Sunday, December 09, 2001

Beers without buzz

Sixteen tasters test seven varieties, not knowing they're nonalcoholic

By Ed Westermeier
Enquirer contributor

        During the holiday party season, most of us will enjoy ourselves responsibly. Still, there's often a temptation to overimbibe. Designated drivers are always a good idea, and thoughtful hosts will offer plenty of alternative, nonalcoholic beverages.

        With this in mind, I recently conducted blind tastings of nonalcoholic beers to determine which were the best. Actually, I wanted to find out if there was a nonalcoholic beer worth buying.

        By law, a beverage must have less than 0.5 percent alcohol to be labeled “nonalcoholic.” That is so small as to be practically insignificant (some brands of soy sauce may contain a higher percentage of alcohol). A side benefit is these brews contain only about two-thirds the calories of so-called light beers.

        I conducted my taste test in three sessions, with a total of 16 people participating. The tasters, ages 30s to 60s, all enjoy drinking regular beer. Six of the participants are experienced home brewers with a good understanding of beer styles.

        Everyone tasted the beers from unlabeled cups, without knowing the brews were nonalcoholic. I simply told them these were “new beers on the market.” I hated to trick such nice people, but let's face it: How many would willingly volunteer to taste nonalcoholic beers?

        I gave each participant a sample of each beer and asked them to line them up in order of preference. I expected some tie scores, but no one had much trouble ranking the samples.

        There are quite a few nonalcoholic brews available, so it wasn't possible to test them all. I chose samples based on popularity (those that were good sellers) and on recommendations.

        For the test, I selected three nonalcoholics from this country and four imports. The test group: O'Doul's and O'Doul's Amber from Anheuser-Busch ($3.99 per six-pack); Sharp's from Miller ($2.89, the least expensive sampled); Buckler, brewed by Heineken in Holland ($4.99); Clausthaler Golden Amber, brewed by Binding in Germany ($6.25); Kaliber, brewed by Guinness in England ($6.99, the most expensive beer sampled), and Warsteiner Fresh, brewed by Warsteiner in Germany ($5.99).

        Just for fun, I threw in a “ringer” — ordinary Bud Light ($4.49), the biggest-selling beer in America. I bought a six-pack of each beer and checked the dates to be sure each was fresh.

        Although a few people in each group came up with results wildly different from the rest, the averages showed clear and convincing results.

        Not surprisingly, I couldn't pull the wool over their eyes: They picked the Bud Light as the best.

        Here's how the tasters ranked the nonalcoholic beers:

        • O'Doul's Amber placed first. Only one person placed it in the lower half of the beers, with most picking it for second or third place. Several people called it “a decent beer.”

        • Third place overall was more or less a tie between regular O'Doul's and Kaliber. O'Doul's was the only beer that came from a green bottle (although the tasters never saw the bottle) and several participants said it had a slightly skunky, light-struck flavor. All the other beers come in more protective brown bottles. Kaliber generally was preferred by the home brewers, who might have been influenced by its “hoppier” balance.

        • Sharp's, Buckler and Clausthaler (in that order) were the next runners-up. They didn't fare very well with any group and received only one vote each in the top half of the samples.

        • Bringing up the rear was the Warsteiner Fresh, ranked last by every taster.

        Based on my blind tasting, the bottom line is that it really is possible to find a drinkable nonalcoholic beer. If you're considering this option, I hope our results will give you a head start in deciding which to buy.

        Contact Ed Westemeier by e-mail:


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