Part of the Near Beer Crowd

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being social without consuming alcohol

by josh perilo

i have, literally, dozens of friends and acquaintances who, for one reason or another, no longer drink alcohol. for some of them, the choice to not drink was an easy one. for others, it was, and continues to be, a long and difficult road.

in the behavioral therapy world, there is an idea called replacement behavior. a replacement behavior is implemented to take the place of a target behavior, which is usually a behavior that is detrimental either socially or health-wise. this new behavior will have a similar reinforcing effect to the behavior it's replacing. this is the basic idea behind those plastic nicotine dispensers that ex-smokers suck on instead of using the patch. the actual physical act of putting something in their mouth is soothing, for some at least, and makes the transition to a life without smoking a little easier.

such is the marketing idea behind many non-alcoholic beers that are sold today. while their original popularity rose during prohibition, today they're marketed toward those who want to participate in the social activity of drinking without having to consume any alcohol.

i want to be very clear on this: i am in no way advocating the consumption of non-alcoholic beer by anyone who has a drinking problem. different people can handle different things, and certain triggers, like holding a bottle and drinking a beverage that tastes similar to beer, can trigger a full-on relapse. i encourage anyone who is considering this to discuss the idea with their support group, therapist or even a family member first.

that being said, if you do feel as though a near beer might make you feel a little more social in certain settings, the options you have in front of you can be disappointing. non-alcoholic beer has always had a reputation for having little taste, and what taste it did have was usually undesirable. while this is still the case, by and large, there are a few things to remember:

firstly, near-beer is not beer. it does not taste like beer, so don't expect it to. it has similar flavors and textures, but if you take a swig and expect a mouth full of stella artois, you will be very angry. treat it as its own beverage with its own unique characteristics, and you will have a much better experience.

secondly, the variety of non-alcoholic beers has expanded exponentially in the last couple of decades. i took the liberty of tasting four of the most widely available non-alcoholic beers to present a cross section of the types of flavor profiles you can expect from a mass-brewed near-beer.

clausthaler premium non-alcoholic was the first that i tried. it was light and refreshing, but seemed to be missing something mid-palate. it had a familiar bitterness on the finish, but the low carbonation kept pointing up the brew's shortcomings. all in all, a slightly subpar experience.

st. pauli n.a., on the other hand, was a darker and much more interesting drink. from the scent in the glass to the flavors on the palate, there was a load of sweet malt flavor and the toasted hazelnut-y finish made me want to try this one again. this was my favorite of the na beers i tried.

o'douls, perhaps the most ubiquitous na beer on the market, was flabbergastingly flavorless. it had the most carbonation and the least character. if i had been blindfolded, i wouldn't have been able to distinguish it from a glass of cold seltzer. abysmal.

beck's non-alcoholic has the desirable distinction of tasting the most like the original product that it is seeking to mimic. although the color of the brew is darker, from the scent in the glass to the flavor notes on the palate, i would have been hard-pressed to distinguish this from a regular bottle of beck's beer. which is great if you like becks.

replacement or not, non-alcoholic beer is here to stay and can be a welcome respite from the usual libations.


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