – but its hue, along with its taste, are very far from beer. Likely to divide opinion, as it did with the panel. ‘Nice balance of pithy, grapefruit bitterness and bready malt sweetness,’ PK. ‘Like drinking perfume,’ SA.
2.5%, £23.10/24x50cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

CONCLUSIONS

  • There’s now a huge range of styles when it comes to alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer, and many have much stronger flavours than beers in the category used to have in the past.
  • More and more people are opting for no- or low-alcohol beer at least some of the time.
  • It’s not just a puritan habit; drinking these beers lets drinkers pace themselves during a day or a big night out.
  • Variety will help you make the most of the category – but be wary of stocking too many options.
  • Don’t restrict a low/no-alcohol list to mainstream lager. Include craft beer and traditional ales to cater for all tastes, but stick to high quality, tasty beers.
  • Make sure you treat low-alcohol and small beers as a separate category.

Many thanks to the team at EeBria Taproom for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.

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