Can Alcoholics Drink Non-Alcoholic Beer?

Sharon Farntrog
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Jefferey A. Berman MD, DFASAM
Last Updated
March 30, 2023

Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction

Table of Contents
  1. Does Non-Alcoholic Beer Have Alcohol?
  2. History of Non-Alcoholic Beer
  3. How is Non-Alcoholic Beer Made?
  4. Can Alcoholics Drink Non-Alcoholic Beer?
  5. Pros of Non-Alcoholic Beer
  6. Cons of Non-Alcoholic Beer
  7. NA Beer: Finding the Balance

In recent years, non-alcoholic beverages have gained considerable popularity. Many people are becoming “sober curious” and want to try abstaining from alcohol for a bit, while some may be attracted by the healthier characteristics and decreased calories of NA drinks. In the year 2020, the sales of non-alcoholic beer in particular surged by over 37% in the U.S.A. alone. Does non-alcoholic beer have alcohol in it? Can alcoholics drink non-alcoholic beer and what part does it play in their recovery?

In the article below we will define non-alcoholic beer and explore the pros and cons of NA beer for recovering addicts.

Does Non-Alcoholic Beer Have Alcohol?

According to Federal law, in order for beer- or any other alcoholic beverage – to be considered non-alcoholic, it must contain 0.5% or less of alcohol by volume (ABV).  This results in a product with 1/10th of the alcohol in regular beer – meaning, you would have to drink 10 NA beers in order to reach the blood alcohol level achieved by drinking one regular beer. Many non-alcoholic beer brewers have refined and perfected their brewing process countless times, resulting in a “near beer” that mimics its alcoholic counterpart in smell, taste, and sensation almost perfectly.  

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History of Non-Alcoholic Beer

Interestingly enough, the concept of NA beverages was actually born during Prohibition, a 13-year period when the manufacturing, importation, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited across America. The 18th Amendment forbade any beverage with an ABV (Alcohol By Volume) of 0.5% or more, so resourceful Americans began creating alternatives that contained less than 0.5% alcohol, and thereby met these federal guidelines.

Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, though, many Americans discovered that they had developed an affinity for the subtle, slightly bland flavor of these low-alcohol beverages – so near-beer and its friends didn’t say goodbye. The demand for NA beers definitely waned once alcohol was re-legalized, but then increased again in the 1990’s as consumer habits changed and increasingly sophisticated brewing techniques resulted in a superior product. Today, non-alcoholic beer enjoys a steadily increasing popularity – as proven by the fact that NA craft beer sales rose by an incredible 278% in one year across America.  

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How is Non-Alcoholic Beer Made?

There are a variety of different brands which sell NA beer, and each manufacturer has its own unique methods of production and alcohol removal. However, there are four basic methods used across the board to create NA beer:

1.      Controlled Fermentation

2.      Dealcoholization

3.      Dilution

4.      Simulated Fermentation

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Controlled Fermentation

When using controlled fermentation, brewers don’t allow the brew to get any hotter than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This does not allow the sugars in the mixture to fully ferment, resulting in a very low to zero alcohol product. 

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In the dealcoholization process, beer brewers take a full-alcohol beer and remove its alcohol content until it reaches a 0.5% ABV or less. This is achieved by adding water or steam to the brew, and then boiling the entire mixture under high pressure – which causes the alcohol to separate from the mixture and vaporize in the air, where it is caught and collected. The brew left behind is now de-alcoholized beer.

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Dilution, quite simply, is the process of adding water to a regular leaded beer until its ABV level is lowered to the necessary amount. The amount of water added will depend on the amount of alcohol in the original brew; the more alcohol content, the more water will need to be added.

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Simulated Fermentation

The process of simulated fermentation entails skipping the entire fermentation process altogether. To replicate the effects and flavors that fermentation has on beer, various enzymes and flavor-enhancing ingredients are added.

Can Alcoholics Drink Non-Alcoholic Beer?

Some people feel that “near beer” provides a valuable alternative to people looking to moderate their alcohol intake, but who are not quite ready to commit to total abstinence. On the other end of the spectrum, people say that there are a number of dangers of non-alcoholic beer for recovering alcoholics. NA beers only provide an additional excuse and loophole to drink for those not serious about their sobriety, and do not have a place in a recovery-focused lifestyle. Some even say that the sensation of cracking open a can, or the pungent aroma of a fresh beer, is enough of a trigger for some recovering alcoholics that it can cause a devastating relapse [1].

Let’s explore both the pros and cons of drinking non-alcoholic beer in recovery, and try to get an objective view on the matter.

Pros of Non-Alcoholic Beer

An awareness of the advantages of NA beer will allow us to fully answer the question, “Can alcoholics drink non-alcoholic beer?”. 

Here are some of the pros of non-alcoholic beer for alcoholics:

  •   Alternatives  

Although some alcoholics merely drank in order to get as drunk as possible, others actually enjoyed the sensation and experience of drinking alcohol – and perhaps even considered themselves beer connoisseurs before their drinking grew out of hand. When contemplating facing their alcohol use disorder, they often are immediately discouraged by the thought of never being able to drink again. For such people, NA beverages and beer give them the ability to occasionally enjoy a cup, while still keeping sobriety an attainable goal.

  • Helps You Fit In  

For many recovering alcoholics, the most challenging part of recovery is the feeling of isolation it brings when they are in many social situations. Not being able to have a glass of wine with dinner or enjoy a beer when hanging out at a ballgame, makes them feel awkward, excluded and distinctly different from their peers. NA beverages give recovering alcoholics the ability to blend in and truly feel a part when in situations that inevitably involve drinking, without compromising on their sobriety. An added bonus is avoiding the unpleasant alcoholic smell that comes along with being a drinker.

  • A Path to Ultimate Sobriety

For some contemplating sobriety, the idea of never again being able to drink alcohol feels so depressingly impossible that they throw in the towel before they start, and merely fall back into dangerous drinking patterns. Alcohol substitutes and low-alcohol beverages create a space for such people to begin restricting their drinking and addressing their addiction – and sometimes, they find it so attainable and rewarding that they ultimately choose total abstinence.

  • Health and Relaxation Benefits 

Recovery aside, non-alcoholic beers are much more organic and wholesome than full–alcohol lagers. They’re generally made from only four natural ingredients – water, yeast, malt, and hops – with barely any preservatives or added sugars. Additionally, many people turn to alcohol to “take the edge off” after a long day, to help them relax and unwind in stressful situations, and even to aid insomnia. Near-beer allows them to enjoy alcohol’s soothing qualities without compromising on their recovery.

  • You Can’t Get Drunk 

Because NA beer has such a low alcohol concentration level – around 1/10th of that of regular beer – it is virtually impossible to get drunk on it. One would have to drink an obscene amount of near beer in order to get their blood alcohol level anywhere near the intoxication range. (One competitive eater set out to become drunk by drinking 30 NA beers, but he vomited by the time he reached the 28th – and registered a BAC of only 0.2%). A side benefit of alcohol-free beer is the avoidance of alcoholic body odor and breath smell.

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Cons of Non-Alcoholic Beer

 Now we will explore various dangers of non-alcoholic beer for recovering alcoholics. 

  • It’s Still Alcohol 

The name “non-alcoholic beer” itself is misleading, since virtually every NA beer does contain the legal maximum of 0.5% alcohol by volume – unless you choose a beer that was never fermented and contains 0% alcohol.  Additionally, a recent study tested the alcohol content of NA beverages and found that 30% of them had ethanol levels which were higher than declared on the label [2]. For those in recovery, avoiding alcohol entirely is critical to their sobriety. And at the end of the day, NA beer is still alcohol. As Healthline writer Katie McBride  wrote – “As someone who was so severely addicted to alcohol that some mornings I drank cough syrup or mouthwash just to get my hands to stop shaking, I don’t mess around with even small amounts of alcohol.[3]

  •  Risk of Relapse 

Is drinking non-alcoholic beer a relapse? For many recovering alcoholics, alcohol has become such a hypersensitive topic that any old sensation or ritual associated with it can serve as a catalyst for a disastrous relapse. Even if near beer contains little to no alcohol itself, the mere sound of cracking open a can, inhaling the malty notes of a lager, or feeling the cold weight of a condensation-beaded glass in one’s hands can stimulate the reward centers of the brain to release dopamine This may trigger a former alcoholic to crave the real deal, and once again resume drinking full-alcohol products without restraint.

  •  Euphoric Recall 

One of the highly touted benefits of NA beer is that it mimics the flavor, aroma  and sensation of fully-leaded beers, offering an identical sensory experience. But for alcoholics in recovery, this is one of the dangers of non-alcoholic beer. Indulging in a highly enjoyable alcohol-like drink can trigger “euphoric recall”. Euphoric recall is selective memory of sorts where their previous drinking is romanticized in their mind far past what it actually was, and they conveniently forget the utter havoc, pain and isolation that their uncontrollable drinking wreaked on their life in the past. This can cause a significant weakening in their commitment to their sobriety – “Maybe this time, I can manage to drink in moderation?” …

  • Wrong Lifestyle 

Although many recovering alcoholics say that NA drinks help them fit in and feel a part of things when in social drinking situations, many others counter that partaking in events/ get-togethers that involve alcohol is simply not part of a real recovery lifestyle. More than just stopping to drink, lasting sobriety means changing the environments you choose to put yourself in and the people you surround yourself with.  Hanging out with your old drinking buddies in a bar with a technically low-alcohol beer just doesn’t jive with genuine recovery – it’s using excuses to justify your drinking.

  • Slippery Slope

One reason why it’s so important for alcoholics in recovery to shun alcohol completely is because a recovered addict is still vulnerable to alcohol for the rest of their life – and trying to drink imitation alcoholic beverages can be like playing with fire. It’s a slippery slope – one thing leads to the next, and one innocent act can lead to a terrible relapse.  As the website NA Beers points out: “The thrill of drinking even an NA beer can become a slippery slope that leads back into drinking alcoholic beverages… The smell and taste may be enough to trigger a relapse in some individuals.”

  • Placebo Effect 

Is NA beer good for alcoholics? Some alcoholics have reported that after drinking NA beer, they experienced a “placebo effect” of intoxication. Although they drank no alcohol and were not actually drunk, near beer gave them an actual “buzz” that can cause a dangerous craving for more.

NA Beer: Finding the Balance

So, should alcoholics drink non-alcoholic beer?? All in all, the general consensus is that drinking non-alcoholic beer in recovery can pose a considerable risk. However, there is no black-or-white answer, and each person has to evaluate their own situation to determine whether or not that risk is worthwhile for them to take. Based on the benefits and dangers of non-alcoholic beer discussed above, ask yourself:

  • Will the benefits that near beer gives you outweigh the risks it brings? 
  • Do you feel that you are strong enough in your sobriety that you won’t slip back into detrimental old habits? 
  • Are you certain that alcohol imitations won’t trigger you to lose control? 

If the risks far outweigh the benefits it can bring you, it may be a good idea for you to avoid non-alcoholic beer as a general rule.

Addressing the topic of ‘can alcoholics drink non-alcoholic beer’ in a generalized forum is somewhat risky, as every person is unique, and so is their recovery journey. Everyone has struggled with alcohol to a different extent and has a different level of commitment to their sobriety. Some people know intuitively that messing with alcohol or its imitations is a dangerous path for them, while others are certain that they have addressed their drinking problems and feel that NA drinks will not have any effect on them. Does NA beer have a place in the lifestyle of a recovered addict? That is a question that requires genuine honesty, reflection and self-transparency in order to answer for yourself.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction and wants to know more about non-alcoholic beer for alcoholics, reach out to a rehab center or a reputable support group for assistance today.

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