Can Alcoholics Drink Non-Alcoholic Beer?
As more and more non-alcoholic beverage options hit the market in recent years and
advertising on social media seems to be multiplying images of bottles of non-alcoholic beer,
those with alcohol addiction are asking themselves whether it is a good idea to sip these
nonalcoholic drinks in social situations or whether the best thing would be to abstain completely from such drinks.
We will discuss what these options are, how alcoholics versus non-alcoholics may relate to them, what mental health experts are saying, and how recovering alcoholics recommend handling social gatherings that include ‘alcohol-free’ beer, and what to do if you accidentally drink a small amount of alcohol.
What is Alcohol-Free Beer?
Under federal law in the United States and the United Kingdom, “alcohol-free beer” can contain no more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. For comparison, standard beer contains 4.2 to 5 percent alcohol.
While real beer certainly has higher alcohol content than “near beer,” so-called alcohol-free drinks can and often do contain trace amounts of alcohol. According to NA Beer, most non-alcoholic beer is made through a process called “controlled fermentation,” sometimes referred to as “arrested fermentation.” This process involves similarly fermenting the beer as one would a regular alcoholic beer but stopping the fermentation process before it reaches its normal, alcohol-producing conclusion.
This is done by ensuring the wort–a liquid infusion of ground malt or other grain–does not get any hotter than 60°F so that no alcohol is produced by the yeast when it comes into contact with the wort.
Alcoholics vs. Non-Alcoholics
Alcohol-free beverages could be a good option for people who want to limit alcohol consumption while experiencing the taste of beer and may prefer these drinks to soft drinks or other alcohol alternatives. But for those of us with an alcohol use disorder or drug addiction, drinking “less alcohol” or taking “less” of our drug of choice only means more denial of the true nature of our disease and more suffering until we let go [of the substance and our efforts to control it] absolutely. Recovering alcoholics everywhere can testify that if an alcoholic tries to self-administer alcohol–even small amounts of alcohol–it won’t take much time for them to see the negative effects of this.
However, if one does not have a drinking habit, making non-alcoholic drinking a more popular choice than “the real thing” might actually model healthier habits for everyone.
Drinking alcohol is so baked into the fabric of so many social situations in our society. A “cold beer on a hot day” is an experience so prized you’d think, by the way some people talk about it, there’s nothing better when in fact, there are plenty of other ways to create sensory experiences of refreshment, camaraderie, and relaxation (with no risk of potential liver damage!).
A History of Alcohol Use in Society (and the Entrance of Non-Alcoholic Beer)
The fact that beverage companies are catering to a larger emergence of non-drinkers (perhaps due to the almost 100-year existence of Alcoholics Anonymous!) reveals the long-standing tradition of excessive drinking together as a long-standing social habit dating back to the Ancient Greeks and the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, whose followers believed they could get close to the god in states of intoxication.
As not all ancient Greeks believed this, and many were opposed to the behaviors of these
wine-drinking gatherings, there has also been a long-standing history in society of opposition to excessive drinking that has been historically unsuccessful in its efforts to curb the underlying impulse that causes those prone to addiction to pick up such drinks.
The Volstead Act (officially the National Prohibition Act) of 1919 established a prohibition on alcoholic drinks in the United States in response to activism in the early 1900s by the Anti-Saloon League and other organizations of the temperance movement–which pioneered much medical research into the negative effects of alcohol, including some of the first laboratory experiments that would lead to a definition of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The Volstead Act was a great idea on paper but did not pan out in the real world. What we now know with scientific evidence–that alcoholism is a physical allergy of the body combined with a mental obsession–played out in the 1920s in hundreds of circumstances. Sure, they closed liquor stores, but people made their own alcohol, passing along secrets of the brewing process of “bathtub gin” and “moonshine” to each other. People drank in the rural home environment, speakeasies multiplied in urban neighborhoods, and for the most part, the modern-day cult of Dionysius continued.
Some Reasons Why Non-Alcoholic Beer May be Gaining in Popularity
Just this past year, the World Health Organization released a statement that “no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health” and that the effects of alcohol on the body are harmful from even one drop. Further, they stated that it is the alcohol that causes harm, period and not the kind of alcoholic beverage.
A safe alternative, by this metric, would be no alcohol. But, as we have seen historically, old habits die hard. For those of us with drinking habits that are either alcoholic or on our way there, the idea of a social gathering without alcohol seems absurd.
Memories of the good times of alcohol-induced revelry make for difficulty remembering negative consequences of the same liquid that seems to produce them. Perhaps the introduction of so many “alcohol-free” options or low-alcohol beers is another attempt to control the uncontrollable–an attempt to blame the stronger drink than the drink itself.
The good news is, though, that there does seem to be a growing awareness of the danger of
alcohol addiction and drug addiction, and a respect for those who choose to refrain from drinking and using drugs.
Katie MacBride wrote an extremely popular article on Medium on the “inevitable ugliness of alcoholism.” Her story echoes thousands of stories told daily in AA meetings in describing where her drinking took her—shaking from morning withdrawal, drinking cough syrup because it contained trace amounts of alcohol, and plenty of other good reasons to avoid the first drop of this substance that can take one through these common throes of addiction.
Other positive trends from a California Study through the National Institute of Health found that unhealthy alcohol use decreased among young adults by 9.2% during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this positive trend does perhaps reveal the social nature of excessive drinking.
Although perhaps making a non-alcoholic beer your favorite drink is seemingly on the right track, abstaining altogether in favor of the natural highs or togetherness and freedom are probably the best thing for your overall physical health.
Easier said than done, however–since advertising and beverage companies have an investment in keeping much of our social gatherings organized around a euphoric recall of alcohol consumption. It is already difficult, therefore, for those with alcohol use disorder to find acceptance in this kind of culture.
While alcohol alternatives may appear as an antidote to this, they actually add to the challenge of staying sober because of their misleading labels. For an alcoholic, any amount of alcohol intake activates the physical craving that sparks the mental obsession, and the inevitably ugly cycle is renewed.
So, even if the label says “alcohol-free,” know that legally means less than 0.5 percent alcohol. For recovering alcoholics ordering at a bar, perhaps stick to club soda with lime, ginger ale, cranberry juice, tonic water and lime, and all the usual standards. They sure beat drinking cough syrup.