Beer might be the alcoholic drink of choice for many American adults, but it can do a number on your waistline. And it’s not a friend of the gluten-free lifestyle, either. So as the temperatures rise, why not reach for a different chilled beverage from the beer family?
There's an excitement that comes from trying something exotic — something totally different from the draft you usually order. These 10 alternatives to traditional beer come from all over the world. Some are well-known suds substitutes, while others are relatively unknown to drinkers in North America.
Raise a glass to these beer alternatives!
Kvass has been popular in Russia for centuries. It’s made by soaking bread (often rye) in water and adding yeast and sugar to start the fermentation process, and additions like honey, raisins or mint can be added for flavor, NPR reports. Kvass ferments for only a few days, and the resulting beverage has an alcohol content between 1% and 3%. In Russia, it’s often considered a non-alcoholic drink. During the summer in kvass-drinking Eastern Europe, the beverage is often served on the street out of a large barrel on wheels.
Kvass has a distinctly sour taste. The acid produced by the fermentation and the low pH are supposed to be good for your health because they encourage good bacteria to grow while killing bad bacteria. Mass-produced kvass does not have this bacterial makeup, but some artisans are trying to revive traditional brewing methods which allow them to create a drink closer to one produced in Eastern Europe for centuries.
Kombucha is a fermented tea that, like kvass, has probiotics that may be good for your gut health, as The Washington Post explains. The drink, which can be made from either black or green tea, was traditionally prepared at home, but commercially produced varieties are now available in North America and Europe (often in health food stores). The first uses of kombucha go back several centuries to China, Eastern Europe, Russia and Japan. Now, however, it is consumed throughout the world.
It’s often called “mushroom tea” because a mushroom-like mass forms during the fermentation process. The term kombucha is believed to come from the Japanese, although it could be a mistranslation because the closest Japanese word, konbucha, is a kind of seaweed tea. Like kvass, kombucha has an alcohol content lower than beer, though some homemade and small batch varieties can approach the strength of beer. Varieties that are sold off the shelf as health tonics must have an alcohol content of less than 0.5% to avoid being designated as alcoholic beverages in the United States.
Mead is a distinctive beverage made from honey. Unlike kvass and kombucha, it is usually stronger than beer, with an alcohol content more similar to wine (between 6% and 20%). Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages — there are mentions of honey wines in both Ancient Greek and Ancient Indian literature. A chemical analysis of pottery dating back 8,000 years showed traces of mead-like substances.
Despite never gaining the popularity of wine, mead is enjoyed in Eastern and Northern Europe, and a more-traditional variety of honey-based alcohol is popular in East Africa. In North America, small artisan mead producers have been somewhat successful in bringing the ancient drink back into the public consciousness and giving people an alternative to both beer and grape-based wines.
Kava is popular in the South Pacific, where it is still prepared using traditional methods. (Photo: bdearth/Flickr)
The kava plant is easily recognizable because of its heart-shaped leaves. To kava drinkers, however, the most important part of the plant is its root. Unlike all the other beer substitutes on our list, this one does not contain alcohol. Traditionally, kava is drunk in the South Pacific regions of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. When prepared correctly, a tea-like beverage containing the root produces a sedative-like effect. In Polynesian tradition, it is thought to give this relaxed feeling without lessening mental clarity. Because of this, kava is sometimes given religious or ceremonial significance.
Though kava is banned by some countries, it is often used by Western herbalists to treat anxiety. There is currently no ban on the root in the United States, and kava bars are popping up around the country in places with large Polynesian populations and even in hip New York City neighborhoods, as the New York Daily News reports.
Cider, which is often referred to as “hard cider” to differentiate it from the jugs of juice you buy at apple orchards in the fall, is most popular in the U.K., Ireland and parts of continental Europe, but it has fans in the United States and Canada, too. Cider is arguably the most popular beer alternative because it has a similar alcohol content, but is gluten-free and often has fewer carbs and calories.
The process of making cider traditionally starts by mashing the apples in a press before fermenting the juice in barrels or vats for at least three months. Some varieties are fermented for much longer, resulting in a higher alcohol content and a different flavor than younger ciders. Like beer, many artisan cider makers produce smaller batches of high quality product, paying special attention to creating unique “trademark” flavors. Mass-produced varieties like Strongbow, from the U.K., and Magners, from Ireland, are exported worldwide.
Crabbie’s is one of the most popular versions of alcoholic ginger beer. (Photo: wapster/Flickr)
There are two varieties of ginger beer. One is non-alcoholic and carbonated with carbon dioxide. The other, often branded as “alcoholic ginger beer” to distinguish it from the soft drink, is a fermented beverage originally popularized in the U.K. but is now sold all over the world.
Crabbie’s Ginger Beer, first produced in Edinburgh, is exported to North America. At 4.8% alcohol by volume, it has a strength similar to beer. The product distributed in the U.K. is completely gluten-free, but the U.S. version in not. In the Caribbean, non-alcoholic versions of ginger beer are spiked with dark Caribbean rum to make a cocktail called the Dark and Stormy, which has become a signature drink on Bermuda, Jamaica and many other islands.
Today, many gluten-free beer brands are made using sorghum as the main ingredient. Sorghum was first used to make alcohol in China. Even today, distilled Chinese liquor like maotai is made using the grain. In Africa, sorghum beer has long been very popular. It is known by different names in different parts of the continent. It is called pombe in East Africa and burukutu in Nigeria. Sorghum beer is widely served in South Africa as well. It is usually made in large metal pots (traditionally over an open fire) and “soured” during the fermentation process. This step, which is not used in beer production, gives African sorghum beer a very distinct taste.
American brewers have started using sorghum to make gluten-free beer. Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery was one of the first to do this with its New Grist brand. Other companies, such as Bard’s Tale, also have sorghum beer offerings that are widely distributed in the United States.
Palm wine is a naturally fermented drink popular in Asia and Africa. It’s known by different names depending on where it’s made, but the method of collecting palm tree sap and fermenting it is very similar everywhere. The process of making palm wine starts when sap is extracted from a palm tree (coconut palm, date palm and other varieties are used). This sometimes requires the tapper to climb high up into the tree.
The sap starts fermenting after it is taken from the tree, and after two or three hours, the liquid has an alcohol content of 3% to 4%. It is usually consumed at this point because it is at its sweetest. If fermentation continues, the taste becomes more sour, but the drink gets stronger (up to 10% to 12% alcohol). If the liquid is allowed to ferment for more than a day, it becomes like vinegar and is undrinkable. Some tappers and sap collectors add local yeasts to increase the potency. Palm wine isn’t widely available in the U.S. because of the process by which it is made and the fact that it should be enjoyed while fresh.
Mexico is famous for its tequila. However, another lesser-known (and less potent) drink is made from the same plant family used to produce both tequila and its worm-wearing cousin, mezcal. Pulque is made from the sap of certain species of agave. After the sap is collected, it is fermented using special bacteria. The process of fermentation is continuous, so pulque must be consumed soon after it is removed from the fermentation vats. The process usually lasts one to two weeks.
Pulque is drunk by some locals in agave-growing areas, and there are efforts to revive interest among tourists by adding pulque to tequila tours or offering it as a less potent, more traditional alternative to the harder liquor.
Despite usually being classified as a wine or spirit, sake is brewed using a process similar to brewing beer. (Photo: Rog01/Flickr)
Sake is a well-known Japanese alcoholic beverage. It is usually categorized as a wine or a spirit, but the brewing process is actually much closer to beer than wine or distilled liquor. Sake is made from rice, and, like beer, the starch is converted to sugar before it is fermented. Unlike beer, which has separate brewing steps, the conversion of starch to sugar to alcohol occurs in a single step.
Sake has an alcohol content of 15% to 20%. Both transparent filtered and cloudy unfiltered versions are available. A type of mold is actually sprinkled on the rice to start the fermentation process (the same mold is used to ferment soybeans that will be used to make soy sauce). The sake-making process takes about one month, though it can vary depending on the variety being produced.