what is alcohol free

What is Alcohol-Free Beer, Wine, Cider & More..?

Regardless of the reason why you’re avoiding, or cutting back on alcohol grasping the nuances of alcohol-free, non-alcoholic and low alcohol drinks can be a tricky thing to understand.  In this introduction to the definitions of alcohol-free, we aim to overview what is alcohol-free beer, explain how low alcohol wine is defined.  We’ll review the terminology used in the alcohol-free beverage market, what you can expect to see on a label of low alcohol drinks and a whole lot more.  You’ll find that a few of the “alcohol-free beers” actually have an ABV of 0.5%, which can at first be confusing.  So this is a great place to start to understand the world of alcohol free drinks.

This site, A Free Drink, covers not just what is technically considered alcohol-free beer in the UK, but also low alcohol wines, non-alcoholic ciders and low alcohol cocktails and spirits, so bear with us as we start with a few definitions and explanations.  The term “low alcohol” is used differently with these different drinks, so it’s important to understand the rules for each of the drinks categories.

What is Alcohol-Free?

In order to understand how alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks are defined it is necessary to understand how the strength of alcohol is measured, so here’s a quick primer.

How is the Strength of Alcohol Measured?

Alcohol By Volume – ABV – is used to measure the content of alcohol in beer, cider, wine and spirits.  It is calculated and then shown as a percentage of the whole drink and is labelled as ABV.  So if a beer shows on its label 4% ABV, then it contains 4% pure alcohol.

In the USA the term “proof” is sometimes used for distilled spirits and this is calculated by doubling the ABV.

How Strong are Alcoholic Drinks?

  • The majority of lagers and beers tend to be between 4% and 7% ABV, but the range extends from 3% to 13%.
  • Cider ranges from 4.5% to 12% ABV.
  • Wine ranges from 8% to 14% ABV.
  • Spirits range from 15% to 50% ABV.

What is the Definition of Alcohol-Free?

The answer to this is that “it depends on where you are”.

The alcohol-free meaning differs both between geographies (the UK, the US and the EU) and also *some* vendors definition also has a difference in what alcohol-free means.

A Free Drink concentrates on the UK market place and so our definitions, explanations and descriptions are for the UK.  This also means that we focus on the legal UK definitions of alcohol-free.  Definitions and variations may occur in different territories.  The most simple difference is that in the UK we tend to describe alcohol-free drinks as “alcohol-free”, or non-alcoholic, in the USA they tend to be described as only “non-alcoholic”. 

UK Definitions of Alcohol-Free

In the UK there are two common terms used to describe these drinks.

  1. Alcoholic – contains more than 1.2% ABV
  2. Low Alcohol – which is used for drinks that have alcoholic levels below 1.2% ABV
  3. Alcohol-free – used for drinks that have had alcohol extracted from them, with alcoholic levels of below 0.05% ABV
  4. Non-alcoholic – this term shouldn’t be used in conjunction with a name commonly associated with an alcoholic drink, but it contains zero alcohol (There is an exception for non-alcoholic wine that is specific to communion or sacramental use.)
  5. De-alcoholised – this term is only used if it’s a drink from which the alcohol has been extracted AND if it contains no more than 0.5% ABV or state that it contains no alcohol.

If you really want to understand all the nitty-gritty of alcohol labelling in the UK, then the UK Government guidance is here.

There are even some producers who have changed their products to meet these definitions – like McGuigans with their Zero wine range that includes the fabulous Zero Sparkling.

European Alcohol-Free Definitions

In European Union member states alcohol-free tends to be attributed to drinks that have an ABV of 0.5% or less.  It’s important to note that this guidance and these terms are only for what’s called alcohol substitute drinks and not soft drinks.  We feel it’s important to understand the European rules too, as you’ll see some European produced drinks in here (and some of them are our absolute favourites too!)

We also include those beers that are 0.5% ABV and therefore are defined as alcohol-free in the EU.

If a drink with an ABV of 0.5% originates in mainland Europe and is labelled as alcohol-free, then it can be sold in the UK. It’s only drinks that are manufactured in the UK that must apply the limit of 0.05% ABV that must be labelled as above. However, we can also expect some delays following Brexit.

So what can we expect with A Free Drink and Alcohol-Free?

A Free Drink covers alcohol-free, low alcohol drinks, non-alcoholic AND de-alcoholised drinks under all of these definitions.  We will ALWAYS indicate the ABV of a particular drink when we review it, which is the BEST way (we think) to identify if a drink is alcohol-free. You can read all about the benefits of alcohol-free beer and drinks here.

FAQ’s on Alcohol-Free Drinks

Got questions about alcohol-free drinks? Or want to know something specific about low alcohol drinks and definitions and we haven’t answered your questions?  Check out our frequently asked questions about alcohol-free drinks below, or ask us yours in the comments.

What’s the difference between alcohol-free beer and beer?

It might sound obvious, but the primary difference between alcohol-free and beer with alcohol is the amount of alcohol that they contain. 
Alcohol in drinks is calculated and shown as a percentage of the whole drink and is labels as Alcohol by Volume, or ABV.  So if a beer shows on its label 4% ABV, then it contains 4% pure alcohol.
Many of the alcohol-free, low alcohol and de-alcoholised beers, wines and drinks that we’ve tried have an alcoholic version, which usually came first.  If this is the case, then we really try to taste them both side by side to see what the differences are.  And we’ll always tell you which version we prefer!

Why does alcohol-free beer contain some alcohol?

Under the UK government definition of alcohol-free, beer can contain up to 0.05% ABV.  Some alcohol forms naturally during the brewing process. There’s more here on how alcohol-free beer is made.

Is 0.5% alcohol-free?

Yes and no.  In some European Union member states this is the legal definition of alcohol-free.   Under UK legislation 0.05% is the definition of alcohol-free drinks. 

What’s the difference between alcohol-free and non-alcoholic drinks?

Under UK law definitions, alcohol-free can include alcohol up to a level of 0.05% ABV.  Non-alcoholic drinks can contain zero alcohol.  Always check the label if you’re unsure and look specifically for the ABV.

Are alcohol-free drinks actually alcohol-free?

Not always no.  In the UK alcohol-free can contain up to 0.05% ABV.  However, some foodstuffs also contain alcohol, so there’s the argument that this is less than you’d get in say a ripe banana.  Fruits ferment and decay when they ripen because of yeast that grows both inside and on the skin of fruits.    Yeast then breaks down the sugar in the fruit into ethanol (the alcohol in beer and wine).  So while unripe fruit will have trace amounts of alcohol, overripe fruit has significantly more (there’s more on this here.)

What ABV is classified as alcohol-free?

What ABV is classified as alcohol-free depends on where you are and the rules of the territory.  In the UK, the ABV that is classified as alcohol-free is 0.05%.  In European Union member states its 0.5%. 

Can you get drunk on alcohol-free beer?

No.  You can’t get drunk on alcohol-free beer.  There are published studies that show it’s not possible to get drunk on alcohol-free beer.  This one from 2012 in Germany showed that even by drinking 1.5 litres of alcohol-free beer in an hour, the maximum blood alcohol levels attained were 0.0056%.  The drink driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 0.08%.  The drink driving limit in Scotland is 0.05%.

Can you drink alcohol-free beer and drive in the UK?

Yes.  You can drink alcohol-free beer and drive in the UK.   If you manage to drink 1.5 litres of alcohol-free beer in one hour your blood alcohol level will still be significantly less than the drink driving limits (see the previous question and answer).

Can alcohol-free beer give you a hangover?

Usually not, but a very small percentage of people do experience mild hangovers like symptoms.  Beer is diuretic, which makes you pee more, which dehydrates you.  Dehydration causes most of the symptoms of a hangover.  However, some darker coloured alcoholic drinks contain a natural chemical called “congeners”, which irritate blood vessels in some people’s brains and make hangovers worse.    We haven’t experienced them at all. 

Is alcohol-free beer vegan?

Some alcohol free beer is vegan and some AF beer is not vegan. It depends on the ingredients. Inifinite Session American Pale Ale started out with a recipe that contained lactose, which meant it was NOT vegan, but changed the recipe in 2019 to remove it. It’s now vegan.

How is alcohol-free and low alcohol beer made?

There are two methods in which beer can be manufactured to be low alcohol or alcohol-free.  The first is that alcohol is removed from the finished product.   The second way of making alcohol-free beer is to stop alcohol from forming during the brewing process.
The way that beer brewers reduce the alcohol content of beer is to either heat it to boil away the alcohol or to pass it through a special filter which removes the alcohol.

Can you buy alcohol free beer under 18 years of age?

It’s not illegal to buy alcohol free beer when you’re under 18, however, many retailers (and pubs) require that you be over 18 to buy alcohol-free beer. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly under 18s are unlikely to be able to buy alcohol free beer to make it easier to enforce the rules on selling alcoholic drinks. Secondly, its to avoid promoting alcohol to children – as most alcohol free beer does contain a small (0.05%) amount of alcohol.

Final Words on what is Alcohol Free

The world of alcohol-free drinks is a fascinating place once you start to explore it.  With different legal definitions throughout the world, different labelling and nuances between alcohol-free, non-alcoholic, low alcohol and de-alcoholised, its worth understanding just some of the differences before you open a can, pop a bottle or pour a pint.

We hope that this introduction to “what is alcohol-free” is a good introduction to some of the basics of alcohol-free drinks and that you’ll join us in exploring a little further.

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