What About Non-Alcoholic Beer in Recovery?

As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell famously sang, “ain’t nothing like the real thing.” But in the case of non-alcoholic beer, could the substitute resemble the real thing so closely that it poses the same risks? While speaking with a friend, a therapist suggested that someone in recovery from alcoholism couldn’t drink non-alcoholic beer and still be considered sober. The friend asked how the practice is different from using a nicotine patch or gum while trying to quit smoking, or from incorporating suboxone or methadone while trying to kick a heroin addiction. The therapist explained that drinking non-alcoholic beer can become a substitute habit, rather than a stepping stone to sobriety. Most people don’t use “near beer” to stop drinking altogether. The friend, an inquisitive sort who also happens to be a beer connoisseur, kept arguing his case. It turns out this discussion is a common one in the recovery community — one sometimes characterized by heated dialogue.

A Multi-Faceted Debate

Because there are many facets to addiction — physical, mental, psychological and spiritual — there are many facets to this topic as well. The alcohol content by volume of most beers ranges from about 4.2 percent to 4.3 percent. Non-alcoholic beer contains 0.5 percent. Some people have pointed out that this isn’t enough for a person to become intoxicated. However, the sight, smell, and taste of the fermented drink can nonetheless provide powerful psychological triggers. For example, drinking “near beer” might remind some people of good times with family and friends. It could remind others of adolescent experimentation, such as when they might’ve sneaked a sip from their parents’ supplies. Still others might connect beer to a food, such as pizza. People who’ve used alcohol to help them connect to others in social situations might still want to hold a glass, bottle or can so they appear to be drinking. Without it they might feel like they stick out. And finally, some people have come to view beer as a companion. When the relationship with standard beer ends, whether by choice or necessity, these people might see “near beer” as the lesser of two evils.

Too Close for Comfort

As far as the comparison between quitting drinking and quitting smoking, the patch, gum or pill used to taper off nicotine cravings isn’t shaped like a cigarette. It doesn’t serve to remind the people using it of the habit it’s meant to replace. And findings in a study shared in the November 1999 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research suggested that smell might be enough to trigger cravings and a subsequent relapse among certain alcoholics. Many people who believe they can substitute “near beer” for standard beer are on a slippery slope. More than one person in recovery has cleverly said, “I don’t tease my disease.” Sobriety, especially for those in early recovery, can be fragile and needs to be nurtured. Even beer that contains limited amounts of alcohol — and according to some, taste — can conjure memories or a lifestyle best left in the past. “Near beer” might not be able to get you drunk, but it puts those in recovery a little too near to the real thing — and to the risks associated with it. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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