My mother used to take my sister and me to a Konditorei --there is no exact translation for the word, but it denotes a cross between a cake- and pastry-shop and a cafe' -- in Chicago, Lutz's. I would drink a Swiss near-beer called Birell and eat liverwurst sandwiches or goulash while everyone else drank tea and ate pickled herring. I didn't really like beer of any sort then, but my bottle of Birell made me feel grown-up. I remember it as watery but intensely bitter, not entirely pleasant. I wonder what I would think of it today.
I couldn't find Birell here in Billings, Montana, but recently I bought every brand of near-beer I could. All are essentially lagers of a more-or-less Americanized "Pilsner" style, even the imports. Sticklers will note that Haake Beck (by Beck) and Kaliber (by Guinness) are absent, as well as Birell. My last Kalibers were in 1992, the night before a job interview, and I recall them as about on par with the better brews I review here.
Kingsbury, G. Heileman Brewing, Detroit
Water, malt, corn, and hops: the makings of a typical American lager, but without the additives. Kingsbury has an intense smell, largely of hops but also of something I can't place -- cornmeal mush? There's something sour in it, as of feet.
The adjunct flavor is powerful but masked somewhat by intense bitterness, some of it from hops. I thought of brewer's yeast tablets. Some breakfast cereals made of corn, notably Corn Chex, sometimes have a peculiar metallic flavor, almost like that of blood; that is also here. As Kingsbury warms, the adjunct taste takes over.
I find Kingsbury strangely pleasant. It's so bad that it's almost good, the brewers aren't afraid to make it taste of hops, it has some malty stickiness but it doesn't cloy, it's cheap, and my cat Felicity prefers it to any other brew she's tasted (and usually she has expensive tastes, as for steamed mussels).
O'Doul's, Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis
Is "O'Doul" an Irish name or an invention? I can't imagine anyone wanting to be associated with this beer, except perhaps for lots and lots of money: that may explain the logo of the PGA Tour on the can. O'Doul's is also "premium" and made of "all-natural ingredients."
Human urine with a few drops of iodine or soy sauce has the same color, and though the hop bitterness is faint, so is the sweetness. This balance makes O'Doul's what another manufacturer calls "an easy-drinking beer," but helps give it less character than most politicians. No hop aroma that I can detect: the smell is faint and elusive, as of a highly diluted cola or a very weak cheap tea. As the brew warms, a faint gluey flavor intrudes, the nasty element of the taste of raw sunflower seeds or cashews, or perhaps of Scotch broth. "O'Drool's" is apt: bland as one's own spittle.
Old Milwaukee NA, Stroh Brewing Company, Detroit
Water, grain, and hops: these are the "finest natural ingredients" that go into this "cold-finished" whatever-it-is, along, probably, with heading agents. OMNA, as I call it, is a clear yellow, and smells faintly but definitely of hops, just like any ordinary mass-market beer sold in the USA. It's not a clean hop taste, but acrid, like tannins. OMNA is bittersweet: it seems stickier than the competition, and it wallops you with sugar, followed by an insincere apology of insufficient bitterness. As OMNA warms it gets cloying, and I had trouble finishing a canful. It might make good bait for garden slugs, or perhaps a hair rinse.
Busch NA, Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis
I suppose that this differs from O'Doul's as Busch differs from Budweiser, but as I don't know what either tastes like I can't say. This time, A-B gives ingredients: water, barley malt, cereal grains, hops, and yeast. Often a bit of a previous batch of beer, full of live yeast, sets a fresh one going; yeast as an ingredient implies that in this case this isn't done. "There is nothing artificial in this product," as the can says; it is "fully brewed" and "naturally aged." Whatever.
Busch NA is a bit brown. It has "mouthfeel" to excess; I thought of oatmeal with the bits of grain removed, what an old German predecessor of Dr. Spock called Schleim. It smells of Cream of Wheat with a faint touch of hops and has a lot of foam. It's rather like O'Doul's for smoothness, but it's not as sweet. Cream of Wheat again comes to mind.
On March 31, come back for more domestic near-beers and some imports.