Australians have a well-documented love affair with the liquid amber better known as beer, from traditional mainstream brands such as Victoria Bitter to the more recent explosion in craft beers.
But whether it's because you've signed up to Dry July, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or just want to cut down on the amount of alcohol you consume, you may have considered swapping your usual tipple for a non-alcoholic (also called no-alcohol or alcohol-free) beer.
These drinks look, smell, and taste like beer but they contain less than 0.5% alcohol.
And with more and more big-name breweries coming out with no-alcohol options – some of which can be found in Coles and Woolworths – it's easier than ever to find no-alcohol beer.
But which tastes best? We put six no-alcohol beers to the test.
- Score: 52%
- RRP: $0.49/100ml ($7.40 per 4-pack)
- Alc/Vol: 0.0%
- Weight: 375ml can
Carlton Zero, Coopers Ultra Light Birell and Heineken 0.0.
Coopers Ultra Light Birell
- Score: 45%
- RRP: $0.36/100ml ($8.30 per 6-pack)
- Alc/Vol: Less than 0.5%
- Weight: 375ml bottle
- Score: 45%
- RRP: $0.66/100ml ($12.99 per 6-pack)
- Alc/Vol: 0.04%
- Weight: 330ml bottle
Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei, Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei and Holsteen 0.0%.
Erdinger Weissbrau Alkoholfrei
- Score: 37%
- RRP: $0.81/100ML ($15.99 per 6-pack)
- Alc/Vol: 0.4%
- Weight: 330ml bottle
Hollandia Non Alcoholic 0.0% Beer
- Score: 32%
- RRP: $0.76/100ml ($9.99 per 4-pack)
- Alc/Vol: 0.0%
- Weight: 330ml can
- Score: 30%
- RRP: $0.61/100ml ($11.99 per 6-pack)
- Alc/Vol: 0.0%
- Weight: 330ml bottle
We tested six no-alcohol beers available from Coles, Woolworths and Dan Murphy's. The price shown is what we paid in June 2019.
We set up a blind tasting for 30 CHOICE staffers. Each product was assigned a code and its brand concealed. Our tasters sampled them in a random order. For each sample tasted, people decided if they disliked, liked or loved it. A total of 180 samples were tasted and voted on across the six no-alcohol beer products. A minimum of 30 taste tests were completed per product.
The taste score is calculated as an average of all responses, where 'dislike' is scaled at 25, 'like' at 70 and 'love' at 100.
For each sample tasted, CHOICE staff decided if the dislike, like or love it.
Tasters described the most popular no-booze beer, Carlton Zero, as 'mild', 'light', 'fruity' and 'drinkable'.
"Refreshing, I would drink this [again]," said one of our testers. "A smooth taste, most similar to alcoholic beer", said another. "Has a sweet aroma and pleasant taste… very light and easy to drink," said another tester.
But not everyone's a fan, with some commenting that it's "bland and generic", "watery" and even "tastes somewhat like cardboard".
Overall, CHOICE staff thought the taste of all alcohol-free beer left much to be desired, with 69% of samples receiving a 'dislike'.
Some comments included: "Has a weird banana-y smell… are they actually selling this as beer?", "tastes like spag bol", "[it's] beer-adjacent", "whatever dog was soaking in this one needs to get to a vet!", "tastes like old socks", "smells a bit like rotting fruit and tastes of dish water", "coffee notes, like Peroni, but not good, unlike Peroni". Ouch.
Australians drinking less alcohol
According to a 2018 Roy Morgan report, there's been more than a two percent drop in Australian adults drinking alcohol since 2013: the number of adults drinking at least one alcoholic drink in a four-week period has fallen from 70.1% to 67.9%.
This means that beer sales have been falling. The 2018 Ibis World beer market report shows that full-strength beers have reported the biggest decline in the $4.9 billion beer market, while the mid-strength section has grown.
More people are either giving up or cutting back on alcohol for their health
Responsible drinking advocacy group Drink Wise says that as Australians drink less, it's paved the way for the non-alcoholic beer boom.
Drink Wise CEO Simon Strahan says more people are either giving up or cutting back on alcohol for their health.
"Australians are drinking in moderation more than ever before and these products [are] very much seen as an alternative."
A growing market
The no-alcohol beer segment has existed for some years but has remained extremely small until recently, when a slew of new drinks appeared on the market. The most mainstream of those is Carlton Zero, launched by Carlton United Brewery (CUB) in late 2018.
CUB believes non-alcoholic beers can be worth up to two percent of the Australian beer market, with that market already growing "12-fold" since Carlton Zero was released, spokesperson Chris Maxwell says.
Maxwell says the drinks are for adults who want to drink less alcohol: "It's also unlocking occasions when people might not have even thought about drinking an alcoholic beer but because they love the taste of beer, they can, like at lunchtime or at work."
Baby boomers have got to an age where they've had enough of alcohol … but they do enjoy the flavour profiles that come with beer and wine
Clinton Schultz founded non-alcoholic craft beer company Sobah two years ago and says it has experienced a 20% annual growth, thanks to two distinctive age groups – baby boomers and millennials.
"We found that baby boomers have got to an age where they've had enough of alcohol a lot of the time, but they do enjoy the flavour profiles that come with beer and wine," he says.
"And a lot of young people are just choosing not to drink."
Overseas, the market is far more advanced, especially in countries such as Canada, the UK and Belgium, where established brands such as Peroni, Kronenbourg 1664, Heineken, Budweiser and San Miguel all have their own non-alcoholic versions.
In the UK, the market has doubled in size since 2015, and in 2018 alone it grew by 37%.
Digital home test coordinator Scott O'Keefe during the blind tasting.
Like decaf coffee, which does in fact contain a small amount of caffeine, non-alcohol beers can include some alcohol, up to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), according to Food Standards Australia.
In comparison, a full-strength beer will contain 4.8% ABV, mid-strength beer has 3.5% ABV, low-strength beer has 2.7% ABV, and low-alcohol beverages must contain less than 1.15% ABV.
Under Food Standards Australia, labelling for alcoholic beverages must strictly match the (ABV) each drink contains.
Can I get drunk on it?
Patricia Hepworth, director of policy and research at the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education (FARE), says such small amounts of alcohol are processed almost as soon as it's consumed, so people can't get drunk.
It also means that it's considered safe to drive after drinking, but fair warning – your breath may still smell like booze.
It's not easy to compare no-alcohol beers to alcoholic versions in Australia, because alcoholic beverages with an ABV over 1.15% are exempt from labelling kilojoule content, or any other nutrients for that matter.
Some varieties may still have high levels of kilojoules from sugar, which can contribute to weight gain and problems with tooth decay.
But Schultz says if non-alcoholic beer is made naturally, it can be quite healthy.
"It has far less sugar than soft drinks," he says.
CUB promotes the fact that Carlton Zero has 10 times less sugar than a regular soft drink. But that comparison has drawn criticism.
"Non-alcoholic beer, when it's a substitute for alcoholic beer, is undoubtedly a good thing; it's much healthier for someone who would have otherwise drunk beer," says Hepworth.
"But from a health perspective, what's particularly worrying is non-alcoholic beer positioning itself as a family-friendly healthy alternative and we're particularly concerned with the fact that what is being advertised looks and tastes just like beer."
She recommends current and recovering alcoholics avoid non-alcoholic beer as it could 'trigger' them.
"Alcohol-free beer, which often taste the same as standard alcoholic beer, can provide sensory cues that make the drinker want the real thing."
It's not illegal for under-18s to buy or drink no-alcohol beer, but some supermarkets and liquor stores may have their own policies when it comes to selling it to under-18s.
And even if they can buy it, doesn't mean they should.
"It's very easy for minors to purchase," says Hepworth, adding that children and teenagers should "absolutely not" consume non-alcoholic beer.
"It could condition people from a young age to crave the taste of beer [and] we can only see it further leading to more excess alcohol consumption in the future."
Maxwell says Carlton Zero was "strictly designed and marketed" and that it abided by the same advertising standards for alcoholic drinks.
"It is absolutely not recommended for under-18s. It's been over six months since we launched and we haven't had issues with under-18s drinking it."