What we today call ‘near beer’ was historically known as ‘small beer.’ Small beer was beer that contained very little alcohol and this type of beer has deep roots in both Europe and the United States. Needle beer was beer produced illegally during prohibition in the United States when near beer was spiked with alcohol.
In Europe, these kinds of small beer were made as far back as the medieval period. The purpose was not to create a beer-like taste with no alcohol but to have beer for children, and perhaps servants, to drink.
Why? Because beer was safer to drink than water, especially when the drinking water could be contaminated with any number of disease organisms. Rather than risk cholera or typhoid fever, it was better to drink beer. And if you were too young to drink the full alcohol version, you could drink a low alcohol version. Long ago, people realized that something about the beer making process made previously unsafe water safe to drink. In the article Is root beer really a beer? I discussed how families would make strong and weak varieties of alcoholic root beer, for much the same purpose.
During prohibition in the United States, the law permitted the sale of ‘beers’ with 0.5 percent alcohol or less, so some breweries began producing these beers, which were marketed as tonics or cereal beverages, and colloquially as near beer. Producing these low-alcohol beers allowed some breweries to survive through prohibition while most of them were forced to cease production entirely, at least until after prohibition was lifted. During prohibition, these were called “non-intoxicating” beverages. Although near bears are produced today by several methods of changing the brewing process, it only required the addition of one step to dealcoholize beer for these breweries.
While breweries did more than just produce near beer to survive prohibition, including the manufacture of malt syrups, soft drinks, and even dairy products, some of today’s major breweries which produced these low-alcohol beers were Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller, Stroh, and Schlitz.
Needle Beer from Near Beer
It was these beers that were used to make needle beer, so-called because a needle was used to inject alcohol through the corks of a bottle or keg containing the ‘cereal beverage.’ Needle beer was also known as spiked beer. The near beers themselves didn’t taste very good, the the spiked version could only have tasted worse. However, it allowed some of the poorer folks to have beer who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford the more expensive illicit liquors.
To be clear, needle beer was but one way full alcohol beer was produced during prohibition. Remember those malt syrups? During colonial times, people had brewed their own beer, and during prohibition, some people purchased these malt syrups and revived the practice. Homebrewing is not new at all!
Near Beer Today
Near beer is often thought of as ‘non-alcohol’ beer or NA beer. Confusingly, it is not non-alcohol but contains up to 0.5% alcohol by volume. If you read the label of a “near beer” you will see that it is not actually called beer, but non-alcohol malt beverage or perhaps non-alcohol brew. Beer, by legal definition, contains alcohol. These are the same types of products that used to be called non-intoxicating during prohibition, although the methods of producing them have much improved, either through modifications in the actual brewing process, or through removal of the alcohol through low temperature, low pressure distillation, etc. You still wouldn’t mistake them for beer, though. The taste is usually watery and sweet. But, It is possible to find higher quality near beers, as in some coming out of Germany, where the market has broadened, but it’s a tough search.
Non-alcohol does not mean the same thing as alcohol free in the United States. Alcohol free means no detectable alcohol. Why 0.5% for non-alcohol? Because you can find up to that much alcohol in things like fruit juice, due to natural fermentation.
Today, non-alcoholic near beers are produced by all the major breweries, and worldwide there are hundreds of NA beers, yet the category represents only about 1% of the total beer market, and due to the increased cost of making them, the profit margins are greatly reduced. You’ll usually find three to four brands of non-alcohol beers at any large supermarket, such as O’Doul’s by Anheuser-Busch.