Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

I didn’t anticipate how strange I’d feel buying non-alcoholic beer. I rolled into my regular supermarket at 9:30 on Saturday morning and loaded up the register’s conveyer belt with seven six-packs of non-alcoholic beer, plus a gallon of milk (we were out). The cashier asked for my I.D., which I wasn’t expecting. Then, to his credit, he did a decent job containing his side-eye while asking whether I wanted paper or plastic.

Wow, I said to myself as I watched the cashier scan pack after pack of NA beer, I look like a serial killer.

But the awkwardness was worth it, readers, for I was on a mission: to objectively evaluate and rank non-alcoholic beers.

My curiosity was piqued with reports that German Olympians and even marathoners use non-alcoholic beers as fuel. And it’s not just athletes: CNN Money reports Anheuser-Busch InBev says low- and non-alcoholic beers will make up 20 percent of its production volume by 2025. An increasing number of people are drinking this stuff, but I wanted to know: Does it taste any good?

Like any researcher using the scientific method, I had to formulate a hypothesis. I figured the best non-alcoholic beers would probably be pretty good, and the worst would be very, very bad. I anticipated that the best versions would be passable copies of their boozy cousins, but I had no guesses as to which brands would come out on top. With my mind a blank page ready for objective analysis, I cracked open the first bottle of non-alcoholic beer and prepared to rage.

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Photo: John Moore (Getty Images)

Methodology

I purchased every available brand of non-alcoholic beer stocked by my town’s major grocery stores, which came to eight types of NA beer, total. I’ve heard there are better imported and even craft versions of non-alcoholic beers, but I was limited by my stores’ supply. I invited my friend, homebrewer, and fellow beer judge Ryan over to help me taste, and because misery loves company. We evaluated the beers on appearance, aroma, flavor, and body, as well as whether we enjoyed drinking them overall. Then we ranked them from gross to great actually okay.

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Truly awful

Beck’s Non-Alcoholic

This beer is barely beer-colored: It’s so pale yellow and clear I can read a newspaper through it. The head is delightfully fluffy and long-lasting, though that’s where my compliments end. The aroma is so skunky, with layers of sulfur underneath the skunkiness. When I take a sip, the beer actually makes me actually gag a little, and I’m no stranger to bad beer. It’s the heaviest on our palate, too, with a strange raisinlike sweetness that coats the tongue. Really, it’s not just boring, it’s actively bad. “It’s like if you made cinnamon toast out of wet cardboard,” Ryan summarizes.

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O’Doul’s (green label)

This beer also earns high appearance marks: It’s lightly golden with a thin but persistent and silky head. Too bad it smells like sweet corn, perfume, and basements. “There’s this thing going on when you taste it,” Ryan says, refusing to refer to these sensations as “flavors.” I found it less recognizable as beer; it reminded me of a box of wine that I’d forgotten about in the back of a refrigerator in college. The combination of oxidized malts, sweetness, and perfume is not a positive one.


Passable

Guinness Kaliber (tied with St. Pauli N.A.)

Kaliber sounds like an amazing Berlin dance club, but it is a disappointing beer. The label advertises it as amber in color, but it’s barely golden when I pour it. There’s no discernible aroma; I couldn’t tell this glass from a glass of water if I was blindfolded and sniffing them. The flavor is like stale rye bread, or the world’s saddest old baguette crust. Its malts taste like something, at least, and that something is bread made of packing foam.

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St. Pauli N.A. (tied with Guinness Kaliber)

I sort of forgot St. Pauli Girl was a beer brand, actually, but a quick Google search indicates it still exists. Its non-alcoholic stepsister has the same generic green-bottle import skunkiness as a Heineken, but I’m told some people actually enjoy that aroma. The flavor is like that of a once-decent beer that’s sat in your basement for a decade; I check the bottle’s best-by date, and it’s still well within code. There’s a touch of honey sweetness to this beer, and maybe a floral note, but the swallow is so musty it’s difficult to get through a few steps. Ryan’s take? “I’d be afraid to burp this.”

Heineken Buckler Non-Alcoholic Brew

This beer looks beautiful. It’s super clear, with a golden color and a fluffy, white head—just like a beer ad. It has that slightly skunked European lager smell that screams “I’m an imported beer that’s been sitting on a shelf!” The flavor is recognizable a beer, but it’s super thin with no depth, like a watered-down Amstel. Malts are oxidized, everything tastes vaguely cardboardy, but the flavor washes away so quickly it’s not offensive. “At least I feel refreshed,” Ryan says.

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Actually okay

Busch N.A.

This beer actually has a bright aroma that’s identifiably beer-y, if not at all complex. The neutral graininess screams straight two-row malted barley to me, like the most simplistic of homebrew. Still, here we have a beverage that actually smells like beer. This is also the easiest-to-drink beer of the bunch; there’s hardly any flavor to grab on to here. The thin sip ends in a superbland finish with hardly any aftertaste. We gave this one high marks for being inoffensive and highly crushable. “This is the first one I’m double-dipping into,” Ryan says. “It tastes like barley La Croix. Very hydrating.”

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O’Douls Amber (red label)

This amber beer actually has color! It immediately stands out from our pee-colored rainbow for having a hue beyond that of straw. There’s maybe a touch of malt sweetness, like light caramel, in the aroma, but overall the nose is quite muted. Flavor-wise, though, it’s the maltiest of the bunch, with a snappy lagerlike finish. It’s far and away the better of the two O’Douls, and is one of the only beers on this list that has a malt profile and a texture thicker than water. “If you’ve ever sought a diluted Michelob, this is your beer,” Ryan asserts.


Winner

Photo: Coors

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Coors Non-Alcoholic

It must be that Rocky Mountain water. But no seriously, this tastes like a watered-down Coors Light and we’re fine with that. After suffering through some really gnarly contenders, we were totally pleased with the inoffensive Cheeriolike aroma and smooth corn-sweet flavor. This was the closest to a macro-brewed light lager, and people who drink those might enjoy this—if you don’t mind not catching a buzz, of course. “You could alternate drinking real beers with this while fishing, for hydration,” Ryan suggests.


Results and analysis

Coors Non-Alcoholic was the hands-down winner, but anything in the “actually okay” (looping in Busch and O’Douls Amber) was... actually okay. The bottom two (O’Douls green label and Beck’s Non-Alcoholic) make me question whether I’d rather die of thirst than introduce them to my digestive system. Further examination is needed of other craft and imported versions, including those from Mikkeller and BrewDog.

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I’m a huge fan of low-ABV beers—shout out to under-4 percent ABV Berliner weisses and table beers—so I think I’ll stick with those when I need a refreshing break from standard-strength beers. (I also found that my love of good old-fashioned water was reaffirmed by this tasting.)

While I’m still not entirely sure who the market is for NA beer—a friend of mine with a young daughter did tell me that these taste better when you’re pregnant and haven’t had a real beer in months—I’m glad the folks who choose to buy these at least have a couple options that don’t taste like watery cardboard.