In Weiss Bräu, a cool brewpub in Cologne, I ordered a beer, sat back and took out my notebook and pencil to write some stuff down: behind me was a large table of students, happy, celebrating something; a businessman sat alone in front of me drinking a wheat beer and eating chips; two chaps shared a huge pizza to my right; and relaxing all around were couples sat in booths eating and drinking.
But one of those couples freaked me out.
He was necking small glasses of kolsch as if he hadn’t had a drink for a week, which was easily done because the beer was very good – served in the wiess style, it was unfiltered (meaning it technically doesn’t count as a kolsch according to the Convention). She was drinking a pint of wheat beer; a large vase glass, hazy amber with a thick foam.
She was also very heavily pregnant. Like beach-ball-under-a-vest pregnant.
I’m pretty sure I did one of those comedy double takes followed by my eyes bulging out of my head and my chin hitting the table. She was drinking as fast as he was and soon her half-litre was gone and she ordered another. I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t know how to react: Is this behaviour ok in Germany? Is she crazy? Why is no one doing anything?
I watched the server return to the bar and pour another kolsch for the guy and grab a bottle from the fridge for the girl, meaning she wasn’t drinking the draft hefeweizen (probably for the best as I thought it tasted like toilet cleaner because of a massively oppressive clove dominance). I checked the menu to see what it could be and the only bottle on there was enough to calm my frantic thoughts: it was an alcohol-free hefeweizen.
Brow mopped and sigh exhaled, I could now go back to my beer free of worries.
Only I couldn’t.
The sight of her drinking it left me feeling strange and uncomfortable and over the next few stangen I couldn’t stop thinking about alcohol-free beers...
In every bar in Germany you’ll find an alcohol-free beer option. It’s typically a wheat beer, though not always, and many are good drinks, certainly valid replacements for someone who doesn’t fancy water or lemonade (plus in German bars, where they think differently about these drinks to Britain, it's probably more acceptable for an adult to have an alcohol-free beer than a soft drink). But I was thinking about the social appropriateness of alcohol-free beer, not the taste.
What if the person sitting next to you at work opened a bottle of alcohol-free beer at their desk. It’s in a glass bottle and looks exactly the same as an alcoholic version, only it’s not going to get you drunk. Would the boss look upon them and their bottle suspiciously? Would they wonder what was going on? On seeing that it was alcohol-free would they mind it being drunk or would they be concerned?
If my colleague opened a bottle and drank it at their desk, I’d wonder what was going on in a reaction that would be very different to them opening a Red Bull, Coke or even one of those old school cans of Shandy, even though they are all non-alcoholic drinks (the 0.5% ABV in the shandy can probably be overlooked...).
My questions are more rhetorical than direct; I’m throwing out my thoughts because I’m still unsure about them. The thing is, it looks just like beer and is, in a way, a pseudo-beer, something to make you think you’ve got a delicious, intoxicating drink when in fact it’s just a taste-a-like.
So is an alcohol-free ‘beer’ a drink you can open at any time? Could you have it with breakfast (or before), in a meeting at work, during a game of football or should it be kept in the same situations as alcoholic beer and therefore does it come attached to beer’s social prejudices? And what about seeing a pregnant woman drinking it: ok or unnerving?