Like many others, the coronavirus has given me a heightened awareness of my health and well-being. I’m regularly washing my hands, keeping a distance from others, and generally trying everything I can to remain in tiptop shape. So recently when I was in the beer aisle of my grocery store, I saw the oft-dismissed “non-alcoholic beer” and decided to give it a try. And I was left pleasantly surprised!
The first non-alcoholic beer, or NA beer as it’s commonly called, that I tried was Heineken 0.0. The beer was released in the U.S. last year to positive reviews and sort of marked an advancement in the niche segment because it came from a popular mass-market brand, not the old standbys like O’Douls or Clausthaler. Heineken 0.0 not only tastes very similar to regular Heineken as far as I’m concerned, people actually think it tastes better: Its BeerAdvocate score is 67 percent, as compared to 64 percent for the alcoholic variant. NA beer is usually lower in calories too – Heineken 0.0 has 69 calories (nice) versus 149 in a regular bottle.
Bad habits die old — For context, I’m one of those people for whom liquids of all kinds are a crutch. The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen once summarized it best when he said, “The perfect day is caffeine for ten hours, alcohol for four.” I've felt that way. The problem is that, for me at least, exercising restraint can be difficult and I find myself in this constant cycle of waking up in the morning feeling like absolute shit. I'll pound coffee in the morning to wake myself up, exacerbating my anxiety, and start drinking in the evening to pare it down. It’s self-reinforcing and makes the whole world feel dreary when you're constantly in a state of either headaches or coffee jitters.
To be sure, NA beer isn’t new and there have long been people predicting that its "moment" was just over the horizon. But with beer consumption on a gradual decline as people seek healthier options, and coronavirus only exacerbating that desire, it seems like now would be a good time for a boom. In fact, Budweiser just last month released its first NA beer, aptly called Budweiser Zero, in partnership with Dwayne Wade, presumably to market towards athletes who want to stay alert and still enjoy a cold one.
NA beer has historically held a bad reputation as a weak stand-in for real beer because it hasn’t had that real beer taste. Maybe that explains why a different category of "healthy" alcohol, hard seltzer, passed it by. But methods of dealcoholization have improved to the point that brewers can precisely extract the ethanol from beer without losing the aromas. The most common method brewers have used, and the one Heineken uses for 0.0, is fermenting the beer like normal and then evaporating off the ethanol. This tends to take some of the aromas with it, so brewers will add flavors back afterwards. Other methods vary – Brookyln Brewery makes its Special Effects beer by fermenting a lazy yeast and malt that natually creates a beer with an ABV of about 0.4. If you're into hoppy IPAs, it tastes just like one.
Mental hurdles — What's surprised me most is that I'm satisfied after drinking NA beer. I've always been one of those people who mocked sans drinks, like decaf coffee. But I guess I don't miss the sensation of intoxication as much as I expected I would. Even if you don't think NA beer tastes exactly the same, that's sort of academic – what really matters is that you like the taste, not that it tastes the same. There's something about finishing work for the day and opening that cold, yellow, fizzy drink that also tastes like bread that satisfies my craving. It's certainly better than the weak "hint" of flavor that White Claw gives you.
Getting over that fictional mental hurdle, of it not having alcohol inside, has helped me immensely. People have their different reasons for drinking NA beer, but for me it's helped me get a lot of mental clarity back. You spend so much time feeling a certain way because of the drinks you consume, you lose touch with how your mind behaves without them. I thought I needed it to lower my inhibitions at parties and be cooler, but without my mental clarity I just end up doing things I regret in the end.
Besides the aforementioned brands, other names like Brewdog and Athletic Brewing have entered the field with their own NA beers that are top-notch. The only downside is that many stores still don't have a great non-alcoholic beer selection, but it's getting better. Non and low-alcohol spirits are also a rising trend with brands like Seedlip and Haus creating apertifs that won't leave you messed up the next day. Even bars like Getaway in Brooklyn are serving up exclusively non-alcoholic cocktail menus.
NA alternatives are worth a try. You might be surprised by how little you feel a desire for "real" beer afterwards.