Once upon a time, a low-alcohol beer meant a beer that nobody actually wanted to drink. It was ordered quietly at the bar because of circumstances – perhaps because of driving or perhaps because of a medical reason. It certainly wasn’t bought for the enjoyment of the product itself. It was a poor-quality offering: poor aroma, poor taste, and poor mouthfeel. In fact, just poor generally.
As well as the product itself, there was also a public image problem. Beer was associated with being a man’s drink, and which self-respecting man wanted to sit in a pub with his mates nursing an orange fruit juice? Not a good image. So at least an alcohol-free (AF) beer had one crucial redeeming characteristic: it was brown. It must have been a nightmare for the breweries’ marketing departments.
Thankfully, that state of affairs has now been consigned to the empty bottle bank of history. The world of AF beers is changing, and that pace of change shows every sign of acceleration. A new AF beer used to come along about as often as a new monarch, but now for someone foolish enough to attempt to maintain an up-to-date blog on AF beers (Beers Without Fears), keeping up with all the new launches has become completely impossible, which is a great place to be.
Younger people are consuming less alcohol, and this seismic shift in drinking habits has forced the long-established traditional breweries (both independents and conglomerates) to up their game and brew AF beers that attempt to match the qualities of their alcoholic stablemates. And these breweries can’t be doing this at a leisurely pace either, because there are new kids on the block springing up – breweries setting up solely to offer AF beers and espousing an essential focus on product quality. This healthy competition within the industry has driven standards for AF way higher than they have been historically.
As part of this competition, the brewing companies are now offering AF beers claiming various healthy attributes, whether that’s isotonic, low-sugar, gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan. Who would have thought that a beer would ever be marketed as a rehydrating post-exercise drink? But the breweries are tapping into that good health psychology in the promotion of their AF beers now, and no one blinks an eye.
Remember to put a can in your gym bag. Beer no longer has to be associated with drunkenness, hangovers, and a big belly. The days when enjoying great-tasting beers was invariably risky, leading to harm to both our physical and mental health, are gone. Healthy choices in life can now include our choice of beer.
I did wonder, given that it’s been a few years since I’ve had any alcoholic beers, that maybe I’d simply forgotten how much better they are bound to be compared to those with no (or low) alcohol. So I asked a friend to give me their assessment of some of my favourite AF beers and was pleased to discover that he was shocked that he couldn’t tell the beers were alcohol-free and genuinely enjoyed drinking them; they were simply good beers rather than some sort of beer substitute.
Today, AF beers can now stand shoulder to shoulder with their alcoholic counterparts in a market that more and more will no longer tolerate the mediocre brown stuff that’s to be found in those old fairy tales.
Michael Malty is the founder of Beers Without Fears.