Lowering the bar

I’m going to start this article by laying to rest the ghost of Kaliber... if you’re a person of a ‘certain age’ then you will have given a hearty shudder when you read that word.


I’m going to start this article by laying to rest the ghost of Kaliber... if you’re a person of a ‘certain age’ then you will have given a hearty shudder when you read that word.

I don’t know about you but my dad always used to pronounce it ‘Kal-eye-ber’ and had quite literally nothing good to say about it, it’s not that he didn’t have anything to say about it at all, it’s just that most of it’s not suitable for printing.

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Dusty, weirdly sweet, yet oddly bitter, occasionally slightly lactic, there was nothing consistent about Kaliber or any of the other monstrosities - some of which just tasted like they’d been drunk and thrown up already - that came and went between the 80s and early noughties and let’s not even mention the wines that were also around at the time.

But even before the craft beer wave started to lap at our shores, a small amount of people were discovering that the classic beer countries, Germany in particular, had more to offer than just steins of plentiful booze, and there was more to going to Prague than getting smashed on pilsner. These countries actually also offered tolerable no/lo (the industry shorthand) brews from refreshing Radlers to alcohol-free dark beers.

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Even so, they were difficult to find in the UK and, up until recently, being asked to write about no/lo alcohol beers was a source of deep pain when your need to pay the mortgage comes up against your ethical responsibility to not recommend things that you’d feel a bit bad about offering to the neighbour who allows their dog to bark at six in the morning.

A lot of the problem with alcohol-free and very low alcohol beer has been down to the different ways that no/lo beers can be made.

Up until recently, the main way has been to boil off the alcohol, which effectively also just drives off nearly all hop aroma characteristics and almost returns the beer to its wort-like flavour, but with an odd bitter note left over from the hop iso-alpha acids (the process of boiling hops transforms the natural alpha acids in the plants into iso-alpha acids, which provide the bitter taste in beer). Basically it has a tendency to taste like sweet, slightly bitter, boiled veg water - enticing huh?

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Another method that was employed for a while, but isn’t used any more to my knowledge, was to ferment to a low alcohol level and then dilute the beer post-fermentation, which brings its own risks of infection and an odd and unpleasant ‘thin’ metallic note to them too, but helps keep some of the flavour in.

You can also brew to such a low alcohol that it qualifies as a no/lo - which is a delicate balancing act but it does come with its shelf stability challenges.

An alcohol extraction plant that works at very low temperatures is probably one of the best ways to make consistently tasty no/lo beers (which is what Adnams has chucked a serious chunk of cash at recently and boy does it show — the Ghost Ship is almost indiscernible from its full-blooded counterpart, but more of that later).

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And then, finally, there’s the less spendy way of making full-flavoured beers that involve using some of the newly developed ‘lazy’ yeasts and vacuum distillation – which, alongside an unrevealed secret trick – is the method used by Big Drop, which for my money is producing the tastiest no/lo beers in the country.

So, all that science bit over and done with, why on earth have no/lo beers become so popular in the last few years and why the hell do I keep calling them no/los?

Not my round...

More than one in five people in the UK say that they are teetotal, which is around 10.6 million. Obviously we’ve seen the advent of things like ‘Dry January’ and ‘Sober October’, which will have had a slight skewing effect on these numbers, but they cannot account for the very firm trend in the reduction of people drinking. Figures from the Office of National statistics last year show that not only is the number of teetotallers slowly increasing, but the amount of people who regularly drink alcohol has dropped to its lowest point since 2005.

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Whether it’s because more people are seeking to reduce or completely cease intake in the name of health or dietary reasons or not, I think it’s important to say that going teetotal is an absolutely valid choice. In a day and age where everyone is chasing the latest DDH this and wild-fermented-with-a-brewer’s-belly-button-fluff that, not drinking alcohol is a genuinely viable option.

There is undeniably as much work to do around the stigma of not drinking as there is about ‘blokes ordering a half being big girls’ (yes, I know, there’s so much to unpick in those sorts of statements, but it’s not what I’m here for this time) but we seem to be creeping towards it.

Just the other evening, I was in the Rake in Borough Market watching the England game and there were more than a few ‘craft beer folk’ under 30 drinking Shofferhoffer grapefruit radler, which is a mere 2.5% ABV. Radler, in case you don’t know what it is, is effectively posh shandy and is gaining a growing following.

Boulevard’s of Kansas City in the USA has a grapefruit and ginger radler that is one of its most hotly anticipated releases of the year, Austrian brewery Stiegl has been seeing great success with its version of grapefruit radler and Marble Brewery’s Sunshine Radler has been the surprise smash hit of the summer so far, gaining the, somewhat dubious, accolade from my sister-in-law of not only tasting like Fanta but burping like it too!

However, despite their very low 2.5% alcohol content, these drinks cannot be classed as low alcohol, or even reduced alcohol, and it gets murkier from there too, which has been causing some serious confusion with consumers. Multiple bottle shop owners have said to me that people are rejecting UK-brewed products because they are labelled as ‘low-alcohol’ and selecting their mainland European counterparts instead, even though they are also 0.5%ABV, because they are labelled ‘no alcohol’.

But why is this? Well, it’s because European products that are less than 0.5%ABV can be called ‘no alcohol’. In the UK, however, products 0.5%ABV are deemed to be ‘low alcohol’, while products that are 0.5% -1.2% are classed as ‘alcohol-reduced’. Still with me? I’m not sure I am.

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The good news is that this is set to lapse, the bad news is there’s still no clear way forward, as I’ll let Laura Willoughby from Club Soda explain.

“The rules disappear in December 2018 as part of a sunset clause in the Food Labelling Bill 2014. The Government have been consulting on replacement rules for low alcohol and alcohol-free and they are planning for guidelines rather than legislation, as there is no legislative time left before December.

“Us, the Portman group, British Beer and Pub Association and others have all asked for 0.5% beers that are produced in the UK to be called alcohol-free (this is very specific to those brewed here - beers from abroad at that level can be sold here as alcohol-free).”

It’s a rare day when all the trade bodies and interested parties speak in concert but why is this? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that science has proven that 0.5% beers cannot get you drunk and are also considered safe for women to drink whilst pregnant.

And it’s been proving a big pain the derrière for producers too, as Chris Hannaway from Infinite Session explains quite eloquently.

“Beer is a global marketplace, with brands and products from everywhere, so consistency is important. Particularly when stuff produced in another country isn’t governed by our laws when it’s sold here. In the UK, we’re a total outlier with the rest of the world - where 0.5% or below is the standard for using “alcohol-free”or “non-alcoholic”, and for good reason.

“Firstly, it’s safe when you see that 0.5% is a trace (just like a trace of gluten/fat etc are allowed in those “free-from” foods), that similar alcohol trace levels are present naturally in many foods like fruit, bread and yogurt and that 0.5% isn’t some big consumer con.

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“Secondly, it’s about taste. The challenge for “alcohol-free” as a category, if our goal is to help people drink a bit less, should be about brewing the best tasting beer that has no alcoholic effect. Currently, I’m convinced 0.5% and under is the best solution for this.” 

Rob Fink, founder of Big Drop concurs.

“What sense is there in having British brewed beers at 0.5%ABV being classified as low alcohol when they sit alongside imported beers of the same strength which are called alcohol free? No wonder people get confused.

“In reverse, we can label our beers as alcohol free for export markets so it can seem as if we are marketing two different beers in the same bottle. When 0.5% ABV is comparable to the amount of alcohol that might naturally occur in a glass of orange juice you start to understand just why the regulations have to be changed.”

And it’s not just the tiny producers like these two either, Simon Walkden, chief operating officer of Thornbridge Brewery, which has just launched its first foray into the no/lo arena called Big Easy, says: “We understand there has to be legislation in place to protect the consumer and we feel that is incredibly important, but we would encourage consistency as we feel this would enable the consumer to make an informed choice and provide equality across the industry.”

So, if you really want to sink something that tastes like a beer, looks like a beer and is made like a beer but just has a lot less alcohol, then this is what I recommend for that’s produced in the UK, because it’s great to drink local and when even your own Government is working against you, it’s a good way to rebel in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion.

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