June 22, 2009 | Favorites
What to Drink When You Don’t Drink Anymore: Tasting Non-alcoholic Brews
The lineup of alcohol-free beers we collected for our historic tasting. Photo: Steven Richter
One day the Road Food Warrior realized he had consumed more than his lifetime supply of booze and he determined to give up alcohol. It soon grew a tad lonely out there when everyone was drinking – even if all they were sipping was Sangria or plonk by the glass. And it was especially challenging when someone poured a great Cabernet or a legendary Burgundy of a vaunted vintage. That’s when non-alcoholic beer came into our lives. “Non-alcoholic malt beverage,” it usually says on the label. Calories vary from 58 to 92 but the amber liquid must always be less than .05 per cent alcohol – no more than what’s in orange juice.
Savvy restaurants almost always have it on hand. Not just for reformed boozehounds or teetotalers but pregnant women and dieters, as well. Or so you would think, but I am always amazed how many do not. I’ve heard some cruel and stupid comments since the Warrior began ordering non-alcoholic beer. “We like people who drink here.” “Italians drink wine.” Or, “Why would you want to drink that?”
Some restaurateurs think fruit drinks or virgin cocktails or soda pop should take care of non-drinkers. But mocktails are often simperingly sweet and don’t satisfy the craving for that faux hops flavor.
Alas, those who do stock it assume any brand will do and usually offer something domestic and tasteless. But not all imported beers are big league either. Steven had his favorites, but curious to know more, our renowned wino friend Josh Wesson, Senior Director of Best Cellar at A&P, proposed a tasting of as many non-alcoholic brews as we could assemble. Wesson, author of William Sonoma Wine & Food: A New Look of Flavor (Free Press) and co-author of the brilliant Red Wine With Fish provided running commentary. I offered pretzels and water to clear the palate.
The two men started with Busch in a can. “Smells like Rice Krispies treats,” Josh said. “No suggestion of malt. No suggestion of anything but rice.” He held out his glass of Old Milwaukee from the can to the light. “It looks like a bad urine test. Off-putting aroma. Tang. Not a good tang. Like a fraternity house bathroom during orientation. Makes Busch look good.”
Sharps by Miller provoked: “No nose at all, one degree of separation from water.”
Both men were impressed by the smell of Coor’s, “a Rocky Mountain tradition since 1873.”
“It has a little hoppiness,” Josh observed. “It tastes like a beer.” They deemed it hoppier, superior, to O’Douls regular, but “Promised little and delivered nothing,” was Josh’s sum up.
“I had one of these recently in a restaurant and it was much better,” Steven said.
“Maybe this one is old,” Josh offered.
Both men liked O’Douls Amber. “It looks like a beer,” Josh noted, tilting his glass. “They pushed in a little more malt.”
We expected great things from the imports, most of them German, but Einbecker (“oatmeal smell, sour”), Lammsbräu (“Instant Maypo”), and Warsteiner were all disappointments. Even the highly popular St. Pauli Girl (#1 in the U.S. the label claims), which Steven is always pleased to find, was listless or possibly off. Erdinger (“smells good, but too sweet”) and Paulaner Thomas Brau (“no edge, no bite, no drama, no emotion…no there there”) rated slightly higher. I seem to have forgotten to record Josh’s comments about Bitburger, an also-ran. He is never at a loss for words but I might have succumbed to the fumes. Sorry, I also failed to capture his prose on the highly rated Haake Beck (a Steven-preferred).
Clausthaler, always a favorite of the RFW, won Josh’s top score (“complex nose, nice dry, pleasantly bitter finish”). “I call that a beer,” he said. He gave Clausthaler Golden Amber points for looking like a real beer but nothing for flavor. Buckler was a close second. Steven’s top score went to Kaliber Ale by Guinness. “That’s a standout,” Josh agreed. “Best looking head, smooth, mellow, crisp, clean.” They agreed on the rest.
Kaliber - 4 (Josh) 5 (Steven)
Clausthaler Classic - 4
Haake Beck - 3
O’Doul’s Amber - 2.5
Buckler - 2.5
Bitburger - 1.5
Coor’s - 1.5
Paulener Thomas Brau - 1
Clausthaler Amber - 1
Erdinger - 1
Busch - 0
Old Milwaukee - 0
Sharp’s by Miller - 0
O’Doul’s - 0
Lammsbrãu - 0
Einbecker - 0
St. Pauli Girl - 0