September 1, 2004
Tempe’s Jeffrey Haines tossed back a sip of Mystery Beer No. 4, then smoothed his broad moustache, waiting for the tang of hops. Several days later, he’s still waiting.
But at the time, Haines, owner of Brewer’s Connection Inc. in Tempe, was diplomatic. "Well, it’s definitely thin. Very little malt. Very little body. It tastes like sparkling water with a little sweetness added."
Our Tribune Tasting Panel came at nonalcoholic beers from every angle. Haines offered chemical analysis, while Matt Bannon, sales associate at Sun Devil Liquors in Mesa, defined them by the yard work they complemented. Kelly Wilson, Get Out magazine’s nightlife writer, broke them down like suitors: Good taste? Bad smell? How do you feel after? And Ana Contreras, bartender at Maloney’s in Tempe, offered an abstract perspective: "I don’t like this," she said of Beer No. 2, "it smells like a hippie."
At first, the notion of nonalcoholic beer seems oxymoronic. Who wants a grain-based beverage that doesn’t partially anesthetize you? But nonalcoholic beers have found a small-but-stable niche among people whose health needs preclude alcohol; among designated drivers and business diners who need their wits about them and among revelers who want to greet the morning without an ice-pick hangover or the vague memories of a felony. A spokesman for Beer Marketer’s Insights, an industry newsletter, estimates that domestic sales of nonalcoholic beer reached 1.3 million barrels in 2003. But how do they stack up in taste?
We chose six contenders for a blind taste test with a panel well-seasoned in brew.
"This would be ideal for washing down really hot chicken wings," Bannon said of Sharp’s, Miller’s entry, "or right after mowing the lawn." Translation: It’s runny, but the fun stops there. "I taste a lot of sweetness — that’s the character of the malt rolling over the tongue," said Haines. "But the lack of bitterness, the absence of aroma, means there isn’t a lot of hops."
Wilson and Contreras were united in boredom: "It was extremely light, and very plain tasting," said Wilson.
Contreras agreed. "Tastewise, it’s your standard, domestic beer."
Aroma was not a problem for St. Pauli Girl; our Mystery Beer No. 2 charged out of the bottle swinging for the nose. "It’s got a pungent aroma," said Bannon. "Bolder. With a lot more flavor." Haines attributed this to the presence of twice as much hops. "A much better balance between sweetness and bitterness," he said. And, like any bold girl, St. Pauli fared better with the guys.
"The bitterness reminds me of (Pabst Blue Ribbon)," Wilson said. Contreras seemed to believe that, if the technology existed to liquefy hippies, they would smell like this.
Mystery Beer No. 3 was the German import Clausthaler, which found a happy medium between the Sharp’s and the overly adventurous Girl: "It went down a lot easier (than the St. Pauli), and it had a little kick," said Wilson. "A good sitting-on-your-couch beer," Bannon agreed, while Haines thought the taste would stand well with food. "Pair it up with a starch," he suggested, "like pasta alfredo."
But European heritage doesn’t guarantee popularity. Haake Beck, Mystery Beer No. 4, took the harshest shot of any German brew: "This is American, I bet," Haines guessed. Contreras was also underwhelmed: "Was this out in the sun?" she asked. Wilson added: "To me, it tastes like a flat can of beer." Perhaps this beverage would work better with food? "Maybe," Bannon said, "like a steak. On fire."
Tucked behind the Germans, O’Doul’s, the most famous domestic nonalcoholic beer, fared well — at first. "It’s bubbly, and different. Kind of a nutty flavor," Contreras said. But in the time it takes to say that . . . it’s gone. "Kind of hollow," Bannon said. "It’s got an initial, up-front zest that fades to a watery . . . absence." The group observed a moment of a silence before Wilson added, "And it’s kind of cider-y."
We finished our six-pack with Kaliber, an amber-colored Irish import that met with praise: "I like this one," Contreras exclaimed. "It tastes like an actual beer and it doesn’t smell."
Haines was more technical: "Not much hops. The (darker) color comes from caramelized sugars. I bet this one has the most calories."
"It probably does," Wilson agreed. "Because it tastes the best."
Kaliber allowed us to end proceedings on a high note, with each panelist singing the praises of the plucky Guinness product. "Good nutty flavor," Haines said. "And malty. A good BLT beer." "This would work as a good ‘date beer,’ " Wilson suggested, "something both sexes would enjoy." "I think it’s a good coldweather beer," Contreras said. "To me," Bannon protested, "it’s more of an ‘indoor beer.’ " But because it was nonalcoholic, their dispute never came to blows.