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It's beer, but not as we know it

No alcoholAlcohol-free beers look like beer and smell like beer, but far too often they just don't taste like beer. Which is a shame, because there’s a large and growing market for ales without the alcohol. Motorists and muslims are prime targets, as are people on certain sorts of medication which don’t mix well with alcoholic drinks.

Beer in glassNormal beer is made by adding yeast to a mix of roasted barley and hops boiled in water, called ‘wort’. This ferments into a malty, hoppy beverage of between 3 and 8 per cent alcohol. But if you want to make a brew with less than 0.05 per cent alcohol (which is what ‘alcohol-free’ actually means in Britain) there are two main methods.

The first is to stop the yeast turning all the natural barley-grain sugars into alcohol, by chilling the wort to -1°C. That practically stops the yeast in its tracks, and brews a beer with virtually no alcohol.

The second method lets the yeast to do its work and remove the alcohol afterwards by evaporating it away or filtering it out.

All low-alcohol techniques have benefited from the twenty-odd years of brewing science thrown at them since these beers became fashionable. Brewing chemists are now capable of producing something that is almost, but not quite, indistinguishable from the real thing. Unfortunately they haven't found a perfect solution to the bitter saccharin-like after-taste that plagues many alcohol-free beers.

Of the thirteen beers taste tested for this blog all, bar one, exhibited a bitter after-taste that became increasingly noticeable with each mouthful.

King Cobra (£28.97 6x750ml Shorters Club), the “double fermented superior lager”, smells wonderfully floral and tastes crisp and refreshing at its full 8% strength, but  Cobra Zero (£1.50 Asda for 4x330ml, £1.84 Tesco, £1.84 Sainsbury's and £1.84 Ocado) is disappointingly disjointed. Initially the light hoppy aroma makes you think that having no alcohol isn't going to be so bad, but sipping from the glass washes away that thought: a watered-down malty taste moves across the tongue followed by a bitter and slightly burning after-taste.

Bitburger DriveNot all alcohol-free versions taste so unlike their original. German Bitburger Drive (direct from the importer Adnams for £19.50 24x330ml ) smells and tastes like a bottle of full-strength Bitburger Premium beer (£1.59 Sainsbury's and £1.79 for 500ml Tesco). Or at least, a bottle of Premium that's been open for a while.

The fresh crusty white bread aroma found in the 4.8% alcohol version turns into a nutty rye bread flavour when the alcohol's removed, and the balanced sweet-sour, hoppy mix of the original is replaced by a sour, hoppy flavour in the no-alcohol version. The end result is quite a pleasant and drinkable beer, but it still has a hint of a bitter after-taste.

BitburgerWhat the low-alcohol and no-alcohol beers demonstrate is that alcohol doesn’t just get you drunk, it also helps with the sweetness and body of a beer. Remove it and the beer can taste weak and out of kilter.

Alcohol has other uses: it disguises the flavour of the bitter-tasting chemicals present in all beer. The roasted barley used to make the wort beer-base adds toasty nuances, but it also adds bitter substances which alcohol masks. Remove the alcohol and the bitter flavours come through.

Adding vitamin C to a fermenting brew supposedly eliminates the formation of these bitter compounds. Well that's the theory anyway. Of the thousands of beer recipe tweaks and alcohol distillation, evaporation, dialysis and reverse osmosis techniques tried over the years, very few have been fully successful in producing a non-alcoholic beer that meets the requirements of all no-booze beer drinkers: a traditional frothy head, fresh and inviting aromas, a flavour that really tastes like beer and no lingering bitter after-taste.

Nirvana can be found in a bottle of Krombacher non-alcoholic German Premium Beer (also available through The Alcohol-Free Shop, £20.99 for a case of 24). Its fresh lemon aroma and light malty taste are just like a true pilsner lager. And there's no bitter after-taste. This is a beer worth drinking at home. You'll have no need of your car keys.