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Low-alcohol beer (also called non-alcoholic or NA beer, small beer or small ale, or near-beer, or low-interest brew in The Badlands marker) is beer with very low or no alcohol content. Most low-alcohol beers are lagers, but there are some low-alcohol ales.

In the United Statesmarker, beverages containing less than 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) were legally called non-alcoholic, according to the now-defunct Volstead Act. Due to its very low alcohol content, non-alcoholic beer may be legally sold to minors in most American states.

In the United Kingdommarker, the following definitions apply by law (correct as of May 2007):

  • No alcohol or alcohol-free: not more than 0.05% ABV
  • Dealcoholised: over 0.05% but less than 0.5% ABV
  • Low-alcohol: not more than 1.2% ABV

In the rest of the European Union, beer must contain no more than 0.5% ABV if it is labelled “alcohol-free.”

Although labeled as non-alcoholic, some beers may still contain small amounts of alcohol; as a result, some American states prohibit their sale to minors and even to young adults. In one state (Pennsylvania) persons must be 21 years of age or older to even consume non-alcoholic beer, or they will be cited for underage drinking.

  • Wisconsinmarker law does not regulate non-alcoholic beer (less than 0.5% ABV), and it can be purchased without any age restrictions.
  • According to Michiganmarker law, persons must be 18 or older to purchase “non-alcoholic beer” within the state.
  • According to Pennsylvaniamarker law, persons must be 21 to purchase or consume “non-alcoholic beer” within the Commonwealth. Persons under the age of 21 caught purchasing or consuming “non-alcoholic beer” in Pennsylvania will be cited for underage possession or underage drinking the same as if they were purchasing or consuming any other alcoholic beverage. In short, Pennsylvania treats non-alcoholic beer the same as it does alcoholic beverages. It is the only state which does so. However, unlike alcoholic beer, non-alcoholic beer is sold in some supermarkets and convenience stores.
  • In North Carolinamarker, Mainemarker, Mississippimarker, and Montanamarker, persons must be 21 to purchase "non-alcoholic beer".

In countries where alcohol advertising is forbidden or limited, non-alcoholic versions of popular brands of alcoholic beverages have been created for the purpose of advertisement.

Light beer

Light beer is beer that is reduced in alcohol content or in calories, compared to normal beer. Light beers may be chosen by beer drinkers who wish to manage their alcohol consumption or their calorie intake; however, they are sometimes criticized for being less flavourful than full-strength beers, being (in perception or in fact) “watered down.”

Reduced alcohol

“Light beer” customarily means a beer with less than 3.5% ABV. This is the primary definition of the term in Australia and Scotland. In Australia, regular beers have approximately 5% ABV; light beers have 2.2%–3.2%. In Canada, a light beer contains 2.6%-4.0% alcohol by volume, and an extra-light beer contains less than 2.5% ABV.

In the United States, some establishments are permitted to sell only low-alcohol light beer . For example, in Minnesotamarker, Kansasmarker, Oklahomamarker, Coloradomarker, and Utahmarker, beer that is sold in supermarkets and convenience stores must have no more than 3.2% alcohol by weight (4% ABV). This low-alcohol beer is called “low-point beer” or “three-two beer.”

Minnesotamarker has a full-service alcohol license that is available to retailers. It permits the sale of beers having a normal alcohol content, but the 3.2% licenses are easier to obtain.

Light beer with a significantly lower alcohol content allows consumers to drink more beers without becoming drunk. A lower-alcohol beer may also be cheaper, due to a lower tax.

Reduced calories

Reducing the calorie content of beer is done by a large reduction of its carbohydrate content and a small reduction of its alcohol content. The alcohol reduction is not primarily intended to produce a less intoxicating beverage.

In the United States, “light beer” primarily refers to low-calorie beer. The spelling “lite beer” is also commonly used, but "lite" is actually a trademark held by MillerCoors for use with Miller Lite, and so the "lite" spelling is not properly applied to other light beers.

Low-point beer (3.2%)

Low-point beer, which is often called “three-two beer” or “3 point 2 brew,” is beer that contains 3.2% alcohol by weight (equivalent to 4% ABV).

The term “low-point beer” is unique to the United Statesmarker, where some states limit the sale of beer, but beers of this type are also available in countries (such as Sweden and Finland) that tax or otherwise regulate beer according to its alcohol content .

The states of Coloradomarker, Kansasmarker, Minnesotamarker, Oklahomamarker, and Utahmarker permit general establishments such as supermarket chains and convenience stores to sell only low-point beer. In these states, all alcoholic beverages containing more than 3.2% alcohol by weight (ABW) must be sold from state-licensed liquor stores. Oklahoma additionally requires that any beverage containing more than 3.2% ABW must be sold at normal room temperature.

Missourimarker also has a legal classification for low-point beer, which it calls “nonintoxicating beer.” Unlike Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah, however, Missouri does not limit supermarket chains and convenience stores to selling only low-point beer. Instead, Missouri’s alcohol laws permit grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, and even “general merchandise stores” (a term that Missouri law does not define) to sell any alcoholic beverage; consequently, 3.2% beer is rarely sold in Missouri.

Near beer

Originally, “near beer” was a term for malt beverages containing little or no alcohol (less than 0.5% ABV), which were mass-marketed during Prohibition in the United Statesmarker. Near beer could not legally be labeled as “beer” and was officially classified as a “cereal beverage.” The public, however, almost universally called it “near beer.”

Today, the term “near beer” has been revived to refer to modern non-alcoholic beer.

The most popular "near beer" was Bevo, brewed by the Anheuser-Buschmarker company. The Pabst company brewed "Pablo", Miller brewed "Vivo", and Schlitz brewed "Famo". Many local and regional breweries stayed in business by marketing their own near-beers. By 1921 production of near beer had reached over 300 million US gallons (1 billion L) a year (360 L/s).

A popular illegal practice was to add alcohol to near beer. The resulting beverage was known as spiked beer or needle beer, so called because a needle was used to inject alcohol through the cork of the bottle or keg.

Food critic and writer Waverley Root described the common American near beer as "such a wishy-washy, thin, ill-tasting, discouraging sort of slop that it might have been dreamed up by a Puritan Machiavelli with the intent of disgusting drinkers with genuine beer forever."

Small beer

Small beer (also small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America where George Washington had a recipe involving bran and molasses. It was sometimes had with breakfast, as attested in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. In these times of lower public sanitation, cholera and other water-transmitted diseases were a significant cause of death. Because alcohol is toxic to most water-borne pathogens, and because the process of brewing any beer from malt involves boiling the water, which also kills germs, drinking small beer instead of water was one way to escape infection. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants. It was not unknown for workers in heavy industries and physical work to consume double figure (pint) quantities of small beer during a working day to maintain their hydration levels. This was usually provided free as part of their working conditions, it being recognised that maintaining hydration was essential for optimum performance.

Small beer/small ale can also refer to a beer made of the "second runnings" from a very strong beer (e.g., scotch ale) mash. These beers can be as strong as a mild ale, depending on the strength of the original mash. This was done as an economy measure in household brewing in England up to the 18th century and is still done by some homebrewers and microbrewers such as Anchor Brewing Companymarker.

Metaphorically, small beer means a trifle, a thing of little importance. The term is also used derisively for commercially produced beers which are thought to taste too weak.

Small ale in literature

Besides Franklin's autobiography, small ale turns up in the writings of William Shakespeare, William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, in Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series and in Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602. Butterbeer, as the term is used in the Harry Potter series of books and movies, can be described as a small beer served warm that is available to minors and has intoxicating effects if drunk in large quantities. Thomas Thetcher's tombstone at Winchester Cathedralmarker features a poem that blames his death on drinking small beer while hot. Graham Greene used the phrase 'small beer' in the metaphorical sense in The Honorary Consul. Ken Follett, in his novel "The Pillars of the Earth," makes numerous references to small beer. In Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood", Mrs Hartman of the local cafe serves 3.2 beer, as Kansasmarker is 'dry', due to prohibition. The pub tradition of Swearing on the Horns includes a pledge not to drink small beer when strong beer is available. In the best selling novel, "The Heretic's Daughter" Sarah is sent to town to buy a pail of small beer for her family.

Small beer today

Few commercial breweries bother to make small beer today. However, one of these rarities is produced by the Anchor Brewing Companymarker of San Franciscomarker, Californiamarker. It is made from the "second runnings" of the malt from the brewer's Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale.

Religious prohibitions

Islam prohibits the consumption of intoxicants in any quantities. However, there is disagreement among the scholars of Islam about the consumption of non-alcoholic beer. Despite this disagreement, alcohol-free (0%) beers such as Laziza and Almaza are often available in stores and restaurants that cater to an Islamic customer base. They are also popular in countries such as Saudi Arabiamarker and Kuwaitmarker that enforce alcohol prohibition, and are often available with added flavors like apple, strawberry or peach.

See also


  1. What Is Meant By Alcohol-Free? : The Alcohol-Free Shop
  3. "What's On Tap - The California Craft Beer Newsletter: July 2005 archive
  4. "Oklahoma's 3.2 beer laws unlikely to change anytime soon," Modern Brewery Age, September 29, 2003
  5. USA Today - Travel: Salt Lake City
  6. "Getting to the bottom of Minnesota's liquor laws"
  7. Beer Travelers: Beer along Route 66
  8. 37 Oklahoma Statutes § 534.
  9. Chapter 312, Revised Statutes of Missouri (R.S.Mo.)
  10. Section 311.200, R.S.Mo.
  11. Kansas Department of Revenue - Alcoholic Beverage Control - History of Alcoholic Beverages in Kansas
  12. We Want Beer: National Prohibition, Part 1
  14. Beer Break - What's A Small Beer?
  15. NYPL, To make Small Beer
  16. Islam and Drugs
  17. Is Non-Alcoholic Beer Permissible?
  18. Non-Alcoholic Beer: Prohibited?

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