Like a lot of people these days, we’re trying to cut back on alcohol in my house…
It’s been about five years since I decided to try limiting drinking to the weekends, a commitment I’ve been able to stick to largely because while I gave up the alcohol, I didn’t give up the ritual. Namely, I still make a point to pour myself something to drink every weeknight — it just isn’t a drink drink. I like things I can concoct, like a shrub cocktail, or a seltzer with a generous squeeze of fresh citrus, but occasionally, I’ll join my husband who has discovered an affinity for non-alcoholic beers.
We’re not alone, either. In 2020, even though the world at large was joking about getting tanked in quarantine, it turns out sales of non-alcoholic beers surged 38 percent. I think it also helped that supermarket shelves suddenly presented options beyond O’Doul’s — from both the commercial behemoths (Bud, Heineken, etc.) and the smaller, craft operations with the artsy cans (like Athletic Brewing Company).
Naturally, I felt it was crucial to our mission to figure out which NA beer was the best. So, I turned to Kate Bernot, certified beer judge (!), beer reporter and Good Beer Hunting contributor, and asked her to be the judge of an official, though decidedly uncertified, Cup of Jo taste test.
Because Kate resides in Missoula, Montana, and was doing this on her own, we’d relax the usual rigorous rules. The tasting wouldn’t be blind; I would not be scribbling notes and studying her expression as she sipped. She tested six brands in total, which, overall, represented a good spectrum of the current non-alcoholic beer market. In her words: “O’Doul’s is the old-school offering; Heineken is one of the best-selling NA beers in the country; Athletic Brewing Co. is the most popular craft NA brand; Samuel Adams is brand new and widely available; Brooklyn was one of the first craft breweries to release an NA beer; and Two Roots NA beer is a from a craft brand and has won medals at the Great American Beer Festival, so I figured it would be helpful to include an ‘award-winning’ example.”
While tasting, Kate focused on a few predictably scientific factors (color, aroma, texture, effervescence), as well as some less scientific ones (is it good for drinking while watching the game?). I had only one demand: As personal as the decision can be, pick a winner!
Here’s where she came down on each.
Special Effects (Brooklyn Brewery)
Tasting notes: This “non-alcoholic hoppy brew” is the darkest of the bunch — caramel in color, like an amber ale. The aroma initially offers up a lot of nutty, brown bread-like scents, but those are quickly dominated by woody, earthy hops. Unfortunately, the flavor is less rich and malty than I’d hoped based on that nutty, bready aroma. There’s a bit of caramel sweetness to the sip but the most prominent flavor is those slightly piney hops. The texture is a bit thin for me — it’s closer to a light beer in body, but without the significant carbonation of, say, a Coors Light. Overall, it’s fine. It reminds me of a very old-school amber ale. It’s certainly drinkable but not something I’d be excited to drink over and over again.
Overall score: 3/5
Tasting notes: This looks like the version of Heineken you already know: brilliantly clear and straw-colored. It gives off a very malt-sweet aroma, kind of like Kix cereal with a red apple skin aroma — I’m surprised by how sweet-fruity it smells. This follows through in the sip; it’s the sweetest and fruitiest of all the beers I tried. Even though there is no fruit in it, it has a strong pear or apple note to it with only a small bit of bitterness at the end. If you’re used to drinking mass-market lagers or even light-colored Mexican imports, this beer would probably taste pretty familiar. The texture is very light, but with good effervescence and a snappy, crisp finish. This is one of the most “chuggable” of all the options — you could easily drink a few of these while watching football and not feel overly full.
Overall score: 2.5/5
O’Doul’s Golden Non-Alcoholic Brew
Tasting notes: This straw-colored, super-clear beer doesn’t smell like much at all. I have to really stick my nose far into the glass to find any aroma at all. Finally I pick out a light Cheerio scent, but not much else. Even though people like to make fun of O’Doul’s, this tastes better than I remember. It’s smooth, with a simple, Cheerio-like flavor. This is the least flavorful, easiest-to-drink of all the beers so far. It’s pretty unremarkable and inoffensive; it probably tastes like what most people would think of as ‘beer.’ I don’t dislike this; it’s extremely smooth and straight-forward.
Overall score: 3/5
Upside Dawn (Athletic Brewing Co.)
Tasting notes: This golden ale is, yep, light golden in color and quite clear. It has a pretty quiet aroma; a little bit of a lemony note, some soft bread crust under that. It’s subtle, but fresh and bready and inviting. Those bready malts definitely carry through in the flavor; the sip is really elegant and not too heavy. It tastes like a slightly richer blonde ale or a light wheat beer, with just a touch of lemony tartness at the end, soft and subtle. This beer is approachable and easy, with a smooth, medium-light texture. You could serve it to your friends who aren’t sure they like beer, and I bet they’d be happy.
Overall score: 4/5
Enough Said Helles (Two Roots)
Tasting notes: When I pour this lightly hazy, golden lager, I can really smell the pilsner malt! To me, that smells like brioche or challah bread — soft and rich and elegant. There are barely any hops in the aroma, just a light earthiness. The pilsner malt carries through to the flavor, which tastes like straight-forward white bread or some kind of unflavored cracker. Woody-spicy hops arrive at the end and close the sip with firm bitterness. Best of all is the texture! It’s fuller than most non-alcoholic beers I’ve had, offering some actual substance to the sip, not just hop water. This is the beer to buy if your biggest complaint about non-alcoholic beer is that it’s too watery or thin. Overall, I like this a lot. I’d be happy drinking this at a backyard barbecue with burgers or tacos. I see why this won a Great American Beer Festival gold medal in the non-alcoholic beer category.
Overall score: 4/5
Just The Haze (Samuel Adams)
Tasting Notes: This hazy IPA is mimosa-like in color and even in aroma. It has a big, citrusy, bright scent that I can smell as I’m pouring it. It reminds me of orange Creamsicles, more like a cocktail than a beer. It’s the same in the flavor — the IPA is orange juicy, lemony, a little bit tropical, and delicious. (Brunch vibes!) Soft malts underneath make for a really smooth, cohesive sip. The texture is smooth and velvety, with a good weight to it. This is a very well-made IPA! If a brewery served me this and didn’t tell me it was non-alcoholic, I’d have no idea.
Overall score: 5/5
Thanks so much, Kate! Do you have a favorite non-alcoholic beer or other drink? Please tell us about it.
P.S. More taste tests, including dark chocolate bars. And “why I gave up drinking and how it changed my life.”
(Photo of Kate by Brandon McMahon.)