Steinberg: Taste-testing nonalcoholic beer

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Harry Caray stopped drinking in July 1994 after a fall in Miami landed him in the hospital.

“Hey doc, when can I have another drink?” his widow, Dutchie Caray, remembers him asking. The doctor replied: “When the Cubs win the World Series.”

So from then on, until his death in February 1998, the great Cubs broadcaster had a bottle of Budweiser placed in front of him but would really be sipping Anheuser-Busch’s nonalcoholic beer, O’Doul’s.

Harry didn’t have a lot of choice. Many bars don’t stock NA beer at all, and those that do tend to have a choice of one, so people who drink nonalcoholic beer, for whatever reason, are left hanging.

Being a recovering alcoholic, I don’t drink alcohol, but sometimes on the town I’ll order a NA beer, either to augment a certain cuisine or as an attempt to fit into the spirit of conviviality, though I’ve learned that nobody really cares what you drink — at least not for long.

Some in recovery object to the idea of even NA beer because there is a trace of alcohol in some. But I find I can have one, be satisfied, sort of, and not crave another. If I could drink actual beer and say the same, I would do it, happily. But I can’t.

It helps when bars stock palatable NA beer. It does exist. St. Pauli Girl makes one; so does Beck’s. But that can’t be all that’s out there, and my attention was caught by, a Canadian company advertising itself as “your source for premium quality, great tasting nonalcoholic beer.”


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Intrigued, I contacted the website’s founder, Ted Fleming, who sent four bottles: Holsten, from Germany; two Portuguese beers, Sagres and Super Bock; plus something called Schmohz 120, from a Western Michigan microbrewery.

A taste test seemed in order. I dragooned a former colleague, well versed in the Three Floyds world of craft beers, whom I’ll call Floyd. We needed a place. Harry Caray’s bar seemed apt. We were joined by Harry Caray’s CEO Grant DePorter and bartender Frank Osowski, voted the best in Chicago. DePorter threw in Clausthaler and O’Doul’s NA brews, for an even half dozen.

It was a blind taste test. We each drew a grid on a piece of paper and set a short glass on it.

The first four were very light and lager-like, the last two much darker brown.

“I’ve got about a dozen breweries in my neighborhood now, so it’s almost impossible to run out of new things to try,” said Floyd.

No question we are living in a beer renaissance.

DePorter said he’s seen the change in his distributor. “They used to carry about 10 beers. Now it’s like 2,000, all microbrews.”

We started in on No. 1.

“A soft beginning and a fruity finish?” I ventured.

“Good lawnmower beer,” Floyd agreed.

We went on from there, sipping, commenting. No. 3 struck me as the O’Doul’s, correctly as it turned out, because, well, it tasted like O’Doul’s, unfortunately.

No. 4 tasted “old,” according to Osowski.

“All real watery, no real head,” said DePorter. No. 5 “looks like a beer,” said Floyd.

No. 6 registered the most distinct reaction.

“Ewww,” I said.

“No hops,” said Floyd. “Mediciney”

We rated them.

“I think No. 1 is my first choice, if I had to drink a whole bottle,” said DePorter, tellingly. That prompted Osowski to remark upon the singular nature of NA beer, which Harry’s sells so little of that each bottle ordered is an event.

“Whenever you serve one, always a story goes with it,” he said. “Immediately, the person will feel compelled to tell me why he’s drinking it.”

Often NA drinkers will ask their brew be poured in a glass as a disguise. Otherwise “people will go, ‘Why are you drinking that?’” said Osowski. “Why aren’t you drinking, have a drink have a drink have a drink.”

The ironic thing is that Clausthaler, a mass-market brew, rated high. I picked it as No. 1, Grant picked it No. 1 at first, then shifted it to No. 2, where Floyd put it, and Osowski had it third. The big loser was Schmohz, which Osowski, Floyd and I all placed dead last, though DePorter had it third.

“The funny thing is, the Michigan beer has a cult following and [the brewery] can’t keep them in stock,” DePorter said.

The exercise left me ambivalent. NA beer has a use, but there’s also a pressing-your-face-to-the-window, eyeing-the-party-you’re-not-invited-to-anymore quality. Why scratch at the door you don’t want to go through, and for what? NA beer. Meh. Floyd took me up on my offer of an actual beer, a Revolution Anti-Hero IPA.

“This one’s better already,” he said, lifting the pint to his lips.

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