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So near beer, yet so far

Four TOC staffers try to find a quality non-alcoholic beer
By Scott Smith |

With less than one percent of the American market, “near beers” are unlikely to overtake the popularity of their alcohol-infused counterparts. But is that because of their inability to make the drinker–and everyone around them–better-looking or because they taste like something brewed in a dirty bathtub? Four TOC staffers decided to find out.

Sports editor and amateur brewer Tim McCormick, Books editor Jonathan Messinger, Comedy editor Steve Heisler and myself taste-tested three brands of non-alcoholic beer: Sharp’s, O’Doul’s Amber and Clausthaler, a German beer. All of us professed to have plenty of er…experience with beer but non-alcoholic beer was largely unexplored territory. Our field report is as follows:

Jonathan Messinger: So the way it’s made is they make a beer with alcohol in it, then take the alcohol out?
Tim McCormick: [Reading from an e-mail he received on the subject] “One method is vacuum distillation. Distillation drives off the alcohol but requires heating and then the beer no longer tastes like beer. Vacuum reduces the heat needed but some flavor changes usually result.” That was the old method. The most common method these days is arrested fermentation.
JM: So the alcohol never even gets into the beer.
TM: Right.
JM: That makes more sense. Stop the party before it happens.
Steve Heisler: Like the cops pre-emptively busting it.

Scott Smith: Which one should we try first?
TM: The Clausthaler is going to be the best.
SH: Because it’s got a fancy bottle.
SS: [Examining the Clausthaler bottle] This is the leading non-alcoholic brew in Europe.
TM: Which is like being the tallest kid in kindergarten.
SH: It’s less than .5 percent alcohol.
TM: Did you send a12-year-old to buy this for you?
SH: You actually do get carded because there is alcohol. [Editor’s note: Most non-alcoholic beers contain less than .5% alcohol by volume.]
SS: I didn’t, because I’m old.
SH: I think we should start with the Sharp’s.

Sharp’s Non-Alcoholic Beer from Miller ($4.69 per six-pack)
TM: [Holding up his paper cup] Are we really going to use these?
SS: I’m sure it’s really going to affect the taste.
JM: I’m predicting this is going to be the worst.
[Each takes a swig]
SH: It smells like the last beer of the keg.
SS: Like it’s been sitting around. And it hasn’t because I just bought this yesterday, and just opened it now.
SH: There’s a texture, but there’s not much to it.
TM: Yeah, yeah. There’s no after-taste.
SS: You know, I’m having trouble deciding if I’m tasting the paper cup or I’m tasting the beer.
SH: I’m going to go wash this out.
JM: You could actually wash your cup out with a Sharp’s and it would be the same thing.

O’Doul’s Amber from Anheuser-Busch ($4.69 per six-pack)
SS: This is guaranteed to be better because it says it’s flavorful [on the label].
[Drinking commences]
SH: That smells like…
JM: Oh that’s…bad.
SH: It kinda smells like…like…
JM: That tastes bad. The other one didn’t taste…this one tastes bad.
TM: [Drinks] Oh that is horrible. That is crap.
SS: What do you think is the worst part about this beer?
JM: I think it’s the Eau’de Vomit. That’s how they get the alcohol out of it. It’s from someone who got drunk and puked.
TM: I hate that it’s identified with the Irish.
SH: I feel like it’s trying to inject flavor, but it doesn’t really do the job.
SS: Is it the amber-ness of it, or the crappiness of it?
JM: I think you just said the same thing.

Clausthaler from Marke ($7.49 per six-pack)
[All three take a drink]
SH: Oh man, it smells like matzo and honey. I’m pumped. It’s like two Jewish holidays combined.
SS: Wow, you’re right, it’s got a total honey after-taste. That is kinda pleasant.
JM: It’s not half-bad. I think this is one that is hurt by the paper cup.
SS: It’s enjoyable but I feel weird for drinking it. Like watching Everybody Loves Raymond: I don’t feel good about what just happened, but it was kinda fun.
SH: This is the only beer that if I was going to a friend’s house–and for some reason he was only serving non-alcoholic beer–this is the only one that I would sit and drink.
TM: I wouldn’t consider that person a friend anymore.
SH: It would be the last party of his that I would attend.
SS: It says it’s brewed according to the German Purity Law of 1516…
JM: …which was “wash your hands.”

SS: Final thoughts?
TM: I can see why they make up less than one percent of the market.
SH: This one [Clausthaler] is the only one that was different enough from [alcoholic] beer that it would make me want to drink it. As opposed to these other ones that are just trying to be like beer and can’t.
SS: If you want to not get drunk, I can’t recommend this beer enough.
TM: Could we try a real beer now?

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