Up until a few years ago, there was one style of beer that aficionados of the libation almost universally found offensive—one that they would rather pour down the drain than into a pint. This was non-alcoholic beer.
Near beer in America dates back to prohibition, and about a half-century later Anheuser-Busch launched the much-maligned O’Doul’s that was more compromise than good taste. For years, non-alcoholic beer’s reputation as something palatable remained crippled by ill-equipped production methods and lack of competition leaving the ‘sober curious’ left wanting.
But that was then. Using improved brewing technology including reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation to bid farewell to the alcohol but not the taste, both mega-brewers and upstart craft brewers are—no joke—producing terrific non-alcoholic beer that’s alleviating the stigma and making sure that booze-free suds are no longer relegated to a meme. Ambers, IPAs, and stouts that look like beer, smell like beer, and—most importantly—taste like beer.
These new brews have little in common with non-alcoholic beers of yesteryear. A necessity to help capitalize on a growing consumer thirst for booze-free options at the liquor store and cocktail bar. A report by the beverage analysis firm IWSR predicted that the market for no- and low-alcohol drinks would increase 31 percent globally by 2024. The promises are brass: Ambrosial beer with fewer calories and health impacts and no morning-after fog or regret.
Non-Alcoholic Beer: A Health Food?
Several marketers are essentially arguing that non-alcoholic beer is the new health drink—half the calories than the regular stuff and a lot less of the liquid sugar in hard seltzer. Some companies even evoke a healthy lifestyle with brand names intended to make you feel good about taking one down and passing it around.
While beer-as-health-food is a stretch, as there is nothing in particular about near beer that will greatly improve your health, the true benefit could come down to what you’re not drinking, namely alcohol. By law, beverages can claim to be non-alcoholic as long as they don’t exceed the limit of 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
And ditching alcohol is undeniably good for your health. After analyzing data from more than 400,000 people, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that consuming one to two alcoholic drinks (the equivalent of 1-2 12 oz beers) four or more times per week increases the risk of premature death by 20 percent, compared with drinking three times a week or less. Though moderate drinking may confer some heart health advantages, this report suggests the risk for certain cancers including breast cancer from daily drinking may outweigh these benefits and hence the greater risk for early death overall.
A report in the journal Lancet suggests that since alcohol is a leading cause of death and disability the safest level of consumption is none. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), alcohol is “a toxic and psychoactive substance” that “contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally and is responsible for more than 5 percent of the global burden of disease.
When alcohol is metabolized by the body harmful compounds including acetaldehyde are produced which may drive up cancer risk. This is not a concern when sipping beer minus the alcohol which is a great way for individuals to reduce their intake of alcohol while still being able to enjoy the taste and experience of a cold one. No-booze beer can contain the same antioxidant compounds, such as phenolic acids, found in regular beer, but you’re better served sourcing these disease-fighting bioactive chemicals from whole foods like vegetables and fruits.
You’re also likely to have a better night’s sleep after drinking non-alcoholic beer, which can lead to all kinds of benefits, including improving your mental and immune health. And knocking back alcohol-free beer can help with rehydration efforts before and after a sweat-inducing workout, without the need to find a designated driver. A hydration benefit that is not awarded to regular beer since alcohol is a diuretic. Plus, there is little risk for a beer belly since you avoid the problem of alcohol hindering proper metabolism resulting in a greater chance of storing more body fat.
With all this said, there have been issues with non-alcoholic beers exceeding the legal limit of 0.5 percent ABV. One study found that 30 percent of the forty-five non-alcoholic beers tested had more alcohol by volume than was indicated on their label, and six of the beers tested contained more than 1 percent ABV. So it can be important to choose drinks from brands with strict testing and labeling requirements, especially if navigating an alcohol use disorder, are pregnant or planning on getting behind the wheel after knocking back a few.