Differences between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers (2024)

Swapping a standard beer for an alcohol-free version could help you cut your overall alcohol consumption.

Because they have less alcohol in them, switching to alcohol-free beers – but not adding them as extra drinks - can be a good way to stick to the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines. It’s safest for both men and women to drink no more than 14 units a week, spread over three or more days with several drink-free days, and no bingeing.

More people than ever are giving alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks a try – one in five UK drinkers say they use them to moderate their consumption.1 Alcohol-free and low alcohol beers are some of the most popular drinks in this expanding category, but what are the differences between them and standard alcoholic beers?

Because most alcohol-free and low alcohol beers still contain some alcohol, they aren’t suitable if you need or want to avoid alcohol completely.

What are ‘alcohol-free’ and ‘low alcohol' beers?

Alcohol-free and low alcohol beers are designed to match the taste, look and feel of standard beers – and recent advances in production technology mean you are much more likely to find one that you enjoy.

The main difference between alcoholic, low alcohol and alcohol-free beer is the amount of alcohol they contain:

  • Most ‘alcohol-free’ beer contains 0.05% alcohol by volume (ABV), or less
    Many, although not all, producers follow government guidance that says alcohol-free drinks may contain up to 0.05% ABV.2 (Sometimes these types of drinks might be described as ‘zero alcohol’, or ‘0.0’ too).
    But because the guidance is voluntary, in practice you might see alcohol-free labelled drinks that are up to 0.5% ABV for sale. A half-litre can (500ml) of a 0.5% ABV beer would contain– 0.25 units of alcohol (a quarter of a unit of alcohol).
  • Low alcohol beer contains 1.2% ABV, or less
    Government guidance on low alcohol drinks sold in the UK says they shouldn’t be more than 1.2% ABV.3 A half-litre can of 1.2% ABV beer has 0.6 units of alcohol (6 ml of pure alcohol)
  • The average strength of conventional beers is 4.4% ABV
    The average strength of conventional beers and lagers sold in the UK is 4.4% ABV.4 A half-litre can of 4.4% ABV beer contains 2.2 units of alcohol (22 ml of pure alcohol).

Do you know your units from your ABV?

How many units does switching 'save'?

This is the difference swapping an average-strength standard beer (4.4% ABV) for an alcohol-free version (0.5% ABV) can make to your alcohol intake:

How are alcohol-free and low alcohol beers made?

Alcohol-free and low alcohol beer are made using the same ingredients as standard beer, lager and ale – using water, malt, hops and yeast.

There are a couple of ways the alcohol content can be controlled or reduced:5

  • The brewing process is controlled, using special non-fermenting ingredients to stop the amount of alcohol in the beer ever exceeding 0.5% ABV (or 1.2%, for 'low alcohol')
  • Alcohol is removed by heating the drink until the alcohol evaporates, or passing the beer through a fine mesh to remove the alcohol and leave the other flavoured parts behind (a process called reverse osmosis)
  • The beer is blended with something non-alcoholic – for example ‘radler’ beers and shandy are pre-mixed with lemon or other flavoured soda

These recent advances in technology mean that producers have been able to put a greater focus than ever on successfully matching the taste of conventional beers.

Sales of alcohol-free beer in the UK have more than tripled in the last five years.6

Drinkaware research has found regular drinkers of alcohol-free products thought the taste had improved over recent years. Negative perceptions of taste were more common amongst people who hadn’t tried them, with many people pleasantly surprised with the taste when they did.7 So if you’re thinking of switching to alcohol-free to cut your consumption, there’s never been a better time to try it.

Is alcohol-free beer lower in calories?

Alcohol contains around seven calories a gram - almost as many as pure fat.8

So, because an alcohol-free beer has less alcohol in it (or sometimes no alcohol at all), it’s possible that switching could play a part in cutting your calorie intake – which could be helpful if you’re trying to get rid of a beer belly, or maintain a healthy weight.

But it’s important to understand that the calories in any drink don’t just come from alcohol, so you only ‘save’ calories if the substitute drink is a low calorie one.

All low alcohol beers with 1.2% ABV or less (including all alcohol-free options) need to display nutritional information on the label.9,10So, if you’re counting calories as part of your healthy diet or a weight loss programme, choosing alcohol-free means you should always have the calorie information at your fingertips.

You might also see ‘light’ beers in supermarkets or bars. These should have at least 30% fewer calories than their standard equivalent,11 but can have the same amount of alcohol as a standard beer – it’s always a good idea to check the label.

Use our calculator to find out the units and calories in your beer

Reduce your risk

Alcohol-free drinks can contain a small amount of alcohol (up to 0.5% ABV). They aren't suitable if you’realcohol dependent or in recovery, or need or want to avoid alcohol for any other reason.

Check your risk level

Substituting standard alcoholic drinks for low alcohol products could help you reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, and keep to the UK low risk drinking guidelines - which brings important health benefits. But this only works if you drink them instead of any alcohol you usually drink, and don’t add it on top - otherwise you’ll be drinking more alcohol in total, not less.

If you regularly drink more than the low risk drinking guidelines, you are increasing your chances of developingserious long-term health conditions.

How to reduce your drinking

Differences between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers (4)

Further advice and information

Arming yourself with strategies and tips can help you or a loved one take small steps towards big results.

What to expect when you stop drinking Mocktails Low alcohol drinks The benefits of drinking less


[1] Drinkaware, Alcohol-free and Low alcohol drinks – research report (July 2022). Available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/research/research-and-evaluation-reports/alcohol-free-and-low-alcohol-drinks-in-the-uk


[5]Branyik, T et al, A review of methods of low alcohol and alcohol-free beer production. Journal of Food Engineering (2012).

[7] Drinkaware, Alcohol-free and Low alcohol drinks – research report (July 2022). Available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/research/research-and-evaluation-reports/alcohol-free-and-low-alcohol-drinks-in-the-uk

Was this information helpful?

Thanks for your feedback

Last Reviewed: 4th January 2023

Next Review due: 12th December 2025


Tips to change your relationship with alcohol

Differences between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beers (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kieth Sipes

Last Updated:

Views: 6248

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kieth Sipes

Birthday: 2001-04-14

Address: Suite 492 62479 Champlin Loop, South Catrice, MS 57271

Phone: +9663362133320

Job: District Sales Analyst

Hobby: Digital arts, Dance, Ghost hunting, Worldbuilding, Kayaking, Table tennis, 3D printing

Introduction: My name is Kieth Sipes, I am a zany, rich, courageous, powerful, faithful, jolly, excited person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.