What’s in an (alcohol-free) name?

imageRob Fink is the founder of Big Drop Brewing Co – he shares the frustrating experience of describing his new beer (something our members, the customers, get annoyed about too) …

Making “alcohol free” beer. How hard can it be? Actually, it’s surprisingly easy. What turns out to be difficult is what you can call it.

There are a number of ways you can make “alcohol free” beer. You can extract the alcohol after the brew has finished, generally using one of two methods: first, you can heat the alcohol out (generally considered to make the beer taste horrible; Kaliber, I’m looking at you). Alternatively, you can remove the alcohol at a molecular level using a process called reverse osmosis (think kidney dialysis for beer) but the equipment is prohibitively expensive. Or you can do what I’m doing which is to just use less malt and fermentable sugars so that the ABV of the beer never gets above 0.5%.

But what can I call my lovely 0.5% ABV beer?

A cursory review of the internet seems to show there are three “bands”

  • Alcohol-free: Contains 0.05% alcohol or less
  • De-alcoholised: Contains 0.5% alcohol or less
  • Low-alcohol: contains more than 0.5% but no more than 1.2%

So it seems I can call my beer “low alcohol” or “de-alcoholised”. The ramifications from a branding perspective are pretty significant. “Low alcohol” sounds to me like beer that couldn’t be bothered. “De-alcoholised” sounds like some weird dystopian detox process.

In fact the position is a little more nuanced than the internet would suggest. The source of these “bands” is the Food Labelling Regulations 1996.

What the regulations actually say is that you can’t apply the description “alcohol free” “to any alcoholic drink from which the alcohol has been extracted” unless the ABV is no more than 0.05% and the drink is labelled with something equivalent to “not more than 0.05%”.

“Dealcoholised” cannot be used unless “the drink, being an alcoholic drink from which the alcohol has been extracted, has an alcoholic strength by volume of not more than 0.5 per cent”. Similar labelling requirements apply to “low alcohol” or any other word or description which implies that the drink being described is low in alcohol “shall not be applied to any alcoholic drink unless the drink has an alcoholic strength by volume of not more than 1.2 per cent”. Similar labelling requirements are complied with.

And before anybody asks….”The description “non-alcoholic” shall not be used in conjunction with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink”. In other words, no beer (even a 0% ABV beer) can ever be described as non-alcoholic.

big-drop-final-02How about alcohol-free?

So let’s focus on “alcohol free”. What the regulations say is that I can’t use “alcohol free” on an alcoholic drink from which alcohol has been extracted unless the ABV is no more than 0.05%. Great. Except I have never (nor will I ever) “extract” the alcohol from my beer. I just brew it carefully and with love.

Where does that leave me? I think that because my beer has not had any alcohol extracted from it, I can use “alcohol free”. I only can’t use it if I start extracting alcohol but leaving in more than 0.05%. Slightly bizarre but that’s what I think the law says, and I’m sticking to it! No doubt the powers that be will come and tell me if they disagree.


Rob Fink is the founder of Big Drop Brewing Co limited, and might be about to get in trouble with the Portman Group.

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