Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Nonalcoholic Beers


Though the Czech Republic’s overall beer output rocked an all-time high of over 20 million hectoliters (12 million barrels) last year, growth is slowing as it hits the top of the arch. One category is still rocketing forward, however: nonalcoholic beer. In 2007, production of Czech nonalcoholic beer fully doubled from the year before, hitting half a million hectoliters of fine-to-drive lager containing .5% alcohol by volume or less.

That’s quite a change from just a few years ago, when nonalcoholic beer was rarely seen. Now nearly everyone offers nealkoholické pivo in bottles, and several varieties are even available on draft, with more versions showing up every month: Svijany introduced its nonalcoholic beer in 2006; Chodovar sent out its brew in 2007. Growth appears in every corner of the country: Litovel’s nonalcoholic beer production jumped 57% in 2007; Primátor expanded its distribution of NA beer by 65% from the year before; Budvar grew its sales of nealkoholické pivo by 55% last year.

Two reasons for the pick up:

1 . The Czech Republic has a zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving. (It might be flouted, but that is the law.)

2. Some Czech nonalcoholic beers actually taste good.

In fact, some nonalcoholic beers are pretty darn amazing. Budvar’s very hoppy nonalcoholic beer turned the heads of more than a few drivers (and passengers) when it first appeared. Even better versions have come from fave small producers like Bernard, who combined the interest in driver-friendly brews with its own unpasteurized aesthetic, introducing an unpasteurized, nonalcoholic golden lager called Bernard Free that rated at the top of the list for at least one taster, as well as SPP.

Then, in a nod to the continuing local love affair with amber beers, Bernard came out with Bernard Free Jantarové — an unpasteurized amber brew roughly akin to a Vienna lager, but without alcohol. There’s not much nose, but it has a nice taste of malt and mixed whole grains in the mouth. The finish is mild and lasting, but not overly sweet. Most beer lovers wouldn’t be desperate to order this over a regular Bernard amber beer, a lovely brew itself, but if you can’t or don’t feel like consuming alcohol, you could do far worse for a decent sip to go with lunch.

Oh, and that slogan on the label? It’s “Bernard s čistou hlavou,” literally “Bernard with a clean head,” and it shows brewery owner Stanislav Bernard — something of a rock star in these parts — with his characteristic curly locks shorn clean off. Normally, he is substantially more hirsute. Here’s how he appeared when he and brewer Josef Vávra accepted SPP’s award for nonalcoholic beer of the year 2007:


There’s certainly more room for innovation in the market: as far as I know, no Czech producer makes anything like Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier Alkoholfrei, a bottle of which I brought back from Starkbierzeit in Munich last weekend. As the name implies, it’s a non-alcoholic Hefeweizen, arriving with a visible yeast deposit at the bottom of the bottle. In general, it is the same as your average Bavarian wheat: it pours a cloudy gold with a thick, well-set white head; the nose is of citrus blossoms and fruit; in the mouth it is just slightly acidic, then slightly malty, finishing with a hint of banana, if not clove.


It’s spot-on for the taste of yeast and wheat, and only afterwards do you notice that one normal aspect of a good beer is missing: the astringent feel of alcohol in the mouth. At the same time, you might notice that something else is unexpectedly present: a perfectly clear — if not clean-shaven — head.


Starkbierzeit in Munich


Pilsner Urquell in Germany


  1. Hi Evan – I’ve given up beer for lent, and consequently have been attempting to use nealkoholicke pivo as a substitute. My problem is just that they taste so damn bad. Last night I made a curry, and gave my gf a normal budvar to drink, while I had the nealko. One sip and I knew I wouldn’t finish the thing – it tasted flat and bland, nothing like the glorious sip of my gf’s beer that I snuck in. I’ll try the Bernard sometime this week, but I think I’ll just have to suffer until Easter morning. Then i’m breaking out my Budvar tmave with breakfast…

  2. Hey Nick — sorry to hear that you’ve given up the good stuff, though I know that’s going to taste great on Easter Morn. As for the nealko, I think the key is to not expect them to taste like regular beers. They just don’t. But they can be pretty good with food, providing good bittersweet flavors that you’re not going to get from tap water.

    (And if you do get those flavors from your tap water, I’d say you should switch to bottled.)

    Last week, Bohemia Regent’s tasting in Prague started out with their NA beer: grainy, malty, slightly sweet and thin. I thought it was pretty good. But it’s definitely not as good as a non-nonalcoholic brew…

  3. Of course Nealko beers aren’t the same as the real stuff, but they can indeed make for a good substitute.
    I was really surprised at Bernard Nealko Světlé. I would choose it any day over Stella Artois or Eurolagers like that (well, in fact, I would choose mineral water over Stella)

  4. I will be driving over in a couple of days time So non alcoholic beers will certainly pass my lips. It took awhile for me to first try them as in England they are without fail disgusting. Some UK ones come with “german” labels but they all seem equally bad – So – sales are low to stagnant in UK. I suppose the Czechs got it right by requiring more hops in the finish so guaranteeing more flavour in the finish.

  5. Hi Colin. I think you’re far more likely to find Radegast NA here, it’s ubiquitous. But if you get a chance to try Budvar or Bernard, you might be pleasantly surprised.

    Your show in Plzeň looks great — I might try to catch it if I’m in town.

  6. dave brewington

    Is that a Ford Falcon in the top photo? Or a middle-Euro facsimile?

  7. It’s a fastback of some type that Nina had. Why does my wife have toy cars around? I have no idea…

    Okay, I just checked: it’s Schuco car model #821, and it says “1:66 / Audi 100 coupe / 115 PS / 185 km/h / Made in Germany.”

    It’s clutch. The little doors open and everything.

  8. Great article. After losing two bodhrans in 3 years from over-indulging in Czech gold, I made a concerted effort to cut down on the stuff and since Christmas I’ve been trying out any nealko I can find. By far the best was Bernard unpasteurized with Radegast Birrel coming a close second. Shame the Bernard isn’t so widely available in Plzen pubs- the Radegast is everywhere.

  9. Graham Rust

    I don’t understand this, Radegast Birell is far and away the most drinkable non-alcoholic beer. Properly chilled and served in a clean, cooled glass, it is crisp and bitter… whereas everything else I have tasted is more like a cold, watery, sugary malt drink. Don’t be obscure beer snobs, Radegast Birell is the biggest selling and the most available because it is simply the best.

  10. Radegast Birell is the biggest selling and the most available because it is simply the best.

    That’s an interesting opinion, Graham. I have a feeling Radegast Birell is the biggest selling and the most available because it is produced in massive volumes by the largest brewing organization in the Czech Republic, the Pilsner Urquell group, which pwns 50% of all Czech beer production and which has a virtual lock on retail sales with the largest distribution network in the country.

    By your logic, then, the best beer in the country would be Gambrinus, as that is the beer which is the biggest selling and most available here. And that would make Gambrinus a better beer than Pilsner Urquell itself, a half-cocked argument not even a PR flack would want to make, as it is Pilsner Urquell which remains the premium beer and flagship brand of that group.

    To be honest, Graham, it would be easier to take your comment seriously if Radegast Birell wasn’t listed as a client of your agency over at

    Which makes me wonder: does posting a comment on Beer Culture count among the billable hours in your work for Radegast Birell? If so, I’d like a piece of that action!

  11. Of course everyone is free to have their own opinion about whatever beer. Though Birell is pretty drinkable, specially on tap, I prefer Bernard, Budvar or even Regent nealko by a whole LOT, but then, that is my opinion, and unlike Mr. Rust, I am not being paid by any brewery.
    And no, we are not obscure beer snobs here. We are beer lovers. And no, being the best selling and the most available doesn’t automatically makes a product of any kind the best, and I don’t need a PR degree to figure that out.

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