Beer without the cheer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 June, 1993, 12:00am

IN the trade they're called ''NAs'' or no-alcohol beers. They're popular in the United States and Europe.

While the health kick pushes Americans to reach for flavoured waters or an NA (with 0.5 per-cent alcohol or less), Europe's stringent driving laws force any driver to think twice before sipping and taking the wheel.

Though a few brands are available in Hongkong - O'Douls, Sharp's, Birell, Swan - the no-alcohol beers are no competition for the genuine article or even beers in the ''lite'' category.

Ray Smith can count on one hand the number of customers at Faces who order no-alcohol beer. ''A few regulars from Tom Turk's,'' says director Smith. ''They come in after their workout. You can have three or four bottles and feel okay.'' Faces sell the Swiss-made Birell and Swan from Australia, at $30 per bottle. ''We don't really promote the beer. But having it gives customers an option,'' minds Smith.

Gavin Jones sees a potential but there's no rush for NA beer. The food and wine buyer at USA & Co stocks Sharp's and O'Douls. Prices range between $6 and $11, depending on container, beer or bottle.

''The taste is improving,'' says Jones. ''Over the last 10 years beer companies have worked on the flavour. A fuller taste, not that overly-yeasty one.'' A no-alcohol beer is basically real beer stripped of its alcohol by boiling.

Real beer fanciers are less enthusiastic about the taste. ''Unfortunately, the beer [in the boiling process] loses much of the hops and malt flavour,'' writes William Rice, a Chicago Tribune food writer who invited a taste panel to criticise no-alcohol beers.

''Most are missing the mouth-feel or body of real beer, are excessively carbonated and lack characters of the full-flavoured alcoholic originals.'' Rice conducted a tasting of 18 no-alcohol beers available in Chicago. The European-made products rated better than the American ones.

The Excelsior gave no-alcohol beer a month to prove itself. The hotel stocked Sharp's in the Dickens Bar and in the rooms' mini-bars. But overall low consumption figures forced the beer into retirement.

''Those who ordered it in the Dickens were mainly women,'' reports assistant food and beverage manager Muriel Mis. ''They said the taste wasn't interesting. The typical Dickens bar customer comes for real beer.'' Eileen Ogle is keeping an eye on the demand. ''It's rising slowly,'' says the food and wine consultant for Oliver's. ''The Muslims buy it.'' Though she sells Birell at $6.80 per bottle, she would gladly experiment with other brands if the demand warranted it. But she doesn't fancy them. ''They're bland.'' Until Tony Roma's get their liquor licence, customers are allowed to bring their own. ''For the customer who asks for a beer, we'll suggest the alcohol-free beer, O'Douls,'' explains manager C.S. Lee.

Sales aren't great. ''Customers don't say 'ugh'. They adopt an ''it's better than nothing'' attitude.'' When properly chilled, Lee believes a no-alcohol beer tastes refreshing ''if you're eating something. It has a good bite.'' Only two per cent of customers at Mad Dogs Kowloon order Swan. ''Those who do are usually male gweilos who are driving,'' reports manager Michael Warde.

When Hongkong drinks, it wants the real thing, observes Nancy Robinson. ''The British pub tradition lives here. People love to drink. And drink a lot,'' says the general manager of L.A. Cafe.