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BALZER ON BEER : WHAT'S BREWING? : Nonalcoholic Beers Taste Like the Real Thing, L.A. Times' 10th Tasting Finds

July 28, 1991|Robert Lawrence Balzer

The big news about beer today is the whirlwind rise of nonalcoholic beer. By definition, beer is "an alcoholic beverage made by fermentation of cereals, usually malted barley." Fermentation means naturally developed alcohol--in other words, no fermentation, no alcohol, no beer. (As some wag once said, "The man who coined the term 'near beer' was a rotten judge of distance.") But today, there is nonalcoholic beer (perhaps not entirely without alcohol but with less than 0.5% alcohol by volume), and it even tastes like the real thing. Sales are zooming up, growing a heady 90% in 1990 to total more than 1% of the beer market.

Technically, of course, the term is "nonalcoholic brew," as the Food and Drug Administration does not permit it to be called by its generic classification. There are now 33 of these brews on the market. Surprisingly, the leading European brands, such as Buckler of Heineken and Haake-Beck of Beck in Germany, have been on the market for more than 50 years. But then, Egyptians were making nonalcoholic beers 5,000 years ago, says Alan Eames, a noted beer historian and anthropologist dubbed the "Indiana Jones of beer" for his intrepid explorations tracking the evolution of suds.

According to Eames, Chaldeans and Sumerians also had beer, including nonalcoholic beer. The alcohol was deliberately arrested by heating the wort over braziers before the full alcoholic strength could rise. Contrary to popular belief, today's nonalcoholic brew is not a beer with something removed, but a product of arrested fermentation, the yeast action being stopped, Eames says, "by an inhospitable temperature." So, in fact, fermentation does begin and true beer taste is made.

There are 1,300 registered beer brands--with and without alcoholic content--sold in America today. During the past century, more than 2,000 breweries existed, but that number dropped to almost nil during Prohibition. Now there are 250 healthy breweries, and the number is growing. While Champagne is the No. 1 beverage of choice in Europe, in the United States, it's beer.

In this 10th Los Angeles Times beer tasting, we took on 70 of the leading market contenders, including eight from the new nonalcoholic brew category. I assembled a panel of tasters from a variety of occupations. And they were asked to blind-taste giving a maximum of five points each for attributes of body, foam, color, aroma, taste, bitterness and flavor; the "perfect" beer could earn 35 points. Here are the leading winners in the five categories tasted (prices listed are per six-pack, unless otherwise noted).

NONALCOHOLIC BEERS CLAUSTHALER Germany, $6.25 per six-pack. A golden brew, round in taste, almost sweet, with a fair head of creamy foam. 25.2 points. HAAKE-BECK Germany, $5.50. Surprisingly good beer taste, good body, lacy foam lingering in tracery on the glass. 24.7 SHARP'S United States (Miller), $3.99. The leading domestic entrant, with a "secret process" by Miller, is a bit above adequate as a refresher. 23.1 BUCKLER Germany (Heineken), $5.50. Clean taste, fine golden color and creamy head, but not much traditional character in bouquet and aroma. 22.1 KALIBER United Kingdom (Guiness), $6.49. It enjoys good sales abroad, and sales are rising in America. Unexciting taste. All but one panelist scored it low. 22.1 O'DOUL'S United States (Anheuser-Busch), $3.53. Sorry, this "Bud's not the one!" It lacks bouquet and has a watery taste. But it's selling like crazy. 22.0 MOUSSY Switzerland (Coors), $5.50. With an unusual nose, the bouquet suggests sweet potatoes. 21.5 KINGSBURY United States, $3.49. One of the first nonalcoholic beers in the United States. Quite pleasant in taste, almost "beery." 20.4

LAGER BEERS (REGULAR) EUREKA CALIFORNIA LAGER United States, $6.75. Wonderful, rich, full-bodied, graceful brew. Satisfying and beautiful to behold. Wolfgang Puck's big winner! (He's part-owner of the brewery.) 29.7 KRONENBOURG France, $6.75. Surprise. This top-ranking beer in our tasting comes from France! Creamy tasting, splendid refresher. 29.5 PILSNER URQUELL Czechoslovakia, $7.99. And this one is no surprise. Textbook perfection. The classic lager with judicious hops. Smooth, creamy, a world-class standard. 29.2 MOLSON GOLDEN Canada, $5.75. Outstanding brew. Rich. It's long in taste, leaving that telltale tracery of its foam, a souvenir in lace. 27.8 ASAHI DRAFT DRY BEER Japan, $6.49. Another fine, really beery beer. Clean, crisp, satisfying. 27.7 MILLER HIGH LIFE United States, $4.09. The bouquet is hauntingly splendid. Direct, inviting. Dependable choice. 27.5 KONIG PILSENER Germany, $7.50. Silky pilsener brew, a memory-index beer. 27.2

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