Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

There are people who simply don’t drink.

Some may not like the taste of alcohol. Others perhaps don’t like the way it makes them feel, either while consuming or after the deed is done. And then there are those who may have wrestled with personal demons in their past who choose to stay away from beer, wine and the hard stuff.

More power to them of course, but for some, the magic of a non-alcoholic brew allows them an opportunity to participate in a bar and cocktail scene and still clutch a bottle without being burdened by alcohol.

In the U.S. a brew that is less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume can be marketed and sold as a non-alcoholic beer. This compares with “real beer,” which varies considerably in alcohol by volume depending on the style of beer and how it is brewed, but is generally in the neighborhood of 5 percent by volume.

“Near beer” was the name given to non-alcoholic beers in the 1920s and 30s in America, when malt beverages were brewed by American brewers during prohibition with an eye toward serving a nation that craved the real thing. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the biggest breweries in the world jumped into the market, producing brews that appealed to those eschewing alcohol as a way to reduce calories (a separate effort from the creation and marketing of “light” beer).

The process used to make low and non-alcohol beer varies. There are some who simply reduce the level of a traditionally brewed product by evaporating the alcohol at a high temperature. Then there is method called vacuum distillation, where the beer or wine is put under a vacuum and the change in pressure pulls the alcohol out of the brew. Some brewers use reverse osmosis, where the beer is passed through a filter or semi-permeable membrane separating the alcohol from the rest of the product.

And finally, a small number of brewers are experimenting with making beer with light fermentation in hopes of retaining the flavor of the hops without having to resort to the previous methods.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, ferments its O’Doul’s and O’Doul’s Amber as they would real beer, and then removes the alcohol through low-pressure distillation. Beck’s NA is made by stopping the fermentation process before alcohol forms.

Today all of the major brewers market products that have less than the mandated limit of alcohol in them. And, while the market for the non-alcoholic beers is a small percentage of total overall beer sales, it is growing, especially in Europe. There is said to be a growing market amongst young Muslims for whom the consumption of alcohol is not allowed but who still wish to have something to drink while out in social situations.

As far as taste, the choice of non-alcoholic brands is a personal one. Kaliber, the Guinness product, and Clausthaler and St. Pauli Girl NA, both from Germany, all seem to get high marks from tasters. The St. Pauli Girl NA is also the leading non-alcoholic import.

Last summer, Vice President Joe Biden made news when he attended the “Beer Summit” on the White House lawn with President Obama, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, a Cambridge policeman who had arrested Mr. Gates. At the summit, Biden sipped a Buckler, a non-alcoholic brew made and released by Heineken.

Biden, a teetotaler who cites family history as the reason for his abstinence, was able to be “one of the boys” at the brew-in without consuming any alcohol.

There are those in the temperance community who say that there are dangers for former drinkers who are attempting to abstain from booze but use the non-alcohol beers as substitutes for the real thing. Some studies have shown that the smell of a non-alcohol beer may be enough to generate cravings for the real thing that will eventually lead to relapses. There are also those who contend that any alcoholic beverage constitutes a bad choice for recovering alcoholics.

But for many the opportunity to use a replacement product that they can enjoy drinking is just the thing to take the sting out of drinking.


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