What’s the point of alcohol-free beers?
A friend takes a four-pack of non-alcoholic beer to barbecues, along with his standard favourite alcoholic beverages, and he alternates between them. In terms of the effects of alcohol, this is equivalent to a glass of water between every drink – never going over the limit, being able to safely drive home and having no nasty after-effects in the morning.
Someone else we know takes cold AF beers trail running. At the summit, with 10 kilometres still to run, he sits and enjoys a coldie.
And why not? Yeast used to be less effective than it is today, which resulted in lower-alcohol beers that were historically consumed by labourers and workers for both hydration and nutrients – akin to sports drinks, full of carbohydrates and electrolytes. Here’s an interesting study on their additional health benefits, due to the probiotics and various botanicals in beer.
In addition, alcohol-free beer contains many fewer calories than typical beer. A juicy hop bomb can be up to 80kcal/100ml, but even a standard Heineken lager is 35kcal. The AF beers we tried are mostly between 20–25kcal. Another reason to give dry July a whirl
Is “alcohol free” really free of alcohol?
Ah, no. Not always. In Hong Kong, the labelling standards are surprisingly lax. If a beverage is under 1.2% alcohol by volume (ABV), it’s not considered liquor and is allowed to be called “alcohol free”, even if it should be called “low alcohol”. In most other places around the world, the cut-off is 0.5%.
We have recently noticed a quiet explosion of alcohol-free beer availability in HK. When you find yourself a good alcohol-free beer, your options open up considerably. The key is finding a good one, and there are some crackers out there.
De-alcoholise all the things
Because not everyone drinks beer, we have also delved into the world of alcohol-free spirits. What even is a spirit, if it has no alcohol? Skip ahead to find out.
To beer or not to beer, that is the question. – @hkshakesbeer
How to make alcohol-free beer
There are three main methods of creating alcohol-free beer:
- Not brewed: Asahi sells Dry Zero in its distinctive silver can – this is not a beer. It’s not brewed, and you will notice that the word “beer” is not anywhere on the can. This is a cordial recipe made to mimic beer (we’ll have more to say about this later in our review).
- Alcohol removed: the Carlsberg alcohol-free Danish Pilsner sold at Circle K and 7-Eleven in Hong Kong is brewed as a normal beer, and the alcohol is then removed by evaporation via vacuum. Other methods of alcohol removal include reverse osmosis filtration. These processes usually require expensive machinery and are done at scale.
- Lazy yeast: the Gweilo alcohol-free pale ale is brewed in a traditional method, except it uses a special yeast that does not produce as much alcohol. Generally, lazy yeast produces slightly sweeter beer.
Often, alcohol-free beers use a blend of these methods for different taste and aroma advantages.
You won’t find AF beers on tap because their lower alcohol levels make them susceptible to contamination. As the processes to make these beers can be quite specialised (and expensive), they are all imported. We tried a bunch, and we have some regrets – don’t make the same mistakes we did!
Alcohol-free beers tried & tested
Asahi Dry Zero
Alcohol: 0.0%; calories: 0; cost: about $16/330ml
It looks like a beer. It smells like a beer. But, holy moly, do not go near this thinking it is a beer. Dry Zero is 0.0% alcohol because it’s not brewed at all – it’s a recipe of ingredients made to mimic beer, which is fine in itself, but the flavour of this beverage is overwhelmingly metallic and medicinal. This Asahi tin of tinniness is also 0 kcal, which is the same as if you never drink it at all. We’ll take door 2, thanks.
Made in Japan and available in Hong Kong at big supermarkets.
Bavaria Holland Bière Blanche (rebranded as Bavaria 0.0% Wit)
Alcohol: 0.0%; calories: 24kcal/100ml; cost: about $11/250ml
We still have the old-style bottle here in Hong Kong, so it looks slightly different, but the Bavaria Bière Blanche is this beer from Swinkels Family Brewers. They are a bit secretive about how they make it – the fermentation is described as “a unique process” – so we’re not sure what they’re doing to make it “sans alcool”.
This is a wheat beer in the Bavarian style, so we were expecting banana and clove aromas, and they’re there! Great fragrance and appearance, sure to please Weissbier lovers. The mouthfeel is a bit light and the flavour is a bit fruity-sweet, but this is a solid AF beer to try.
Made in the Netherlands. We got ours at city’super.
Big Drop Paradiso Citra IPA
Alcohol: 0.5%; calories: 18.5kcal/100ml; cost: $25–38/330ml
A big name in alcohol-free beer, Big Drop has a number of different varieties such as a pale ale, an IPA, a stout and even a sour. We went with the highest rated on Untappd, Paradiso Citra IPA.
We felt the aroma let it down, with only very restrained hints of light, hoppy citrus, but with a strong honey undertone. Apart from that, we think it’s crisp and dry, with a moderate lingering bitterness and light sweetness that make it quite enjoyable.
Bitburger Drive Premium Pils
Alcohol: less than 0.05%; calories: 22kcal/100ml; cost: about $15/330ml
Bitburger Drive is “naturally brewed following German beer purity laws”, and the alcohol is removed after the beer is mature using “gentle techniques”. It’s even hopped with Hallertau, but we couldn’t pick this up in the aroma. Both bottles we poured were flat and unfulfilling, having a papery and metallic flavour and a very thin mouthfeel.
Made in Germany. Available at big supermarkets. We ordered it online.
Carlsberg Alcohol Free Danish Pilsner
Alcohol: less than 0.5%; calories: 20kcal/100ml; cost: about $10–12/330ml
This Pilsner is highly carbonated, and every can we tried overflowed when opened. The aroma is typical for a standard lager, and the level of malt flavour is pretty good. It’s lacking a slight tackiness in the mouthfeel and is on the thin side, but all in all, this is a good choice if you like international lagers like Carlsberg and Asahi. Some of the ones we tried were a bit old, with a touch of oxidation, but that can happen to any beer.
Made in Switzerland, and we got ours at Circle K and 7-Eleven. Here’s something crazy: the best price we’ve seen is $10 at city’super, which has to be one of the cheapest things in the whole shop!
Free Damm Lager
Alcohol: 0.0%; calories: 20kcal/100ml; cost: $15/330ml
Made by the Estrella Damm folks, this lager is brewed as normal and is then vaccuum-distilled (so that they can distil at a lower temperature) to remove the alcohol. It’s been officially classified as 0.0% alcohol by volume according to their website.
It has more caramel-malt flavour than a standard lager and a good, medium mouthfeel. It’s crisp with low bitterness, and we really like it! Also, you can hold it up and say, “You cannae take ma Free Damm”, which is a bonus. One of our favourites of the alcohol-free beers we tried.
Made in Spain and available at city’super.
Gweilo Pale Ale
Alcohol: 0.3%; calories: 25kcal/100ml; cost: $23–35/330ml
A pale ale requires more hop aromas than a lager, which is typically quite clean. Unfortunately, alcohol extraction methods usually remove these precious aromas, so Gweilo has chosen to brew this beer with lazy yeast to avoid losing them. It has been in development for a year and is gypsy-brewed at De Proefbrouwerij (the same research and rental brewery that Mikkeller uses).
The alcohol-free pale ale has a great tropical and citrus nose and a moderate bitterness level. The mouthfeel is just a bit lighter than an alcoholic version, but the flavours are fresh. A solid beer that will satisfy the hop cravings of most pale ale enthusiasts!
Made in Belgium. Available in Hong Kong at Sipfree and most bottle shops and supermarkets.
Gweilo x vandeStreek Fun House IPA
Alcohol: 0.5%; calories: 29kcal/100ml; cost: about $23–30/330ml
This collaboration between Gweilo and vandeStreek is brewed in the Netherlands. It has five different varieties of American hops and uses a lazy (maltose negative) yeast to produce less alcohol. It’s currently sold out in most places, so we haven’t got our hands on it yet (but we’ve heard it’s pretty good).
We did try the low-alcohol vandeStreek Playground IPA, and we like its excellent carbonation, good aroma and head retention and high bitterness, we so have high hopes for this one, which is probably similar.
Made in the Netherlands. In Hong Kong, it’s sold at major supermarkets and bottle shops and at Sipfree.
Mikkeller Drink’in the Sun American Style Wheat Ale
Alcohol: 0.3%; calories: 22kcal/100ml; cost: $35/330ml
This Mikkeller beer is brewed in Belgium by De Proefbrouwerij, which focuses solely on product development and production. It uses their own special lazy yeast called Mikkellensis to brew beer without producing (much) alcohol.
On the sniff test, you can tell immediately that this is more interesting than a lager; we picked up some tropical, lychee aromas from the hops and some honey. The mouthfeel is not at all thin, and it has a pleasant, spritzy, dry finish, but as it warmed up, we were a bit overwhelmed by the increasing honey flavour.
Made in Belgium and available in Hong Kong at Sipfree and city’super.
Schneider Weisse Alkoholfrei Weissbier
Alcohol: less than 0.5%; calories: 23kcal/100ml; cost: $28–36/500ml
A German Weissbier (a wheat beer that is not actually white) is typically yeast forward – that is, the fragrance should exhibit interesting yeast characteristics such as banana and clove, but ours did not have these aromas. This Schneider poured very dark and also had a very light tang (it might have been too old). Regardless, it was still very enjoyable – so much so that we might keep trying it until we get one that’s fresh enough to be more true to style.
Made in Germany. Available at major supermarkets, but we ordered it online.
Why should beer drinkers have all the fun? You might have seen (or even tried) some of these around town. Due to budget limitations, we have not yet tried all these spirits, but when we do, we will update with our thoughts.
** Recommend this!!
Gin alternative Ceder’s pays tribute to the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa, which are home to unique botanicals such as rooibos and buchu. This non-alcoholic spirit uses many of these botanicals, but it’s distilled in Sweden. The Ceder’s range available in Hong Kong includes Classic, Crisp and Wild.
EDIT: Ceder’s Crisp helped get us through our last dry month. It’s ‘juniper, cucumber and chamomile’ flavoured – and the cucumber really comes though, making it feel like a Hendricks gin.
Get it: HK Liquor Store ($278/500ml)
** We love this one too.
This hemp spirit is a milky white colour and has a pleasant, floral aroma. The flavour is slightly bitter and smoky. We used to drink this with soda water and lemon juice, but we have grown to enjoy its taste solo (and no longer add lemon juice). It’s sugar free, with no calories, and contains 25mg of CBD per two-ounce serving. The only downside is that it ain’t cheap! Flora is a a special-occasion drink for spoiling yourself.
EDIT: CBD is no longer in HK. Big fat cannot.
Get it: Liquidz ($600/375ml)
Lyre’s has exploded onto the scene with gorgeous branding and a tremendous range. Their most popular bottle is Dry London Spirit, imitating gin. There’s a wonderful savoury afternoon tea at OZONE with Lyre’s mocktails included. There, we had an alternative gin cocktail and would not have noticed that there was no alcohol. However, in something less subtle like a negroni, the lack of alcohol would be quite obvious.
The American malt we tried neat did not smell particularly smoky, but the flavour was malty and woody and very cleverly mimicked the warmth of alcohol with the use of chilli. These spirits are not distilled at all; they are recipes of flavours built to resemble the taste and mouthfeel of their alcoholic counterparts as much as possible. There is a bottle for every occasion and every cocktail.
Update: available now are cans of fab ready-to-drink pre-mixes. Choose from non-alcoholic G&T, Classico Amalfi Spritz, American Malt & Cola and Dark ‘n Spicy for $160/4 cans (250ml) at wine’n’things or peruse the bundles online.
Get it: Sipfree ($380/700ml), HK Liquor Store ($358/700ml), Feather & Bone ($368/700ml) and at various supermarkets
This distillate is made in Italy and is available here in two flavours. The MeMento original is described as “delicate, aromatic and floral”, and MeMento Green is “intense, herbaceous and refreshing”. They are sold in a two-pack from Simply Fresh, and unlike most of the others in this category, MeMento is designed to be used either in your favourite cocktail or sipped neat.
We found it a bit strong on the rosemary, and so didn’t feel like more than one.
Get it: HK Liquor Store ($368/700ml), Simply Fresh ($538 for 2)
Seedlip is one of the big names in the world of non-alcoholic spirits. This distillate is not at all sweet, with a herbal flavour and a dry finish. It’s made by distilling botanicals and then blending them to produce different flavours. It’s not really a gin substitute, as there is no juniper included, but it is gin-like.
This three-pack of 200ml bottles is super convenient for trying the Seedlip range. It contains Grove 42 (orange, lemon peel, lemongrass and ginger), Garden 108 (rosemary, thyme and spearmint) and Spice 94 (allspice and cardamom). If you’re scared of commitment, you can also try them in 250ml pre-mixed cans. We love Grove 42, being suckers for citrus and anything lemongrass.
More alcohol-free bevvies
Craft soda: Mindful Sparks
The name “craft soda” came about to distinguish commercial, industrialised fizzy drinks from those made in smaller, more artisanal batches, with ingredients that are fresher and less processed. We understand the distinction (and we know it’s important), but… we just aren’t crazy about the term “craft soda”. Regardless, this sector is booming too.
Mindful Sparks is a premium drinks company founded by nutritionist Winston Lau, right here in Hong Kong (and you know we love that). Its ethos is about mindful, clear-headed enjoyment, and it has a range of elegant drinks to offer the mocktail lover.
We highly recommend Passion Gone? from the signature range; it’s a blend of green and jasmine teas, with just enough passion fruit to lightly sweeten and soften the flavours. We also enjoyed the Tea House range of sparkling cold-brew teas that have no sugar, no calories and are refreshing, delicate and smooth.
A cool Instagram trick is to add lemon juice to Blue? and turn that blue to pink – you’ve got to love the symbolism.
Find the latest list of stockists here.
Wine alternative: NON
NON made its debut at the HOFEX trade show this year. These lightly carbonated wine alternatives are from Australia and are packed full of premium ingredients. We absolutely loved 4, made with roasted beetroot, sansho pepper, tamari, hojicha and verjuice, amongst other ingredients. It’s delicious and would be quite satisfying with a quiet dinner.
NON bottles are priced as wine alternatives, so only time will tell if consumers are willing to pay wine prices for non-wines. Keep your eye on Blaze Beer Club to see where they will be sold.
Champagne alternative: Saicho sparkling tea
If you’re keen on champers without the alcohol, we’ve found out about a UK brand new to Hong Kong. First launched in the UK by HK native Natalie and her husband, Charlie, Saicho offers a range of premium cold-brewed sparkling tea – Darjeeling, hojicha and jasmine – that’s bottled like champagne. Designed to be light and served chilled in a champagne glass, Saicho’s sparkling teas are already being served at top hotels and restaurants around town and can be purchased online – but we haven’t tried them yet.
Another UK sparkling tea import is Fortnum & Mason, doing an organic blend of eight of the British brand’s famous brews. Remember to look for Mindful Sparks if you love sparkling tea but would prefer a local brand.
We love the OG HK kombucha Taboocha (did you see they have a hops + CBD kombucha?), but we’re pleased there’s room for local newcomers to the kombucha market. On the Wagon is making artisanal kombucha in K-Town, focusing on “less acidity and exceptional fizz”. We love that they are doing bottle returns, even picking them up for you.
Check out Kushta for made-to-order kombucha (we like the sound of their chilli-pear CBD kombucha). Being Sichuan fiends, we’re also keen to pick up some Strawberry & Szechuan Pepper from Kuppa Kombucha and to sample some Alive Kombucha.
If you want to make your own kombucha, we got our original SCOBY from FoodCraft about six years ago, and it’s still alive! We recently put it in some wort, and it’s bubbling away. FoodCraft runs workshops to make your own kombucha, and they supply everything needed to DIY and create your own flavours.
(Edit: now otherwise known as Cannot Buy Dis)
CBD is going into everything these days. Is it a fad? We tried it and we like it!
We’re fans of the new LIFE CBD sparkling water made in collaboration with Young Master Brewery, offering a whopping 40mg of CBD. With no added flavourings, it’s slightly smoky straight (which is how we like it), but it’s also perfect for adding to cocktails and mocktails.
Another option is the canned Calm CBD drinks, with 10mg of CBD and a bunch of vitamins, which are low in calories and come in three different flavours.
We’ve seen but not tried the relaz CBD sodas. They have 10mg of CBD and contain MCT coconut oil – of bulletproof coffee fame. Interesting…
RELATED: CBD beer in Hong Kong
How we value alcohol-free drinks
There is a general feeling that, when it comes to alcohol, it’s wrong to pay more for less. We feel this way too, but we shouldn’t. High-quality ingredients, processes and skills should be compensated accordingly, regardless of the ABV. There’s no good reason to equate lower alcohol with lower cost – except if it’s due to taxation, but Hong Kong has no tax on alcohol under 30% ABV.
We have certainly changed up our drinking habits, particularly during the week, and most of the time, this has saved us money. But if we want to splash out on a fancy AF pale ale or mocktail, it’s okay!
Here’s an interesting question to ask – should alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits be available at the supermarket near the juices and soft drinks? Or should they stay in the aisle with the grog?