Experiments In Drinking: Going Alcohol-Free

Testing out whether low or no alcohol beer and bubbly can ever compete with the real thing.

Despite what some of you might think, I’m not automatically opposed to the idea of alcohol-free (or alcohol-lite) booze. I can see that there is a time and place for it, and unless your reason for drinking beer, wine or whatever else is simply to get wasted – in which case, why be discerning at all? – then the success of these drinks surely comes down to whether or not they can replicate the flavour of whatever they are acting as a substitute for.

A couple of years ago, I attended the Mayhem Film Festival while somewhat under the weather, and a day of boozing seemed a very bad idea. The Broadway Cinema had an alcohol-free version of Ghost Ship on tap, and I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, it was very agreeable, not that much removed from the real thing. The surprise was due to the fact that previous experiments with alcohol-free beers had not been successful – but then, they tended to be the sort of mass-market lagers that – even in their ‘full’ 4% strength versions – are little more than gassy atrocities.

The real test of an alcohol-free drink is, perhaps, not by comparing to a full-strength version of the same drink, but by trying something that only exists in this version, and seeing how it stands up in terms of taste. In other words, to treat it as you would any normal drink and judge it on its own merits.

On that basis, I decided to withhold the fact that Gratien and Meyer’s Festillant is, as the name says, ‘Sans Alcool’ from Mrs Reprobate – as a connoisseur of champagne and prosecco, she seemed the best person to judge on how well this particular drink passed the test, and I didn’t want her to be pre-judging in advance. The truth is that we will all come to a drink with preconceptions if we know that it is alcohol-free, and I wanted to see if it would pass the blind taste test. As the product of a proper French champagne house, it certainly talked the talk, and as the cork erupted from the bottle with all the speed and power of a NASA launch, it seemed to be talking the talk.

“Big bubbles” was Mrs R’s first observation. The first couple of sips met with approval – a fruity, light flavour, very sweet and pleasant, so I was told. A couple more swigs and the drink generally had the thumbs up, being declared better than some champagnes (but then, Mrs R has a very low opinion of certain supposedly up-market champagne brands). By this point, I’d revealed the drink’s guilty secret, but it didn’t put her off. She did detect a slight cider taste, and suggested that this would be great with the sort of fruit nectars found in the previously reviewed Bellini case. All in all, the drink was seen as a winner, with two glasses polished off in quick succession.  At £4.50 a bottle, the Festillant is certainly a bargain and looks to be an ideal alternative for those occasions where getting tipsy is not a great idea.

As Mrs R sipped her Festillant, I was sampling Mikkeller’s Drink’In The Sun pale ale, which clocks in at a virtually alcohol-free 0.3%. At £2.50, this seems less of a bargain, given that you can buy a fairly high-strength pale ale for a similar price – but once again, price is not necessarily the issue if you are choosing an alcohol-free beer. This looked like any other pale ale, and by and large tasted the same too, with a notable citrusy, grapefruit flavour. And by and large, it tasted pretty much like any other pale ale. It did seem to be lacking a certain finality to each mouthful though – that alcohol kick as it finally leaves the mouth and hits the throat. That was the only noticeable difference, and of course, I wasn’t approaching the drink unaware of what it was – I fully admit that I might have been subconsciously looking for a point of difference.

In any case, this is a thoroughly pleasant drink and one that I finished off happily, quickly forgetting any difference previously spotted. Pale ale is not necessarily the most extravagant and adventurous of beers anyway – it’s something I will go for on a summer’s day as a session drink, and I would have no objection to trying this again. There’s something to be said for alternating pints on a leisurely afternoon in the pub or at home – and switching ‘proper’ beer for an alcohol-free alternative that isn’t Becks Blue of some similarly dreadful lager every other drink seems rather sensible – unless you are only concerned with getting plastered.

There’s a joy in drinking alcohol that goes beyond mere taste, of course, and I don’t think that I’ll be making the switch full time, any more than I would go for faux-meat steaks. But there are times when I would have loved the option to enjoy a beer or several without the Russian roulette of the next-day hangover, and I’ll certainly be more open to these booze-free options than I have been previously.

Both drinks were sent to us by The Wine Society, the world’s oldest wine club.


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