Of all the places around the country that I’ve visited to report on health news, a pub is perhaps the most unexpected.
Yet here I am at the Britannia Inn, just outside Leicester, sipping a pint. But it is not just any old pint.
It is, in fact, Heineken 0.0, the UK’s first alcohol-free lager pulled from a tap – and I am the first British journalist to try it.
Heineken, the world’s second-largest brewer, has launched its booze-free pints in just five pubs but plans to roll them out nationwide in the New Year, in time for the healthy resolutions we love to make, and inevitably break.
More Britons plan to give up alcohol than ever before this January – as part of the Dry January charity campaign – according to research by the charity Alcohol Change. A record 7.9 million adults will adopt this health kick next month, 22 per cent more than in 2021.
It speaks to a wider trend playing out across the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of Britons who do not drink alcohol has risen by at least five per cent in the past decade and currently stands at one in five.
Young Britons are the most booze-averse, with a quarter of 16-to-24-year-olds describing themselves as non-drinkers.
The most regular drinkers are in their 50s and 60s, and even those who do imbibe drink less than they did a decade ago.
To cater to the increasing number of alcohol-free customers, manufacturers have created all manner of non-intoxicating wines and spirits over the past few years.
But until now the majority of low-alcohol or alcohol-free beers, from giants such as Peroni, Beck’s and Stella Artois, have been served in bottles, because kegs, the barrels in which draught beer is stored, attract yeast, which finds its way into the beer pipes and ferments, eventually turning non-alcoholic beer alcoholic.
Heineken, the world’s second-largest brewer, has launched its booze-free pints in just five pubs but plans to roll them out nationwide in the New Year, in time for the healthy resolutions we love to make, and inevitably break
Now Heineken has cracked the problem. Willem van Waesberghe, Heineken’s global master brewer, says: ‘We use specially designed cooling technology to keep the equipment and pipes that transport the beer to the tap at freezing temperatures. At these extreme temperatures yeast cannot grow, which means alcohol is not produced as a by-product.’
But while light drinkers drank less in the past year, amid the restrictions of the pandemic, those who drink larger amounts drank more – in many cases taking consumption to dangerous levels.
Deaths from alcohol-related liver disease rose by 20 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and a host of cancers is also related to drinking too much alcohol.
What’s wrong with me? This week: Excessive belching
Over-indulging can cause bloating and belching, but chronic burping may mean there’s a health problem.
A burp is usually the release of air that has been swallowed into the system when we eat or drink.
But chronic belching may point to a hiatus hernia, when part of the stomach bulges up towards the oesophagus, causing a build-up of stomach acid and air that needs to escape.
Another condition, called SIBO (or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), also triggers excess belching as it increases gas production.
It is treated with a course of antibiotics, as is H.pylori, a bacterial infection and common cause of stomach ulcers that also causes belching.
But does removing the alcohol make a pint hugely healthier?
Importantly, removing the alcohol also removes a significant number of calories – roughly 100 in a pint of beer. This is done via a process called distillation.
First, booze-free beer, like most alcohol-free products, actually begins life with alcohol in it.
Alcohol is produced during the fermentation process, which happens when sugar or starch is mixed with water and yeast.
In the case of beer, grains such as barley are combined with water before the yeast is added. To create non-alcoholic versions, the liquid is gently heated, burning off the alcohol.
Some manufacturers, including Heineken, then add flavourings to replace some of the taste lost during this process.
When I asked exactly what these flavourings are, or how they are made, Heineken couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide an answer.
The brand says its booze-free drink is ‘low’ in sugar, which it is if you drink a quarter of a pint. A full pint has a teaspoon and a half, about the same as in three McVitie’s Rich Tea biscuits. The alcoholic version contains no sugar at all.
Still, the calorie savings are impressive: 115 instead of 227 in a traditional pint.
But compared with other alcohol-free spirits, it’s not the best.
A double measure of Gordon’s alcohol-free gin contains just six calories, compared with 104 in the alcoholic version.
When I asked exactly what these flavourings are, or how they are made, Heineken couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide an answer. But at least one of these additions must be sugar. Pictured: Ethan Ennals
A glass of Eisberg alcohol-free sauvignon blanc contains just 22 calories – compared with 99 calories in an alcoholic equivalent – and the same amount of sugar as you’ll find in a Heineken 0.0 pint.
And although there are far fewer calories than in an alcoholic pint, the numbers add up quickly, especially if you drink beer in the way most Britons do. In other words, we rarely stop at one.
Two pints of Heineken 0.0 has roughly the same amount of calories as a McDonald’s Big Mac.
The key question was: could I bear to drink two pints of the stuff?
Britons drink an average of about four-and-a-half pints of beer every week, according to recent global statistics.
Initially, I was sceptical. I’d had a brief brush with alcohol-free beer in 2019 when I attempted Dry January.
I managed three weeks before the unsatisfying taste of bottled booze-free beer such as Beck’s Blue drove me back to the real deal.
But I was pleasantly surprised by Heineken 0.0. There’s no doubting it lacks the strong aftertaste that all alcoholic drinks have, and I found myself expecting – and then missing – that punchy kick.
But it has none of the tepid, watery flavour of previous alcohol-free beers I’ve tasted. Also, it smells exactly like a beer should.
And the serving vessel made all the difference. Any British beer drinker will tell you that any drink tastes better in a pint glass.
‘The biggest sell is that it looks exactly like a regular pint,’ says publican Phil Jones who, along with his wife Kate, has run the Britannia Inn for 18 years.
‘Just because people don’t drink doesn’t mean they don’t want to go to the pub.
‘But if they’re holding a bottle, while all the other lads have pint glasses, they’ll stand out from the crowd.’
Despite polishing off a full pint, I wasn’t exactly craving another in the way I would usually.
But on my way back from Leicester, I stopped in at another pub and ordered a proper pint.
And I’d have to say, while I struggled to tell this pint apart from the Heineken 0.0 I’d drunk several hours before at the Britannia, this time I was struck by a familiar temptation and I had to talk myself out of ordering another.
So it turns out that self-control is the key to healthy beer-drinking – booze or no booze.