There was a time, not so long ago, when abstaining meant settling for a glass of lime cordial topped up with soda, an orange juice drink, or that one bottle of non-alcoholic lager that tasted like malt mashed up in water. The scene looks very different today, though, especially when it comes to the sheer range of alcohol-free beers now available to purchase.
Cormac Wall, a beer expert for HonestBrew, says customer demand has driven brewers to experiment and innovate for a new generation of alcohol-free and low-alcohol sippers. “The days of a solitary and slightly feeble 0 per cent lager in the fridge are thankfully behind us,” he says. “Brewers have actively embraced the style and challenges of brewing low and no-alcohol beers.
“New techniques like reverse osmosis filter out the alcohol at cold temperatures, unlike the boiling process of the past. This preserves the punchy flavour of things like hoppy pale ales and gives a more satisfying experience.”
Alcohol-free beer is usually classed as containing less than 0.5 per cent of alcohol by volume, though those with more than 0.05 per cent are usually required to display the ABV on the bottle. Some are brewed in the typical way and then de-alcoholised: where the alcohol is removed from the finished product by heating or filtering. Another method is to inhibit fermentation so only traces of alcohol form during the brewing process.
How we tested
We tested a range of different styles to suit different palates, with each containing no more than 0.5 per cent alcohol, and landed on the 11 that best represent how far the market has come.
The best alcohol-free beers for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Athletic Brewing upside dawn alcohol-free golden, 6 x 355ml: £10.99, Athleticbrewing.com
- Best for light, fruity notes – West Berkshire Brewery solo alcohol-free peach pale,12 x 330ml: £20, Wbbrew.com
- Best for balanced bitterness – Big Drop Brewing pine trail pale ale, 12 x 330ml: £20, Bigdropbrew.com
- Best for complexity – Riedenburger dolden null non-alcoholic IPA, 1 x 330ml: £2.20, Vintageroots.com
- Best for lager lovers – Lucky Saint unfiltered alcohol-free lager, 1 x 330ml: £1.80, Sainsburys.co.uk
- Best for pale ale fans – Drynks Unlimited smashed pale ale, 4 x 330ml: £5, Sainsburys.co.uk
- Best for something different – Drop Bear Brewing yuzu pale ale, 3 x 330ml: £8.10, Discoverdelicious.wales
- Best for blonde ale notes – Adnams ghost ship citrus pale, 8 x 500ml: £12.99, Adnams.co.uk
- Best for fooling your tastebuds – Stella Artois alcohol-free lager, 4 x 330ml: £3.50, Sainsburys.co.uk
- Best for beer snobs – Rothaus tannenzapfle alcohol-free pilsner, 1 x 330ml: £1.99, Honestbrew.co.uk
- Best for daytime drinking – Jump Ship yardarm lager, 6 x 330ml: £12.99, Jumpship.beer
Athletic Brewing upside dawn alcohol-free golden, 6 x 355ml
Athletic, founded in Connecticut, was the first US brewery to focus purely on alcohol-free beer, and their dedication to the craft shows. They use a range of processes to filter out the alcohol without removing the flavours. This golden ale (they also produce a convincing IPA) is a real head-scratcher. It’s just so convincing that we had to keep checking the label.
This organic, vegan ale pours a pale, lemony gold colour and is as refreshing on the palate as its looks suggest, with a subtle nuttiness, like pistachio, and a hint of honey adding body. It is ever-so-slightly watery on the finish but not in an unpleasant way. In fact, those who sometimes find beer a little too heavy or lingering should adore this. Soft bubbles and white floral notes lift it further, with all the flavours mingling together in a delicate dance to create a very refreshing, satisfying sipper.
West Berkshire Brewery solo alcohol-free peach pale, 12 x 330ml
Best: For light, fruity notes
Fruit-infused or flavoured beers can, at times, be overly sweet and you might expect that to be even more so the case with an alcohol-free beer. This peach-kissed pale ale–style beer isn’t that at all. In fact, the very sweet-toothed might be disappointed by the subtlety of the fruit notes. This is a light, crisp, wonderfully refreshing beer with just a whisper of peach (it’s stronger on the nose), balanced by bright, slightly grassy citrus notes.
The fruit notes are discernible without being cloying or overpowering: it’s really a subtle hint of fruit and a teensy touch of honeyed sweetness. The peach helps to balance out any wateriness, too, by giving a little hit of flavour to round it off. Fine yet brisk bubbles add to the refreshment.
Big Drop Brewing pine trail pale ale, 12 x 330ml
Best: For balanced bitterness
Big Drop, based in Ipswich, is another dedicated alcohol-free specialist, with a range of convincing beers from light lager styles to milk stouts. They’re all excellent, though this pale ale was our favourite because it pulls off that fine balance of refreshment and complexity.
Made with three varieties of hops, the ale has a tea-like quality, like it’s infused with a blend of Earl Grey and lapsang souchong: a hint of bitter pine gives way to a subtle smokiness, softened by honeysuckle, given bite with crunchy citrus notes and finishing with those grassy, bitter pine needles again. It’s crisp, brisk and bright, with the sharp green flavours beautifully balanced by slightly sweet floral notes.
Riedenburger Brauhaus dolden null non-alcoholic IPA, 1 x 330ml
Best: For complexity
This organic German beer, from an 1866-founded brewery in the Pfalz region, has a hazy, golden appearance and a decent, frothy head (compared to many alcohol-free beers). It didn’t taste like a typical IPA to us, though that hardly matters because this is an excellent example of how sophisticated booze-free beers have become.
It’s smooth, with fine, mousse-y bubbles, and packed with well-rounded flavours that range from buttered toast to hazelnut via coriander, grapefruit, peanut brittle and pistachio. The only hint there’s no alcohol is in the crispness of the finish; it’s more refreshing and less lingering on the palate than many regular beers. Otherwise, it’s a very convincing doppelgänger.
Lucky Saint unfiltered alcohol-free lager, 1 x 330ml
Best: For lager lovers
We sampled a few lager-style beers and this was the best by far. It’s pale amber with fine, smooth bubbles and a honeysuckle aroma on the nose giving way to apricots simmered in honey syrup. The flavours are similar, yet a little more subtle, on drinking. We detected a hint of soft honey sweetness and stone fruits, with just a whisper of grassiness from the hops.
It’s actually quite tough to discern this Bavarian brew from a “regular” lager, albeit it’s perhaps a little lighter in texture, which we actually saw as a plus. Only the nicest notes linger, with not a hint of gassiness or heartburn. Just a clean, crisp finish. Lovely.
Drynks Unlimited smashed pale ale, 4 x 330ml
Best: For pale ale fans
One of the more widely available alcohol-free beers (among a range that also includes lager and ciders) and among the few served in pubs and restaurants, this pale ale mimics the flavour notes and body of the style. With a deep amber hue and a satisfyingly frothy head, on sipping it’s light and refreshing but with prominent flavours that make it anything but wishy-washy.
The first flavour to hit the palate is pineapple, followed by toast and a smoky sweetness and finishing off with a lingering hint of honeyed peaches. There’s also a touch of passionfruit, thanks to the American hops used to finish the beer, and a drop of caramel. A refreshing beer that’s perfect for summer, yet robust enough for chillier months.
Drop Bear yuzu pale ale, 3 x 330ml
Best: For something different
Ginger marmalade was the first thing that came to mind when we zipped this palate-awakening pale ale. Slathered on toast, perhaps with a bite of kumquat on the side. It seems, for a brief moment after the first sip of this pale-hued ale, like it might be pretty sweet, like sherbet and pear drops. But it mellows out quite quickly thanks to savoury and herbal notes.
There’s lemon balm, orange peel, a touch of ginger heat and the inimitable flavour of the yuzu it’s infused with and named for: a citrus fruit, believed to originate in China, that’s like orange, grapefruit and lemon rolled into one yet, at the same time, completely different to all three.
Swansea-based Drop Bear makes a few decent alcohol-free beers, including a new world lager that would please IPA fans with grassy, green walnut notes and a chartreuse hue. They’re all vegan, gluten-free and with zero alcohol, too.
Adnams ghost ship citrus pale, 8 x 500ml
Best: For blonde ale notes
A reduced-alcohol version of Adnams’ ghost ship ale, with no more than 0.5% alcohol, this citrus pale ale looks and tastes (to us) like the best blonde ales. It’s brewed, in the same way as its 4.5% ABV sibling, with three malts and a blend of hops, including craft-brewing favourite citra, which explains its complexity and full-bodied quality.
The nose is all grapefruit and peach, giving a hint of how refreshing and satisfying this is. On tasting, there’s also coriander, cloves and even a touch of mint, putting it in the realm of renowned craft beers from Belgium. We also picked up baking spice, smoky caramel and bitter coffee, brightened with lemon zest and a zing of peach. A fine fizz prevents it becoming too heavy and keeps it the right side of refreshing.
Stella Artois alcohol-free lager, 4 x 330ml
Best: For fooling your tastebuds
Anyone who likes the taste of regular Stella should applaud this: it really does hit the same notes, in our opinion. The lager, which is completely alcohol free, has that distinctive, sharp wheat taste, along with nutty and lemony notes. If anything, it’s a little more refreshing and clean tasting than the alcoholic version.
It has a nice, brisk fizz to it, too, avoiding that flat yet gassy texture you can get with some lagers. We appreciated the bright, refreshing flavour notes and a strong, toasty, caramel finish. And not a hint of wateriness.
Rothaus tannenzapfle alcohol-free pilsner, 1 x 330ml
Best: For beer snobs
Brewed in Germany’s Black Forest, this beer – which comes in a cheery, colourful bottle – is another excellent example of the sheer range and quality of alcohol-free beers on the market. It’s labelled as a pilsner, but we found it more complex than that, with yeasty, oh-so-subtly-sour notes similar to Belgian lambic and other wild-fermented ales.
It doesn’t assault the palate, though it isn’t one to sip completely absentmindedly, either. The full body and robust flavours probably won’t let you, anyway. With mild flavours of citrus, particularly white grapefruit, a slight smokiness and a touch of toast, it’s beautifully balanced and surprisingly dry on the finish. One for those who like to experiment with different styles of beer, while also being delicate enough to be a crowd-pleaser.
Jump Ship yardarm lager, 6 x 330ml
Best: For daytime drinking
Served ice-cold in a long glass, this is the sort of lager we could happily sip throughout the day, which makes it perfect for a barbecue or party. It’s a lovely pinkish-gold hue with a decent head, and is instantly refreshing on the palate. There are no heavy, cloying flavours. Just a slight shimmer of honey, apricot and peach, a touch of toasted wheat, a little nuttiness and a whisper of hops.
In a way it’s quite similar to a seltzer, with the aromas and flavours dancing just in the background but never really pushing themselves forward. Because of that, it isn’t so hearty and full-bodied as some of the others, although that will be a positive for many people. What it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in sheer refreshment and drinkability.
The verdict: Alcohol-free beers
It was a surprisingly tough choice, but Athletic Brewing’s upside dawn alcohol-free golden was the most impressive we tried. Its delicate floral notes, coupled with a mouth-filling body and roster of flavours that sneak up on you (in the nicest way), help it stand out in an ever-improving market.
All of our top 11 were wonderfully drinkable, though, and demonstrate that alcohol-free beer is no longer an afterthought. Breweries are clearly taking their “no and low” alcohol offerings very seriously indeed, and it shines through. Several were as good as – if not better than – many regular beers on the market, competing in complexity and character while also often being more refreshing and clean on the palate.
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