What is there to drink that tastes as good as beer and wine?

I love good beer.  Really love it.  Ales mostly — nearly all the Fuller’s beers, Brains, Ruddles, almost any IPA, and lots of local brews including our own Gold Miner, by the Freeminer brewery in Cinderford — which I have just, as I am writing this article, discovered is 2.4 miles away from my house.

I’m pretty serious about beer: I am not exaggerating when I say that I have more than once had a religious experience mediated through beer: it makes me profoundly thankful to live in this world.

I’m also very fond of wine.  But it rarely moves me in the same way that beer does, except for the very rare occasions that I’ve had the seriously good stuff.  Oh, but,  you know, now that I come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything in my life that worked on my palate, my gut and my soul quite like the one bottle of Penfolds Grange I’ve ever tasted.  (Vince, if you’re reading this, a big thank you for getting hold of it!  It lives on in the memory.  Stupidly, I don’t remember what vintage it was, which is particularly important with Grange.  Oh well.)  And more than once I’ve had a seemingly unprovoked Taste Flashback of the Hunter Estate chardonnay that I last tasted 17 years ago, and haven’t come across since 1993.

So maybe in a sense I love wine more than beer, even.

Anyway, that’s not the point.  The point is this: I’d like to drink less.  For the sake of long-term health, and also to save money.  But everything else that I drink seems so pale and characterless compared with the richness, complexity and intensity of a good beer or wine.  Fruit juices are OK, but their appeal is very simple: there’s no depth to their flavours.  Although I do like juices, and drink quite a lot of orange, pear, grapefruit and pineapple, I think of them as desserts — something that’s a nice complement to the meatier main course, but no substitute for it.

Don’t get me started on sodas.

So I have two questions.

1. Since alcohol is flavourless, why is it that all the most interesting-tasting drinks have alcohol in them?

2. Can anyone recommend other things to drink?  Drinks without alcohol, but which have the weight and structure and sheer substance of a good beer?

Thanks!

(For once the sushi is relevant: it’s the food that most nearly evokes in me the same emotions as a really superb beer.)

36 responses to “What is there to drink that tastes as good as beer and wine?

  1. 1. Fermentation.
    2. Kombucha? I like kombucha quite a bit, and it has a lot of the complexity of beer. But I can’t imagine having a religious experience from drinking it. Getting that kind of revelatory flavor doesn’t seem to be a priority of kombucha manufacturers, though. I really can’t think of any other beverage sub-industry that has anywhere near the creative energy being poured into microbreweries and vinyards.

  2. Daniel Dickison

    I’ve often wondered about this too. I guess the process of creating beer produces flavors and aromas in addition to alcohol that must be really hard to produce artificially. Otherwise commercial non-alcoholic beers wouldn’t be so gross.

    Also, while ethanol may be flavorless, I bet even if you could somehow replace all the ethanol In a beer with water, the result would not taste or feel the same. Ethanol’s less dense than water and probably also modulates how other beer molecules get sensed by taste and smell receptors.

  3. I’m not by any means an expert, but things made with alcohol probably taste better for the same reason that extracts are made with alcohol. I guess it’s because alcohol releases more of the aromatics/phenols, than water or oil would.. but that’s just a guess. No recommendations other than: you could investigate really good non-robusta bean coffee and high-quality teas, as well as herb teas (without hibiscus fillers.) All of those can be very flavorful and complex and some of them are quite good for you.

    Now you’ve made me curious; I’m going to go obsessively ferret out the answer right now.

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  5. Trying once more (somehow wordpress seems to ignore my comments when I use my other mail address and simply redirects me to the article without posting my comment).

    I don’t know what the english word is, but here (in Germany) you can go to your local winery and buy some kind of fresh grape juice or grape must. Depending on when you buy (how long after harvesting season) and how long you wait before drinking it, the fermentation has not yet started or is in an early state, so it doesn’t have (much) alcohol yet. It’s much like grape juice at first, but if you wait longer, it will develop a nice interesting taste. You shouldn’t wait too long though. Its taste is nothing like wine yet, but it’s sweet and very tasty IMO. You say you like grape juice so maybe you like it too. I’m sure there’s an english word for it, but I couldn’t find a translation at dict.cc for “neuer Wein” (new wine). Here’s a google translation of the german wikipedia article instead (link shortened): http://is.gd/7xjFTB

    You might also like “Malzbier” (english translation is malt beer, but according to wikipedia “the most similar American equivalent to Malzbier is root beer” so I guess it’s not quite the same).

    Here’s another site I find very interesting (not only regarding Malzbier, there’s lots of other information there):

    http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/Malzbier.html

    Also, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you might try and brew your own beer so you have full control over the process of fermentation. There’s lots of sites for hobby brewers and online stores where you can order all you need.

    [Mike says: sorry, J; for some reason your initial posts were wrongly marked as spam. I would have seen them soon and despammed them, but since your subsequent comment contains everything that was in the wrongly-spammed ones, I’ve deleted them now.]

  6. Not as complex but nonetheless satisfying in some ways: a chilled mug half filled with brewed ginger beer (slightly tart, if possible, the sugar exhausted) and half with ginger ale. Serve very cold with a slice of lime. First encountered in Penang in the 1970s, served at tiffin(!). Known there as a ‘gunner’.

  7. I bet it has something to do with alcohol’s abilities as a solvent. I remember an old Alton Brown episode where he explained the addition of wine to a sauce by saying that certain compounds can only be dissolved by alcohol, thus the use of wine produces flavors that are unattainable with just water.

    As for drinks, you should look into ‘tasting vinegars’. There was a NYTimes a couple of years back that described them as the ‘only non-alcoholic adult beverage’, which was meant to convey that tasting vinegars have that “richness, complexity and intensity” which is so lacking in other non-alcoholic drinks.

  8. About a year ago I started brewing my own herbal iced tea. I take 1 liter pitcher and suspend 4 bags of tea over the side, pour in 1/2 liter of boiling water. Let steep for 20-30 min and remove the bags. Add cold water to fill to top and throw it in the fridge.

    The right herbal teas can be very satisfying in a beer-like way. Look for stuff with Thyme, fennel, or rosemary. Berries and flora are good to try too. Its a satisfying all-day, all-night drink with no caffeine, and it costs just pennies per liter.

    I used to be a big beer/wine drinker, but for the last year I enjoy my teas just about more than anything.

  9. For the sake of long term health, you should drink more, not less. Moderate drinkers live the longest, followed by heavy drinkers, with non-drinkers dying the earliest.

  10. What about a soda that was made with, essentially, the same process as beer?

    The problem is, it won’t be cheaper than what you drink currently, but it is quite tasty: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bionade

    And I feel silly for recommending it, but tea has a lot of depth and variation to it (there are even a few fair traded variants that taste good).

  11. I’ve been looking for the same thing. It’s true, there aren’t enough drinks like this. Tea would be the only other common thing that I can think of that is carefully selected and crafted like beer and wine. I can say that I have had a similar experience to what you describe drinking Gunpowder green tea. (Well, Single Malt Scotch as well, but that’s going in the entirely opposite direction as far as alcohol and cost goes!)

  12. If you are looking for substance, you might also try Krakus with a small amount of good molasses added. This is what I drink when I’d love a cup of coffee but can’t because the caffeine would keep me up all night.

    http://idlersjournal.blogspot.com/2010/06/simple-pleasures-of-krakus-coffee.html

  13. My counter-intuitive solution to the problem of spending too much money on beer and wine is to invest in a few bottles of single malt whiskies. While I need two or three beers (occasionally four or more!) for an evening’s entertainment, I can make a wee dram last forever imbibing only the fumes as they evaporate from the glass, and stop at two tipples tops. The complexity of a single sip of single malt makes the drink last for ages and causes my overall alcohol & money consumption to drop. If you want a non-alcoholic solution, then perhaps try becoming a tea connoisseur. There are times when a cup of freshly brewed tea can really hit “the spot” in an almost religious manner.

  14. indeed, it’s because alcohol is a better solvent. specifically, it can dissolve not only polar (eg. water) substances but also non-polar (eg. oil).

    http://www.easychem.com.au/production-of-materials/renewable-ethanol/ethanol-as-a-solvent

    and i fully agree that tea is your answer. my favourite is kukicha, the stems of japanese tea. you can get them roasted or green. both are good but taste quite different.

    the best kukicha comes from gyokuro / the first growth. it also tends to be cheaper than the leaves of the same.

    but there are a whole range of flavors in tea including ones that may be considered as related to scotch and beer: smokey (lapsang) and fermented (pu-erh).

    https://secure.wikimehttps://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Kukichadia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Lapsang_souchong
    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Pu-erh_tea

    oh, and green tea and especially first flush is good for the very beneficial compound l-theanine that is nice and relaxing:
    https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Theanine

  15. For me coffee can provide equally diverse and sublime sensations as wine and beer. My only complaint is that I can’t drink more than a couple of cups a day before I start feeling weird from the caffeine (and neither too late), also it’s not very well suited as a meal drink. But there is so much variation in both growing and preparing the beans, and also in all the different ways you can brew coffee that I think it’s definitely a good option.

  16. Try Lambic beers. They’re fantastic and often mix in berries (raspberry and blackberry are common) to the brewing process. You’ll often see them marketed as ‘sour beers’ if they aren’t brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium.

    My favorite Lambic-style beers are many of Russian River’s beers (any good Whole Foods will have RR) and then Lindemans & Cantillon. The latter two are true Lambics, while RR is brewed in California. My favorite to date has been Russian River Temptation, which is a lambic style sour beer that is aged in Champagne barrels.

  17. +1 to @Simon’s suggestion of coffee. The taste and “mouth feel” can be very complex, especially as you begin to educate your palette. There is an enormous interplay between the bean, the roast, and the brewing. Like alcohol, the psychotropic effects are troublesome in excess, but in general, the big downside of being a coffee lover is that you pee a lot. :-)

  18. I am a giant hot chocolate fan, and you can make hot chocolate with extraordinary flavor profiles with ginger, fresh nutmeg, paprika, and other spices.

  19. Mike,
    Alcohol affects the reward centres of the brain, thereby tricking you into believing that an otherwise ordinary drink “tastes interesting”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ndtxm
    As Jinn Dorian suggests, reducing your alcohol intake could potentially prove detrimental to your health and longevity. And as a fellow beer, wine and single malt aficionado, I strongly urge you to reconsider your folly. There is nothing quite like a nice cold beer to reinvigorate the soul… especially on a warm summer day.
    After all, how bad can water, sugar, yeast, malt and hops be for you?

  20. Try tea (rooibos) mixed with freshly squeezed apple. It’s a good start.

  21. I find myself drinking either: Tea (both hot and iced) or hot chocolate mixed with coffee. I also really enjoy tonic water, though I haven’t had much lately. Which reminds me, DRY Soda makes some interesting, some might say nuanced, sodas. Of course, I enjoy their juniper flavor.

  22. Ethanol isn’t flavorless. Even relatively pure ethanol has a distinct flavor. Remember tasting uses both the tongue and the nose, so ethanol might have a mild mouth taste, but it has a strong, distinctive aroma. (Even pure ethanol has a flavor, but if it is CP, chemically pure, it probably also has some distinctively flavored benzene in it to get past the aziotrope in the purification process.) Ethanols produced by fermentation also contain lots of other great esters, related alcohols and a broad range of biologicals. Brewers and distillers take a broad fraction; it isn’t chromatography.

    If you want to cut down on ethanol, despite the health risks of doing so, consider a really good oolong tea or a powerful green. Like wine, there is a lot of quality variation in tea, so you’ll probably wind up paying a fair bit for something that will knock your socks off. We tend to go with Tenren products in the US. Their King’s Tea is amazing, but I’m sure you can find local suppliers. Make sure you know how to prepare your tea. You don’t want to drink the first brewed round from a puh-err tea. Use it for removing paint or barnacles, but the second round is delicious.

  23. Water kefir.

    Similar process/idea to milk kefir, but much more awesome. Make a batch properly, leave it to age for just the right duration, and it’s like a lovely champagne.

  24. Definitely recommend coffee or tea. There are a lot of very good teas out there. Good luck – I don’t know if I could ever cut back my Ruination or Cabernet habit myself :)

  25. Wine and good hoppy beers (I am an IPA man as well) have very complex flavor profiles- I’m very much a layman when it comes to this, but my understanding is that much of the flavor of wine comes from easily volatized esters. The more easily volatized something is, the faster it rises into your nose and a lot of flavor is actually smell.

    I am going to suggest that there might be another dimension to y0ur enjoyment of the flavor profiles of wine and beer though. That dimension is alcohol, and my guess is that the alcohol is a fundamental part of your enjoyment of the flavor.

    Let’s try a thought experiment: imagine that there is a drink that has every property of your favorite IPA but one. It does not cause alcohol to enter your bloodstream. My guess is that you might enjoy sipping a bit of it, but that it would be hard for you to get down even a pint of it- indeed, people almost never drink more than a pint of any liquid that isn’t in some way psychoactive, at a sitting.

    I’m not suggesting that you have fooled yourself into liking the flavor of a good beer just because you like the alcohol- I am too much a beer drinker to make that mistake. I am suggesting that there is a very complex interplay between your perception of flavor and the psychoactive components of beer and wine that means that you will never find a non-alcoholic drink that “tastes as good.”

    Coffee is possibly as complex as wine, and is also strongly psychoactive. It also appears to counteract some of the harmful effects of too much alcohol.

  26. Get a juicer and juice multiple fruits – apple carrots, lemon, grapes strawberries, cucumber.

    Add to a blender with broccoli, ginger, spinach, wheatgrass.

    Is that complex enough ?

    Also look out for Small Beer – it’s what they used to give to kids.

    If it’s to save money, why not brew your own ?

  27. Back when I was homebrewing, I’d run the occasional batch of non-alcoholic for my girlfriend’s dad. Rather, full-alcohol brew, but since alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, it’s posible to boil the it off and leave the rest behind. It doesn’t taste _quite_ right, but better than any commercial non-alcoholic beer I’ve tasted.

  28. Maht says:
    “Get a juicer and juice multiple fruits – apple carrots, lemon, grapes strawberries, cucumber.
    Add to a blender with broccoli, ginger, spinach, wheatgrass.
    Is that complex enough ?”

    Nope. Sounds awful, actually (otherwise, why not just drink a mix of strawberries, broccoli, and Sean Connery every morning?) Chaotic and complex are not synonyms.

    Humans have been brewing alcohol for millenia- pretending that you can match that in your blender is like thinking you can get girls by telling them “I’m impotent but I’m socially aware.”

  29. though I will say that “I’m impotent” is one of the great lines if you’re not. It’s not as if your Florence Nightingale didn’t want you to spring to life.

  30. Brendan Miller

    Probably the bigger health problem that beer presents is the calories, not the alcohol. Especially if you are into the darker, richer tasting beers, they have a ton of calories. Juice also has the same problem.

    I recommend coffee for a healthy drink. Good fresh ground coffee can be pretty delicious. Black coffee has basically zero calories. Latte’s on the other hand are not so healthy. Coffee also reduces the appetite, so I like to have it with lunch as it encourages me keep my portions small.

  31. Mike – I fail to see your problem. How much money could you save when you’re just switching something with the other?

    And as for health issues – unless you’re an alcoholic, daily heavy drinker (which you don’t seem to be), you have nothing to worry about. Drinking a glass of wine a day is actually recommended by doctors for heart illness. Hell, most Germans drink beer daily, and their life expectancy is somewhere close to 80.

    Have you not heard of this ground-breaking research? http://www.mnn.com/food/beverages/stories/study-abstaining-from-alcohol-significantly-shortens-life

    So my advice is to not see this as a problem, and to continue enjoying the great taste of your favourite beverages.

    Cheers!

  32. “Indeed, people almost never drink more than a pint of any liquid that isn’t in some way psychoactive, at a sitting.”

    I find this statement surprising, as I fairly regularly go through two or three quart bottles of water within an hour or two.

  33. Mike, have you tried Kvass? It’s a very low-to-no alcohol fermented drink based on rye bread and is quite delicious. If you have an eastern European deli nearby they may have some pre-bottled stuff for you to try, but if you like it you will probably want to brew your own. Which isn’t at all difficult until you get to the actual carbonation/fermentation part which can get… um… a little explosive. Anyway, good Kvass has many similarities to good beer.

  34. There is a world of teas out there. I love getting sample packs from Harney & Sons.

  35. Re like Patrick’s response: In cooking, a non-alcoholic substitute for red or white wine in a recipe or sauce is to use red or white grape juice with a little red or white vinegar. The vinegar adds acidity and counteracts the sugar in the grape juice. You might want to try this with the addition of some club soda or sparkling mineral water. I like mineral water with a little fruit juice nectar (apricot, mango-come in boxes) or pineapple juice and diet ginger ale is good too. All are very refreshing. Enjoy!

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