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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiFebruary 23, 2024

The new wave of New Zealand’s non-alcoholic beers, ranked and reviewed

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

We pitted 15 new non-alc beers against the top three from our 2022 tasting, and the results will shock you.

This is The Spinoff’s third non-alcoholic beer ranking, and oh how times have changed. Back in early 2020, most of the beers we tried were imported – and most were truly awful. By 2022, there were a handful of New Zealand craft offerings in the mix and we reckoned they were all pretty good. Fast-forward to 2024 and pretty much every Aotearoa brewery worth its salt has a boozeless beer. Consequently, the bar has been raised and our standards have shot up, something evidenced below in our brutal assessment of beers that wowed us just a couple of years ago.

We included only beers that have been released since our last tasting, plus the best three from that tasting to see how they’d fare against the newbies. As we have done every time, we blind-tasted all 18 beers, meaning we had no idea what we were trying at what point. This produced some very surprising results, and some big names are conspicuous in their absence from the top 10 – notably, Garage Project Tiny and Sawmill’s Bare Beer, which took the two top spots last time. Needless to say we were not expecting this. 

So what happened? It’s possible, I suppose, that these beers have got worse, but it seems more likely a combination of our standards getting higher, the luck inherent in a random tasting order (it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for your 18th non-alc beer, though neither of the above high-profile omissions were that), and the subjective nature of these non-scientific tastings by a non-expert panel. So take them with a grain of salt, but rest assured we did retaste the beers that performed particularly poorly the next day, and stuck by our initial assessments.

The panel consisted of Spinoff editors and writers Mad Chapman, Alice Neville, Calum Henderson, Stewart Sowman-Lund, Toby Manhire and Shanti Mathias. All the below beers are <0.5% ABV. Each taster gave each beer a score out of 10 and we averaged them out to get the final scores.

Here they are, from worst to best. 

– Alice Neville

18. Urbanaut Little Rock Non-alcoholic IPA 

6 x 330ml cans, $19

Well this is awkward. Urbanaut’s brewery is practically next door to The Spinoff office and we usually love their beers. Little Rock was (esteemed beer writer and all-round good bloke) Michael Donaldson’s 2023 non-alc beer of the year. What the hell happened? Did we get a bad batch? The beers were hand-delivered fresh from the brewery on the day of the tasting and we kept them ice cold, so it seems unlikely. Are the tastebuds of all six tasters completely fucked? It’s possible, but again seems unlikely. Calum detected “quite heavy top notes of chlorine”, surmising that “something has gone wrong”. Toby said it tasted “like the bottom of a plastic bucket”, while Alice made a noise that has been transcribed in the tasting notes as “eck”. Sorry Urbanaut – we still love your beers with booze in.*

*Update, February 24: Urbanaut brewer Bruce Turner got in touch to say this: “Being a brewery with high expectations of quality and experience, we’re naturally concerned that we have a bad-tasting beer, so I’ve spent the day looking into it. We have been tasting cans from different times of the canning run (we have a filling time printed as part of the date code), most taste like the beer we expect and enjoy, but found one in 20 that we’ve tasted that exhibits what your team described. So we’re isolating stock from a section of the canning run.”

17. Sawmill Hazy Bare Beer

6 x 330ml cans, $18

Another shock result from a usually beloved brewery. The bitterness was the problem for us – like the Urbanaut above, it was a chemical bitterness that tasted like something that just wasn’t meant to be drunk. Alice described this as “unpleasant… something’s off”. “Nope,” said Toby, “that tastes like it’s trying to simulate the furniture in a Munich beer hall.” “All this time I’ve been craving bitterness and now I’ve got it I don’t like it,” cried Calum, who dubbed this style “carpetbier” because it tasted like “trying to suck up a beer you’ve spilled on the carpet”.

16. Garage Project Tiny XPA

6 x 330ml cans, $19

Our minds were blown once again to discover we’d given the beloved Garage Project such a low ranking. For Calum this was another carpetbier, “but at least the carpet’s been cleaned recently”. Shanti noted a “synthetic vibe”, saying it was “like drinking out of something that used to contain multipurpose kitchen spray”, while Alice thought it was “kinda slimy”.

15. Garage Project Tiny Hazy IPA

6 x 330ml cans, $19

In our last tasting this beer took the top spot, with our panel proclaiming that the dream of a nice 0% beer had finally been realised. This time, however, more than one member of the panel thought it had the aroma of stale urine. “Tastewise there’s not a lot happening,” said Calum. “You really have to strain to detect any trace of hop.” “Kinda tastes like how your tent smells after living it for three days,” said Shanti. Despite it being freshly poured, several tasters commented on the flatness.

The top three of 2022’s tasting: didn’t fare so well this time

13= Mac’s Freeride Alcohol-Free Pale Ale

6 x 330ml bottles, $18

Mac’s entry into the non-alc space was a slightly funky tasting number, with opinion divided on whether that was a good or bad thing. Alice noted “a pleasant effervescence but an unpleasant tang” while Shanti thought it was “savoury, kind of salty, almost a bit fishy … not necessarily in a bad way.” Calum described the flavour profile as a “kombucha-y mishmash” while Toby thought it might perform well in a beer batter.

13= Sawmill Bare Beer No Alcohol Pale Ale

6 x 330ml bottles, $18

Sawmill’s flagship non-alc beer received unanimously high praise when it placed second back in 2022, but this time the panel was less enthused. Alice described it as “not particularly nice” while while Stewart likened it to being at a party and accidentally drinking a beer that had been sitting open all night. Toby, who considers himself a fan of Bare Beer, said “I don’t like it”, before having a change of heart and deciding “oh, it’s all right”.

12. State of Play Sunbreaker Pale Ale

6 x 330ml cans, $20

Proving that our taste buds do actually work, every member of the panel accurately detected that State of Play’s Sunbreaker is infused with ginger (also honey and lime). “Is that a ginger beer?” asked Stewart? “Smells like a hard ginger ale”, said Mad. “It’s definitely got ginger,” agreed Shanti. Toby was reminded of a “Carling lager top”, something he used to drink in his carefree youth. Calum thought it was “nearly yummy but doesn’t quite get there for me”, patronisingly encouraging the brewers to “keep trying”.

11. Parrotdog Watchdog Non-Alc IPA

6 x 330ml cans, $20

Michael Donaldson’s second-favourite local non-alc beer received a middling reception from our panel, who had neither especially bad nor especially good things to say about it. Calum detected “a bit of wet dog over the top” but praised the “nice maltiness hiding underneath”. Toby and Stewart both said “it’s all right”, with the latter adding that it “tasted like what I expect a 0%er to taste like”, while Alice thought it was “quite pleasant after the last one” (see number 17).

10. Bach All Day Non-Alcoholic IPA 

6 x 330ml cans, $19

This came third in our 2022 tasting and has held up pretty well, dropping by less than a point in its overall score this year. We weren’t hugely enthusiastic about it, uttering descriptors like “inoffensive”, “forgettable”, “fine” and “generic crafty”, but sometimes that’s all you need in life. 

8= State of Play IPA

6 x 330ml cans, $20 

State of Play, a dedicated non-alc brewery, launched relatively soon after our last tasting in 2022, and at the time we mused about how it would’ve fared in that lineup. Pretty well, probably, but in 2024 its OG IPA only just squeaked into the top 10. Mad thought it tasted “a little bit home brewy”, while Stewart said he didn’t hate it, and Toby pointed out that despite it not setting his world on fire, this beer was “still light years ahead of what you’d have got [from a non-alc beer] a few years ago”.

8= Steinlager Alcohol Free 

12 x 330ml bottles, $22

Not to be confused with Steinlager Zero, which came fourth in our 2022 tasting and contains not even the tiniest jot of alcohol, Steinlager Alcohol Free is a new Steiny offering that does have a wee bit of alcohol in it (0.5%, to be precise, which is the point to which a drink can be labelled non-alcoholic or similar). “The nose on this is transporting me back to 1989 and Rheineck,” said Toby, before snapping out of his nostalgic reverie to describe the taste as “a bit gutless” and “underwhelming lager”. The rest of us more or less agreed. Can’t argue with the price though. 

6= State of Play Nectaron Unfiltered Pale Ale 

6 x 330ml cans, $20

Our favourite of State of Play’s three beers, this one stars a nifty new hop called Nectaron (which, incidentally, Alice wrote about harvesting back in 2020 when it was a trial hop going by the name of Hort 4337). Not that we knew that when we tasted it, though Alice did pick up “a touch of citrus” and Stewart noted “a bit of bitterness after the rush of fruit that makes it feel a bit more complex”. Toby found it “very drinkable”, while Calum reckoned it was “fine but a bit thin, almost like a beer-flavoured La Croix”.

6= Waitoa Brightside 0% Hazy 

6 x 330ml cans, $24 

Not to be confused with the chicken company, Waitoa is a brewery in the Wellington suburb of Hataitai that’s been quietly making a name for itself in a very crowded scene in the past few years, principally with its booze-containing beers. The non-alc option is decent too, though pricey. While Calum detected “creaming soda and a faint whiff of jizz on the nose”, things got better from there – “peppery (in a good way) in the mouth”, he reckoned. Mad got a “nutty” flavour profile, which is not such a good thing when you’re allergic to nuts. She still rated it relatively highly despite the fact it “tasted like an allergic reaction”. Alice thought it was “pleasant enough”.

5. Emerson’s Little Bird Alcohol Free IPA 

6 x 330ml cans, $20

Toby enjoyed this, confidently declaring that he thought it was Garage Project’s Tiny XPA, of which he’s a fan (when he was actually drinking the Tiny XPA he said “not for me” and tipped it out). The Little Bird was fairly popular among the panel, although several tasters lamented how quickly the flavour disappeared on the palate. Calum and Alice disagreed about malt, with Alice finding the beer’s malty undertones “a little unpleasant” and Calum hailing them as “sophisticated” and “the point of difference”.

4. Bach Brewing All Day Hazy IPA

6 x 330ml cans, $20

After the roaring success of Garage Project’s Tiny, non-alc hazies suddenly started popping up everywhere, with Bach being one of the earlier examples. Quite successfully, too, as this beer was unanimously liked by the tasters. An effervescent number, Alice said its “pleasing fizz” gave it a “bit of pep”, and Shanti said she could imagine drinking it as a marathon recovery drink. While Stewart thought it was more full-bodied than some of the others we tried, Toby dismissed it as “juicy with not a lot backing it up”. 

Our top five non-alc beers of 2024 (Image: Tina Tiller)

3. Good George Virtual Reality Non-Alcoholic Hazy IPA 

6 x 330ml cans, $20

“You could fool me with this one,” said Calum upon tasting the Good George, and Toby agreed he could be convinced this was a sessionable 4%er, comparing it to the “pretty legal soundtrack to the National ad”. Shanti said it reminded her of a grapefruit Fruju, which may or may not be something to do with the fact she’d just gleefully consumed one.

2. Speight’s Summit Alcohol Free

12 x 330ml bottles, $22

“If that’s not Speight’s I’ll eat my hat,” said Calum as soon as he tried this, showing off his previously displayed Speight’s detection abilities. He was transported “straight to a pub with a carpet”, while Toby was taken even more specifically to “the garden bar of the Captain Cook”. Several tasters described this as “drinkable”, “really drinkable” and “perfectly drinkable”, with conditions like “ice cold” and “after a hard day’s labour” thrown in for good measure. “I’ve had worse 4% lagers,” said Toby, with Calum adding that “unlike most non-alc beers, it’s no worse and maybe even better than the real thing.”

1. Behemoth Responsibly Non-Alcoholic Hazy

6 x 330ml cans, $22

The Behemoth impressed all tasters (except, perhaps, for Calum, who thought it “skewed a bit juicy” for his tastes). Its “touch of bitterness” and depth pleased Alice, while Mad praised a “nice full flavour”. “It’s a proper drink,” said Stewart, incorrectly guessing he was drinking the Parrotdog, while Shanti said she’d be happy to drink several of these. “Sometimes [non-alcoholic beers] taste a bit one-dimensional,” said Toby, “but this is more like 1.75-dimensional.” High praise indeed.

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