Low-alcoholic brews such as small beer date back at least to Medieval Europe, where they served as a less risky alternative to water (which often was polluted by feces and parasites) and were less expensive than the full strength brews used at festivities.
More recently, the temperance movements and the need to avoid alcohol while driving, operating machinery etc led to the development of non-intoxicating beers.
In the United States, non-alcoholic brews were promoted during Prohibition, according to John Naleszkiewicz. In 1917, President Wilson proposed limiting the alcohol content of malt beverages to 2.75% to try to appease avid prohibitionists. In 1919, Congress approved the Volstead Act, which limited the alcohol content of all beverages to 0.5%. These very low alcohol beverages became known as tonics, and many breweries began brewing them in order to stay in business during Prohibition. Since removing the alcohol from the beer requires just one simple extra step, many breweries saw it as an easy change. In 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, breweries easily removed this extra step.
By the 1980s and 1990s, growing concerns about alcoholism led to the growing popularity of "light" beers, with Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light eventually becoming the most popular beverage in the U.S.A. In the 2010s, breweries have focused on marketing low-alcohol beers to counter the popularity of homebrew. Declining consumption has also led to the introduction of mass-market non-alcoholic beverages, dubbed as "near beer".
At the start of the 21st century, alcohol-free beer has seen a rise in popularity in the Middle East (which now makes up a third of the market). One reason for this is that Islamic scholars issued fatwas which permitted the consumption of beer as long as large quantities could be consumed without getting drunk.
Positive features of non-alcoholic brews include the ability to drive after consuming several drinks, the reduction in alcohol-related illness, and less severe hangover symptoms.
Some common complaints about non-alcoholic brews include a loss of flavor, addition of one step in the brewing process, sugary taste, and a shorter shelf life. There are also legal implications. Some state governments, e.g. Pennsylvania, prohibit the sale of non-alcoholic brews to persons under the age of 21. A study conducted by the department of psychology at Indiana University said, "Because non-alcoholic beer provides sensory cues that simulate alcoholic beer, this beverage may be more effective than other placebos in contributing to a credible manipulation of expectancies to receive alcohol", making people feel "drunk" when physically they are not.
Light beer is beer with reduced alcohol content and/or calories compared to regular beer. The spelling "lite beer" is also commonly used.
Light beers may be chosen by drinkers who wish to manage their alcohol consumption or their calorie intake. However, these beers are sometimes criticized for being less flavorful than full-strength beers, being "watered down" (whether in perception or in fact), and thus advertising campaigns for light beers generally advertise their retention of flavor.
In Australia, regular beers have approximately 5% ABV; reduced-alcohol beers have 2.2%–3.2%.
In Canada, a reduced-alcohol beer contains 2.6%–4.0% ABV, and an “extra-light” beer contains less than 2.5%.
In the United States, most reduced-alcohol beers, including Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite, have 4.2% ABV, which is 16% less than beer with 5% ABV.
In Sweden, low alcohol beer is either 2.2%, 2.8% or 3.5%, and can be purchased in an ordinary supermarket whereas normal strength beers of above 3.5% must be purchased at the Systembolaget.
Low-point beer, which is often known in America as "three-two beer" or "3 point 2 brew", is beer that contains 3.2% alcohol by weight (equivalent to about 4% ABV).
The term "low-point beer" is unique to the United States, where some states limit the sale of beer, but beers of this type are also available in countries (such as Sweden and Finland) that tax or otherwise regulate beer according to its alcohol content.
In Sweden, beer containing 2.8-3.5% ABV (called Folköl or "Peoples' Beer") may be legally sold in any convenience store to people over 18 years of age, whereas stronger beer may only be sold in state-run liquor stores to people older than 20. In addition, businesses selling food for on-premises consumption do not need an alcohol license to serve 3.5% beer. Virtually all major Swedish brewers, and several international ones, in addition to their full-strength beer, make 3.5% folköl versions as well.
In the United States, 3.2 beer was the highest alcohol content beer allowed to be produced legally for nine months in 1933. As part of his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen–Harrison Act that repealed the Volstead Act on March 22, 1933. In December 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, negating the federal government's power to regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages, though states retained the power to regulate.
After the repeal of Prohibition, a number of state laws prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors remained in effect. As these were repealed, they were first replaced by laws limiting the maximum alcohol content allowed for sale as 3.2 ABW. To this day, the states of Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah permit general establishments such as supermarket chains and convenience stores to sell only low-point beer. In these states, all alcoholic beverages containing more than 3.2% alcohol by weight (ABW) must be sold from state-licensed liquor stores. Oklahoma additionally requires that any beverage containing more than 3.2% ABW must be sold at normal room temperature (about 68°F/20°C).
Missouri also has a legal classification for low-point beer, which it calls "nonintoxicating beer". Unlike Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah, however, Missouri does not limit supermarket chains and convenience stores to selling only low-point beer. Instead, Missouri's alcohol laws permit grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, and even "general merchandise stores" (a term that Missouri law does not define) to sell any alcoholic beverage; consequently, 3.2% beer is rarely sold in Missouri.
Originally, "near beer" was a term for malt beverages containing little or no alcohol (less than 0.5% ABV), which were mass-marketed during Prohibition in the United States. Near beer could not legally be labeled as "beer" and was officially classified as a "cereal beverage". The public, however, almost universally called it "near beer".
The most popular "near beer" was Bevo, brewed by the Anheuser-Busch company. The Pabst company brewed "Pablo", Miller brewed "Vivo", and Schlitz brewed "Famo". Many local and regional breweries stayed in business by marketing their own near-beers. By 1921 production of near beer had reached over 300 million US gallons (1 billion L) a year (36 L/s).
A popular illegal practice was to add alcohol to near beer. The resulting beverage was known as spiked beer or needle beer, so called because a needle was used to inject alcohol through the cork of the bottle or keg.
Food critic and writer Waverley Root described the common American near beer as "such a wishy-washy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever."
Beginning in the late 2000s, the term "near beer" has been revived to refer to modern non-alcoholic beer. In the early 2010s, major breweries began experimenting with mass-market non-alcoholic beers to counter with declining alcohol consumption amid growing preference for craft beer, launching beverages like Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser Prohibition Brew, launched in 2016.
A drink similar to "near beer", "bjórlíki" was quite popular in Iceland before alcoholic beer was made legal in 1989. The Icelandic variant normally consisted of a shot of vodka added to a half-a-litre glass of light beer.
Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as opposed to the often polluted water and the expensive beer used for festivities. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants at those occasions.
However, small beer/small ale can also refer to a beer made of the "second runnings" from a very strong beer (e.g., scotch ale) mash. These beers can be as strong as a mild ale, depending on the strength of the original mash. (Drake's 24th Anniversary Imperial Small Beer was expected to reach above 9.5% abv.) This was done as an economy measure in household brewing in England up to the 18th century and is still done by some homebrewers. One commercial brewery, San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company, also produces their Anchor Small Beer using the second runnings from their Old Foghorn Barleywine. The term is also used derisively for commercially produced beers which are thought to taste too weak.
The Middle East accounts for almost a third of worldwide sales of nonalcoholic and alcohol-free beer.
Notable Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have issued fatwas permitting the consumption of "alcohol-free" beers that can be proven to contain zero traces of alcohol. Alcohol-free beers such as Holsten, Barbican and Moussy are often available in stores and restaurants throughout the Arab world.
The market for nonalcoholic beer in Malaysia has been slow in comparison to other Muslim-majority countries, and as of 2015, the Malaysian government has not approved any nonalcoholic beers as halal.
In 2008, the sale of non-alcoholic beers in Iran continued its high performance with double-digit growth rates in both value and volume and is expected to more than double its total volume sales between 2008 and 2013.
Beers that are labeled "non-alcoholic" still contain a very small amount of alcohol. Thus, some US states require the purchaser to be of a legal drinking age. Exceptions include:In Texas, the law does not prohibit minors from consuming or buying non-alcoholic beer, but the law does specify that a beverage containing more than one half of one percent alcohol by volume is an alcoholic beverage and thus will follow the same restrictions as regular beer.
In Minnesota, non alcoholic beer (under 0.5% ABV) does not fit in the category that the state defines as an alcoholic beverage and can be purchased by those under the legal drinking age.
In Wisconsin, the law does not regulate non-alcoholic beer (less than 0.5% ABV), and it can be purchased without any age restriction.
In New Jersey, the law governs only beverages of at least 0.5% ABV.
In Illinois, beverages with under 0.5% ABV are not governed by the Illinois Liquor Control Act and can be purchased and consumed by minors.
In Sweden, beer below or equaling 2.25% ABV (lättöl) is not legally subject to age restrictions; however, some stores voluntarily opt out from selling it to minors anyway.
According to the Birmingham Beverage Company, the brewing process of traditional brews consists of eight basic steps, nine for brewing non-alcoholic brews.
- Malting - Barley is prepared by soaking it in water and allowing the grain to germinate or "sprout". This allows the tough starch molecules to be softened and begin conversion to sugars. Next, the sprouts are dried in a kiln; the temperature at which the sprouts are dried will affect the flavor of the finished brew.
- Milling - Next the malted grain is ground to a cornmeal-like consistency, which allows the sugars and remaining starches to be more easily released when mixed with water.
- Mashing - The finely-ground malted grain is mixed with water and pulverized. By pulverizing the slurry, most of the remaining starches are converted to sugars due to enzymes present in the malt, and the sugars then dissolve into the water. The mix is gradually heated to 75℃(167℉) in what is called a mash tun. The slurry is then filtered to remove the majority of particulates. This filtered sugary liquid is called "wort".
- Brewing - The wort is brought to a boil for roughly 1–2 hours. During this time, other grains that will contribute flavor, color, and aroma to the brew are added. Boiling allows several chemical reactions to occur and reduces the water content in the wort, condensing it.
- Cooling - The wort is filtered to remove the majority of the grains and hops and then immediately cooled to allow the yeast to survive and grow in the next step.
- Fermenting - The cooled wort is saturated with air, and yeast is added in the fermentation tank. Different strains of yeast will create different styles of beer. This step takes around ten days.
- Maturation — The freshly fermented uncarbonated beer is placed into a conditioning tank and, in a similar process to wine making, is allowed to age. If this step is rushed the beer will have an off flavor (acetaldehyde) that beer experts sometimes refer to as "green beer" because of its resemblance to green apples. During this process of aging, the majority of the residual particulates will settle to the bottom of the tank.
* Between the seventh and eighth steps, the brew can be converted to non-alcoholic beer.
- Finishing — Finally, the brewer is ready to finish the beer. The beer is filtered one last time; it is then carbonated and moved into a storage tank for either bottling or kegging.
Low-alcohol beer starts out as regular alcoholic beer, which is then cooked in order to evaporate the alcohol. This is possible because alcohol is more volatile than water, so it is easier to boil off. The alcohol is allowed to escape and the remaining liquid is used, essentially the opposite of distillation. Most modern breweries also utilize vacuum evaporation to preserve flavor. In essence, the beer is placed under a light vacuum to facilitate the alcohol molecules going into the gaseous phase. If a sufficient vacuum is applied, it may not even be necessary to "cook" the beer, but heat must nevertheless be supplied.
An alternative process called reverse osmosis does not require heating. The beer is passed through a filter with pores small enough that only alcohol and water (and a few volatile acids) can pass through. The alcohol is distilled out of the alcohol-water mix using conventional distillation methods. After adding the water and remaining acids back into the syrupy mixture of sugars and flavor compounds left on the other side of the filter, the process is then complete.
Sometimes beer is simply diluted with water to give the desired alcohol level.
The conversion from a traditional alcoholic beer to a non-alcoholic beer takes place after the seventh step and preceding the finishing step. The uncarbonated beer is heated up to its boiling point. Another method of removing the alcohol is to decrease the pressure so the alcohol boils at room temperature. This is the preferred method because raising the temperature this late in the brewing process can greatly affect the flavor of the brew. If brewers decide to convert their brew to a non-alcoholic brew they must consider the volume of liquid they have lost during the removal of the alcohol. Typically the volume is reduced by roughly 4%, and to compensate water is added. Another tip would be avoiding using sugar from maize; this simply increases the alcohol content without adding to the flavor or body of the beer.
Once the alcohol is removed, one proceeds with the normal finishing process in which the beer is carbonated and bottled.