Food & Drink

What Happened When I Only Drank NA Beer For 40 Days

I tried 26 NA beers so you don’t have to.

non-alcoholic beer
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

Non-alcoholic beer can be gross. My first, an Imperial Cero in Costa Rica, was no exception. It tasted like Sweet'N Low-flavored seltzer water with a hint of week-old keg beer.

But I stuck with a personal resolution to give up alcohol for 40 days. I found another Costa Rican NA beer, Kaiser. I bought a six-pack and subbed it out for my usual two to four beers to get me through the kiddos’ dinner, bath, and bedtime. It worked. I bought some more.

Back in the U.S., I was overwhelmed by the variety of NA beer available. Apparently, it’s a thing. Germans are crushing the stuff after running marathons. Spaniards were hip to NA beer years ago. And it's good for you—it's Gatorade without the sugar.
 
Staring down a rack of options wrapped with logos and art to rival the real craft beer aisle, I bought them all (except the O’Doul’s—not interested). Twenty-six six packs and $300 later, there are four or five I'd buy again. But what really matters is that I no longer need to drink to survive an evening with my family. I just need to fool myself into believing that I'm drinking.

I drank more than 150 cans and bottles of NA beer over a month, revisiting my scores and thoughts as I revisited each beer with new context. Many were not worth drinking, or they have an odd funky aroma I’ve found commonplace in NA brews. But a few of them have changed my life. Dry January is just the start. The market for non-alcoholic drinks is exploding, and it will be breweries that dedicate themselves to NA beer—rather than those that produce it as an additional product—that excel. That’s primarily because NA beer tastes best when it’s brewed for that purpose, rather than brewing real beer and then removing the alcohol.
 
The growth of Athletic Brewing in 2020 demonstrates this. The brewery’s process creates beer from step one that is always intended to be non-alcoholic, allowing it to create NA beers that smell and taste like real beer. That includes seasonal and one-off varieties like Smooth Ascent Coffee Stout and Single Hop small batches, available only by mail. During the 2020 quarantine, these often sold out within 20 minutes of an email blast to subscribers. Athletic is the only NA brewery I’ve found that's figured out how to make dark beer—the All Out Stout is mind-bogglingly good and the Smooth Ascent is a guilt-free treat at 7 am on an early morning fishing trip. (These weren't included in this round-up because they generally can't be purchased at stores.)

I also need to note that these grades aren’t based on the National Beer Scoring System or any other professional means of evaluating beer. They are as subjective as the categories I used. I did my best to judge these as if they were real beers. Still, I’ve been drinking a lot of NA beer, so it’s possible that a few numbers are juiced here and there. But the best of them will certainly hold their own with real, alcoholic beer.

Light Beers

Not surprisingly, the most beer-like NA beers tend to be light beers.
 
WellBeing Victory Wheat
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 8
Wellbeing calls this a sports brew and they serve it in a full pint, which is smart, because I want every ounce of it. WellBeing nailed it. Of the lighter craft NA beers, this is the one. There’s no ingredient list, but the “hint of orange” is pronounced on the nose and in the flavor. It also contains Buoy, an additive that promotes hydration. Sounds gross. Fortunately, I’d formed a full opinion before reading and researching that, so it’s simply a bonus. You can pound one of these and head straight into a workout. And fool your friends, because it tastes like beer. 
 
WellBeing Golden Wheat
Drinkability: 8
Flavor: 7 
There are two toddlers hanging from my legs, yet I am calm. Thank you, beer. Near beer from heaven, as the bottle claims. You have the smell I want when I put my nose to a pint of hefeweizen, and all of that immediate back of the mouth tang I expect from a wheat. It’s satisfying and refreshing. The after effect is a bit like water—a slight flavor downside but an upside to drinkability. 
 
Athletic Upside Dawn Golden Ale 
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 7
A golden ale should be simple. It doesn’t exist to win flavor awards or wow with aromatics. It should taste good, have a refreshing mouthfeel, and go down easy. Athletic’s Golden checks every box and then exceeds expectations. There’s no funky, unpleasant smell or oddly sweet tang. It tastes like a craft version of a golden ale - exactly what it’s supposed to be.  
 
Heineken 0.0 
Drinkability: 8
Flavor: 5 
Heineken already has a distinct taste among the worldwide domestics, and the 0.0 is easily identifiable as the iconic Dutch brew. Maybe it’s the “natural flavors” it includes, but Heineken’s NA offering manages to mimic its flagship product with surprising accuracy. It’s already easy to pound a sixer of Heiny—these invite you to keep cracking all day long. And if you’re pairing with Amsterdam’s other vice of choice, you’re far less likely to end up slumped in your booth with the spins.  
 
Clausthaler 
Drinkability: 6
Flavor: 6 
Clausthaler claims to be crisp and fresh. Check. It also claims to have an intensive hoppy tang. Um, no. There’s a muted sweetness that overwhelms the tongue and seems to linger on the roof and side of the mouth. It’s good, and a suitable alternative I’d be happy with at a bar. Heck, I could order a liter glass of this in Germany and be just fine. But it's not hoppy. 
 
Surreal Kolsch
Drinkability: 8
Flavor: 4 
Lighter than light, it’s surreal that this hint-of-beer flavored water is on shelves nationwide. It tastes even lighter than Michelob Ultra, or whatever the super low calorie beer of the moment is. It’s refreshing since it’s basically water, and you could drink one after another without ever getting tired of it—like a beer-flavored soda water. I’d accept this out of a paper cup and slurp it down as I rounded the curve in a 10K. It’s not bad—it just tastes like nothing. 
 
Coors Edge 
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 5
Some NA beers get low or mid flavor scores because something about them tastes bad. Coors gets a 5 for tasting like...a good but not-quite-as-good Coors. The bar wasn’t too high. But it’s easy to pound them. This is one of the “natural flavors” brews, where they’ve likely heated the flavor out of Banquet beer and then used an additive to bring it back to something. It’s got more flavor than Coors Light, at least: a bit sweet, not at all bitter. It’s trying to be something, but not too much. It’ll retire a content middle manager. 
 
Bravus Raspberry Gose
Drinkability: 5
Flavor: 6 
Is a non-alcoholic gose just juice? This is pretty delicious, but it’s more like a raspberry lemonade than beer. It’s sweet. I wouldn’t want more than one, but it’s a refreshing summer afternoon treat. It’s telling that raspberries, coriander, and even pink Himalayan salt outrank hops in the ingredient list. It’s the color of beer, and it has a distinctive NA beer smell (not too funky but not as appealing as lemonade). Given the choice between this and a fresh squeezed raspberry lemonade, I’d go with the real thing.  
 
Becks NA
Drinkability: 6
Flavor: 4
Would I order a Becks NA at a bar if I’m out but not drinking, and be stoked that they have it available? Yes, definitely. Would I bring a six-pack home again? Probably not, given the better alternatives. Heineken 0.0 beats it hands down for a pilsner/lager NA alternative. It’s light (duh) and refreshing and it tastes like beer. The mouthfeel is just right. There’s no natural flavors or preservatives—just malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. But somehow in the brewing or alcohol removal process, it’s left with an oddly sweet taste that’s right up front on the tongue, and leaves me craving an actual beer. 
 
Buckler
Drinkability: 4
Flavor: 5
Heineken imports this exclusively NA brew from Holland, and like all NA beers, it’s labeled as a malt beverage. That’s certainly the case here. Sweet on the nose, sweet on the tongue, and sweet on the throat, it might be more accurately described as carbonated wheat juice. That said, some people prefer a sweet beer—Bud Light, for example. But this takes it too far. It’s anything but hoppy, and avoids the skunk smell, making it drinkable. But it’s not one that leaves you yearning for another. Interesting side note: I saw a picture of teetotaling George W. Bush with a Buckler in his hand at his daughter’s wedding.

Medium-Body Beers

Ambers and heavier lagers aren't common among NA beers, but several are worth trying
 
CERIA Grainwave 
Drinkability: 8
Flavor: 7 
This hoppy golden ale hits all the right notes. It’s as full bodied as a light NA beer can be, with tangy orange flavor on the tongue and no bitterness in the swallow. A slightly flat mouthfeel is balanced by the blood orange peel, coriander, and hops. There are also natural flavors—not a good sign with most NAs—but it doesn’t taste like anything is being covered up here.This is a drink-all-day-on-the-river beer. 
 
WellBeing Hellraiser Dark Amber 
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 8 
This is a satisfying red ale on the tongue, on the nose, and in the belly. On taste alone, I’d easily choose it over mass-produced reds like Killian’s. It also retains its creamy head better than the hoppy NA beers I’ve tried (although Hellraiser is pitched as “hop-forward”) and doesn’t have the odd skunked/flat flavor evident in many of the pales. It’s not clear how it raises hell—and it’s an odd moniker from a brewery named for good health—but it certainly raises some hell against the claim that near beers can’t hold their own with real beer. I’d drink this by the pitcher. 
 
Clausthaler Dry Hopped
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 6 
The dry hopped version of Claushaler is nearly amber in color and has 15 fewer calories than the original yet tastes more full-bodied. It also lacks the sweetness. This beer smells good and tastes crisp but rich.
  
Bravus Amber
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 6 
Amber may be the beer that makes Bravus. This brew lives up to its name in color, aroma, and flavor. It goes down easy but feels full-bodied. The NA funk is there, but minimal. The flavors are rich and roasted, simple but satisfying. In a category of “malted beverages,” varieties that rely more on malted barley than hops seem more likely to succeed, so it’s curious that more ambers aren’t on the NA market.

Hoppy Beers

Most NA pales fall flat, with one very notable exception 
 
Athletic Run Wild IPA
Drinkability: 8
Flavor: 9
How can so many other breweries fail at something that Athletic proves is possible? This is a 70 calorie straight up IPA. It’s water, barley, organic malt, hops, and yeast. There are no natural flavors making it taste like an IPA. Athletic just nailed it. The mouthfeel is perfect, there’s no skunky NA hops aroma. The creamy skim head maintains as you sip the pint, and the flavor holds its own with alcoholic IPAs, and is better than many of them. Maybe I’ve been drinking NAs for too long and I’m fooling myself, but this is a damn good beer. 
 
Ceria Indiawave
Drinkability: 7
Flavor: 7
I love Ceria’s branding. It’s important with an NA beer. If you’re going to drink it socially, it at least has to look like something beer lovers should want to try. Ceria’s clean blue can with a yellow Greek silhouette and a wreath of what looks to be hops and marijuana—it’s enticing. And Indiawave keeps up appearances in a pint glass, delivering a full foamy head and a deep rich dark golden color. It’s a full, rich flavor, made more remarkable by the short list of ingredients - water, malted barley, hops. Rather than the citrus of its flagship Grainwave, Indiawave lets the hops do the talking. Is this a true IPA? Not at all. It’s closer to water than the Two Hearted River. But it still tastes great, it’s easy to put back, and it almost completely avoids the NA funk.
 
Brooklyn Special Effects
Drinkability: 6
Flavor: 6
Hopes were high here. Brooklyn has clout. The branding and design are strong—you don’t have to drink to get psychedelic. The head faded quickly, and that NA funk smell that I’m realizing is fairly common hits the nose, but it’s lighter than others, is there. Hold your nose and this one is beer (although Brooklyn noticeably avoids using the word “beer” on the packaging—it’s “hoppy brew.”) Drop this one in the community cooler at a party, and it’ll likely be quickly snagged up for its good-looking can and slugged down without anyone noticing.  
 
Surreal Juicy Mavs Hazy IPA
Flavor: 6
Drinkability: 6 
A Citrusy IPA feels like an obvious NA choice, and with its nod to Mavericks and attractive, colorful drawing of the iconic wave on the label, this beer grabs eyes and sets big wave expectations. The meld of fruity acidity with hops provides plenty of flavor, but it feels like something's missing. It does everything it claims to do: “tropical fruit, citrus character, accentuated by fruity yeast esters in a subtle clean malt finish.” But it’s impossible not to feel that the same beer must have tasted so much better before they removed the alcohol.
 
Bravus IPA
Flavor: 5
Drinkability: 5
Bravus references a proprietary process that “allows us to create a beer which tastes so much like an alcoholic beer, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.” But there’s an astringency to this beer, and an unpleasant nose funk that you don’t get on a true IPA. India pales were over hopped to survive a long voyage, but this beer tastes like it could have a short shelf life.
 
Surreal Chandelier Red IPA
Flavor: 4
Drinkability: 5
This isn’t beer, it’s a beverage. Surreal’s Red IPA is a bit baffling when all the information is presented—it has the bitter, bold flavor of a red ale, but hardly the taste of an IPA. But the “toasty, caramelly malty backbone” is very pronounced. That’s even more shocking given that the beer has a mere 33 calories and a simple recipe of water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. I’d almost expect it to include “natural flavors.” That’s a big plus for Surreal. Unfortunately, it tastes a bit like a beer-flavored seltzer that’s been left open in the fridge for a few hours. It’s better than some of the overly sweet domestic NAs, but it’s not as good as beer. 
 
Partake Pale
Drinkability: 5
Flavor: 4
On a fresh pour, this pale holds so much promise. It’s the aroma and the color you expect in a pale ale and the finger of head that naturally formed in the glass got me excited. By the second sip, you feel cheated. This is the big reminder that alcohol has flavor, and this pale is obviously lacking it.
 
Hairless Dog IPA
Drinkability: 4
Flavor: 4
This beer is confounding. It’s almost like a citra IPA, but the hoppy, tangy flavor just isn’t quite right. Clues: 11 grams of sugar. Cultured dextrose. Phosphoric acid. These seem unique to Hairless Dog, and while they allow some easier manipulation of flavor, it’s not a benefit. Hairless is also the only NA I’ve found to proudly claim 0.0. Perhaps it’s the additives that allow the brewery to guarantee this beer won’t ferment to .03 or .05 as the other NAs must state on their label. This extra manipulation or flavor precision allows Hairless to produce a beer-like substance that is even less beer than its competitors. But this IPA juice just isn’t for me.
 
Partake IPA 
Drinkability: 4
Flavor: 3
IPAs, by nature, pack a punch. They’re a punch of bitter flavor that gets you buzzed fast. You know when you crack one, and they’re the boldest of beer flavors. This is bitter brown water. It does have pros: The Canadian brewers perfected the fizzy mouthfeel, maintained a creamy skim layer of head, and somehow avoided the unpleasant funk scent that some hop-driven NA beers suffer from. But it just doesn’t taste that good. And the back-of-the-mouth aftertaste is almost unpleasantly bitter, with none of the redeeming sweetness in a traditional IPA.

Dark Beers

Stouts and porters seem almost impossible to pull off as NA brews
 
Bravus Oatmeal Stout
Drinkability: 5
Flavor: 6 
Bravus might be trying to do the impossible here. A stout should smell full and robust before you take a sip. This beer has the acidic tang on the nose that’s common to many NA crafts. But once the glass leaves the nose and the taste settles onto the back of the tongue, it’s a stout. And a good one, albeit a little sweet. It’s a satisfying dessert beer. 
 
Wellbeing Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream
Drinkability: 4
Flavor: 5
Like Athletic and Bravus, Wellbeing claims to be the first dedicated NA brewery. But unlike Athletic, it contracts out to O’Fallon Brewery for production. The potential disconnect—and desire to reach, with creative but clearly more difficult NA “flavors” like Coffee Cream—may mean it’s trying to do too much. This one has an odd acidic astringency. I taste the coffee and the lactose is obvious. Cinnamon and cloves give it perhaps the best aroma of any NA beer in this bunch. But the tart flavor (even with 128 calories giving this more heft than most of the others) leave it distinctly lacking. It’s like a stout that got spiked with kombucha, left in the sun to go flat, and then re-carbed with CO2. 
 
Hairless Dog Black Ale 
Drinkability: 4
Flavor: 4 
This dark beer with a super fizzy but not thick head has a complex flavor with hints of chocolate. Although it’s not overwhelmingly sweet, 13 grams of sugar beg otherwise, and the duo of preservatives—cultured dextrose and phosphoric acid—make me question the integrity of the complexity. That said, it’s a passable alternative and a unique player in the NA market, but I’m not inclined to drink more than one at once or buy it again.

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Stratton Lawrence writes, surfs, and chases his children around Folly Beach—two out of three with a beer in hand.