Does less booze mean less flavour? Well, yes… but it’s not all bad news.
Here at The Spinoff, we’re a responsible bunch, and we know that a hoppy 8 percenter isn’t always the answer. You might be driving, you might want to be able to drink a few beers without getting shitfaced, it might be the afternoon and you need to stay awake past 8pm, or you might have failed to commit to dry January so are opting for an ever-so-slightly moist month rather than a sodden one.
Whatever the reason, if you’re hankering for the refreshing deliciousness of a lovely cold beer but don’t fancy the booze, that’s OK – the increasing number of low-alc, or mid-strength, as they’re sometimes euphemistically called, beers on the market shows you’re not alone.
But is there such thing as a low-alcohol beer that actually tastes good? We were keen to find out, so The Spinoff’s editor Toby Manhire and music editor Henry Oliver joined food editor Alice Neville for a blind tasting of nine beers, all of which had ABVs of under 3%. The tasting was chaired generously and expertly by our colleagues Leonie Hayden and Tina Tiller.
The three of us each gave the beers a rating out of 10, with the benchmark being our idea of a really good full-strength beer, which we then averaged out to produce the final scores. Here are the results, ranked from worst to best.*
*Caveat: This is not a definitive tasting of all low-alc beers on the market. The nine beers were chosen because we found them easily at stores in the vicinity of our office in central Auckland, and include both craft and mainstream options. We chose beers in the 2-3% range, and thus didn’t include 0% beers.
9) DB Export Citrus Lemon
2%, $12.79 for six from New World Victoria Park
This was not popular among the tasters. “I wouldn’t guess it was a beer,” said Henry Oliver. “Urrgh,” added Toby Manhire. “I don’t like this at all. It’s an RTD, not a beer.” Alice Neville thought it tasted like cordial and said it left a “weird coating” on her tongue.
8) Amstel Light
2.5%, $12.99 for six from Countdown Richmond Road
While nowhere near as unpleasant as DB Export Citrus, this one left us underwhelmed. Oliver, who thought the nose had hints of All Bran, said “it’s fine”. The other tasters were less complimentary, with Manhire calling it insipid and Neville equating it to “nothingness”.
7) Mac’s Mid Vicious Session Pale Ale
2.5%, $13.99 for six from New World Victoria Park
Our panel found this one a bit sweet and watered-down tasting. On the plus side, it caused Oliver to reminisce about his misspent youth at Auckland uni bar Shadows, where he reckons they watered down the beer. “At the cricket or at a music in the park-type deal, you wouldn’t feel ripped off with this one,” added Manhire. “It’s all right, it’s not disgusting,” was all Neville could muster. Mac’s reckons this beer “keeps its hoppy flavour blaring”, but our experience did not reflect that.
6=) Heineken Light and Garage Project Fugazi
Heineken Light: 2.5%, $11.99 for six from Richmond Road Liquor
Serial cereal referencer Oliver compared this one’s nose to Weetbix. “This fits into that watered-down category,” said Manhire. “At a sports event or at the park, it would happily pass the time. Inoffensive. Honest.” Hard-to-please Neville said it was “not unpleasant”.
Fugazi: 2%, $3.39 each from Countdown Richmond Road
Being Garage Project fan boys and girl, we were surprised this didn’t rate higher, and thought maybe it had something to do with the fact we tasted it directly after the eventual winner. We also felt bad we forgot to include in the line-up the 2.9% kettle-soured wheat beer White Mischief, which is delicious. Anyway. Fugazi is billed as a hoppy session ale, but we all found this one a bit too malty, with Manhire saying, “It feels like it’s had malt chucked in there to make up for something else.” Oliver thought the bitterness wasn’t well integrated, while Neville said it left an unpleasant taste at the back of her palate.
4) Boundary Road Thomas Edison Light Ale
2.5%, $10.99 for six from Countdown Richmond Road
This one had a bit of bitterness to it, which most of the other beers we tried lacked. Neville said it was crisp, well-balanced and “tastes like a beer”, and Oliver noted that it didn’t taste like it had flavours added to mask the lack of alcohol. It was also the cheapest of all the beers we tried. “There’s no shame in it,” added Manhire. “It’s a workaday week lager*.” [*Yes, allegedly it’s an ale, but didn’t taste like one to us.]
3) Kererū Shepherd’s Ale
2.5%, $22 for six, kererubrewing.co.nz
Upper Hut craft brewery Kererū describes the charmingly named Shepherd’s Ale as an amber red ale. Oliver detected burnt caramel, with Neville picking up roasty notes. “Tastes English,” said Neville, with Manhire describing it as “quite aley” but lacking punch.
2) Garage Project Shandy
2.4%, $3.49 each from Farro Fresh Grey Lynn
We rather enjoyed GP’s take on the classic beer-lemonade combo, but Oliver claimed he mixed a tastier one himself at home. Manhire thought it would be delightful served over ice with mint and a wedge of lemon, while Neville reckoned it smelled like dishwashing liquid, “but in a good way”. Fancy dishwashing liquid, maybe that eco-friendly stuff. We all wondered if perhaps including it in this field was unfair, as a shandy is not a beer – it’s a shandy. “It’s pleasant but it’s an expectations issue. If I wanted a low-alcohol drink I’d choose this one, but if I wanted a beer I wouldn’t,” said Oliver.
1) Croucher Lowrider IPA
2.5%, $18.99 for four from New World Victoria Park
The best of the bunch comes from Rotorua brewery Croucher, and out of the nine beers we tried, the Lowrider tasted the most like an actual beer. At $4.75 per beer, it was also by far the most expensive of the beers we tasted. Sure, it didn’t even reach 6/10, but remember our benchmark is a really good full-strength beer. And making good beer without the booze is bloody hard, to which this tasting attests. Neville praised the Lowrider’s deep golden hue, while Oliver said, “The more you drink, the more you feel like you could drink a lot of it. It could stand up to a sausage at a barbecue. It’s a food beer.” Manhire stated simply: “I like it.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.