Not Quite Alcohol-Free: A Mystery

The picture below is of a “beer” I drank at a friend’s house this past weekend.  It actually tasted pretty good; but why 0.5 percent alcohol, which surely added to the cost of production, but couldn’t, I think, have added to the taste? Including the minuscule amount of alcohol would certainly exclude teetotalers from consumption; and to get any kind of buzz a real beer drinker would need to drink at least several gallons.

My only explanations are: 1) Having a little bit of alcohol somehow deludes beer-lovers into thinking they are getting something approximating the real thing; or 2) Some tax deal made it cost-decreasing to include a bit of alcohol, although I can’t see how.  Any others?

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  1. Z. S. says:

    It has to do with the fermentation process. Low alcohol/no alcohol beers have a small amount of alcohol in them; there’s other flavors contributed by yeast so not fermenting the beer would make it taste different.

    Even root beer has a small amount of alcohol in it; I believe in the U.S. as long as it has less than 0.5% or so you don’t have to label it as alcoholic. It probably would cost more to remove that small fraction of alcohol from the product than to just leave it in and label it as 0.5% alcohol.

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    • James says:

      There are also people like me, who enjoy the taste of a good beer (or wine &c), but who don’t want to “get a buzz”.

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      • Brandon says:

        In terms of quality and taste, I’ve never heard of a non-alcoholic beer being considered in the same realm as alcoholic beverages.

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      • James says:

        I wouldn’t disagree, which is why my beer consumption runs about one bottle per week, if that. If there were good-tasting low-alcohol beers, I’d be drinking quite a bit more.

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      • Pseudonym says:

        But surely if you enjoy the taste of a GOOD beer, Sainsbury’s lager wouldn’t be your thing…

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    • Michael Abrahams says:

      Definitely right about the beer, but root beer is not alcoholic. Perhaps there are available some craft root beers that are made by fermentation, but A&W is soda with flavorings.

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      • Derek H says:

        No, Z.S. is correct. REAL root beer is made through fermentation (so is real ginger ale) and therefore has small amounts of alcohol in it. A&W “root beer” is indeed just soda with flavorings; while it’s tasty, it’s modern rendition of actual root beer.

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  2. Sanjay says:

    The question is perplexing to me; the thing is fermented and made to taste yeasty, and the yeast are going to make alcohol in the process of making something that tastes like beer. Presumably near beers have the alcohol _taken out_ not put in.

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    • Z.S. says:

      Probably not. You can use certain strains of yeast that die off at low alcohol or you can refrigerate the batches to force the yeast to go dormant. Or you can filter it. They probably do one of these things before packaging so the alcohol stops at 0.5%.

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      • Laura says:

        Sanjay’s right, there was an article about it in the New Scientist a few months ago. They make beer then take out the alcohol, and getting it all out is hard, so more expensive than leaving it in.

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  3. Kara says:

    “Small beer” has been around for centuries. When you read in history books of people drinking beer in the mornings and throughout the day (instead of potentially dangerous water from the rivers or lakes), something like this would be what they were drinking. As to why they’re bottled and sold now? I can only guess, but I suspect that you can sell small bear or “near bear” as I’ve heard it called to minors or in areas where there are still blue laws.

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    • Jim says:

      It depends on the time and place to which you are referring. Americans in the early nineteenth century drank an astonishing amount of alcohol, not just in the form of beer, which was very, very rarely what we would call low-alcohol, but also whiskey. One can understand the complaints of temperance advocates when one reads complaints not just of teachers of small children turning up to school drunk but of their children doing so too. In late medieval England, unhopped ale was the most common beverage, but once again, except for the lack of hoppy bitterness, it would have been much like the ales drunk today. Drunkenness, consequently, was quite a common contributing factor in the reports of coroner’s inquests, but without very much heavy machinery, I suppose we might consider it a little less dangerous than it would be today.

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  4. uthor says:

    I’m betting whatever process is used to make the beer results in alcohol being produced and it would be too costly to get it to 0%. The 0.5% is probably higher than what is actually in there, but they’re erring on the side of caution. Don’t want to say you’re alcohol free and find out there’s a tiny bit in there.

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  5. Rob says:

    You’ve got to brew it like beer if you want it to taste like beer. The brewing process inevitably creates alcohol so the alcohol is removed from low or non-alcoholic beer through heating it. Removing alcohol is an expense and affects quality. Since 0.5% is low enough for it to avoid being treated as an a alcoholic beverage in most states they stop there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_free_beer#Brewing_process

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  6. Derek says:

    I looked this up recently as a friend was drinking “near beer” and I was curious about how it was made. I think the key line in Wikipedia is this: “In 1919 Congress approved the Volstead Act, which limited the alcohol content of any beverage to less than 0.5%.” This has since become the standard for de-alcoholized beer. It is as far as they need to take the process for it to be salable as such, although there may be other reasons (as you note) such as taste or being classed as a beer. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De-alcoholized_beer)

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  7. Ben says:

    I believe it has to do with production.

    If it is made like similar beers in Germany, the beer brewed “normally” and the alcohol filtered out in a second step.

    Since it is almost impossible to remove all the alcohol a certain amount remains and is listed on the label.

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  8. Andy says:

    Safe to share with the kids, maybe?
    Or okay to serve to Muslim and Mormon guests?

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