Non-alcoholic beer should be cheaper than full-strength beer, right?
That was exactly my sentiment when I first started drinking non-alcoholic beer. After all, that huge chunk of duty that we pay on full-strength beer is missing, so it must be cheaper. Well, as it turns out, not necessarily – especially if you want one that tastes nice – and there are a few things to consider.
Many non-alcoholic beers have additional processing costs. Just brewing a normal beer for a shorter period doesn’t work. It is possible but it lacks taste and body. Instead, there are broadly three ways of making a non-alcoholic beer:
1. Boiling the alcohol out. A full strength beer is brewed and then either through heat or pressure the alcohol is removed again. Unfortunately this also takes out the bubbles so another process is needed to put them back in. All in all a lot of extra processing costs.
2. Filtering the alcohol out. A special membrane is sometimes used to filter out the alcohol. The better the membrane, the less times the beer needs to be filtered through it, but the better the membrane, the more expensive it is. The CO2 also needs to be added back if this method is used.
3. Brewing it with different yeasts. It is possible to make a non-alcoholic beer without the additional processes above. However, special yeast is needed which ferments more slowly, allowing the beer to develop taste and body over a longer period, but without the alcohol exceeding 0.5%. Guess what, this is tricky and the different ingredients aren’t available in the same volumes that they are for the full-strength beer industry.
3. So whichever method is used, there are costs that just aren’t present in the brewing of standard-strength beers.
They are craft beers
As with regular strength beer, there are mass-produced non-alcoholic beers and they taste pretty disgusting. We’ve all had them and, personally, I believe they have set back the take-up of non-alcoholic beer in the UK several years. These varieties ARE cheap.
However, those non-alcoholic beers that taste really nice – 90% of participants in the Sobersauce pilot found one of these - take time and effort to produce, just like any other craft beer. It is unfair to compare them against the mass-produced beers, a good comparison is a full-strength craft beer vs a craft non-alcoholic beer.
So, there is definitely less duty on a full-strength beer than on a non-alcoholic version, but that might be less than you think. A 330ml bottle of 5% beer contains 31p of duty, but did you know that small breweries pay a lower rate? This is designed to encourage craft brewing and help make the little guys competitive against the bigger boys with their lower production costs. The relief means that any brewery that produce less than 5,000 hectolitres per year (880,000 pints) pays half the duty. So, a small craft brewery might pay less than 16p on that 5% beer. Remember that many of those amazing-tasting non-alcoholic beers out there are also produced by really small breweries, so the difference in duty on that 330ml bottle might only be 16p.
When you put together the additional production costs that non-alcoholic beers bear, there isn’t a lot of change out of the duty saved for the little guys. It is right to expect non-alcoholic beers to be a lot cheaper for the mass-produced variants out there, but next time you buy a fantastic, tasty, non-alcoholic craft beer, just remember your body and your health should receive a huge benefit, but your wallet might not. Besides, what other area in life can you get a huge health gain without paying any more?