There's only one way to find out whether a brew tastes good: Drink it.
And there's only one way to determine if non-alcoholic beers can hold their frothy heads high among those who know what beer should taste like: Have a bunch of Serious Beer Drinkers conduct a taste test.
So, after a little grumbling, some Serious Beer Drinkers agreed to sample some non-alcoholic beers. They were asked to judge these faux brews for what they are -- a drink that's brewed to have all the qualities of beer but none of the alcohol.
How does the beer taste? Does it have the rich fullness of a dark beer? Is it crisp-bold like the best of the lighter beers? Would you drink it instead of beer?
"Lemme get this straight," one SBD said. "You want us to drink beer that's a lot like beer but really isn't beer, and you want us to tell you if this fake stuff tastes like beer?"
Clausthaler: A hearty, rich brew remarkably close to a real German beer. But its taste lingers too briefly. Still, as one SBD said as he flipped the cap off a second bottle, "First a united Germany and now this? They had more than democracy brewing there. This tastes better than most American beers." 4 stars.
Haake Beck: "This one could fake it." That wouldn't be a bad way to advertise this non-alcoholic offering from the stellar German beer, Beck's. Though not as malty as Beck's, it has a bold, clean bite and the strong, satisfying flavor of its higher-octane cousin. But as soon as the brew hits the throat, the flavor's gone. "Guess we'll have to keep drinking to get the flavor," a SBD said. "I could get to like this little puppy." 4 stars.
Kaliber: The darkest of the non-alcoholic beers, it resembles its brewery mate Guinness and has a creamy but tangy heartiness. It finishes strong and clean, but, like all of the non-alcoholic beers, its flavor dissipates quickly. "This is pretty good," said one SBD. "I'd drink this before a Miller any day." 3 stars.
Sharp's: Sharp's has a dark-beer attitude with the finish of a lighter beer. Not a bad combination, and, as one SBD remarked, "This is almost better than Miller's regular beers." But some testers complained: "Maybe they should call it 'Flats.' " 3 stars.
Moussey: Opinions were generally favorable, but differed: "It's not bad, but I'd never drink it again." "Better than most imports. I like it." This Swiss brew has a slightly bitter taste ("Skunky, like a green-bottle beer," a SBD said.) but comes through with a dark, almost rich punch. 3 stars.
Buckler: One SBD called this "Heineken light" but said he liked it. "This has a good, dark-beer taste. Foams up really good, too. If I ever quit drinking real beer I'll buy this." But the rest of the SBDs, though impressed, were bothered by a plastic aftertaste. "If only its real taste could last that long," a tester said. 2 1/2 stars.
Coors Cutter: Darker and maltier than regular Coors, Cutter has a surprisingly rich tanginess. It foams up nicely but has the aroma of ball-park beer. Some SBDs felt it was a little flat. 2 1/2 stars.
Near Beer: Its name tells the story: It's close to beer. This brew from the Goetz Pale lineup is clean, crisp and smooth like most American beers, with a fresh taste of hops. But does it taste like beer? Almost. "It's a very light 'light' beer," a SBD said. And as near to beer as you'll get without quite getting there. 2 stars.
St. Pauli Na: We had high hopes for this brew. It had a nice, malty aroma, but its bitter taste and lifeless finish didn't come through for most of the SBDs: "I like St. Pauli Girl, but what's this -- her ugly sister?" "It tastes like Beck's but with an Alka-Seltzer fizz." 2 stars.
O'Doul's: Some testers remarked on its clean flavor, while others remarked on its lack of flavor. "It tastes like flavored Evian" was probably the most accurate comment. 1 star.
Kingsbury: Lighter than "light," it has a flavor that doesn't quite hold to the taste buds long enough to be enjoyed, but leaves a nasty aftertaste. "Tastes like keg beer the day after a party," a SBD said. 1 star.
Pabst Na: "Carbonated iced tea" was the nicest comment. "I'm glad your boss is paying for this stuff, because I'd never buy it" was among the least offensive of the negative comments. A lifeless brew, it tastes like beer with a lot of water. 1 star.