Lots of aspects of the beer world seem to have an identity crises; what’s the difference between a brewery tap, a tap room, a tap house and tied estate pub? What actually is Craft? Barrel, cask, keg, tub?

But the identity that’s causing the most confusion at the moment surrounds Low/No beers, especially with the huge growth we’re starting to see in that area. So what is the difference between Low alcohol, Non-alcoholic, Alcohol free and De-alcoholised?

Depending on where you look, you’ll get different and sometime contradictory answers that don’t actually answer the question. A general rule of thumb that is often cited is 0.6% to 1.2% is low alcohol and 0.5% or lower is alcohol free. This is of course wrong.

The first thing to understand is that the descriptors themselves don’t primarily relate to the alcohol content but rather to the production method.

Low Alcohol

This is a drink that is made with alcohol, but not much of it. It needs to have less than 1.2% abv purely because that’s the level at which HMRC start charging Duty. Lower than that and they don’t consider it an alcoholic drink.


You can not use this phrase with any type of drink that would normally have alcohol in it. So Non-alcoholic Beer is a big no-no. And Non-Alcoholic Vodka is even more so, as well as a big disappointment.

Alcohol free

Now we’re getting to the nitty gritty of the confusion. Alcohol free drinks can be one of two things. Either a type of drink that would normally have alcohol in it, but is made with no alcohol to start with – or – a type of drink that would normally have alcohol in it but has had all reasonably measurable alcohol removed (so it’s got less than 0.05% abv).


This wonderful phrase eschewed by marketing people across the country is for a drink that would normally have alcohol in it but most of it has been removed, usually to 0.5% abv so that there’s at least that hint of alcohol to affect the taste.

There are a few exceptions to this, mostly involving wine because of weird and wonderful reasons.

So how does this relate to beer? Is there an easy – and correct – rule of thumb we can use?

Well, yes.

  • If a beer is made with no fermentation process, or it’s been stripped of all alcohol we can call it Alcohol Free.
  • If it’s been made with fermentation but kept really low (less than 1.2% abv), we can call it Low Alcohol.

What’s been the confusing point is this 0.5% abv thing. It’s where a lot of the larger breweries have been placing their de-alcoholised beers as even that small amount of alcohol has a huge effect on the flavour profile of a beer, keeping it tasting like a beer and not like watered down hop juice. But putting De-alcoholised on the label is off-putting to say the least, and it’s not low enough to be called alcohol free. It does fit into the Low Alcohol category though as it’s less than 1.2% abv. They could take it down to 1.1% abv and still call it Low Alcohol, and still not pay any Duty on it, but if you’re running it through the process to take out the alcohol that you can then sell on or reuse inhouse, you might as well take out as much as you can whilst still retaining the flavour.

It also doesn’t help that “advice” is out there that doesn’t quite get this right, based primarily on the abv, not the process.