Many of us want to drink less, but still relish unwinding with a wine or beer in hand. Help is finally at hand for this classic conundrum.
In the past few years, a burgeoning market has sprung up in producing familiar styles of drinks that are traditionally intoxicating, capturing most of the flavour yet without any or most of the alcohol content.
What’s the big deal about drinking?
We all know that we should limit ourselves to two standard drinks a day to avoid long-term health costs. Maybe you have one drink in the airport lounge and another with dinner, so you’re all good, right? But a serving of beer or wine may be more than one standard drink.
Two drinks might not seem much, but it adds up over the longer term. Alcohol increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, sexual and fertility problems, and several types of cancer. Ironically, while stress is a common reason to reach for a drink, drinking can impact your mental health too.
Alcohol also puts physical stress on your body. It makes it harder to be on the ball in a busy job. And when you fly, excess consumption exacerbates the symptoms of jet lag and travel fatigue.
Why we’re cutting back
Better health is the key motivator for half of those cutting back, according to a 2019 poll by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. We're now drinking less often: only a quarter of Australians drink on three days or more a week , down from a third in 2010.
Having a trusty alternative to alcohol is also handy when there’s an early flight or key meeting after the Christmas party, when you’re driving, or if your companion can’t drink
With an alcohol-free alternative, you can still unwind with the ritual of a drink, or feel social with something in hand that’s refined and full-flavoured.
Non-alcoholic drinks can actually improve your health
Many non-alcoholic drinks are the very familiar beer, wine or spirits, just with the alcohol removed afterwards.
Without the alcohol, they obviously carry fewer health risks. What you might not realise is they also have a fraction of the calories of the boozy version. Plus far less sugar than those other non-drinking staples, soft drink or juice.
It’s not just about what’s left out of non-alcoholic alternatives that makes them healthier. All beer and wine contain chemical substances that are good for you. For example, you get polyphenolic compounds and phenolic acids from the grains and hops in beer. From wine, you get polyphenols such as resveratrol and quercetin (especially reds). These compounds work as antioxidants to combat damage to your body’s cells – without alcohol undoing their good work.
A 2019 study showed promising health benefits from drinking a beer a day, provided it was non-alcoholic. For a month, 35 people drank one non-alcoholic beer at lunch every day. Five months later, they did it again with a classic beer every day.
Both types of beer improved their gut health via the diversity of their gut bacteria. Researchers saw increases in several helpful bacteria, including those reported to produce weight loss in humans.
The non-alcoholic beer also lowered participants’ fasting blood sugar level, while alcoholic beer raised it. The alcoholic version lead to an increase in the participants’ waist circumference and blood pressure, but the non-alcoholic beer didn’t. Storing fat around your abdominal organs is not just a bad look, but a clear risk factor for chronic disease.
What to try
The no-alcohol beer and wine segment has been around for a while, but was a niche until comparatively recently. Significant growth is expected to continue. As a result, we have a larger range of higher-quality products to choose from.
For example, Dan Murphys has almost 70 non-alcoholic alternatives available online. Specialist store Alcofree has even more in their range – around 90 drinks, include mulled wine and cider.
Which are worth trying? In wines, Edenvale’s Shiraz and Sparkling Cuvee have reviewed favourably. So have Maggie Beer’s Sparkling Chardonnay and Sparkling Ruby Cabernet.
If you’re a beer drinker, Carlton Zero was voted the best tasting non-alcoholic beer in a blind tasting by consumer organisation Choice. From Germany, non-alcoholic versions of Bitburger and Holsten are also well regarded. Then for something different there’s the craft beer by Indigenous-owned Queensland brewer, Sobah. It uses native Australian flavours like finger lime and pepperberry.
Sydney-based ALTD Spirits creates 'micro-batch' distilled spirits using Australian natives and botanicals: for example, its gin-style tipple includes wattleseed, red gum bark, dark roasted cocoa, lemon myrtle and desert lime.
In the UK, Seedlip has recently released its pre-mixed aperitif Nogroni (think Negroni, without the alcohol). For whisky lovers, Pernod Ricard’s new offering is a dark spirit called Celtic Soul.
With so many options, it’s good to know you can still indulge in something special when the occasion arises – without the short- or long-term effects.