Near Beer. Colloquially dubbed “near beer” fermented malt beverages containing very low alcohol was the only type of “beer” that could be produced and sold legally during the dark days of Prohibition in the United States (1919–1933). By law, near beer could not contain more than one half of one percent alcohol by volume. Legally, it could not be called beer. It was a pale approximation of real beer, but it enabled many breweries to weather the difficult years when beer was banned in America.
Anheuser-Busch created a near beer brand called Bevo. Miller Brewing Company marketed Vivo, a barley-based beverage, and Milo, a wheat-based near beer. Ads for the Miller products said they lacked “only alcohol to take you back to the good old days.” By 1920, the barley product was renamed Miller High Life, but consumers had no difficulty differentiating between near beer and real beer.
William Moeller, a fourth-generation German-American brewmaster who worked for Ortlieb’s and Schmidt’s in Philadelphia and later Brooklyn Brewery in New York, said: “A near beer is a difficult product to produce without a pronounced mealy or cooked flavor.” During Prohibition, most near beers were made by brewing a low-gravity or low alcohol beer, and then boiling away the alcohol until it reached the legal level. Another technique was simply to water down a very low alcohol beer.
The standard for post-Prohibition non-alcoholic beers is the same as it was for near beers. They must not have more than one half of one percent alcohol, and they cannot be called beer. They most often are labeled “non-alcoholic malt beverage.” More sophisticated techniques for brewing non-alcoholic beers have developed. The Hurlimann Brewery in Switzerland developed a non-alcoholic beer called Birell that employed a special yeast that limited alcohol yields. The beer then was hopped to mask the pronounced cereal character. Some non-alcoholic beers are made by driving off the alcohol in a vacuum, the latter lowering the boiling point and limiting the cooked character of the beer.