Alcohol-Free Beers - Our Blind Taste Test
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
After the success of ‘Lite’ beer variations, most of the major breweries have introduced ‘zero alcohol’ variants of their best known brands. Their aim is to stay true to hundreds of years of brewing tradition, whilst capitalising on a growing market who would rather avoid the alcohol - either through choice or circumstance.
However you can’t simply remove the alcohol from a famously alcoholic drink without raising a few questions. Namely; does zero alcohol beer still make for a satisfying drink? Do they have their own distinct flavour or are they miscellaneously similar to each other? And do any of them taste anything like ‘real’ beer?
The best way to find out is with a blind taste test.
The blind taste test.
We decided to review four alcohol free varieties from four major brands representing four different national brewing traditions - Becks (Germany), Cobra (India), San Miguel (Spain/Philippines) and Heineken (Holland). For comparison and as a control we also added a 5% alcoholic Heineken into the mix.
Although we were interested to see if we could pick out the truly alcoholic brew, our real focus was to decide if alcohol free beers were a drink to be enjoyed in their own right. And if so, which brand provided the finest option in terms of appearance, aroma, mouth feel, and crucially, taste.
Are they anything like ‘real’ beer?
The answer to this simple question is “sort of”. The colours are universally golden with lively bubbles and a slight head.
In the glass, the non-alcoholic beers are indistinguishable from the 5% Heineken.
On the nose however, the alcohol starts to make itself known. While the zero alcohol beers all have unique aromas - ranging from fruity to woody - there is no mistaking the liquor-like smell of the real thing. This only intensified when it came to taste.
While all share the basic flavours of hops and malt, there is no mistaking the punch of alcohol in the 5% Heineken which develops a general beer flavour into a warm complexity which extends fully down the throat and into the chest. When compared side-by-side, this difference makes the non-alcoholic beers appear plain and lacking.
If you are looking for something as close as possible to a beer experience with zero percent, then the San Miguel is our pick.
Compared to the others it is darker, stronger, with a slight creaminess that the others lack. In fact, both Macs and I thought that it could be the sneeky alcoholic sample before we got to taste the real thing.
Do they taste good?
If you drop the real beer comparisons and try to appreciate the non-alcoholic drinks in their own right then an interesting thing happens. You realise that they actually taste pretty good. Well apart from the Becks Blue. Compared to the other three samples, the Becks has a slightly chemical aroma and tastes watery with a long bitter and mouth-drying after taste.
The Cobra, San Miguel, and 0% Heineken on the other hand are universally pleasant and refreshing with light but distinct tastes.
Most surprising to us was how unique each drink is. While they vary only a little in colour and carbonation, each option has a distinct aroma and taste.
The Cobra has a strong and super sweet malty smell. This sweetness continues in the taste with both of us thinking of cornflakes with sugar. Really nice as a sweet one-off bottle (like a lemonade shady), but far too cloying for a night of pints.
The San Miguel is also sweet smelling but slightly more woody. It has a darker, more intense and deeper flavour closer to a traditional beer and with a long - if not slightly bitter - aftertaste.
The Heineken 0% however stood out as our favourite. Visually it is nothing special, and there is very little in terms of aroma. However for drinking it is crisp, refreshing and very quaffable with a pleasant tang of fruit - almost like a cider. On a summer’s day, it would be very possible to knock a few of these back without tiring of the taste which is neither too sweet, nor too bitter. Despite sharing a brand, the 0% Heineken and 5% Heineken share very few similarities in flavour. Both are very different drinks.
From Zero To Hero.
So there you have it. If you forget about the real beer comparisons and shared branding, then there is a pleasant new set of smells and tastes to be found at the bottom of a zero percent bottle.
Our blind taste test was enough to convince us that non-alcohol beers have a legitimate place on the supermarket shelf for those that prefer a lighter, sweeter and fruitier tasting tipple than traditional beer.
Why not give us your thoughts on zero alcohol beers in the comments at the bottom of the page. In the meantime, here are the full reviews and scores of the different beers we tried in the blind taste test.
Alcohol-free beer reviews
1st. Heineken 0% - Score: 8.75/10
On visual inspection this didn't look very impressive. There was virtually no head and not many bubbles. Like all the beers, it was brilliantly clear and light – a lovely golden colour. The smell did not excite Oliver who thought the aroma was very faint and Macs noted it did less for the nose than the others. However the light smell was pleasant and discernibly sweet, floral with a notable smell of fruit – Macs thought almost cidery.
Its intensity of aroma matched its flavour which was light. Although Oliver felt there wasn't much to taste, he enjoyed the aftertaste, Macs thought it was initially sweet and watery, with the a nice cidery tang developing slightly afterwards. Both concurred it was crisp, refreshing and very quaffable due to it being the most balanced in flavour. Good for summer as you don't tire of the taste – not too much sweetness, not too bitter or dark in the aftertaste.
2nd. San Miguel 0,0 - Score: 8/10
This was the second darkest looking beer – a clear amber colour with the most head and very refreshingly bubbly in appearance. The aroma however did not live up to its great visual appeal. It was sweet and slightly chemically. Macs described it as smelling woody and floral like cutting through particle board.
Upon tasting, the San Miguel was creamy and smooth with both of us thinking that the flavour was nicely intense and well balanced. Oliver noted how it was stronger and more distinct than the other beers and toyed with the idea that this maybe the sneaky alcoholic variety added to the taste-test. Macs felt there was too much flavour for it to be refreshing and her personal preference for light beers and lighter flavours cost it compared to the Heineken.
3rd. Cobra Zero - Score: 7.75/10
This was the darkest of the beers. It had a little head, with plenty of bubbles and looked refreshing. We both agreed it had a strong super sweet, malty aroma, reminding Oliver of fermented grass and Macs of caramel popcorn and sweet tea.
On tasting the moderately strong flavour, we were in agreement that it reminded us of cornflakes with sugar. Macs described it as sweet, strong, and mellowing to hoppy – a tiny bit of bitterness for a pleasant after-tang. Oliver commented that it didn't taste like real beer, but more like a lemonade top shandy with lime.
It was a moderately refreshing drink due to its light bubbles, but only if drank in small amounts – as the creamy, syrupy texture, and super sweet taste became a little too sickly and cloying. Nice as a sweet one-off bottle to drink, not great by the pint or for a whole evening of drinking.
4th. Becks Blue - Score: 3.5/10
We both agreed that this drink was unpleasant from start to finish. It had almost no head or fizz and was the lightest looking of the beers – a straw colour. It had a strong, sweet smell of wholemeal/rye bread and sweetcorn although Oliver thought it more syrupy and chemically smelling than that.
The sweet aroma was not congruent with the taste at all. The initial sip was surprisingly watery and then very bitter, with a long, dark aftertaste. Both of us felt it was earthy and Macs erred towards hints of coffee grinds and grain.
The cat amongst the pigeons of our taste-test. This was here more as the 'control' beer then for us to properly taste-test. Would we be able to pick it out – or are some alcohol-free beers so convincing we would have trouble?
On appearance it looked the same – a clear gold colour with almost no head and not many bubbles. The aroma was sweet, peachy and floral. Oliver noted 'it tickled his nose' and Macs said there was a definite smell of liqueur – an almost peach schnapps smell.
Upon trying a sip it was immediately clear this was the alcoholic beer due to the intensity of the flavour. Macs felt the main difference to the zero percent beers was that the flavours all happened at once, rather than being a taste-progression. Oliver agreed that the alcoholic beer had a naturally more complex and deeper taste. This alongside the very delicate throat warming sensation that only real alcohol can produce.