I never really got the point of non-alcoholic beers. Why not just drink soft drinks? If there’s no booze in your beer then frankly what’s the point?

A trio of imported non-alc brewsUntil I was pregnant that is, and now I totally get it. Whether you’re with child, driving, on a diet, taking meds or just laying off the ale for a while, it’s about feeling like you’re a part of the night out even though you can’t join in the drinking. You’d be amazed how difficult and dull it is to sit drinking sweet soft drinks all night and you just feel more, dare I say, grown up having something in your hand that looks and feels like a beer. But the all-important question is, does a ‘non-alcoholic malt beverage’ taste like a beer?

To answer this question I brought together a band of beer snobs, who very kindly gave up their evening to taste six booze-free ‘beers’. Thanks to Rob Heyns from League of Beers, Brad Moore, distributor of BrewDog in South Africa, Mitch Lockhart from Devil’s Peak, Nick Mulgrew of Suip! and of course, the Brew Master, Shawn Duthie, from the SouthYeasters, for trekking all the way to my house to be served nothing but alcohol-free drinks and burnt pita bread. (Actually, I did throw three ‘real beers’ in there to try and catch them off guard – more on that later). First on to how the non-alcs did in our blind tasting. Scores were simply done on a drinkability factor and each was marked out of 10.

1. Clausthaler Classic (Average score 4.5)

This ‘premium non-alcoholic malt beverage’ is imported from Germany and has won a range of international awards. It actually has 0.45% alcohol by volume, though anything under 0.5% is placed in the non-alc category. It’s brewed to the Reinheitsgebot, but with a patented process that means there isn’t much in the way of fermentable sugars. It was not a favourite with the panel, who were all put off my its lemony ‘sunlight liquid’ nose. Everyone found it to be overly dry with an unpleasant bitterness though some went back for a second sample.

2. Beck’s Non-alcoholic (Average score 4)

This one definitely smelt like a lager, specifically a lager in a green bottle…”Tastes like a beer” was one comment (not bad since this is officially 0.0%), while two others thought this might have been one of the alcoholic red herrings, guessing it was Castle Lite. Most complained of the unpleasant bitterness hitting the back of the tongue, though I thought it might work well as a non-alcoholic lager top (with a splash of Sprite to take that bitter edge away)

Taking tasting seriously

Taking tasting seriously

3. Bavaria Regular Malt (Average score 5)

This band of beer geeks likened the Bavaria to unfermented wort. There was a definite maltiness and Bavaria’s unique brewing process (beers are brewed to be 0.0%, rather than having the alcohol filtered out) made it much sweeter on the palate than the two which went before it. “A good amount of flavour for a non-alc”, said one taster, while another called it “malty, hopped, carbonated wort”.

4. Erdinger Weissbräu Alkoholfrei (Average score 4)

The biggest disappointment of the evening for me was Erdinger’s alcohol-free weiss. Having read good things about this brew, I was hoping to find a companion for the remaining five months of my pregnancy. Most of the panel were confused as to what it was supposed to be – a cloudy lager or a bland weiss and virtually all agreed that it seemed overcarbonated.

5. Brewers & Union Der Graf von Bavaria (Average score 6)

The only craft brew entered turned out to be the biggest hit of the night. Brewed in Bavaria, this certainly looks like a weiss, though I found it lacks a weiss-like aroma. Five out of six tasters said they’d drink this over a soft drink or mocktail, with all agreeing that the flavour outshone the rather odd sock-like aroma. Der Graf essentially starts its life as a Steph Weiss, then a fancy machine removes almost all the alcohol (it’s 0.4% ABV).

6. Bavaria Ivory Malt (Average score 5.5)

We ended on a high note, with most of the tasters impressed by how flavourful this brew was. Not all were fans of the heavy bubblegum notes and there was a certain spiciness that made this smell and taste like a weiss/wit hybrid (it contains only malt, hops, water and maltose though). Five said they’d drink it in a bar and for the record, this was my favourite of the night. I would also like to give an honourable mention to Bavaria’s fruity non-alcs. We didn’t include them in the blind tasting for obvious reasons, but the added flavour takes away the bitter, sometimes soapy edge that non-alcs often have. They got me through a full-on beer festival the other week and they can certainly get you through a night of being the designated driver.

The red herrings
The reveal

The reveal

It’s worth mentioning here that no-one on the tasting panel is really a lager drinker and since most non-alcoholic brews are in the light lager style, they were never going to rate too highly. Interestingly, the lowest rated beer of the night was one of the alcoholic red herrings, Faxe at 5% ABV (hats off to Nick for identifying the beer and for attempting to finish the can). The other ‘real beers’ thrown in to throw off the panel’s palates were Windhoek Light (correctly identified by two – you guys have awesome palates), which got an overall score of 5.5 and Erdinger’s weiss, which was universally panned (“I’m sure this is some kind of weiss impersonator”, “it’s like a weiss lager”) and scored 4.5/10.

Solving the drink-drive problem?

So what have we learned? Well, that if you’re driving home but don’t fancy drinking Coke all night, there are perfectly drinkable non-alcoholic beers out there – some of them better than their alcoholic counterparts. South Africa, as I see it, has a terrible problem with drinking and driving and an increasing selection of non-alc beers can only help with that. At the moment there seem to be two obvious hurdles. First, there’s a dismal selection of non-alcoholic beers on offer in most bars and pubs around South Africa. In larger cities you might find one or two available; in smaller dorps you’d be lucky if there’s a bottle in the entire town. The other problem is price – both in bars and stores, non-alcs are just as expensive as alcoholic brews (sometimes even more so) and that is not going to help sway people towards drinking them. Perhaps it’s because at the moment, every non-alc brew available in SA has to be imported. We have the second largest brewery in the world on our doorstep, yet not one alcohol-free beer is being brewed in South Africa. Considering the drink-driving issue, I think this has to change, so I have to put the challenge to SAB to bring a well-priced, non-alcoholic beer to market.

Join me for a free beer tasting!!!

In a bid to get you drinking responsibly, to open your eyes to the world of alcohol-free beer and to save you a few rand, I will be hosting a free non-alc beer tasting at Banana Jam Cafe on Friday 3rd May 2013. Come and taste the six brews reviewed here, tell us what you think of them and take a free bottle of your favourite. Designated drivers drink free non-alc all night (while stocks last), as do pregnant ladies  :-D Tell your friends!!