You’d probably think alcohol-free beer was straightforward. Take a normal beer, remove the alcohol and there you have it, you’ve got your alcohol-free beer. So why do many alcohol-free producers including Jump Ship list the ABV as <0.5%? The answer, you may have guessed, is not so simple.
What it says on the can
Let’s start with the labelling of low and no drinks in the UK which is quite confusing. The definition of alcohol-free, or non-alcoholic, in the EU, the USA and most of the world, is drinks containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume. In the UK, the strict definition is less than 0.05%. There is quite a lot of variation in descriptors, with some brands choosing to promote 0.0% and others using the low-alcohol or alcohol-free descriptor for drinks less than 0.5% ABV. A government consultation is underway which may bring the UK more in line with the rest of the world. In the meantime, at Jump Ship we prefer to use the simple term alcohol-free, the trace alcohol present in our beer is about the same as a large ripe banana and less than what can be naturally found in a burger bun.
So can alcohol-free beer get me drunk?
We’ve seen a lot of people asking the questions “Can I get drunk drinking alcohol-free beer” and “Can I drive after drinking alcohol-free beer?” So here’s a quick breakdown of just how much alcohol-free beer you would need to drink, compared to the equivalent alcoholic version.
Half a litre of 0.5% ABV beer contains 0.25 units of alcohol. The equivalent half litre of 4.4% ABV beer (approximately the average strength of beer sold in the UK) would equate to 2.2 units. To reach the same number of units of alcohol by only drinking alcohol-free beer at 0.5% ABV, you would have to drink 4.4 litres of alcohol-free beer in the same period as you drink half a litre of the 4.4% ABV beer.
Let’s consider the body’s metabolism of alcohol, which occurs at approximately 1 unit per hour for the average person. Even if you manage to drink two litres of 0.5% ABV drinks an hour (that’s six cans of Jump Ship), you’d still be clearing alcohol from your system faster than it goes in. A 2012 study put this all to the test with 78 participants drinking 1.5 litres of alcohol-free beer in one hour. The highest blood alcohol percentage found was 0.0056g/l. To put that into perspective, the driving limit in Scotland is 0.5g/l or 100 times more concentrated.
So how exactly is alcohol-free beer made?
Low-alcohol drinks have been around for a very long time. Varying in strength, small beers (somewhere around the 2.5% ABV mark) have been consumed since at least 5000 BCE. In those days, a weaker beer was made either using less grain, having less efficient methods of extracting sugar or by conducting a second mash or rinse of the grains, taking only a small percentage of the sugars that were left over after an initial, full-strength brew. All of these methods exist in today’s market but have been joined by many other methods, each with its benefits and drawbacks.
A full-strength beer is brewed using traditional methods before having the alcohol removed from the final product by one of many processes. These include boiling the alcohol off, pulling it out using vapour or gases and filtering the alcohol out by passing the beer through a membrane (reverse osmosis). These all allow for tight control of the exact ABV of the final product, but come with the downside of flavours being altered by temperature or stripped out by filters.
A simple process of producing a full-strength beer and watering it down to the desired alcohol level before carbonating and packaging it up. As you can imagine, being so simple you do end up with a literally watered-down final product.
3. Simulated fermentation
This method of production forgoes the entire fermentation process, opting to simulate some of the reactions that take place without sugar being converted into alcohol. This involves the addition of other ingredients such as enzymes that simulate the same reactions that occur during fermentation. This ensures that there is no alcohol produced by yeast during the process but often leaves the final product missing some of the flavour characteristics that you expect in a beer.
4. Controlled fermentation
A hark back to the old days perhaps? Controlled fermentation methods allow a brewer to produce a normal beer, which is allowed to ferment and is stopped at the desired ABV level. This method can include some or all of the following techniques:
- using so-called “lazy” yeasts that aren’t very good at turning sugar into alcohol;
- controlling the amount of sugar available for yeast to turn into alcohol by using less grain, or special types of grain, in the mash; or
- stopping a yeast from fermenting all of the sugars present in the wort by dropping the temperature of the brew (yeast act sleepy when it gets cold and go into hibernation).
Each of these methods allows fermentation to happen, with all the flavour that produces, while limiting the amount of alcohol produced. Managing the fermentation can be tricky, but we believe that this is the best method to produce a full-flavoured alcohol-free brew. Nothing is added or taken away to create a beer designed to be naturally less than 0.5% ABV.
Who can buy alcohol-free beer?
In the UK, alcohol as a product category begins above 0.5% ABV and therefore any product that includes less than this does not need to comply with alcohol licensing laws. This means that you do not need to be over the age of 18 to purchase alcohol-free beer. However, many stores or venues operate a separate in-store policy to avoid any chance of miss-selling alcohol to underage customers.
Pregnancy and alcohol-free drinks
Club Soda present a well-argued case that suggests based on the available evidence, drinking reasonable amounts of alcohol-free drinks under 0.5% seems extremely unlikely to cause any harm during pregnancy. You can read the full article here.
We understand that this is an extremely important subject for every parent-to-be. In the end, it is always going to be a personal decision for every future parent. If you have any concerns, we recommend that you discuss the issue with your doctor, midwife or other health professional.
We hope we’ve answered a few of your burning questions about alcohol free drinks! Do feel free to drop us an email if you’d like more information or would like us to write on other topics related to all things beer and alcohol-free.