There's more to low-alcohol beer than meets the tastebud

Seeing The Light. And Drinking It

March 10, 2020
2 mins read

HADYN GREEN takes a trip to the lighter side in this quick guide to beer that won’t send you over the edge.


There’s more to low-alcohol beer than meets the tastebud

Just a few short years ago, drinking a light beer was seen as a joke. Literally, in the case of the Simpsons where Apu had a secret door in the non-alcoholic beer section of his fridge. “Won’t people notice?” “You know, it’s never come up.”

Fast-forward 25 years from that episode and low to zero alcohol beers are exploding and Apu is nowhere to be seen. Both things are signs of a healthy society.

Because as much fun as alcohol can be, it’s also quite bad for us.

The Names Mean Nothing

So, what is a low-alcohol beer? Well, low-alcohol and non-alcoholic beer has to have an alcohol content of less than 1.15%. Yeah, it’s weird that you can call something that has alcohol in it “non-alcoholic”, but here we are. Remember that Consumer NZ found some kombuchas with up to 3% ABV.

The definition of ‘session beer’ is too wide

If less than 1.15 is called low, then what’s light or mid-strength beer? Funny story.

There’s no legal definition for beers that are called light or mid-strength. This is why Heineken Light has the same ABV as Steinlager Mid: 2.5%. The names don’t mean anything!

For years everyone’s favourite “low-strength” beer was Emerson’s Bookbinder, which sits at 3.7% ABV. These days Emerson’s calls it a session ale, which is a whole other kettle of fish.

A session beer, rather obviously, is one that you can sit down and drink in a session. So lower levels of booze and the chance to have a couple over lunch. Except some of these beers are sitting at one standard drink (or higher if the bottle is bigger). A standard drink is defined as the amount of alcohol the average person can process in an hour. It’s a guideline, a good guesstimate of how much you can, or should, drink depending on your height, weight, age and health.

Personally, I’d like to see the word “session” leave every brewer’s lexicon. It covers too large a range of alcohol strengths to be useful for consumers. One drinker’s session is another’s boozy night out. I’ve seen session beers at 3% and 5%, which is ridiculous.

The last thing to look out for is low-carbs beers describing themselves as “light”, but still having a 5% ABV.

The Good Ones Are Hard To Find

Croucher won’t get you pissed but it tastes good

You make a light beer by fermenting for less time or giving the yeast less to work with. Both of these techniques make for beers with less flavour and body. This means finding one you like can be difficult.

The craft beer world has a lot of quality options for low-strength beer. Croucher Low Rider (2.5%), Tuatara Iti (3.3%), and Garage Project Fugazi (2.2%) are three that come immediately to mind. They’re all ales and attempt to add some flavour. But craft beer varies batch to batch, that’s part of the charm. For example, the first few batches of Fugazi were okay but not great. Recently it’s gotten much better.

The best types of low alcohol beers are the sours. Goses, Berliner Weisses, and your basic kettle sours are all the best options for flavour without coming away inebriated (though always check the ABV!)



There are dozens of reasons why someone wants to drink low-strength beer. It could be for their health, they could be driving, but the main one is to stop people asking why they aren’t drinking. Holding a 2.5% beer looks a lot like holding a regular 5% beer.

It’s a “whatareya?” culture New Zealand is still finding hard to shake.

Hadyn has been writing about beer for well over a decade.

While he can’t nail down what the best he’s ever had was, there’s no doubt in his mind about the worst: a paua stout.

He’s often asked, “Why don’t you brew beer?” And the answer is still the same, “Because I can buy beer from people who are very good at making it.”

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