NoLow Alcohol

No & Low alcoholic beersNoLow is here to stay

Beer with little or no alcohol has been on an unstoppable climb in recent years. For convenience, let’s call this category ‘NoLow’: a combination of 'no alcohol' (beer with a maximum of 0.1% alcohol per volume) and 'low alcohol' (low alcohol beer, with a maximum of 1.2% alcohol per volume).

People who want to taste beer but who do not necessarily want the effects of alcohol are getting more and more choice. The wider variety of available beers, and therefore flavours, also means that you can suddenly enjoy beer at times of the day or week when you might not want to drink alcohol. But be careful: 'light' beer is something very different than NoLow. More on that later on.


‘NoLow’ beer throughout history

Once, low-alcohol beer was by far the most popular beer type in Europe, though nobody was talking about 'NoLow' or even 'low alcohol'. For that we have to go back in time, towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period. Then, beer was an everyday drink, partly because other drinks were simply not yet available. Fizzy drinks, coffee, wine, juices, forget it - you just didn’t have them. There was some wine, but that was only for the rich. In many cases, clean drinking water was scarce and milk was seen as a food for children.

Beer became an obvious alternative. Brewing was a regular part of the household; it was tended to be work done by women, even before the Middle Ages. The beer they made at home contained little alcohol, however: they used was as little grain as possible, so that there was little fermentable sugar, and the fermentation itself was completely uncontrolled. However, the drink was boiled, making it relatively safe to drink. It was never more than 1% to 1.5% alcohol. So, in a way, NoLow goes way back.

Gradually, home breweries turned into more professional companies, and home-brewed beer all but disappeared from the stage. Production changed a lot: while at first people brewed small quantities for immediate consumption in their own household, now, breweries were opening that produced beer en masse for public use that could be kept for quite a while.

The raw materials were handled more efficiently, too. Breweries rinsed the malt batter (the grains which the sugars come from) several times with hot water. With every new rinse, more and more sugars are washed away and less alcohol remains. The last rinse gave so little sugar, and therefore alcohol, the Dutch called it 'scharrebier' and sold it to the poorest of the population for just a few cents. But even the beer that everyone else drank daily - in considerable quantities, maybe up to five litres a day - contained little alcohol.

We now know this beer as 'table beer'. You can still buy it in litre bottles, mainly in Belgium. There, as recently as ten years ago, parliamentarians voted on whether this table beer should be used again in primary schools. Surprisingly, the proposal didn’t make it in parliament.


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More and more variety

Only in the late seventies did people start to become more aware of their alcohol consumption, and that’s when big breweries started to produce alcohol-free lagers. But what many people found with NoLow beers of that time is that they didn’t have much flavour - they didn’t really taste like beer.

With recent improvements in brewing techniques owing to the craft beer revolution, only now is it possible to brew really delicious NoLow beers. Breweries have begun producing more than just lagers with low and no alcohol, meaning there’s more variety all the time. Hefeweizen, amber ale, India pale ale, stout, porter, and even tripel: almost every beer style can now be found in a NoLow guise.

This growing availability means that there are new opportunities to drink beer without the alcohol being a factor. Alcohol-free beer has turned out to be an ideal thirst quencher for after sport, and also contains very few calories. For example, the German Olympic team took thousands of gallons of alcohol-free Hefeweiss beer to the Winter Games in PyeaongChang.


What’s the difference between ‘light’ beer and ‘alcohol-free’ beer?

Alcohol is made from sugar and therefore has a calorific value. The less alcohol, the fewer calories. Beer scores well in terms of calories anyway - it contains fewer than fruit juice, wine and milk. But 'light' beer does not necessarily mean that it is low alcohol. ‘Light’ is a dominant beer category in the US, however the volumes of alcohol in all these light American lagers is usually around 3 or 3.5% - certainly not the sensible choice if you still have to get in the car or have to work. For those who want a tasteful and sensible alternative drink for your favourite lager, IPA or Hefeweizen, don’t go for a 'light' beer, try a No. Or Low.

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