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by Markian Gooley

Sticklers will note that Haake Beck (by Beck) turned up after all, although Kaliber (by Guinness) and Birell are still absent.

Pabst NA, Pabst Brewing Company, Milwaukee and Tumwater

Stroh's gobbled Heileman, and Pabst Olympia, or do I have one or both backwards? No matter. Pabst NA is of "premium quality" and has the "full-bodied taste of traditional beer," huzzah, and it is Union Made, so buy it for Labor Solidarity if for nothing else. It has a stale smell and a touch of hop smell to keep it beer-like. I can't pin the smell down: at times it seems like that of industrial-grade hand soap. There's even the estery fruitiness of a true ale -- I think. Pabst NA has a lot of flavor and mouthfeel, but not the sliminess of Busch NA nor the cloying sweetness of some others. Like its smell, its taste eludes my description: it's a parody of the taste of beer, I suppose. Other near-beers can perhaps be enjoyed as beverages distinct from beer, but Pabst NA reminds me that it might have been beer. I'm of two minds about it.

St. Pauli NA, St. Pauli Brauerei, Bremen, Germany

I thought that St. Pauli was the red-light district of Hamburg. The label states that the contents of the green bottle (why green? That's begging for skunked beer) would have met the German purity law (now defunct, probably because of the Common Market). Does adherence to the old Reinheitsgebot (note that Luther used the word Gebot for the Ten Commandments when he put the Bible into German) guarantee a good drink? No. The color is okay, the head impressive, the smell a bit sweet but with some hoppiness. The flavor, however, is sweet, not even bittersweet but reminiscent of soft drinks, with a faint acrid aftertaste and belated hop bitterness failing to provide any attempt at balance. St. Pauli NA is more cloying than a cheap perfume and gets worse as it warms. It's entirely out of whack, and I have trouble finishing a bottleful unless I drink quickly.

Coors Cutter, Coors Brewing Company, Golden, Colorado

Cold-lagered at 31 degrees Fahrenheit, says the label, and it tells us a little story about Adolph Coors pledging to brew only great beer. Good for him that he's dead, and whether or not he was embalmed, Coors Cutter has no preservatives. Coors Cutter could be worse, though. It has the usual color of a near-beer, and the faintest hint of hop aroma combining with a sweetish smell. It's remarkably like St. Pauli NA, only not as sweet; again the hop flavor appears mostly as a bit of acrid aftertaste. Coors Cutter is much cheaper in the US, though.

Haake Beck, Brauerei Beck, Bremen, Germany

By chance I managed to get a six-pack of this. It's another beer that conforms to the old Reinheitsgebot, but as we saw with the no-alcohol version of St. Pauli, that guarantees nothing. Haake Beck is the color of slightly-watered ginger ale, and has a huge initial head of foam. It smells quite sweet, with the hops almost subliminal. Maybe the hops are Saaz, but I can't tell. It's not quite as sweet as ST. Pauli Girl, but it comes close. There's perhaps a little more bitterness, and the darker color could mean that this comes from a little dark malt. Haake Beck is almost as unbalanced as St. Pauli Girl, and that gets worse as it warms. It's downright cloying and sticky, and the hops show no sign of providing much flavor apart from sheer bitterness, and not enough of that. Perhaps Beck's owns the St. Pauli brewery, or simply the name, and brews St. Pauli Girl NA next to its other brews: both labels mention Bremen, after all. Haake Beck is little better. Avoid it.

Buckler, imported from Holland by Heineken USA

Buckler has a refreshing lack of hype on the label: nothing about natural ingredients or purity laws or cold-lagering, just "Brewed by Heineken" and "Imported from Holland" as arguments for its quality. Unlike Heineken's, its bottle is brown, which is better protection against damage to the hop flavor by stray light. It's rather too light a brown to do much good, though.

Buckler has a true yellow color, and has almost no hop scent. In fact, I couldn't swear that it smells of anything, except very faintly perhaps of cooked cereal. Its stalwart hop bitterness is a pleasant surprise, and without this it would be powerfully sweet; at room temperature it's almost cloying. Buckler is almost balanced, and apart from a sort of Cream-of-Wheat taste it's pleasant. The hops provide a bitter aftertaste as well, which I like.

Clausthaler, Binding-Brauerei, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Like St. Pauli NA, this near-beer would have been legal under the old purity law. It's "genuine, pure, and natural" and "pure and clean with German beer taste." It comes in another of those absurd green bottles. The initial head is high, and the smell is more or less of hops and malt.

Clausthaler has a definite hop bitterness, particularly in its aftertaste but also from the start of every sip. It's undeniably sweet, but it comes close to having the proper balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness -- certainly closer than Buckler does. I think that I detect some actual hop flavor as opposed to mere hop bitterness present in the other near-beers.

This is no substitute for a real beer, but it's drinkable, and worlds above some of the other near-beers I've been reviewing.

Warsteiner Premium Fresh, Warsteiner Brauerei, Warstein, Germany

"Premium Fresh" is a strange name: Is regular Warsteiner beer second-rate and stale? In several places the bottle bears the cryptic phrase "der Traum von einem Warsteiner," literally "the dream of a Warsteiner." What does it mean: a dream-project of someone from Warstein? the essence but not the alcohol of a Warsteiner beer? Premium Fresh has the color of ginger ale, and it smells of Saaz hops, the usual hops for a beer aping Pilsener. This is remarkable in a near-beer: usually there's little hop scent and I can't make out the variety. The hop bitterness is there, but it's not intense, and even when the brew is cold there is some hop flavor, perhaps Saaz, perhaps some German flavor hop.

What's amazing is that the malty sweetness present in so many German near-beers is absent: the hops' relatively-mild bitterness is enough to balance a modest maltiness. This is hardly a perfect beer: it tastes watery, somehow, like a "light" beer, and on the whole it resembles a mediocre European copy of Pilsener, but without the alcohol bite. For a beer without alcohol, that's remarkable, and the balance between malt and hops remains as the beer warms. Warsteiner Premium Fresh has a taste quite different from Clausthaler's, and different people will prefer different styles, but I give Premium Fresh the edge.

In Conclusion

If I wanted a beer but couldn't have one because, say, I had to drive, I'd drink water. Presented with a choice of the near-beers I've reviewed here, I'd choose Warsteiner, followed by Clausthaler. Buckler would be my next choice, and then perhaps Kingsbury for its sheer awfulness. Coors Cutter and St. Pauli NA are almost undrinkable to me, and the other brews are about equally bad, though in different ways.

I can't recommend any of these no-alcohol beers as a substitute for the real thing. Home brewers can make low-alcohol beers through heating, dilution, or both of beer that's ready to bottle. (I diluted a watery Vienna-style lager once to get a refreshing, dark-colored beer of about one percent alcohol; a champagne-bottle full of it hardly registered on my internal meter as having any alcohol at all, yet it was better than any commercial pseudo-Pilsener.) Small brewers in the US should consider going into the near-beer business, although the equipment needed to get a beer under the half-percent necessary to evade Federal taxes may be prohibitively costly.

Alcohol-free beer is truly perverse.

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