Low-alcohol beer is also known as non-alcoholic beer, small beer, small ale, or near-beer. The key feature of these beers is their very low or lack of alcohol content. Most low-alcohol beers are lagers but there are some low-alcohol ales. In the United States, beverages containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) were legally called non-alcoholic, according to the now-defunct Volstead Act. In the United Kingdom, the following definitions apply by law; No alcohol or alcohol-free: not more than 0.05% ABV, De-alcoholised: over 0.05% but less than 0.5% ABV, and Low-alcohol: not more than 1.2% ABV
The conceptualization of non-alcohol brews took place during prohibition but also had roots in the First World War. A climate of scarcity and uncertainty fostered a culture where restraint became the paragon of virtue and under this culture the idea of temperance proliferated. President Wilson had proposed limiting the alcohol content in malt beverages to 2.75% in 1917 in an effort to appease avid prohibitionists but in 1919 congress approved the Volstead Act which limited the alcohol content of any beverage to less than 0.5%. These beverages became known as tonics and many breweries began brewing these extremely low alcohol content beverages in order to keep from going out of business. Due to the fact that removing the alcohol from the beer requires just one additional step many breweries found this as an easy transition, and in 1933 when prohibition was repealed removing this single step again was easily done.
Originally, near beer was a term for malt beverages containing little or no alcohol mass-marketed during Prohibition in the United States. By 1921 production of near beer had reached over 300 million US gallons a year. Near beer could not legally be labeled as beer and was officially classified as a cereal beverage; however, the public almost universally called it near beer. Today, the term has been revived to refer to modern non-alcoholic beer.
Food critic and writer Waverley Root described the common American near beer as “such a wishy-washy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever. At the same time I would have serious doubts about the quality, and taste, of regular full-bodied ales and lagers being produced at this time in North America. For instance, a popular illegal practice was to add alcohol to near beer. The resulting beverage was known as spiked beer or needle beer, so called because a needle was used to inject alcohol through the cork of the bottle or keg. The questionable brewing methods and resultant brews developed during the prohibition era must have had a dramatic impact on the culture of beer that would develop over the next several decades.
Small beer is a beer that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in medieval Europe and colonial North America. It was sometimes had with breakfast since in those times of poor sanitation, water-transmitted diseases were a significant cause of death and alcohol is toxic to most water-borne pathogens. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants. Some workers engaged in heavy physical labour drank more than ten pints of small beer during a work day to maintain their hydration. This was usually provided free as part of their working conditions. As sanitation conditions improved the consumption of small beer was replaced with coffee and tea and even gin, which became the fashionable tipple of choice.
Small beer can also refer to a beer made from the “second runnings” of a very strong beer mash. These beers can be as strong as mild ale depending on the strength of the original mash. This was done as an economy measure in household brewing in England up to the 18th century and is still done by some home brewers and microbrewers. Few commercial breweries make small beer today with the exception of Anchor Brewing Company, which produces a small beer made from the “second runnings” of Old Foghorn Barley wine Style Ale.
How it’s Made
Between the maturation and carbonation stages of the brewing process is when a brew can be converted to non-alcoholic. Low-alcohol beer starts out as traditional alcoholic beer. The un-carbonated beer is brought up to the boiling point of alcohol in order to evaporate the alcohol. This is possible because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water making it easier to boil off. Another method of removing the alcohol is to decrease the pressure so the alcohol boils at room temperature. This is the preferred method because the addition of heat this late in the brewing process can greatly affect the flavor of the brew. Most modern breweries utilize vacuum evaporation to preserve flavor and speed up the boiling process. In essence, the beer is placed under a light vacuum to facilitate the alcohol molecules going into gaseous phase. If a sufficient vacuum is applied, it may not even be necessary to cook the beer. Another alternative process called reverse osmosis does not require heating. Once the alcohol is removed proceed with the normal finishing process where the beer is carbonated and bottled.
How does it Taste
The last time I had non-alcoholic beer was in high school when my most thoughtful teacher brought us some near beer to sample in our ancient civilizations class – I can’t say it left a memorable impression but it has been awhile. To be fair I thought I would highlight some of the most reviewed non-alcoholic beers on Rate Beer while I crack open my Tokyo Stout from BrewDog, which weighs in at a respectable 18.2%.
Rate Beer records ratings as low as Bavaria Non-Alcoholic – 1 and Coors Non-Alcoholic – 1.13 through to Driver NA – 5 and Texas Select Non-Alcoholic – 6.