Face it: Volunteering to be a designated driver can require a lot of patience. The karmic payoff you will get for helping everyone home at the end of the night provides little consolation when your friends are pounding their fourth round, laughing loudly, and expressing their likes and dislikes with newfound earnestness. If you’re the type who would normally enjoy a stiffer sort of drink, sipping a non-alcoholic beer can actually help, if only to lessen the feeling that you are the odd man out.
For most, however, near-beer is a thing to be regarded suspiciously, like Gardenburgers, NutraSweet, and Olestra. And those who have braved this uncharted territory often return with horror stories of swill tasting of pennies and spit. When you think about it, the booze-free brewski is a strange concoction: theoretically enjoyable only to those who truly love the taste of beer yet, as a result of the voodoo that zaps the zing from the final product, often not all that much like beer in the end. Furthermore, said voodoo is no mean feat. The complicated process to removing the alcohol from beer - or “skimming out the fun,” as some like to joke - is such that area breweries such as Firestone, Telegraph, and the Hollister Brewing Company do not make their own non-alcoholic beers.
Regardless, these strange beverages do get brewed and sold nationwide, so someone must find them palatable. That’s what this writer assumed when he decided to stage a tasting for friends and colleagues in order to determine which varieties of non-alcoholic beer tasted best. And so 11 daring souls sipped their way through nine different varieties of readily purchasable, easy-to-find non-alcoholic beer, all in an effort to provide you, Independent readers, with their estimation of what’s good - or at least what’s better than the rest of the stuff out there.
All nine were graded on a scale of 1 to 50 as far as their taste, aroma, similarity to actual beer, and overall quality. (This scale represents a simplified version of a rubric used by the American Homebrewers Association. See complete scoring at the bottom of this article.) The samples were served in unmarked cups; the tasters didn’t know what brand they were drinking. The tasters themselves varied from beer connoisseurs to casual drinkers and from near-beer veterans to those trying it for the first time - in short, a reasonable cross-section of the chunk of the populace that might buy non-alcoholic beer.
Despite their differing backgrounds, the tasters almost unanimously picked one sample as the best: O’Doul’s Original. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Anheuser-Busch line that has become almost synonymous with non-alcoholic beer would triumph in such a contest. It averaged an overall quality of 32.1, as well as 35.1 for taste, 29 for aroma, and 29.3 for its similarity to actual beer. If you choose to take the results of this informal tasting as a recommendation for how to complete your next designated driving night by enjoying a decent approximation of actual beer, the green-labeled O’Doul’s seems like the way to go. Coming in slightly behind were Buckler (with an overall quality score of 28.5) and Clausthaler (with an overall quality score of 24.6), though certain tasters also gave favorable reviews to St. Pauli Girl N.A. and Beck’s Haake Beck Non-Alcoholic.
In an effort to gauge the relative “goodness” of the nonalcoholic selections and to test the palates of the drinkers, a single alcoholic beer was slipped into the line-up: Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, brewed by the Boonville-based Anderson Valley Brewing Company. In the end, a handful of tasters correctly picked it out as being the one “true” beer. Furthermore, Poleeko Gold got even better average scores than even O’Doul’s Original. The lesson: Telling apart real beer from its alcohol-free substitute is only slightly harder than differentiating a light summer rain and being peed on.
As far as the rest of the non-alcoholic beers went, scores in general hovered around the low- to mid-20s, with the exception of Guinness Kaliber. Though the brand has garnered favorable reviews online, it was the only sample to receive scores of zero - a surprising outcome, perhaps, considering that many beer lovers hold actual Guinness in high regard. Comments on Kaliber ranged from disdain - “This resembles beer in appearance only.” - to outrage - “No. No. No good : If this is the real beer, just kill me now. Or tell me what is so I never accidentally buy it.” Other tasters cringed at the smell alone, comparing it to everything from Spaghetti-Os to a Top Ramen flavor packet. Let us never speak of it again.
After the tasting, a few tasters remarked that they did, in fact, enjoy a few of the near-beers. “Some of it was pretty good, actually,” said Nicki Arnold, the Indy‘s Eye on Isla Vista columnist who began her spring break by attending the event. “I could see myself playing Beer Pong with some of these.” Others, such as Santa Barbara resident Jesse Keenan, were clearly more disturbed by nastier selections than they were impressed by the good ones. “I think I’d rather pay for cab rides than be relegated to drinking Kaliber or Old Milwaukee all night,” he said. However, nearly every taster picked out at least one sample that they found drinkable.
For many people, being a designated driver will always require some selflessness. Even with a near-beer in hand, you won’t think you’re a better dancer and you won’t find anyone’s stories more interesting. And though some will doubtlessly decry these products as sins against good taste and Beers-That-Should-Not-Be, there’s probably a brand out there for any designated driver. That’s a good thing, especially if it could help him or her feel comfortable enough to see their mission through.
By Paul Wellman