Like many people nowadays, we try to reduce alcohol in my house …
It’s been about five years since I decided to try to limit drinking to weekends, commitments I could mostly stick to because while I gave up alcohol, I didn’t give up rituals. Namely, I still emphasize that I pour myself something to drink every week – it’s just not drinks drinks. I like things I can think of, like a bush cocktail or a seltzer with a hearty squeeze of fresh lemons, but I will occasionally join my husband who has discovered a penchant for soft beers.
We are not alone either. In 2020, although the world as a whole joked that it would be quarantined, it turned out that sales of non-alcoholic beers increased by 38 percent. I think it also helped that supermarket shelves suddenly presented opportunities outside of O’Dowle’s – both from commercial behemoths (Bud, Heineken, etc.) and from smaller craft shops with art cans (like the Athletic Brewing Company).
Of course, I felt it was crucial for our mission to determine which NA beer was best. So I turned around Kate Bernot, certified beer judge (!), beer reporter and Good beer hunt associate and asked her to be an official judge, although decidedly uncertified, Cup taste test Jo.
Since Kate resides in Missoula, Montana and did it herself, we would relax the usual rigorous rules. Tasting would not be blind; I wouldn’t write notes and study her facial expression as she sipped. In total, it tested six brands, which in total represented a good range of the current non-alcoholic beer market. According to her: “O’Doul is an old school offer; Heineken is one of the best-selling NA beers in the country; Athletic Brewing Co. is the most popular craft brand; Samuel Adams is brand new and widely available; Brooklyn was one of the first craft breweries to release NA beer; and Two Roots NA beer is a craft brand and won medals at the Great American Beer Festival, so I concluded that it would be useful to include an ‘award-winning’ example. “
During the tasting, Kate focused on a few predictable scientific factors (color, aroma, texture, sparkling) as well as some less scientific ones (is it good to drink while watching a game?). I had only one request: No matter how personal the decision, choose the winner!
Here’s where it landed on each.
Special Effects (Brooklyn Brewery)
Price: $ 12.99 for six packages
Tasting notes: This “non-alcoholic hop” is the darkest in the bunch – caramel in color, like amber ale. The aroma initially offers a lot of nutty smells similar to brown bread, but they are quickly dominated by woody, earthy hops. Unfortunately, the taste is less rich and sweet than I had hoped based on that nutty, pear-shaped aroma. There is a little sweet caramel in the sip, but the most prominent flavor is that slightly pine hop. The texture is a bit thin for me – the body is closer to light beer, but without significant carbonation, say, Coors Light. All in all, it’s okay. It reminds me of a very old school amber ale. It’s definitely for drinking, but not something I’d love to drink over and over again.
Total score: 3/5
Price: $ 7.99 for six packages
Tasting notes: This looks like the version of Heineken you already know: brilliantly transparent and straw-colored. It gives off a very malty-malty aroma, like Kix cereals with a red apple skin flavor – I’m surprised how sweet-fruity it smells. This follows through a sip; it’s the sweetest and most fruity of all the beers I’ve tried. Although there is no fruit in it, it has a strong note of pear or apple with only a little bitterness at the end. If you’re used to drinking lagers for the mass market or even Mexican light imports, this beer would probably have a pretty familiar taste. The texture is very light, but with good foam and a quick, fresh finish. This is one of the most controlled options – you could easily drink a few of these while watching football and not feel overwhelmed.
Total score: 2.5 / 5
O’Dowle’s golden non-alcoholic beers
Price: $ 6.79 / six packages
Tasting notes: This super clear straw-colored beer doesn’t smell at all. I really have to stick my nose far into the glass to find any aroma at all. I finally choose a light Cheerio fragrance, but not much more. While people like to make fun of O’Dowle, this tastes better than I remember. It is smooth, with a simple taste similar to Cheerio. This is the least aromatic drink that is the easiest to drink of all beers so far. It is quite inconspicuous and offensive; it probably tastes like what most people would think of as ‘beer’. I don’t like this; it is extremely smooth and straight forward.
Total score: 3/5
Upside Dawn (Athletic Brewing Co.)
Price: $ 12.99 for six packages
Tasting notes: This golden ale is, yes, light golden in color and quite translucent. It has a rather quiet aroma; a little lemon note, beneath it a little soft crust of bread. It is subtle but fresh and crunchy and appealing. These bread malts definitely go through the taste; the sip is really elegant and not too heavy. The taste is like a slightly richer blue ale or light wheat beer, with just a hint of lemon bitterness at the end, soft and subtle. This beer is affordable and light, smooth, medium light texture. You can serve it to your friends who aren’t sure they like beer and I bet they would be happy.
Total result: 4/5
Enough said Helles (two roots)
Price: $ 11.99 for six packages
Tasting notes: When I pour this slightly hazy, golden lager, I really feel the pilsner malt! For me, it smells like brioche or challah bread – soft, rich and elegant. There is hardly any hops in the aroma, just a light earthiness. Pilsner transmits malt to a flavor, which tastes like real white bread or some kind of tasteless cracker. The wood-spicy hops arrive at the end and close the sip with a firm bitterness. Best of all is the texture! It’s fuller than most non-alcoholic beers I’ve drunk, offering a sip of some real substance, not just hop water. This is a beer to buy if your biggest complaint about non-alcoholic beer is too watery or infrequent. All in all, I really like this. I would love to drink this on a backyard barbecue with burgers or tacos. I understand why this won the gold medal of the Great American Beer Festival in the non-alcoholic beer category.
Total score: 4/5
Just The Haze (Samuel Adams)
Price: $ 8.79 / six packs
Tasting notes: This misty IPA color is mimosa and has a uniform aroma. It has a big, citrusy, bright scent that I feel as I pour it. It reminds me of creamy orange creams, more like cocktails than beer. It’s the same with the taste – IPA is orange juice, lemon, a bit tropical and delicious. (Brunch vibes!) The soft malt below gives a really smooth, cohesive sip. The texture is smooth and velvety, with good weight. This is a very well made IPA! If the brewery had served me this and hadn’t told me it was non-alcoholic, I would have no idea.
Total result: 5/5
Thanks a lot, Kate!! Do you have a favorite soft beer or other beverage? Please tell us about it.
(Photo by Kate, author Brandon McMahon.)