Non-alcoholic beers take a lot of flack, and rightly so. The great majority of them taste like swampwater (and give you less of a buzz). But are any of them actually good? We tried 14 different non-alcoholic beers to find out. And the answer is a definitive yes.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. I feel sick, but not in the usual way.
A few months ago we delved into the science of non-alcoholic beer, and learned why it's so hard to make a decent one. That's good background info to have, if you're interested, but for now let's get down to the drinking.
I went to three well-stocked booze establishments as well as three grocery stores, and bought every type of non-alcoholic beer I could find. It's easy enough to find your standard American NA beer selections (O'Doul's, Coors, Miller), but the best work in the non-alcoholic brewing field is being done in Europe, so you may have to find yourself a store that carries a lot of imported beer. The only beer we wanted to try that we couldn't find was Kirin Free, which we'd heard some good things about, but it's still a rarity stateside.
All of the beers we tested contained 0.5-percent ABV (or less), which is still the legal definition of "non-alcoholic beer." It's worth noting that our friends at Deadspin pretty much proved that it's impossible to get drunk off of the stuff.
For testing I called in two good friends who know their beer, Aaron Nauta and Jim Kane. I picked bottles out of the fridge at random and poured them into standard 16-ounce pint glasses. Each beer was assigned a number, so Jim and Aaron had no idea which they were drinking at any given time. We drank at least six to eight ounces of each beer and cleansed our palates in between each with some water. We recorded our notes, and we each scored the beers on a scale from one to ten (which is all relative, since we're talking about non-alcoholic beer, here). We then averaged those scores, and here they are, from worst to best.
Raise your hand if you're surprised. Nobody? Thought so. It just has nothing going on. It's extremely light and totally bland. Aaron said, "It's like a cheap beer you'd drink while tubing and some river water splashes in, but you keep drinking it because you just don't care anymore." Jim added, "It smells like a dirty fish tank." Score: 2
Looks like your standard cheap American lager. It's very watery and there's no lingering flavor. I thought I might drink one if I were really bored or very thirsty. Jim said it was like drinking "dirty pasta water," and it reminded Aaron of "a bar with a disgusting bathroom that serves cocaine." We all agreed there were notes of piss and pasta. Score: 2.2
This one reeks of honey. It's super sweet, followed by a bitter slap in the face. Jim said it "tastes like deodorant... it's like they used a rusty old tank to make this one." Which is probably true. Aaron said, "Soap feel. Dishwater. Makes you feel like an asshole in a very polite way." We all hated it and felt personally insulted by it. Score: 2.3
Well, it looks like a real beer, but there's very little flavor. Maybe the faintest hint of molasses. "It's all gussied up," said Jim. "Like it's trying really hard to do something it can't do." Very boring, very bland. You'd only drink this so that your co-workers might think you were drinking a real ale. Score: 2.7
It's got a slightly milder honey smell (they almost all smell like old honey), but it's way more bitter than most. The flavors disappear off the palate quickly, but then this low-tide aftertaste creeps in. This was a big surprise. We all like Bitburger's normal beer and we'd heard very good things about Drive. There's a possibility that the 6-pack we tested had been skunked. However, we got it from a reputable beer warehouse (several of the others came from there, too, and had no skunkage), and Drive comes in a brown bottle, which should make it further resistant to skunking. It was disappointing. Note: Bitburger Drive was the only beer we tested that actually has 0.0-percent ABV. Score: 2.7
Very sweet, again with that super honey smell, but it's watery and then that aftertaste. Aaron described as "that back-of-the-throat taste you have when you wake up with a hangover." Yes, if you were drinking bad German beer all night. "It tastes like powdered beer," said Jim. Pretty gross. Score: 3
Wait, how did Coors make the top 10? Because while there's nothing remarkable about it, there's also nothing really offensive about it, either, which goes a long way here. It's just boring. But boring is better than bad! Then again we're still not talking about one that's even half-way decent. Score: 3.2
Strong honey smell (yeah yeah), clear metallic taste. Somewhat tannic, too. The flavor disappears very quickly, though. Jim said, "It's like beer that has a penny sitting in it," and Aaron said, "It's like tea in a metal cup." The metal was all in the aftertaste, and cost it a lot of points. Again, pretty disappointing, since we all like Paulaner. Score: 3.7
The one is very similar to the Paulaner above. To me, it tasted like cold barley tea, which is actually something I usually enjoy. There's the sweetness of honey but it's cloaked with some of that tannic bitterness. Aaron said, "It's the bottom of a cup of tea." Jim noted that there's "a leftover-ness to it. Like an Arizona Iced Tea gone bad." Score: 4.3
"Mellow," was the word we all used to describe it. Very light. Very inoffensive. Just kind of tastes like a generic light beer. Not a ton of flavor. Very middle of the road. Aaron called it, "Clean." Jim said, "It's fine, but it's still just meh." Buckler is made by Heineken, which makes sense and tastes about right. Score: 4.3
Note: After going one round with all of the beers, we took a break, had some dinner, then came back, pulled out another bottle for each of our top four, and re-tasted to make sure got it right.
It starts strong and has a lot of layers to it. Its flavors seem to change several times. It's got some sweetness, but it's not as cloying as the others. There's some strong bitterness at the start. It's less of a beach beer and more of a watching-football-but-gotta-drive-later beer. Jim said, "It's thin, but complex. Starts out as a good copy of a real beer, but quickly goes downhill at the end." Aaron described it as an "interesting ride for something that doesn't get you drunk." Score: 5.8
Kaliber, more than any of the others, tastes and feels like a normal beer. It's heartier than the rest of the pack and it has a lovely color. There are definitely bread flavors ("bread cider," Jim said), but it's crisp and smooth. It tastes a little like Guinness, which isn't surprising, since it's made by Guinness. There is a very slight metallic aftertaste, and that's what kept it out of the top slot, but this is a very, very strong third place. We all finished ours happily, which says a lot, considering we were pretty deep in testing by then. Score: 6.3
Note: Our top two choices were unanimous, but our number one wasn't. They were dead-even in my book, so it really boils down to what flavor you're after.
Some interesting things about Erdinger. First, it's a weiss beer (think Hefeweizen), meaning it's a bit sweeter. It also helps mitigate the biggest problem with non-alcoholic beers, which is the lack of hops flavoring; weiss beers traditionally aren't at all hoppy, so the Erdinger tastes more like you would expect a full-alcohol version to.
The Erdinger also had the best carbonation of the bunch by a huge margin, which made it feel more lively. It has even flavors, and it isn't bland or boring. There aren't any surprises, either, except that it's really decent. "It's not trying to hide anything," said Jim. It tastes the more like a beer than anything else we tried. Score: 7.3
The Clausthaler Golden Amber has got some of those welcome barley tea flavors, but it's not as tannic as some of the others. It's darker than most non-alcoholic beers, with a really lovely color. It's also smooth, crisp, and just somehow very likable.
The only real knock against it is that it doesn't really remind you of a real beer. That doesn't mean it isn't good. It's just... something else. It's got a lot of layers, and there's a very distinct toasty malt taste to it. All said and done, it just edged out the Erdinger and took our top slot. Score: 7.5
All of the top three beers were really quite drinkable and should be considered good alternatives to anyone who wants the taste of beer but can't or prefers not to drink it for whatever reason.
The even better news is that those three proved pretty easy to find. Both Clausthalers were available at Trader Joe's. BevMo had the Erdinger, the Kaliber and most of the rest, as well. It might take a little hunting, but you can do better than the bottom of the barrel.
If you've tried any NA beers that we missed, please leave a review of them in the discussion below. And be sure to check in next Friday for another Happy Hour.