The Non-Alcoholic (NA) beer space has really taken a turn for the better in the last few years. The choices have become broader and better quality. Every January brings an added focus on this group with Dry January; a time of year when many alcoholic beverage drinkers dedicate themselves to a month long stint of no alcohol. Personally I don’t participate in this simply because I drink NA beers throughout the year. I’ve made them a part of my lifestyle. I’ve pretty much given up soft drinks and sweet tea (a near heresy for a Southerner like me) and I don’t drink diet drinks. I’ve happily discovered that NA beers are a tasty, satisfying more healthy substitute for those other beverages for times when I don’t want alcohol, but want a beer.
For the avid craft beer enthusiast, NA beer can be a real challenge because if you have not given up alcoholic beer, how do you fit them in and not be disappointed? I say this because I have yet to find one that tastes exactly like some of my favorite alcoholic beers. What’s the key? I have found the key to incorporating them into your lifestyle is simply in your approach. It literally is a mindset. If you expect them to taste exactly like some of your favorite alcoholic beers, you are going to be disappointed. They don’t. Some get very close, but as a whole they don’t. If you approach them as they truly are – a separate category of beer – you will enjoy them for what they are. When you are trying these out, the question to ask yourself is not – does this taste like XYX Brewing IPA? but does this beer taste good? Once you’re able to make that mental leap, it will open up a world of possibilities for you. These beers are also better for you than soft drinks and diet drinks. Think about it. They are made from all natural ingredients (water, barley and hops), no added sugars or artificial sweeteners, use a natural fermentation process and many are lower in calories. Additionally, when you a have a get together friends and family, it’s important to offer a variety of options besides you traditional alcoholic favorites. Today’s NA beers offer an additional alternative that can be a conversation piece.
For Dry January, I thought it would be fun and helpful to evaluate a number of the available NA beers for a blog post. The styles have really broadened out from the dark ages of O’Doul’s but most still concentrate around Lager, Pale Ale, IPA, Stouts and Wheat varieties. What I’ve done is divide them into a few broad categories: Pale Lagers, Blonde/Pale Ale/IPA and Wheat (includes Hefeweizen). I’ve selected a Best Of and a Runner-Up for each category. I also have a Best Overall and Runner-Up Overall. Let’s start with the Best Overall.
Best Overall NA Beer: Rightside Citrus Wheat
This was not a hard choice but it really surprised me. I had my own scoring system that emphasized flavor and overall enjoyment. After all, when you sit down to have a beer, that’s primarily what you are looking for. Having been a fan of Athletic Brewing, I fully expected the brewer score out the best. To my surprise, Rightside Citrus Wheat tied or beat Athletic Brewing Run Wild in every category except aroma, where Run Wild had a slight edge. The difference really got down to I simply enjoyed drinking the Citrus Wheat and after I finished the first one, I was ready for the next. It’s visually appealing, has pleasant aromas, tastes good, not too filling and has just enough bitterness to balance the sweet malt backbone but does not linger to long nor is it too harsh. Rightside Brewing also has an IPA but I have not had the opportunity to try it yet.
Runner-Up NA Beer: Athletic Brewing Run Wild IPA
I’ll admit that, as a mostly Lager drinker, I personally prefer Bitburger Drive and could have easily put it in this spot. But I realize with IPA’s being so popular, many craft beer drinkers will be looking for a NA beer with bold aromas, flavors and some bitterness. Run Wild IPA delivers on all three while still maintaining a pleasant drinking experience. Overall, they have the best lineup across multiple styles: Pale/Golden Ale, IPA, Amber Lager and Stout. I have also enjoyed two other of their products – Upside Dawn Golden Ale and Cerveza Atletica. Athletic Brewing has definitely placed themselves at the front of the pack in terms of producing the best variety of drinkable NA beers.
Beers Reviewed: Coors Edge, Heineken 0.0, Beck’s NA, and Bitburger Drive
Best of Pale lager: Bitburger drive
Of the four in this group, Bitburger Drive stood out the most. It is a clear, brilliant gold color. Exhibits good head retention with floral and grainy aromas. Flavors are grainy and of biscuit. The beer is visually attractive, full-bodied and sweet but well balanced with bitterness. It tastes good and it’s the closest to an alcoholic version of a Pilsner as you can get. It will have more bitterness than say a Heineken or Coors Edge, but it’s got more flavor and aroma.
runner-up pale lager: Heineken 0.0
This was very close between Heineken 0.0 and Coors Edge. Bitburger was easily above both of these in aroma, flavor and balance. The Heineken and Coors products will remind you of their “Big Beer” heritages. They are low on flavor and character plus on the sweet side. But neither tastes bad. By contrast, the Beck’s NA didn’t taste good at all to me. I gave Heineken the edge because it had a little more floral aroma and bitterness for balance. I would choose either one of Heineken or Coors over a soft drink while sitting poolside on a hot, humid summer afternoon in Georgia.
Beers evaluated: Athletic Run Wild IPA, Athletic Upside Dawn Golden Ale, Bravus IPA, Partake Blonde, and Partake Pale.
This was a surprisingly competitive category. The only reason I didn’t split these up is, frankly, I would have had to add more brands for evaluation and it would have taken a lot more time and money to evaluate each separately. There are some good solid choices in this group.
Best of Blonde/pale ale/ipa: Athletic Run wild IPA
By now, many craft beer drinkers have discovered Athletic Brewing out of Connecticut. This brewery has busted open the NA beer IPA category with a aromatic, flavorful IPA with a bitterness that is approachable and provides balance. And 70 calories to boot. Run Wild IPA provided citrus and pine aromas and flavors on a medium bodied backbone of sweet malt. They have grown distribution, but supply can be short, as it flies off the shelves as quickly as it hits them.
runner up blonde/pale/ipa: bravus IPA
I’ve had Bravus IPA before and a really like it as a contrast to the Athletic Run Wild IPA. Bravus is a lighter pale yellow color (note the two pictures). Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra and Mosaic hops provide a plethora of citrus and pine notes but it has lighter body than Run Wild IPA and less bitterness. It drinks very easy. Between these two IPA’s, you have a nice contrast in body and mouth-feel. Bravus was establish in 2015 and is located in Newport Beach, CA.
Beers evaluated: Krombacher Weizen Alkoholfrei, Rightside Brewing Citrus Wheat, Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen, and Erdinger Non-Alcoholic Weizenbrau.
This category is tricky because it used to be dominated mostly by Hefeweizen versions; but now you are finding other wheat styles. Frankly, some of the worst tasting NA beers I’ve had are in this category. Surprisingly these two stand outs. Wellbeing Brewing has Victory Citrus Wheat that I had months ago that I recall was pretty good, but I could not track any down for this session.
best of wheat: Rightside brewing citrus wheat
Rightside Brewing is a brand new brewery in Atlanta and they are also Georgia’s first and only dedicated NA brewery. This one blew me away. I had pretty low expectations because I’ve had some really bad beers in the group. Citrus Wheat checks all the right boxes. It’s visually attractive. Gives you some nice citrus aromas of oranges and tangerines. Grainy flavors and a restrained bitterness. The mouth-feel is medium bodied and finish is quite dry. More on this one later.
runner-up wheat: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier
I discovered this one a little while ago along with the Bitburger Drive. It is by far the best of the Hefeweizen NA beers. Wiehenstephaner Hefeweissbier Alkoholfrei displays spicy aromas along with the familiar Hefeweizen esters of banana. Full-bodied mouth-feel. Restrained bitterness. If you like German style wheat beers, don’t hesitate to grab this one as the NA version.
Non-alcoholic beer is a category I invite all beer drinkers to try out. It won’t be for everyone but the choices have become a great deal better. Once you find a couple you enjoy drinking, the next big challenge will be obtaining them on a regular basis. Your state’s distribution laws will dictate whether or not you can order these direct from the brewery or have to scavenge through local retail outlets. That’s the problem here in Georgia. I can’t order directly from Athletic or my local brewery Rightside. It’s a little frustrating, but it is getting a little easier. Be sure to check out some of these and any local offerings that pop up near you. This is a growing category that we are sure to hear a great deal more from in the coming years.
Thanks for reading, until next time…Let Us Drink Beer!