Non-Alcoholic Beer; Or How Not to Make It In America

non-alcoholic beer odouls

When was the last time you saw a non-alcoholic beer? Was it the six-pack of O’Doul’s your dad had gathering dust in the back of the fridge? A Miller Sharp’s you got tricked into drinking in junior high that you swear made you feel sooooo drunk? NA beer has been a punchline for so long (a recent Onion headline: “Non-alcoholic beer inventor unveils non-adhesive glue”) that to the average booze-loving American, it can be a surprise that it still exists at all.

In the years since “near beer” last had cultural relevance in the U.S., beverage makers of all stripes have stepped up to cater to those who want to limit their alcohol consumption, a demographic that is growing fast. Brands like GUS have pioneered a less sweet soda segment, and even bars and restaurants are giving equal time to booze-free options. Many craft cocktail lists now include a section of creative non-alcoholic drinks, and some high-end restaurants have worked up “temperance pairings” to accompany their multi-course tasting menus. Where, then, does non-alcoholic beer fit into all of this—if it fits in at all?

The answer, it turns out, depends on where you are, a fact that’s confusing the hell out of the beverage industry.

Definitions vary slightly by country, but generally, a beer labeled “non-alcoholic” can be up to 0.5 percent ABV (the stricter label “alcohol-free” must be 0.0 percent ABV). They are produced in the same way as regular beer, up to a point—and it’s at this point or divergence that flavor takes a nosedive. Brewers can choose to halt the fermentation process early, preventing sugars from being converted to alcohol and resulting in a too-sweet, malty brew. The alternative is to let the fermentation process finish then remove the alcohol, either by heating the beer to a point at which the alcohol (as well as the aroma and flavor compounds that give beer its depth) evaporates off or by the gentler reverse osmosis, a costly process that has been adopted by many European producers but no Americans.

In the U.S., NA beer’s reputation is one of negatives—of can’t and shouldn’t—rather than one of positive choices. Europe has had no such problem. The first modern NA beer took off in Germany in the late 1970s as part of the era’s larger focus on health-consciousness.

Faced with an overcrowded traditional beer market, Big Beer is doubling down on the NA beer wager. Mega-producers like Heineken and AB InBev are spending millions on R&D, hoping to use the latest buzzwords to capture a fickle audience’s attention (the latest European release, Heineken Maxx, is “all-natural,” with a flashy ad campaign featuring celebrity DJ Armin Van Buuren). Meanwhile, beverage heavyweights from Carlsberg to Coca-Cola are jumping on the bandwagon by purchasing already popular independent brands like the Swiss-made Moussy and Saudi-made Barbican.

But they’re gun-shy about exporting that optimism to the U.S. Here, NA beer’s reputation is one of negatives—of can’t and shouldn’t—rather than one of positive choices. Much of that perception lies in its origin: Prohibition. In 1919, beer was part of middle- and working-class culture, a daily routine for a huge swath of the male population. When the Volstead Act came down, Anheuser-Busch stepped up with Bevo, a 0.5 percent ABV malt beverage to take beer’s place. Hugely popular for a time, it ultimately could not compete with home-brewed and bootlegged beer, and by 1930, it had folded. By then the stigma had been set: NA beer was a product of deprivation. Through the 20th century, it remained a necessary evil—an option only for people who couldn’t drink, whether because of medical conditions, pregnancy or alcoholism.

Ironically, the one audience NA beer isn’t trying to reach is the first one that comes to mind for most Americans: recovering alcoholics. Inasmuch as the two-million-member Alcoholics Anonymous has any general consensus on the subject (the organization’s governance is entirely decentralized, with all power placed in the hands of individual AA chapters), it’s that NA beer is a temptation best avoided altogether. The trace amounts of alcohol NA beer can contain gives many members pause, but even completely alcohol-free beer is problematic as a simulacrum of their former vice. As one AA member put it, “It’s a ‘What’s the point?’ beverage. If you don’t have a problem with alcohol, just drink a beer; if you don’t want to drink alcohol, just have something else.”

Europe has had no such problem. The first modern NA beer took off in Germany in the late 1970s as part of the era’s larger focus on health-consciousness. From the start, it was a positive choice, one option among many for modern Germans living healthy, active lives. As the Euro-Mediterranean philosophy of moderation has become canon (and as DUI fines have skyrocketed in much of the E.U.) NA beer has steadily gained traction. In 2013, one-quarter of Polish beer consumers and one-third of Italians purchased at least one NA beer, and new brands were launching at a rate twice that of traditional beers. Nearly every large beer brand has an NA option in its portfolio, and the UK craft brewer BrewDog had a surprise hit in 2013 with its 0.5 percent ABV Nanny State.

By contrast, the last attempt at American NA beer growth was more than 20 years ago, beginning with the launch of both Anheuser Busch’s O’Doul’s and Miller Sharp’s in 1990, marketed with ads featuring athletes, lumberjacks and nightclub life to try to forge the same positive associations that had succeeded in Europe. That crop of brews was a resounding failure on the taste front (from a recent sample of Beer Advocate reviews: “thin and watery,” “like scrambled eggs and corn,” “reminds me of shredded paper”), a bad combination of American macro-brew standards and harsh early dealcoholization methods. More recent innovations have been ultra-light beers that play to the calorie-counting crowd—even the names of Miller 64 and Bud Select 55 highlight the number of calories in a bottle—downplaying their incredibly low alcohol content. Though the desire for booze-free options runs high, no American brewer appears willing to market a new NA beer on its own terms.

Buoyed by their success, it’s the European brands that feel they have the best chance at success in the U.S.—from Ireland’s Kaliber (produced by Guinness) to the German Clausthaler Dry Hopped, which uses Cascade hops to add back in flavors traditionally lost in the dealcoholization process. But the message is still confused. Taking a page from their early days, this year’s Oakland marathon was sponsored by Erdinger, an independently owned German NA beer. In the partnership announcement, Erdinger cited a study at the University of Munich (and the folk wisdom of generations of German distance runners, apparently) that showed that NA beer helped speed recovery and increase performance in endurance events. The angle here was purely health—marketing materials call Erdinger an “isotonic drink,” not NA beer, one that “provides the body with essential vitamins such as folic acid and vitamin B12 which help reduce fatigue, promote energy-yielding metabolism and support the immune system.” But in a market like the US, where NA beer doesn’t have four decades of health-conscious marketing attached to it, can it legitimately hop on the health wave?

In an era where “healthy” more frequently means real ingredients and little processing, this sounds like another misguided attempt to contort an already manipulated product into a shape that doesn’t fit. And seeing as how one of Google’s top search results for “non-alcoholic beer” is a story on whether drinking 28 NA beers in an hour can get someone drunk, beer brands in America may need to finally own up to what NA beer really is: an option for those who want a real beer but have to settle for less.

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