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.
Alcohol Free: Drinks containing less than 0.05% ABV or less.
Non-Alcoholic: Drinks without any alcohol at all.
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.
Just to add to the confusion though, Heineken actually print ‘alcohol free’ on the bottles while other brands using the term have alcohol up to 0.5% in the drinks. Further evidence that it’s up to the consumer to read the percentage to get the truth.
How much alcohol do you want to drink?
No alcohol, zip, zilch, none for 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. It’s a small amount, but if you want to draw a solid line through drinking alcohol, it might be best to avoid it.
Non-alcoholic drinks are the only ones that contain zero alcohol. 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 absolutely zero alcohol.
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.
A negligible amount of alcohol? That’s fine
With ‘alcohol free’ meaning anything below 0.05% ABV, lots of people (including me) are happy to drink at this level. The levels are lower than liquor chocolates by miles. You’d have to drink an frankly improbable amount of alcohol free beers to feel anything but unpleasantly gassy.
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.
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%.
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.
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