How Nonalcoholic Beers Make Sober Life Worth Living

An ode to near beer.

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I used to be as dismissive of nonalcoholic beer as I was of decaf coffee: What’s the point? I’d wonder, while having numerous real beers instead.

The point, of course, became much more clear a couple of years ago when, for a variety of reasons, I got sober.

Now, I drink near beer daily.

But first things first: I understand near-beer is typically frowned upon by people in recovery — and for good reason. The term “nonalcoholic beer” is a misnomer: These beverages contain small amounts of alcohol — up to 0.5 percent by volume in the U.S. Granted, this means you would need to chug nearly 10 of them to equal just one standard beer, but people following a strict sobriety program consider using mouthwash containing alcohol to be a relapse. (Original formula Listerine is about 54 proof with 26.9 percent alcohol, compared to beer, which is typically 3 to 7 percent alcohol; experts, in fact, claim it’s probable that swishing with certain types of mouthwash can trigger a positive breathalyzer test for 7 to 20 minutes after use.)

Recovery experts recommend substituting healthy activities for behaviors from the past, not sitting around drinking near-beer (or non-beer, as George W. Bush refers to it) with the same people in the same places you abused the real thing with.

That said, I haven’t allowed any of the above to stop me from participating in this relatively benign vice. I weigh 230 pounds, and back in my heavy drinking days, I typically required two six-packs of Coors Light to feel a buzz — or the equivalent of 114 near-bears. Even retired baseball legend Wade Boggs could only drink 107 Miller Lights on a cross-country road trip, so I’m pretty confident nonalcoholic beer won’t throw me off the wagon any time soon.

Plus, I love it.

And more to the point, it’s that time of year.

Few things are as satisfying as cracking a cold one on a hot summer afternoon, whether it’s complementing a barbecue, a Wiffle ball game or a shower. And the first sip of an nonalcoholic beer tastes exactly the same as its boozy counterpart — or at least my brain can’t tell the difference. Better yet, I can pound them like an SAE pledge — all day and all night — and still be the designated driver. (That said, it is illegal to drive while drinking a nonalcoholic beer, as Washington State Patrol Trooper Dan McDonald told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2009: “If there is any alcohol in it, then that is a violation. But I think the officer’s discretion would come into hand. Everything is situational.”)

I’m not alone in my affinity for fake beer either: VICE called it “cool” a couple years ago; The Huffington Post asked if it could “save big brewers” in 2015; and The Economist noted in 2013 that sales of non-alcoholic beer were booming. More than 2 billion liters were drunk in 2012 — or 80 percent more than five years earlier — making near-beer one of the “fastest-growing segments in an otherwise static or declining beer market,” according to Sean Durkan of Bavaria beer, an independent brewery selling 0 percent ABV beer along with lighter alcoholic beers. That probably helps explain why nonalcoholic beers are roughly the same price as their more mature brothers, with six-packs typically ranging from $7–10.

So where does this leave me? I’ve recently begun stocking the work fridge with Beck’s, and I usually crack one one at, well, Miller time. That’s admittedly an absurd sentence for a recovering alcoholic to write — as is knowing this much about pretend alcohol and traveling well out of my way to get it.

But I find the ritual — especially during the first few weeks of summer — harder to give up than booze itself.