Ask Katie: What's the Deal with Non-Alcoholic Beer?

By Katie MacBride 10/04/16

Is non-alcoholic beer for non-alcoholics only? The Fix's advice columnist weighs in.

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Ask Katie: What's the Deal with Non-Alcoholic Beer?
Ask yourself: why?

What's the deal with non-alcoholic beer? Some of my friends drink it and say they are still sober. Others say if you drink it you're basically going to end up shooting heroin the next day. Beer was never my problem and it would be nice to have a cold one at the occasional party or football game.

When people I was in treatment with raised the issue of non-alcoholic beer, I was baffled. Why would anyone want to drink non-alcoholic beer? By the end of my drinking, I wasn’t bothering with regular beer because the alcohol content was so low. In those early sobriety days, having a non-alcoholic beer sounded about as appealing as drinking mud. 

In August, I was in Hawaii with my boyfriend’s family. They’re all drinkers (the normal kind) but they’re extremely supportive of my sobriety and I never feel strange for abstaining when I’m around them. As the days on the beach flew by, though, I started imagining what it would be like to be one of the people relaxing on the sand, beer in hand, soaking up the sun. Early in my sobriety, someone mentioned that all non-alcoholic beer has some alcohol content. Feeling so hungry for a beer-replica, I took to my smartphone to find out if any non-alcoholic beers are completely non-alcoholic. (If you’re curious about alcohol content of different non-alcoholic beers, you can find that info here.)

In the U.S., non-alcoholic beer is defined as a beer with less than .5% alcohol by volume (ABV). In the UK, it’s less than 1.2% ABV. You might be thinking, “Um, it would take me five million of those beers to get drunk, so I still don’t see the problem.” I get that. There might not be a problem. Among my sober friends, I can think of one person who drinks non-alcoholic beer occasionally and he seems fine. 

I, however, don’t want to drink anything with the slightest bit of alcohol in it. For the last six months or so of my drinking, I experienced withdrawal symptoms—among other things, my hands would shake in the morning. If I had consumed all the available alcohol the night before (as was often the case) I would drink something with a minimal amount of alcohol in it (Listerine, cough syrup, other super gross things I prefer not to think about) to quell my trembling hands. 

So for me, drinking something with the slightest bit of alcohol in it seems dangerous because I remember how dependent my body was on that substance and how painfully difficult it was to stop consuming it. Non-alcoholic beer falls into smoking at a gas station territory for me: it’s possible I could make it out okay, but it’s a pretty big risk to take. 

It’s possible alcohol wasn’t your thing and you don’t have the same concerns I do around that substance. If the alcohol content doesn’t concern you, I’d suggest thinking about one more thing before making the decision to wheel your grocery cart down the beer aisle. It’s the same question I had to consider after my Hawaiian vacation: why?

Why did I suddenly have the desire to have the beer on the beach facade? I wasn’t trying to trick anyone into thinking I was drinking. I’ve never loved the taste of beer and there are certainly other things (like delicious, probably-turns-your-insides-into-swiss-cheese Diet Coke) that I think taste better. So what was it about the beer that I wanted?

In our society, alcohol is a symbol of fun and relaxation. If I’m stressed out about something, people who don’t know I’m sober frequently tell me to open a bottle of wine, or have a beer. Commercials for credit card companies, toothpaste—things that don’t seem to be connected to alcohol at all—frequently feature groups of people relaxing and having a good time together at a bar. Add to that the good memories we have of drinking before our addiction (to whatever substance) got in the way. It’s natural to have a lingering romanticization of hanging out at a football game, party, or beachy afternoon with a beer in your hand. 

One of the most frustrating parts of being an addict is the difference between what you know to be true and how you feel. I know that non-alcoholic beer isn’t going to get me drunk. I know that drinking leads to terrible, life-destroying consequences for me. I know that holding a beer that looks similar to beer everyone else is drinking doesn’t change the fact that I can’t drink. I know that drinking isn’t necessary for relaxation and fun, especially for someone like me. I knew all of those things in Hawaii and yet I still took the time to research non-alcoholic beers and think about picking some up at the store. After eight years of sobriety, I still fell for the lie that even the appearance of drinking equals fun, relaxing times. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t true, but something in my subconscious still held onto those fallacies. 

It’s fine that every now and then I wish I had the ability to hang out and drink beers the way other people can. Those thoughts don’t necessarily mean my recovery is in danger. What they do mean is that I have to take a step back and think about the reality of my situation. I need to question why I suddenly want to look like a drinker when I’m not a drinker. It also serves as a reminder that I don’t have to act on the thoughts I’m having.

I don’t know if the same thing is happening with you. Maybe you just really love the taste of beer and none of the factors I mentioned are at play here. But if you’re concerned enough to write in and ask about it, my guess is that you have some reason to be concerned that non-alcoholic beer could lead you down a path that wouldn’t be great for your recovery. If that’s the case, don’t do it. The payoff isn’t that exciting and there’s so much to lose.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery-related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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