Ever-increasing varieties of zero-alcohol beers beckon the sober or sober-curious from the supermarket shelf. But are any of them any good? We investigate.
Ah, non-alcoholic beer. If your immediate thought response to that sentence is “What’s the point?”, look, we don’t blame you.
But The Spinoff is nothing if not brave: we go places others dare not tread. We take on the big issues; tackle the thorny topics. So we figured we better get in a bunch of zero-alc beers, try them and share our thoughts with you, the reader.
Blame our booze-sodden culture, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a non-alcoholic beer market here in Aotearoa. There are parts of the world, Europe especially, where every pub you walk into has a local booze-free beer or two available, but here, if you want something 0%, you better like lemon, lime and bitters, or be ready to fork out $10 on a fancy mocktail. (On that note, please don’t serve sober people orange juice.)
Non-alcoholic beer is made by brewing a beer as normal and then heating it to strip out the alcohol. As alcohol adds dryness, this can result in the beer tasting cloyingly sweet – which was certainly our experience with many of the beers we tried. Perhaps for that reason, I’m not aware of any New Zealand craft brewery that makes a non-alcoholic beer (please, get in touch if you know of any – firstname.lastname@example.org). 8 Wired got pretty close with the excellently named Ghost Chips (1%), but it’s available only at limited times in limited quantities. There’s a bunch in the 2-3% range, many of which we reviewed and ranked last year, but below that, the pickings are slim.
So when New Ways Brewing, a Nelson company that brews only zero-alcohol beer, launched in 2017, it looked to be filling a big gap in the market. But sadly, I couldn’t find its beer anywhere, and got no response to an email and a Facebook message.
The majority of the 11 beers we tasted are from Europe, and by no means every non-alc beer on the market, but I did go to three (3) whole different shops. All are 0.0% – I ruled out 0.5 percenters. The blind tasting panel was made up of The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Greive, deputy editor Catherine McGregor, awesome drawing guy Toby Morris, and yours truly. Josie Adams kindly conducted the tasting, and we gave each beer a mark out of 10 that was averaged out to produce the final scores. They’re ranked below from worst to best.
– Alice Neville
11) Rinkuškiai Non-Alcoholic Lager
440ml, $3.49 (Farro Grey Lynn)
The worst beer in our tasting was this horrifyingly sweet offering from Lithuanian brewery Rinkuškiai. Duncan Greive actively gagged on tasting it. “That’s fucked,” he muttered when he eventually recovered. “Really sweet, but still ends up being nasty,” added Toby Morris.
We tasted all the beers blind, but once the origins of this one were revealed post-tasting, Catherine McGregor was shocked that something so bad could come from a region with a long history of brewing. “What would their grandparents say?! You’d expect that from the Americans, but not Europe. How can you possibly think that’s an imitation of beer?”
10) DB Export GOLD 0.0%
12 x 330ml, RRP $18.99 (sent in by DB)
We’re patriots here at The Spinoff, but sadly this little Kiwi battler does not do our great land justice. It’s a new release from DB, and the press release promised “an easy-drinking, full-flavoured lager with notes of stone fruit and a smooth malty mouth feel”, made via “an innovative new brewing process which DB has been developing and refining over the last year”.
It started badly, with what Alice Neville described as “a bad homebrew smell”. “Really sweet but also weirdly foul,” was McGregor’s assessment of the taste.
“That’s actively offensive,” added Greive. “I thought we had laws governing what’s allowed to be sold to consumers.”
Morris felt it was “mean-spirited to put that out to the world”. Greive agreed. “Yeah, you’d have to have had a really bad childhood, adolescence and also adulthood.”
9) Warsteiner Fresh
6 x 330ml, $11.99 (New World Victoria Park)
Tasting conductor Josie Adams chimed in on this one to say the smell was akin to “when you piss on the street after a night out”. Another German offering, it didn’t please Neville, who on taking a sip said, “Ugh, that’s gross.” Greive’s take was: “Doesn’t smell of anything, doesn’t taste of anything”, while Morris equated it to “soundless music”.
8) Bitburger Drive Zero
500ml, $1.70 (Countdown Surrey Crescent)
The pleasingly named Bitburger hails from Germany, but it did not particularly please our taste buds. The smell was yeasty, but on the palate it was disconcertingly sweet. “Tastes like sugar water,” said McGregor. Greive was the most conciliatory, saying, “I don’t mind it, just because it doesn’t aspire to be anything and achieves that.”
7) Peroni Libera 0.0%
6 x 330ml, $12.99 (sent by PR)
This was another PR freebie, sent to us when this new booze-free version of the perennial green bot favourite launched in New Zealand. We reached it about midway through the tasting and fittingly, found it very middle of the road. Which, in zero-alc beer terms, is still bad. “It tastes amazing compared to the last one,” said Greive (the preceding beer had been one of the bottom two). “There’s a little bit of a citrussy thing, but it’s a bit thick and syrupy. It’s still an abomination.” Neville felt it tasted like “nothing”, while Morris said he had no feelings about it whatsoever.
6) Baltika 0
450ml, $1.99 (New World Victoria Park)
“Smells of nothing, tastes of nothing, waste of bloody time,” was Greive’s assessment of the only Russian beer in the tasting. Toby Manhire subbed in for his namesake for this beer, and felt it tasted like “20% Rheineck, 80% water”. Neville was disconcerted by its lack of smell, finding it quite sweet but detecting a slight dryness at the back of the palate that made it “not as bad as some of them”.
5) Birra Moretti Zero
3 x 330ml, $8.49 (Farro Grey Lynn)
With a dashing hat-wearing Italian man on the label, this was arguably the most aesthetically pleasing of all the beers we tried, but as this was a blind tasting, style was irrelevant. Greive detected “some sort of marzipanny lolly cake fucking not right thing” going on on the nose. To drink, it wasn’t terrible. “It least it’s got taste,” said McGregor. “It’s more of a sour taste”. “Yeah it’s got some taste, but that taste is not beer,” said Greive. “At least it’s not sweet,” said Neville. “It feels a bit like when you pick up the wrong beer at a party,” added Morris.
4) Heineken 0.0%
6 x 330ml, $14.49 (New World Victoria Park)
“Smells a bit like wees,” said Neville on getting a whiff of the Heiny, but on tasting, said “it’s not horrible. It’s cold and fizzy”. Greive thought it tasted like “how I remember beer tasting as a child. It’s quite drinkable. I was pleasantly surprised”. Morris reckoned it tasted like “a generic beer”, to which McGregor added it would be fine “if you just wanted something cold to hold in your hand at a party”.
3) Rinkuškiai IPA
440ml, $3.99 (Farro Grey Lynn)
This was much better than its Lithuanian stablemate (see 11). “I reckon that must be the IPA,” said Greive, who had glimpsed some of the beers in the office fridge prior to the tasting. “It presents as a beer and then reveals its true nature, which is a sugar drink. That said, I think it’s probably the best so far.” It had a definite bitterness, which the tasters praised, though it made Neville feel a little uneasy because it was a fake, almost unpleasant bitterness, rather than a delicious hoppy bitterness. Still, not bad.
2) Asahi 0%
330ml, $4.99, Farro Grey Lynn
Neville was absolutely gobsmacked at having to fork out five bucks for this – the same price as, say, a Garage Project Garagista – but then saw it at New World for a dollar cheaper. “Slightly sour, but refreshing,” was how McGregor described the Asahi. “Not unpleasant,” added Neville. We all agreed it didn’t really taste like beer, however. “If someone told me that was a kombucha or a variation on iced tea, or like a Club Mate or something, I’d believe it,” said Morris.
1) Bavaria 0.0% IPA
6 x 330ml, $8.99 (New World Victoria Park)
Lots of good things have come out of Holland – gouda, clogs, the Hawke’s Bay meatball, liberal attitudes to marijuana and so forth – and now, the Dutch have given us a decent zero-alc beer. It had an “almost gooseberry” aroma, reckoned McGregor. “That’s like a proper smell,” agreed Greive. “I would smell that voluntarily.” Taste wise, it was the best of the bunch. “Yeah, that’s like a generic beer,” said Neville. “It’s OK. There’s a slight bitterness.” Morris agreed. “It’s like a Lion Red or a Tui.” But Greive felt it was better. “For something that looks like a beer, it’s a refreshing, non-obnoxious drink.” McGregor summed it up, saying, “I don’t think you could get a zero-alcohol beer tasting much better.”