Tasting Notes

I drink too much. Far too much, you could say, and you’d be right. Some, though not me, try to counter this problem by making a New Year’s Resolution to stop drinking, or to at least cut down. But that’s difficult, when you’re dying for a pint after work, or fancy a cool beer on a hot day. So what do you do? Perrier? Kaliber? Oh fuck it, you say, let’s just have a beer. Just the one. And then…

One of my big problems is that I really love the taste of beer, which is why the aforementioned Kaliber is out of the question. As a kid I was always baffled when my mates moaned about the taste of beer, saying it was disgusting but, if you wanted to get drunk in those pre-alcopop days, you just had to get it down you. Were that mad? Beer’s lovely, I thought. From sipping my dad’s home-brew stout while watching the Five Nations Rugby Union, to passing around a sneaky Roughneck flask filled with the contents of one of those diddy cans of Heineken one school lunch time (which, amazingly now, I remember as tasting impossibly bitter), I’ve been hooked on beer; but more on the taste than on the variable effect. So, finding a drinkable low- or non-alcohol version of the fine beverage was always going to be tricky.

But not impossible, as I found out during the course of last year, and one of my many concerted efforts to cut down on the booze. So if you’re struggling with your New Year’s abstinence and certain that trying a Kaliber will almost certainly turn you to drink, here are my top choices for low-alcohol drinking; drawn, in fairness, from a not very wide sample.

  • Bohemia: 0.0% abv. This is the one that started it all off, a chance purchase that I was delighted to discover was not only not disgusting but was in fact actually quite pleasant. The first thing I noticed was that it doesn’t smell nasty, with that vulcanised rubber scent I had found with other alcohol-free brews. Instead it has a lighter, almost floral smell, and the taste itself I can best describe as exhibiting a subtle “lager flavour”, with a slightly bitter malt finish. Unlike most alcohol-free beers that pride themselves on being made in the normal manner but with the alcohol (and flavour!) removed at the last minute, Bohemia is brewed so that no alcohol is produced in the first place. The result, I guess, is more a beer-flavoured soft drink, which rather than trying and failing to taste like a real beer instead gives you something that is reminiscent of beer, rather in the way that cherryade is reminiscent of cherries without quite tasting like a cherry. But that’s fine by me as it’s still nicer than some regular lagers; Robinson’s Einhorn, I’m looking at you. Bohemia is especially good on a sweltering day when you could murder a cold one, or with a spicy curry or a chilli where it successfully fools me into thinking I’m having a real beer (until I finish the curry, that is, when the illusion is shattered and I tend to bail out). Bohemia is widely available in most supermarkets – Morrisons, Sainsbury and Tesco certainly stock it – and you can buy it in 33cl bottles and cans.
  • Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei: 0.5% abv. Bohemia is great if you fancy a swift half, but what should you do if you’d like a longer drink, perhaps a few beers while watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu? Well, I’d rather go to the pub myself, but if for some unfathomable reason you actually like watching Top Gear on Dave Ja Vu and want to accompany it with a few alcohol-free beers, what then? Well the clue is that I’ve started this paragraph with the words “Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei”, as that is the beer I would suggest. It comes in a decent-sized 50cl bottle, and for the benefit of non-German speakers is an alcohol-free wheat beer. First impressions aren’t encouraging; opening the bottles reveals that familiar Kaliber-like smell, and when poured into a glass it froths up unnaturally in a manner unlike any normal beer. An inauspicious start, then; but once it has settled down it looks much better, being reassuringly cloudy, and the taste, I reckon, could easily be mistaken for that of a real beer, a nice premium larger. You get a hit of sharpness at first, initial grapefruity-citrus notes, which then gradually give way to a smooth, mellow, and genuine wheat-beery finish. Very pleasant to drink at anytime, and it is certainly one I can enjoy a few bottles of in its own right, rather than something I’d take as a grudging alternative to the real thing (unless I want to get shit-faced, of course). Just when you think it can’t get any better you find that it’s even brewed in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, contains a mere 125 calories a bottle, is isotonic, apparently, and is rich in unspecified vitamins. What more do you want (except alcohol)? Erdinger is available from Tesco and The Alcohol Free Shop, and this entry would have a red “Best Buy” star on it, if I could be bothered.
  • Bernard Free Amber Beer: 0.5 abv. But what if I don’t like lager, you ask? Well, then I’d say that you need to pay better attention because I’ve already told you; then I’ll take a deep breath and again refer you to the words in bold at the start of this paragraph, because Bernard Free may be just what you need. It smells and looks like the real deal straight off, like a genuine dark Czech beer, which is pretty much what it tastes like; it has a delicious mildly-bitter nutty taste, a slight hint of burnt treacle, and just a lurking of liquorice. Very nice indeed. So nice that just as you’re thinking you’ve found the perfect alcohol-free winter ale the taste suddenly fades away to a watery nothingness and you realise it doesn’t have much depth to it; the answer is to take another swig, I guess. This wateriness may be the reason why I found that a bottle at the back of my fridge had actually frozen solid, so I tend to leave it in a cool corner of my kitchen instead. Still, the flavour is very nice while it lasts, and is an interesting alternative to the above lagers. You can buy it in 50cl bottles from Tesco; it actually won an award in the 2009 Tesco drink awards so I suspect it may be exclusive to them, but you may find it elsewhere. I haven’t, though.

So, they’re my three favourites so far, but it is just my opinion, and you may well disagree. I know people who like Beck’s Blue, for instance, and while it does taste impressively authentic it is just a bit unremittingly hoppy for my tastes. Others rate Cobra 0.0%, but I personally file it alongside Bitburger in the Kaliber bin with all those other unreconstructed alcohol-free beers. I’ve also had a couple of bottles of Holsten in the pub when the designated driver, and they seemed okay; but in truth I’ve had too few to give an opinion.

My main reasoning in writing this post was to a) fill up some space on this almost-forgotten blog, and b) tell people who’ve never looked at alcohol-free beer for years – not since they feel Lawrie McMenemy betrayed them over Barbican – that this stuff may deserve a second look. And there is much more to explore than those mentioned here as The Alcohol Free Shop website makes clear, with many more varieties of beers and a huge selection of wines also. And I for one feel far more virtuous tipping a load of Bohemia empties in the recycling; even if, to the casual observer, it still probably makes me look like a piss-head.

So, what will you be drinking tonight? Fancy a wheat-beer? Interesting. But will it be a brain-rotting, sclerosis-inducing Hoegaarden, or an alcohol-free, low-calorie, not to mention vitamin-rich Erdinger? Well, speak for yourself, but as I’ve a tense football match to get through I’m going to hunker down with a crate of full-fat Stella. Don’t look at me like that. I’ll be good tomorrow.