Summer’s here and, for many of us, that means BBQs and beers in the sun. But there are lots of reasons why you might want a beer or two but not want to become intoxicated, and this is where low-strength beers are ideal. But do any of them taste like a “real” beer?
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For a long time if you wanted a low-strength beer, you had very few options. Your local bar may have stocked one if you were lucky. And many of the ones that were available tasted “watered down”. Now there’s many options available from lower-strength versions of mainstream beers to specially brewed craft beers.
For this tasting, we bought 16 different beers commonly available at supermarkets or bottle stores throughout New Zealand. We tasted 10 ales and six lagers. Three of the lagers came from craft breweries.
We chose beers between 2.0% to 3.7% ABV (alcohol by volume). The beer with the highest ABV was Emerson’s Bookbinder. This makes it one standard drink per 330ml (see Standard Drinks), but we included it in our tasting because it’s a well-known favourite among beer drinkers.
In New Zealand, an alcoholic beverage containing more than 1.15% ABV cannot legally be called “low-alcohol”. Hence, there are a number of terms used for beers under 4% ABV: light, mid, and session. However, the terminology doesn’t mean anything. For example, Steinlager Mid and Heineken Light are both 2.5%. To make things easier, we use the catch-all phrase “low-strength”.
The judging panel for this tasting consisted of three women and three men. The two most experienced judges on the panel were Stephanie Coutts and Phil Cook, from Wellington’s Craft Beer College, who run educational tastings. The rest of the panel were keen beer drinkers, including two Consumer staff members.
We had a blind tasting, with lagers first then ales. Our judges were asked to score each beer on taste, drinkability, and normality; each was scored out of 20.
Taste was the most subjective; literally “how much do you like the taste of this beer?” Judges could penalise a beer for any faults in its taste and judge it against its style; i.e. “does this taste like an IPA?”
Drinkability was a measure of “could you drink more than one of these?” The tastings were done with samples of roughly 100mls. Drinkability reflects if you’d be happy with a couple of these at a BBQ or with a meal, or whether you would move on to soft drinks.
Normality was “does this taste like a normal, full-strength beer?” The main criticism about low-strength beers is they are too watery or weak in flavour. So the more a low-strength beer can taste like a “normal” one, the better.
The tasting started with a 5% ABV hoppy pilsner the panel members used as a reference for their other scores – it scored 71% overall. After each beer, judges discussed their scores and any panel member well outside the norm was asked to slightly adjust their score accordingly. This is standard practice in beer judging to ensure outlier scores don’t overly effect the final results.
Once the final scores were tallied Renaissance Empathy stood out, closely followed by Emerson’s Bookbinder and Tuatara Iti. The Renaissance scored highest for both taste and drinkability and the Tuatara was the best for normality.
The Renaissance is 2.4% and the other two are 3.7% and 3.3% respectively. It’s difficult for a brewer to get a good amount of flavour out of a lower-strength beer, so Renaissance have done a very good job.
The next three beers were also clustered together: Croucher Low Rider, Steinlager Mid and Galbraith’s Redemption. All three are 2.5% and the Steinlager and Galbraiths are both lagers.
Most of the rest were clustered together at about 42% overall.
You may not have noticed it, but every beer bottle in New Zealand has a measure of standard drinks. A standard drink is the amount of alcohol the average person can process in an hour. This is an estimate because everyone is different – there is no “average” person. And it changes if you are eating a meal as well.
In reality, there is no safe level of alcohol to have in your system if you’re going to drive. The legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in New Zealand is 0.05 BAC, and if you’re under 20 it’s zero. However, with a BAC of 0.05 you are still twice as likely to crash as you are at zero BAC. But if you are going to have an alcoholic drink, then drive, the standard drink measure is a useful way to gauge your drinking.
A 330ml bottle of 4% beer is one standard drink, so as you can guess a 2% beer is only half a standard drink. This rough comparison of ABV to standard drinks is helpful if you’re buying a beer on tap or in a flagon, where there is no standard measure shown.
By Hadyn Green.
Tasting notes for beer often make for some great quotes. While the best beers were described as “fruity” and “pleasingly bitter”, the worst received some less kind comparisons:
We have not listed the scores for Stoke 2 Stoke. All the judges agreed something was wrong with the beer and not what was expected of Stoke beers. We contacted McCashin’s, the brewer of Stoke beers, and sent a bottle from our tasting to test. It said the bottle had most likely suffered from light strike and oxidation. McCashin’s has recalled and replaced affected stock throughout the country.
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