Are non-alcoholic beers ready to challenge the real thing?
The FT's Leila Abboud and Al Gilmour put alcohol free and low-alcohol beers to the test, tasting them against full-strength brews from some of the biggest producers in the industry
Executive Producer Juliet Riddell, Produced and Edited by James Sandy, Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis
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Why are you so against non-alcoholic beer?
I'm not so against, I just think that they are pretentious.
Pretentious? No, if you look at the UK national statistics, 24 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds report that they haven't drank in the past year. And five years ago, that number was only at 19. And if you look at the sales of non-alcoholic beer in this country, they've gone up by 75 per cent in the past five years alone. So something's changing, even if you're a curmudgeon and you don't want it to.
Yeah. No, I feel that's generally true of the world.
All right, so the way that we're going to judge these beers is a very, very complex system. I'm going to give you each a tab card. And you're going to place it on the beer that you think is the non-alcoholic one.
We're going to start you off nice and easy with some lagers. We've got Heineken today. So we've got our full-strength version and our zero-ABV version.
With lagers, it's all about balance. So you're looking for a nice soft malt backbone with a little bit of cracker and, kind of, biscuit notes to it. And a nice bitterness at the back end. Cheers, guys.
Cheers. OK, for whatever reason, I feel like that's the real one.
But I can't really tell you why.
I'll get it wrong, I bet I get it wrong. I think I can just...
No, that one's sweeter.
...taste the alcohol on this one.
OK, I'm confused. Are you...
Good, OK. This is the test. I mean, I guess Heineken have confused, you know, two people here in terms of which is which.
So, we're preserving the bad one.
I would argue the bad... you know, it's not fair to call it the bad one.
We're preserving the future.
That's it. So whatever one...
The non-alcoholic beer
...you think is the non-alcoholic one. Let's put it forward.
You're struggling there.
No, that's right. Hey, don't cheat.
I'm allowed to smell it.
We're on to bitters. This is a golden ale. The two beers that we're going to be trying today are both from St Peter's, that are a Suffolk-based brewery.
You're looking for an English hop character, so earthy, floral, a little bit of fruitiness. Also you've got a lovely creamy head here, as well. So drinking it through the head is important. It definitely does help give you that texture, and that, sort of, that fullness that you're looking for.
These are quite different, though, no? Those are a bit appley, no?
I mean, or just like, bad. It's gone off.
It smells a bit weird. I'm not going to lie, that one smells odd.
This tastes normal. And then, he kept on going on about the head as if it's so important. This guy...
It's true. This one has... he has a bit more bubbles.
This has got the, kind of, creamy head that you were after. I mean, it's just clear, isn't it? I mean, we do agree.
Even you got it wrong last time.
Hey, you don't know she got it wrong the first time.
So we've got two American pale ales here. I used the word pale, you know, fairly sparingly. One of these...
This one's quite dark.
...s a little bit darker, absolutely. And who else is it going to be from BrewDog. BrewDog, you know, really innovators over here of throwing a ton of American hops in all of their beers. So you're looking at piney, resinous bitterness, a lot of citrus flavours as well, in the aroma and in the overall flavour as well.
Do you think. OK, it might just be the case that people like beer, because A, it gets them drunk, and, B, because they like the associations of being in a lovely old pub.
Being in a... yeah. Hanging out with friends.
Having a lovely conversation.
You remove the alcohol, we start doing a taste. This last pair, I can tell this is quite good. But maybe just all beer is just variously disgusting. Like, that might be a thing.
Wait, what? You lost me there. You went from saying it was good to disgusting.
It might actually... just sort of actually on the sort of spectrum of things that were just like it, as I say, for you being here, and for increasingly feeling the effects. I mean why don't you just eat a watermelon.
Drinking is a social activity. It's a social activity with social norms around it. And some people do want the option to sort of have a taste or be a part of a social occasion that only happens around alcohol. But that said this is not offensive, it's actually pretty good. And...
Of the non-alcoholic ones, that's the best one so far.
Yeah, I agree with you. If that's a non-alcoholic one, we don't know. Suspense.
Perfect. I'm going to go with you guys as well.
All three of us are agreeing on that one.
You did kind of agree with me after I said it, though, didn't you?
OK, next time I'm going to go first. All right, enough. I'm an independent woman capable of making her own judgments about beer.
I'm staying well out of this.
A brewery called Big Drop makes stout, which we have here. One of these, which is a multiple award-winning winning zero-ABV beer.
You're gonna love it.
Award winner. It's not going to be easy, though, because we've paired it with...
A winner of nothing
... stout from Kernel. They are highly regarded for both their ethos and the quality of the beers they make. So it's going to be a tough one for the Big Drop. We're looking from everything from some char and coffee, all the way through to toast, chocolate, and a little bit of caramel. Very full-bodied.
They're both quite good, Al, don't you think? Or do you hate them?
I'm interested to see here.
OK. Yeah. I'm getting all your toast, and your chocolate. Are you getting the toast, and the chocolate, and the coffee?
Yeah, maybe a bit.
Given that you know more about beer than is healthy...
seems that you and I chose exactly the same beers.
It does. I intentionally chose all the wrong ones, though.
I'm only joking.
You two agree.
And I was an odd man out on one of them, right?
You were. You were the odd one out on one of them. So, actually, you know four out of four, and three out of four is it's pretty good for you guys. I don't know what it says about the low ABV...
It's not good for the beer companies.
Wait, so hold on a minute, though. Did you enjoy any of these?
Of the non-alcoholic ones? Given that we got 11 out of 12 right, I think the big companies have not hidden their non-alcoholic beers 100 per cent so far. That said, I think at least two of them tasted equally good as their...
Al makes a little tiny concession.
...real cousins. But that's not to say that their real cousins tasted that great to begin with. Do we all agree with that?
Whilst I agree there's still a way to go. And, actually, whether even getting 100 per cent parity is even possible. I think there's cause for optimism with these.
Yeah, and I think it's good that the beer companies are putting more effort into it. I think it's good that the recipes aren't... that they've improved the recipes a lot. And it gives people more choice. You know, I think that some people don't necessarily want all the calories of regular beer.
It'll just be me and Dan in the corner there, like, drinking the last real stout in London. Talking about flocculation. Flocculation!
While everyone else is sort of healthfully drinking this.
No, but I think it's going to be a bigger part of the market. And sometimes you're going to look around the pub and you're not going to know who's drinking what. Yeah, and AI also had a nice time drinking altogether. So it's good that we're all in the pub together. It doesn't matter what everyone's drinking.
I like drinking before opening hours.
This is true.
This is the way to do it. No queues for the bar.