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Alcohol-free beers: are they any good?

 

More and more breweries are launching beers with little or no alcohol. But would you want to drink them?

Here they are, in no particular order…so, take you pick!

We’ve noted their alcoholic strength – none of them top 0.5% – and how many calories they have. If you need more information on alcohol and calories, you can get it here.

Cobra Zero

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 78 (24 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

If you’ve ever had a curry, you’ve probably had a Cobra, and it’s all thanks to the British-Asian entrepreneurs Karan Bilimoria and Arjun Reddy. Recognising our fondness for washing down a lamb korma with a lager, in 1989 they founded the Cobra company in their south London flat. Their aim was to brew a beer that was less gassy than most lagers and less bitter than traditional ales, especially for drinking with Indian food.

In 2005, the original 4.8% ABV Cobra Premium was joined by Cobra Zero. Using a recipe created by the Bavaria Brewery in the Netherlands, it’s made with a special yeast that doesn’t create alcohol, rather than having the alcohol removed at the end. Like Bavaria’s alcohol-free offering, it can therefore claim to be 0.0% ABV.

Tastewise, we’d say that Cobra Zero has the same smooth flavour as the Premium beer and is equally low on gas. Surprisingly malty for a lager, it goes well with Indian food, of course; but shouldn’t be kept just for curries, as it makes a decent accompaniment to any dish, especially when well-chilled on a hot day. 

Look is often almost as important as taste, and the presentation of this beer is great, using a green glass version of the iconic Cobra bottle (elephants, crossed swords and all).

Cobra Zero also guarantees itself a diverse audience by being approved by the Vegetarian Society and certified kosher by the London Beth Din.

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Nanny State

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: TBC

Score: 4 out of 5

Nanny StateLaunched in 2009, and described by the brewers as “insanely bitter”, this cheekily-named ale had a re-launch in 2010, dropping from 1.1% to 0.5% alcohol.

 It’s not half as bitter as it was first time around, but it’s still one of the hoppiest brews you’ll ever taste – like an IPA that someone chucked some extra hops in, just in case it wasn’t quite hoppy enough. It also stands out by its colour – a ruby red that sets it apart from the lagers that dominate the alcohol-free market.

The bottle design mirrors the rest of the now iconic BrewDog range, and you have to love Aberdeenshire brewers James Watt and Martin Dickie (the people who brought us Britain’s strongest beer in 2008) for making a quality ale with next to no alcohol, and then for giving it a name like Nanny State, just to have a little pop at people like us. 

It’s best served chilled. And, like Cobra Zero, some say it goes well with a curry. Like all BrewDog beers, it’s suitable for vegetarians and vegans. It’s available in Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and pretty much everywhere that sells BrewDog beers – which is a lot of places these days!

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FitBeer

ABV: 0.3%

Calories per bottle: 66 (20 per 100ml)

Score: 3 out of 5

FitBeerOne of the most interesting developments in the alcohol-free market in recent years has been the idea that non-alcoholic beers might appeal to people who take their physical fitness seriously – as the name of this new brew suggests. If you just happen to one those people, you’ll find all sorts of helpful healthy info right here.

Fitbeer comes with a great marketing package that clearly places it in the health-conscious market. The brochure’s packed with beautiful people doing stretches, having beach barbecues and going on long country walks. And it’s presented in one of the hippest bottles around (funky font, stag’s head and the rest).

Launched in 2016 and brewed in London’s historic Isle of Dogs, this is a beer with a great  story to it. Brewers Joe and Becky Kean are big beer fans, but a family member’s alcohol problems showed them “some of the golden beverage’s less attractive sides”. After a research trip to Germany (where else?), they created Fitbeer, with the aim of dispelling the myth that “loss of taste is a necessary sacrifice for low alcohol content”.

How did they do? Fitbeer certainly avoids the taste pitfalls of some other alcohol-free beers. It tastes like beer, for starters, and it doesn’t have a nasty acrid aftertaste. Overall, the flavour suggests it’s aimed at people looking for something refreshing and not-too-sweet to slake a thirst. Our opinion? It’s pleasant, but not memorable – something most people would be happy to drink, but unlikely to illicit strong feelings. We give it a respectable 3 out of 5.

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Erdinger Alkoholfrei

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: 125 (25 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

Edringer

They’ve been brewing weissbier in Erding, Bavaria, since 1886, and claim that their beer “personifies Bavarian lifestyle and enjoyment”. Erdinger Alkoholfrei is a somewhat more recent development but has rapidly colonised much of the alcohol-free market. As well as being big in Germany, it’s sold in many UK supermarkets and has a foothold in the USA.

Like Fitbeer, it’s aimed at people with a passion for exercise. Since 2001, the brewers have marketed Erdinger Alkoholfrei as an “isotonic thirst-quencher”, and it’s endorsed by an impressive team of 26 high-achieving athletes. If you’re a little bit athletic yourself, you need look no further for plenty of info on how to stay on top of your game and enjoy your beer.

According to Erdinger, it’ll also give you 26% of your Vitamin B12.

So, is this one going to make your Oktoberfest list? We have to say that this is one of the best of the light alcohol-free beers. It’s lively and has a good head on it when poured, and has the smell and colour of a good weissbier. It’s one of the few zero per cent brews that could be mistaken for a mainstream alcoholic beer. It also lacks that unpleasant chemical after-taste that has blighted alcohol-free lagers for years. A well-deserved 4 out of 5.

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Sainsbury’s Low Alcohol Czech Lager

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: 87 (17 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

Sainsburys CzechThe mighty Staropramen brewery  on the banks of the Vltava in Prague, who brew this one for Sainsbury’s, has been turning out quality beers since 1896. It’s the sort of brewery we’d like to think we could rely on; and in this case they’ve not let us down.

This beer stands comparison with Erdinger, and like that German brew, this Czech lager could easily be mistaken for its more alcoholic cousins. It looks and smells like a lager. Like the Cobra Zero, it’s low on gas, and won’t leave you bloated after a couple of bottles. It’s certainly more palatable than many mainstream bottled and canned alcoholic lagers, and is more like the craft lagers that have entered the drinks market in the last decade.

The bottle design leaves a bit to be desired. It looks like a cheap supermarket beer, and a label revamp might help re-position it towards the top end of the market, where it should sit. Another 4 out of 5. 

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Marks & Spencer Low Alcohol Czech Lager

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: TBC

Score: 2 out of 5

AgfaPhotoLike the Sainsbury’s Low Alcohol Czech Lager, this M&S brew was created at the Staropramen brewery  in Prague. Sadly, although the smart bottle design mirrors the Staropramen red, green and gold colour-scheme, that’s where the similarity ends.

It avoids the chemical aftertaste of some alcohol-free beers, but doesn’t stand out in other respects. Although it’s from the same stable as the Sainsbury’s lager, it’s strangely thinner, and its flavour doesn’t last in the mouth. We would have hoped for more from the brewers who urge us to “taste the pleasure from Prague”. 

Staropramen’s own-brand non-alcoholic beer has won awards in the Czech Republic. We can only wonder if this is the same beer.

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St Peter’s Without

ABV: 0%

Calories per bottle: 88 (27 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

St PetersThis was the surprise new beer of 2016. Although purists may quibble, it could be called the first “alcohol-free real ale”. It certainly sits in the ale rather than the lager category, and is aimed at drinkers who like to take their time over a drink. The main marketing image, of three young fellas enjoying their pints in front of a roaring fire in a welcoming country pub, conjures up all the right feelings for a good dark ale.

Like FitBeer, St Peter’s Without is a beer with a story. It has its origins back in 2013, when brewery owner John Murphy was diagnosed with cancer, and took his doctor’s advice to abstain from alcohol. The result was a drive to create an alcohol-free beer for people who really like beer. Did he succeed? Yes and no, but mostly yes.

The presentation is excellent – in the same distinctive dark green oval bottle as other St Peter’s beers, a replica of a design last used in an 18th century Pennsylvania pub. It’s not often we’d call a beer bottle “beautiful” but this one is, and having an alcohol-free beer this well-turned-out is a nice change.  

As for the beer itself, it knocks most 0.5% beers out of the ring and it’s better than most of the big brand 3.5% or 4% bitters you’ll find in cans or on tap. It’s got a lovely nutty colour and pours well with a good head on it, and it’s got a great malty flavour. The problem is perhaps the high standards we’ve come to expect from ales these days, with more and more varieties and flavours crowding the market. St Peter’s Without lacks the complexity of a really good ale, but perhaps that is a lot to ask on this first outing. 

It’s one of the few (if not the only) alcohol-free beer available on tap, although at the moment you’ll have to go to the Jerusalem Tavern in London to try it. Since March 2017, it’s also been available in Tesco, which might be a bit more convenient for you.

And in case you’re wondering about the name, it’s a reference to the Medieval term for a church outside a city’s walls, or “without the walls” (so now you know).

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Bavaria 0.0%

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 79 (24 per 100ml)

Score: 3 out of 5

Bavaria 0.0%The first thing to say about Bavaria beer is that it’s not from Bavaria. It seems that the Swinkels family, who’ve been brewing in the Netherlands since 1719 took their inspiration, and the name of their beer, from the master brewers of southern Germany. You may also remember the Bavaria brewery as the people who staged a very orange marketing ambush at the 2010 football World Cup, much to the annoyance of FIFA and the tournament’s sponsor, Budweiser.

Launched in 1978, Bavaria 0.0% has spread far and wide since then, and is on sale in most major UK supermarkets. Its creators claim it was “the first zero alcohol beer in the world”. It’s brewed alcohol-free, rather than having the alcohol removed at the end. The aim, they say, is to give the drinker “the great taste of an independent, family-brewed beer”.

So, does it? That depends on what you’re looking for in a beer. This one is refreshing and goes down easily. It’ll quench your thirst. It’s a little bit malty, but also a little bit thin. It’s not bad at all, but it’s not great either. Another better-than-average 3 out of 5.

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Becks Blue

ABV: 0.05%

Calories per bottle: 39 (14 per 100ml)

Score: 1 out of 5

Becks Blue

Thanks to the impressive distribution network of ABInBev, Becks Blue is the alcohol-free beer you’ll most often find in pub fridges and in all the major supermarkets. According to recent statistics, this brand accounts for 65% of low-to-no-alcohol beer sales in pubs and bars in this country. It’s drunk nationwide by teetotallers, designated drivers and people who have to get up early the next morning, but not always by choice.

The brewers promise the “full Becks taste with alcohol-free enjoyment”, and assure us it’s “not an either-or” choice – presumably between strength and flavour. Unfortunately, we suspect it might be just that.

Details of the brewing process are hard to come by, but for us it has a feel of the early dealcoholised beers, and an aftertaste that lingers in a not altogether pleasant way. It may well be brewed according to the 1516 Reinheitsgebot (the Medieval German law decreeing which ingredients can go into beer), but we think it needs a bit more work yet.

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Becks Blue Lemon

ABV: 0.05%

Calories per bottle: 63 (23 per 100ml)

Score: 1 out of 5

Becks Blue LemonABInBev launched this one in 2016 as “the refreshing way to stay sharp”. Being no more than 0.05% alcohol, it certainly won’t cloud your brain. Sadly, it didn’t exactly tickle our taste buds either.

According to the brewery, “the Beck’s brand is all about its German heritage”. Lemon-flavoured beer has a history in Germany going back to the 1920s, when the radler was invented for thirsty cyclists by mixing lager and lemonade. We don’t imagine that’s actually what the Becks Brauerei did here, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Rather than a fruit beer, this really more of a shandy, and not a great shandy at that. 

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San Miguel 0.0%

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 80 (24 per 100ml)

Score: 3 out of 5

If you’ve ever been to Spain, or you’ve never been to Spain, you’ve probably had a San Miguel. The Spanish have been brewing it since 1890, and exporting it round the world. Owner Mahou San Miguel now produce 70% of the Spanish beer on the planet, and that includes a lot of alcohol-free beer.

When San Miguel 0.0% was launched in 2001, it was Spain’s first ever cerveza sin alcohol – a “pioneer”, launched so drinkers could enjoy “all the aroma, freshness and quality of beer, with 0.0% alcohol”.

We wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s not bad. It’s clean, a bit thin, but definitely refreshing. If lager’s your thing, this might just do it for you.

Sadly, its presentation lets it down a bit. Compared with the attractive red, gold and green colour scheme of San Miguel Especial and Fresca, this blocky blue and white design hardly screams out quality. It looks like a special product you might go and buy in the ‘free-from’ section of the supermarket, rather than a beer you might pick out amongst other beers because it looks good.  

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Big Drop Chocolate Milk Stout

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: 155 (47 per 100ml)

Score: 5 out of 5

Big DropPicking a beer is a matter of taste, and we don’t all agree on what’s tasty. For some, stout is nasty stuff, like burnt toast in a glass. For others, it’s a taste-bud adventure on a highway of delicious roastiness. Since sales of dark beers are on the up these days, it seems that more of us are leaning towards the second of these two positions…which is good news for Rob Fink.

Back in 2015, Rob decided to give up alcohol, and went on a scout for decent alcohol-free beers. Like most of us, he didn’t have much luck. So he decided to make his own. Working in partnership with Johnny Clayton, formerly of Wild Beers in Somerset, the first fruit of their labours, this chocolate milk stout, was launched in 2016.  

“Sorry?” we hear you say, “A beer made from chocolate milk?” Not quite. It turns out that milk stout is called milk stout because it’s made with lactose, the sugar you get in milk. As for the chocolate, that’s a type of dark roasted malt; although this beer also does have coco nibs (crushed cocao beans) in it, to make it extra chocolaty.

Of all the alcohol-free beers we’ve tasted, this the one mostly likely to leave you wondering whether you’ve just knocked back a regular beer by mistake. Whatever depth of flavour beers normally get from alcohol, this one gets is from somewhere else. Maybe it’s the cocao nibs. Maybe it’s the fact that it hasn’t been brewed and de-alcoholised; it’s been made just like an ordinary beer but has only got to 0.5% ABV. However they do it, it’s a triumph.

The only draw-back with this beer is the price. At £29.99 for 12 bottles from Dry Drinker, we reckon it costs about £4.37 a pint – quite steep for an on-trade purchase with no duty on it. As sales go up, hopefully the price will come down.

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Innis & None

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 62 (19 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

Innis & None

Founded in 2003, Edinburgh brewers Innis & Gunn are famous for little bottles of strong beer, up to 7.4%ABV. So, we had to take note when they launched a 0.0% pale ale for the 2017 Dry January market

Given the range of flavours Innis & Gunn have introduced to beer drinkers – rum, whisky, toasted oak – this one was bound to have something unusual about it. It’s hoppy, that’s for sure, but there’s more to it than that – a nice citrus bite, a lemony flavour that’s nothing like the shandiness of, say, Becks Blue Lemon. It’s got a depth of flavour you’ll struggle to find in most alcohol-free beers, and is a worthy competitor to its fellow-Scot, BrewDog’s Nanny State.

Like Bavaria 0.0% and Cobra Zero, this beer never had any alcohol in it, and can justly claim to be totally alcohol-free. It’s also a source Vitamin C, but we wouldn’t rely on it in preference to, say, fresh fruit and veg.

Innis & Gunn are currently marketing it as a “limited edition”, with no firm plans to make it a permanent part of their range. That may change, of course, if it’s a big seller. If you want to grab a can or two before it gets to be a rarity, it’s one of a selection of beers that have made the cut in the excellent new alcohol-free section in major Tesco supermarkets.  

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Carlsberg 0.0

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 61 (22 per 100ml)

Score: 2 out of 5

CarlsbergWhen Carlsberg launched this zero-alcohol brew in 2015, it was inevitable that they’d claim it was “probably the best alcohol-free beer in the world”. Recognising that dry drinkers “still want the satisfaction of a great tasting beer”, they’re confident that’s what they’ve delivered. So, do we share their faith in Carlsberg 0.0?

 If looks were everything, this would be a sure winner. It’s a genuinely stylish bottle and label. And it’s a tribute to the way Carlsberg has placed itself in the market that the first thing we thought of when we saw them was…football.

 Sadly, we didn’t find that the taste matched the appearance. Some say that comparing alcohol-free beers to alcoholic ones is like comparing apples and oranges – they might both be nice but they’re not the same. Maybe. But the problem is that this doesn’t taste like any kind of beer. It’ll quench your thirst but only in the way any cold drink would. In short, it’s a bit watery.

 As with some other 0% beers we’ve tried, the root of the trouble may be that this one has been dialcoholised – it’s been brewed liked a beer and then had the alcohol taken out, either by some form of distillation or by something called reverse osmosis. In our experience, neither method does much for the flavour.

The best alcohol-free beer in the world? Not yet, sorry.

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Heineken 0.0

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 69 (21 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

HeinekenWhen Heineken launched their first ever alcohol-free beer in March 2017, with a £2.5 million marketing campaign, it was a sure sign that the ‘dry’ drinks market is one the big players are taking seriously.

Heineken are making a big push to get their new beer out to pubs and bars. Like Carlsberg 0.0 it comes in a smart bottle that cries out, “Drink me while you’re watching the footy on the big screen!” It’s also one of a selection of beers that have made the cut in the excellent new alcohol-free section in major Tesco supermarkets.  

Like Erdinger and FitBeer, Heineken are also hoping to attract “health-conscious young consumers who are drinking less or abstaining all together”, and the bottle has some very comprehensive nutrition information on the back.

Gerard Heineken and his descendants have been brewing beer in Amsterdam since 1864, so we’d like to think they know what they’re doing by now. This new beers suggest that they certainly do. The company says that the initial response to Heineken 0.0 has been “overwhelmingly positive” with a “strong preference” for their beer over other zero-alcohol brews. It’s not hard to see why.

It looks, smells and tastes like a great lager. It pours well, with a nice colour and a decent head, and it has none of the unpleasant aftertaste that mars so many other zero-alcohol beers. At least 4 out of 5, we say.

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Franziskaner Weissbier

ABV: 0.5%

Calories per bottle: 105 (21 per 100ml)

Score: 5 out of 5

AgfaPhotoIf you like your beer authentically cloudy with a hint of herbs, this may be the one for you. Since the 1990s, when Heogaarden started appearing on tap, drinks variously known as witbier, weißbier, or weissbier have gained a firm foothold in the UK’s beer market (even they haven’t quite staged the takeover some predicted). Whatever your preferred term for them, Franziskaner is one of the best.

If the story is to be believed, Munich’s Franciscan monks have been brewing beer since 1363. It wasn’t until 1984, mind, that Franziskaner Weissbier went on sale outside Bavaria. It’s gone from strength to strength since then.

In 2011, Franziskaner Alkoloholfrei was launched as an alternative for those of us who like to socialise without being under the influence. Like Erdinger Alkoholfrei, it’s marketed at people who like to keep fit, but we understand that gym membership is not essential in order to partake.

As well as tasting great, it’s got the look of a quality beer. Its packaging avoids one major weakness of some alcohol-free beers – that of looking a bit cheap. It was the iconic poster artist Ludwig Hohlwein who put the rotund monk on Franziskaner bottles back in 1935. He’s still there, smiling quietly with his eyes closed, dreaming his beery dreams.

Like St Peter’s Without, Innis & None and Heineken 0.0, Franziskaner Weissbier is available fairly widely in the alcohol-free section of larger Tesco stores.

Although they’re not so easy to get hold of over here, since 2015 Franziskaner have also been brewing alcohol-free beers with added lemon, orange, and elderflower, all of which have picked up prizes at the World Beer Awards.

And as for what exactly a witbier, weißbier, or weissbier is, that depends who you listen to. “White beer” is the usual translation, but “wheat beer” is another option. So, take your pick. 

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Warsteiner Premium Fresh

ABV: 0.0%

Calories per bottle: 76 (23 per 100ml)

Score: 4 out of 5

AgfaPhotoLike Franziskaner Weissbier, this is a beer with a history. Back in 1753, farmer Antonius Cramer had a call from the taxman. Since it was clear that his was now a bit more than a little home-brewing operation, it was time to cough up some cash. This financial set-back doesn’t seem to have put the Carmers off brewing, and more than 250 years later the ninth generation of the family is still turning out some great beers.

According to them, it’s the local soft water, drawn from a spring in the nature reserve in which the brewery stands, that makes all the difference. That precious liquid is combined with barley, hops and yeast, in accordance with a Medieval Germany beer purity law.

The result is a beer that pours well with a great colour. Although the head dissipates quite quickly, it’s got a good lager taste. It’s fair to say that of all the alcohol-free lagers, this is one of the best.

Warsteiner Premium Fresh has the same smart look as its stable-mates, and there’s a lesson here for one or two others (such as San Miguel and Sainsbury’s). Beers sells better if it looks good.

The brand had a bit of a boost in 2016, when it was endorsed by Liverpool FC manager Jürgen Klopp (although Warsteiner adverts featuring him are not being shown outside Germany, perhaps because the clubs itself is sponsored by Carlsberg).

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