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Over the past couple of years, there has been a marked increase in interest in no- and low-alcohol beers, accompanied by a substantial rise in sales. As the Morning Advertiser reports, it certainly looks as though this is not a passing fad, and they are here to stay. However, it’s important not to get carried away, and it should be remembered that there was a similar surge in enthusiasm in the early 1990s that eventually fizzled out. The inherent nature of these products means there is a basic limit to their appeal.
It has to be remembered that the fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. That’s why people drink it. They will choose between different beers based on taste, but they choose beer in the first place because it is alcoholic. Even the weakest beers within the normal strength range will have a subtle but gradual effect. What non-alcoholic beer aims to do is to mimic the experience and ritual of drinking beer, and as far as possible the taste, while avoiding that effect. But it always carries an implication of “ideally, I would like a normal beer, but for whatever reason I feel I need to drink this instead.”
Realistically, it is never going to be seen it as a product worth drinking and seeking out in its own right. It only exists because normal-strength beer exists. Nobody is going to go on a non-alcoholic pub crawl, or hold a festival of non-alcoholic beer, or make a pilgrimage to a particular pub because of the rare non-alcoholic beer it sells. Although the term may seem harsh, it is essentially a distress purchase.
The linked article refers to the “significant benefits of having a drink with friends”, but that occasion only exists because other people are drinking alcohol. Yes, a non-alcoholic beer will allow someone to join in, but without the alcohol it wouldn’t be happening in the first place. Not for nothing is alcohol, in moderation, referred to as a “social lubricant”. And, if you choose a non-alcoholic beer without any obvious pressing reason to do so, your choice may come across as a self-righteous reproach to your drinking companions.
Health may be cited as a reason for choosing non-alcoholic beers, but they still contain calories, and sugar, the current bête noire of the public health lobby, whereas diet soft drinks are free from both. And de-alcoholisation is a complex “industrial” process that requires significant investment in the necessary plant. They’re not products that can just be knocked up in a shed in a natural, artisanal way.
As well as being the key to the appeal of beer, alcohol is also an essential component in its flavour. Even in the weakest mild or light lager, it’s still a noticeable part of the mix, and it becomes more pronounced the further you go up the strength scale. Take the alcohol away, and something seems to be missing. A couple of years ago, I did a tasting of some widely-available non-alcoholic beers, with distinctly mixed results.
Early alcohol-free beers, which all tended to be lagers, often had a noticeably cardboardy taste. This seems to have been much reduced nowadays, and some of the lagers are quite palatable, if distinctly bland. As many normal-strength lagers are fairly subtle in flavour terms anyway, this is maybe not too much of a problem. Things get more difficult when it comes to ales. Full-strength ales generally have more robust flavours, and when an attempt is made to translate this to a low-alcohol brew the results can often be quite unpleasant, with a malty gloopiness and a sense of unfermented wort. The St Peter’s Without which I sampled was so nasty that it went straight down the sink. I recently tried the new low-alcohol Old Speckled Hen, which wasn’t much better, with an odd off-flavour that reminded me of nothing so much as room-temperature school milk. Adnams’ low-alcohol Ghost Ship was considerably better, with a hoppy character reminiscent of the standard brew, but even here you feel that is hiding some nastiness lurking underneath.
Having said that, it has to be accepted that these beers do fill a substantial and growing market niche. It’s no good to pooh-pooh them and just say “get a proper pint down your neck!” Whether at home or out and about, people have a range of entirely valid reasons not to want to drink alcohol: driving, wanting to keep a clear head for work, pregnancy or other health issues. Surely choosing something that has at least some of the flavour and character of beer is preferable to sparkling water or Diet Coke. Who knows, they could even act as a “gateway drug” to proper beer!
As I mentioned in the post I linked to, I had been trying some of these beers and continue to do so. Following a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I wanted to reduce my beer consumption somewhat, and one way of doing this was sometimes to replace the glass of beer drunk at home in front of the telly with an alcohol-free alternative. This wasn’t the world’s most cutting-edge beer-drinking experience in the first place, and I am still maintaining the ritual of beer drinking, which is the key aspect. However, I have to say that I have generally stuck to lagers, as I can’t really get on with any of the low-alcohol ales.
Low- and no-alcohol beers are certainly here to stay, but some of the more bullish predictions of their likely market potential are overstated. They will only ever be an inferior alternative to normal-strength beer that cuts out the alcohol. They may be not too bad, all things considered, but they will never be quite as appealing, and people aren’t going to start seeking them out in their own right. Unless people were visibly enjoying the one, the other would have no reason to exist.