Does alcohol really make a beer better?
It’s that time of year when loads of people that don’t normally drink alcohol-free beers experiment with them. It’s such a great time for the alcohol-free community both for awareness and availability. After all, the two biggest problems in non-alcoholic beer are awareness and availability, as I’ve posted about before.
One of the things that happens in Dry January is beer bloggers doing tastings and comparing them with full-strength beers. Some of these are great with a real appreciation of the difficulty of brewing beer without the booze. With others, though, you really question why they are bothering as they seem intent on seeing only negatives. I’ve often wondered if these reviews really are unbiased or there’s some inherent agenda behind them. My personal pet peeve is when mouthfeel is cited as a reason a non-alc beer is “awful”, with the author preferring to have tea or a soft drink, which of course has no mouthfeel either. Don’t get me wrong, I love the beers with better mouthfeel, such as COAST’s DDH, but it’s absence isn’t a reason, IMHO, to write a beer off. Assuming no conscious bias, are those poor reviews because the beer is inherently worse without the alcohol, or is its absence just noticeable, leading to lazy conclusions? Or are those people that post at the bottom of our adverts, “what’s the point in alcohol free beer?”, right?
Well there was only one way to find out. With so many bloggers “crossing the aisle” each year I’ve often wondered what it would be like to do the opposite. What if someone who hadn’t drunk alcohol for 2 years did an experiment to see what full-strength beers were like? Well........I did exactly that during December!
Before I share my findings I firstly wanted to assure anyone sober reading this that this isn’t me “falling off the wagon”. My relationship with alcohol isn’t such that I am “sober” I just hadn’t had a drink in a long while. Secondly, I didn’t really want to go “all-in” by going for the double-digit ABV Imperial Stouts. Instead, I largely stuck to beers at 3.0% and under, with a couple stronger than that. Given how few I would be tasting, I sought recommendations from friends and my local bottle shop so that I could get those that would fit my style. In the end the sourcing was much harder than the choosing as so few options existed and I even had to get those from 4 different suppliers, many of whom wouldn’t allow me to search by ABV.
I started off slowly, with a Cloudwater Pale Ale at 2.5% which was......disappointing. The aroma was great but the pour wasn’t good, with no head whatsoever. The taste was too much grapefruit - not my fave at all - and had too little hops for my liking. It also had little mouthfeel. Things got better with Northern Lights’ Whiplash which at the second time of asking was fantastically balanced with an absolute ton of dry hopping to balance out the juicy fruit. That said, it wasn’t until the second can of these (on a different night) that this came through; the first lacked the hops, perhaps underlining a little inconsistency that existed between batches. In the end my favourite was the Lulla from Beak Brewery, and although a little higher in ABV, was smooth enough to taste no more so than the others. I did have one at 5% ABV - Boxcar’s West Coast Pale - which was OK, but not great. The booze just overpowered it.
There are four main observations that I took out of the experiment:
- The choice in the 2%-3% range really is poor, in stark contrast to the 0-0.5% range. I could find no more than a dozen “micro beers” available compared to over 200 non-alcoholic equivalents. This was compounded by the lack of styles. Some were micro IPAs but many were labelled as “table beer” or “small beer”, really just defining it by its ABV rather than any more useful style. Given we have stouts, porters, sours, pales, IPAs, radlers, wheat beers and lagers at 0.5%, why is there so little choice or definition at 2-3%?
- I could REALLY taste the alcohol. After nearly two years without alcohol it hit me from the very first first sip. In fact i could feel the effect of one large sip of a <3% beer than when I’ve had 6 beers at 0.5%. I had little doubt that 0.5% and 0.0% were, in practice, the same but this really reinforced it.
- After drinking on maybe 18-20 of the nights during December, I was ready for a break by the end. I remember thinking about some personal challenges at the end of December and felt something that I hadn’t felt in nearly two years: anxiety. I was staggered by this. You won’t find me preaching about alcohol or cutting down in a direct sense - it’s a personal choice - but I was amazed at how little alcohol could affect my mindset in such a short period of time.
- Alcohol isn’t all that. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that in some cases the alcohol really spoiled the beer in some cases. It’s presence made it less enjoyable and although I enjoyed some of the beers, it was despite the alcohol, not because of it. It’s well recognised that it is a lot easier to brew a balanced beer with great mouthfeel when you don’t have to worry about ABV; after all, alcohol is a natural by-product of brewing. However, for my palate, it was exactly that: a by-product - something that was a necessary evil in achieving a nice beer. Except, of course, that I also know it is no longer necessary as some of the exceptional brewers in the alcohol-free space are proving. Maybe we ought to be saying “alcohol - what’s the point?”
I really enjoyed the experiment and I hope in time this area of the ABV spectrum will get more attention. Perhaps, therefore, product quality will improve. Until then I really believe that many alcohol-free beers are much better quality than their micro equivalents. Whether it is Big Drop Poolside; Mikkeller Weird Weather; COAST Sabro Galaxy; Lucky Saint; Nirvana Helles; or Vandestreek Playground, when judged as beers they are frankly just better than their slightly bigger brothers (or sisters!). Clearly Untappd ratings don’t agree - the average rating of the beers I tried was quite a bit higher than the average of the non-alcs I listed above. It is plain to see this is driven out of bias or familiarity reasons rather than judging the beer on its own merits.
Perhaps I’ll dare go up the ABVs next time and will come to a different conclusion, but for now I’m happy back in the alcohol-free world, doing Dry January, where there’s better choice and great quality beer to be had.
What do you think? Have a got it wrong? Does alcohol really make a drink better, or are we just conditioned to think that way?
If you’re interested, my top 5 were:
- Beak Brewery Lulla (3.5%)
- Northern Lights Whiplash DDH (2.8%)
- Garden Brewery Micro IPA (2.9%)
- Wiper & True Small Beer (2.7%)
- Northern Monk Striding Edge (2.8%)