Low-alcohol drinks: the good, the bad and the bubbly

Drinks to savour (and what to avoid) when on the hunt for a softer option

E & J Gallo, the American wine behemoth, has just launched a range of wines designed to be more ‘sessionable’ – a drinks marketing word that nobody uses in real life meaning that you can drink a lot of them. What they’ve come up with are spritzers. . .  in cans. Clever stuff.

Gallo are trying to take a slice of the beer market. Interestingly the converse is true. The beer marketing board launched a campaign in 2015 called, There’s a Beer for That, aimed at people who like a glass of wine with their food. If you talk with wine people it’s all about how they can make their product more informal like beer and with beer types they tell you that beer isn’t just something you drink by the pint in pubs. It all reminds me of Yes Minister: ‘Nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics.’

You can see Gallo’s point especially when the sun comes out. On a summer’s day the ideal thing to be drinking is nice weak English beer. At my father’s local I drink Side Pocket for a Toad (definite competitor for worst beer name ever) from Tring Brewery which is packed with flavour despite being only 3.6%. You can go lower and still get some flavour – Kernel table beer at 3.2% is widely available and delicious.

The Big Drop Brewery specialise in making even lower alcohol beers of around 0.5%. They do this by using less grain so there’s less sugar to turn to alcohol and they use what they call a ‘lazy yeast’ one that’s not very good at turning sugar into alcohol. The result is a low-alcohol beer that tastes like the real deal even if it lacks body.

Go much lower and you’re into the realm of alcohol-free beer which is usually made by heating a conventional beer gently so that the alcohol evaporates. Some non-alcoholic beers are revolting but even the best don’t really taste like beer. Alcohol provides body which knits the flavours from the grain, hop and yeast together. Without the alcohol, a good non-alcoholic beer (St Peter’s Ale from Suffolk, for example) tastes like a beer-style drink rather than an actual beer. They aren’t moreish like real beer. You never really want to finish the bottle.

On occasions when I’m keen to avoid alcohol, rather than drink something masquerading as beer, I’d much rather sup on something soft. A splash of Fee Brothers Orange Bitters in sparkling water or tonic makes a very grown-up tasting drink. Jeffrey’s Tonic produce syrups that you can add to fizzy water to make your own tonics. Companies like Franklin & Sons and Fentiman’s make ginger beers, lemonades and colas etc aimed at adults. A bottle of Franklin & Sons Ginger beer, lots of ice and lime is absolutely delicious, though it has to be said even better with a good slug of Jamaican rum added.

If you are looking to avoid the hard stuff, here are a few alcohol or low-alcohol drinks to try…

Franklin & Sons Sicilian Lemonade & English Elderflower with Crushed Juniper, alcohol free: The perfect gin & tonic substitute in one bottle. This has proper bite and makes you want another. I almost didn’t miss the alcohol.

Krombacher Pils, 0.5%: Considered one of the best low-alcohol lagers. Initially it tastes quite nice with some nice grassy hoppy notes but there’s an oddly sweet finish that becomes a bit cloying by the end of the bottle. Still, served very cold, it’s really no worse than Budweiser.

Big Drop Citrus Pale Ale, less than 0.5%: Bags and bags of bright citric hops, very refreshing and only the slightly watery mid-palate let you know that this isn’t the real thing. I finished the bottle very quickly and wanted another.

Lindemans Pecheresse, 2.5%: Belgian fruit beers are a good place to for low-alcohol. This is a Lambic beer combined with peaches, the sweetness of the fruit is balanced by the sourness of the beer. It’s a bit too sweet for my tastes and I found it much improved by adding ice and a squeeze of lemon.

Anspach Passion Fruit Berliner, 3.6%: Very delicious though, at 3.6%, it admittedly has an alcohol content to push the definition of low alcohol drinking. Another sour fruit beer brewed in a German style but in Bermondsey. Made with passion fruit, it’s much less sweet than the Lindemans, in fact it tastes very wine like.


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