Is alcohol free beer really alcohol free? And is it different from non-alcoholic beer?
Thanks to government tax breaks on low alcohol beer, there’s been a surge in the availability of non-alcoholic beer. Thankfully, there’s also been a surge in quality. Steps taken in 2016 and 2017 meant that breweries were suddenly incentivised to start innovating low- and no-alcohol beers that don’t….well….taste like ass.
Tax breaks for low alcohol beer
Want to know why it’s so cheap to buy non-alcoholic beer in supermarkets? There’s no duty on alcoholic drinks below 1.2% ABV (that’s ‘alcohol by volume’ FYI). The government also brought in tax reductions for beers between 1.2% and 2.8% ABV back in 2011. Hence those low alcohol beers like Radler’s range that sprang up for a while.
The only problem back then was that those low alcohol beers felt a lot like a token gesture, with major breweries just producing one, usually horrifically sweet offering. So if you wanted a low alcohol beer then you were essentially forced to drink mildly alcoholic lemonade. It hardly encouraged us to make the switch from regular beer to the low alcohol beer that came with a picture of a lemon and the word ‘half-arsed’ on the side.
What’s the difference between Low Alcohol, Alcohol Free and Non Alcoholic?
With the increase in low alcohol beers and the quantity of alcohol allowed in a beer to be called ‘non-alcoholic’, it can be a little confusing to the soberist.
Amazingly, there is no hard and fast rules for describing levels of alcohol free beer in the UK. Some definitions conflict with European laws and while there are many calls for the situation to be clarified once and for all, it’s really up to the consumer to read the bottle.
In general (and this is not set in stone) though, this is what the definitions usually come down to:
Low Alcohol: Drinks containing between 0.5% and 1.2% ABV.
De-alcoholised: Drinks containing less than 0.5% ABV. Not enough for you to feel and similar or less than ripe fruit. This is mainly a British term and places like the USA and Europe consider this alcohol free.
Alcohol Free: Drinks containing less than 0.05% ABV or less. Mainly a British differentiation from 0.5%. There’s no way you could notice the trace amounts in either.
All drinks containing alcohol or that usually contain alcohol by their nature (i.e. beers) must have their ABV percentage printed on the individual bottle/can. Lots of breweries put the percentage in an obvious place for marketing purposes and it’s never hard to find. Heineken 0.0 for instance, uses its percentage as part of its name, so it’s printed right in the centre of the logo.
Confusingly though, and flagged by one of our readers, Heineken 0.0 could contain up to 0.05% alcohol. Again, this is a trace amount. They state, ‘Heineken 0.0 contains no more than 0,05% alcohol so as such it is a non-alcohol beer.’
It appears that because the definition of alcohol free in the UK is defined as 0.05% or below, they can use the branding ‘0.0’. Further evidence that it’s up to the consumer to read the percentage to get the truth if you want to avoid even the tiniest quantity of alcohol.
And the difference between ‘alcohol-free’ and ‘non-alcoholic’?
In the UK the level must be 0.05% or below to be called ‘alcohol free’- the government advise that the term ‘non-alcoholic’ should not be used on drinks that are commonly associated with an alcoholic drink. Instead, brands should opt for ‘alcohol-free’. Because ‘non-alcoholic’ is not to be used by British companies, the government don’t appear to have a law on what percentage alcohol it can contain.
Here’s what the government have to say on the matter:
‘Non-alcoholic – this should not be used in conjunction with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink. There is an exception for non-alcoholic wine where it is derived from unfermented grape juice and is intended exclusively for communion or sacramental use. The labelling or advertising of these non-alcoholic wine should make it clear that it is exclusively for such use.
Alcohol free – this should only be applied to a drink from which the alcohol has been extracted if it contains no more than 0.05% abv, and the products should also include the abv (or state that they contain no alcohol) on the label in order to use the descriptor.’
What about beers from abroad?
Beers from the EU are subject to their own country’s laws, so the term ‘non-alcoholic’ can still find its way onto bottles sold in the UK, if they’ve originated from a different country. In Germany, ‘non-alcoholic’ can be used on beers of 0.5% abv and can be sold with that labelling in the UK.
In other European countries the laws can be different again, with some not requiring alcohol percentages given on anything 1.2% or less. Confusing huh? There’s calls from the industry to simplify this but it just hasn’t happened yet.
If you’re unsure about a foreign beer, check the label for a %abv. In Italy, birra analcolica (non-alcoholic) can have up to 1.2%!
How much alcohol do you want to drink?
No alcohol that could affect me
If you’re completely tee-total or want to be, then always study the bottle carefully. It’s easy to pick up a four-pack of ‘Alcohol Free’ beer only to discover it actually contains 0.5% alcohol. What does this actually mean? Well, your body breaks it down faster than you can actually consume it. You wouldn’t feel it and ripe fruit can contain this amount!
Two of our favourites that are easily available is Heineken 0.0 and Estrella Galicia 0.0. Both of these are great tasting beers and contain under 0.05% (despite their labelling).
Heineken 0.0 can be found in a lot of pubs these days while Estrella Galicia 0.0 is more commonly found in hipster bars. Hopefully both will become more and more common.
With ‘alcohol free’ meaning anything below 0.05% ABV in the UK, lots of people (including me) are happy to drink at this level. The levels are lower than liquor chocolates by miles. It’s impossible to drink 0.05% beer and be affected.
While there’s technically alcohol in alcohol free beer, you’re exposed to more just by using your face wash every night. Incidentally, if you want to know how many liquor chocolates it takes to feel tipsy, here’s an amusing Vice article on getting drunk on alcoholic chocolates.
Another one of our favourite beers is from Infinite Sessions. It has less than 0.5% alcohol in it which means it doesn’t have any affect on you. You can buy it here (UK).
An example of a popular alcohol free beer is Becks Blue.
I just want to have a beer at lunch and not fall asleep
There are lots of great low alcohol beers on the market that usually contain below 1.2%. These are perfect if you fancy an alcoholic drink but don’t want to actually feel drunk. This type of beer was my first foray into cutting back on alcohol. While at the time they were mainly citrus flavours, the industry has boomed and there is now a huge range. Don’t get confused though, some shops promote low alcohol beers as anything under 2.8%.
However, low alcohol beers still very much contain alcohol and I choose not to drink anything with more alcohol than 0.5%. If it has less than 0.5%, it cannot have an effect on you just like a ripe banana doesn’t (which can contain more than 0.5% percent depending on ripeness).
Simplifying the terms
The government will hopefully define the terms soon and many organisations including Club Soda have called for clarification so that consumers understand what they’re drinking and pubs understand what they’re selling. But more news on that when it happens…
Want to read the book that really made me realise I needed to give up? It’s one of the best on the subject I’ve ever read. Check out Blackout: Remembering Things I Drank to Forget here.
Or if you want a little help or to see if going a month without alcohol is something you’d like to try, check out the 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge.
— This post contains some affiliate links. That means that when you buy through our links, we receive a small commission from that company. It doesn’t affect the price you pay and it doesn’t affect how we talk about or review drinks and other products. If a drink tastes like ass, we’ll tell you straight up —