Nobody is so adamant as a beer drinker: Wine drinkers may be pretentious, cola drinkers rigid, but beer drinkers are, above all, sure of themselves. They know what they like and nobody is going to persuade them differently.

So I don't expect a single real beer drinker to read this without crumpling it up and throwing it into the trash.

You see, we gathered together a bunch of beer drinkers and found they couldn't taste the difference between a real beer and a nonalcoholic beer. What's more, most of them preferred the nonalcoholic beer.

Okay, that's overstating the case. They preferred nonalcoholic beer, but only one of 10 non-alcoholic beers they tasted. And the real beer they sampled in this blind tasting was Miller Lite, which isn't everybody's idea of real beer. The tasting took place at Wolensky's Bar & Grill and included whatever nonalcoholic beers manager Phil Gibbs could find locally; nationwide 20 to 30 are available.

According to Fortune magazine, Kingsbury, which was not in the tasting, is the best-selling nonalcoholic beer. Moussy is the best-selling import; it placed fourth in the tasting, just below Birell. The clear winner was Kaliber, made in Ireland by Guinness and on the market only since 1985. In general, the tasters found domestic brands watery, while the imports had more body. Typical flaws of nonalcoholic beers were a sweet molasses aroma and an unpleasant aftertaste.

The point remains, though, that the best of the nonalcoholic beers are pretty good, and at least one -- Kaliber -- could pass for beer. That's with 43 calories a bottle and the alcohol removed by a vacuum-evaporation process. That it beat out a real beer doesn't surprise the Kaliber people; said one vice president, Ray Hyde, "We've had people get intoxicated drinking Kaliber."

This is a classic illustration of an idea whose time has come. Nonalcoholic beers have been on the market for a long time -- Birell for about nine years. But they waited in the wings as understudies while light beers had a shot at stardom. "Low-alcohol beer has been a bomb; people don't want halfway measures," explained Bob Lyons, vice president of marketing for American Potomac, Washington distributor for Kaliber. Now light beer sales are slipping -- to 500,000 barrels last year, according to Fortune magazine -- while nonalcoholic beers increased sales to 549,000 barrels.

Formerly seen as beer imitations for health-food faddists, diabetics, people going on the wagon and Pritikin followers, nonalcoholic beers are entering the mainstream. They have some clear advantages: about half the calories of light beer, a third of regular beer and a little more than a third of soft drinks. Some brands, such as Moussy, which is made in Switzerland, actually have less alcohol -- two hundredths of a percent -- than some soft drinks or fresh orange juice. Nonalcoholic beers also have complex carbohydrates and B vitamins, which is more than can be said of soft drinks. And they are unique in providing a refreshing bottled beverage that is dry rather than fruity -- a field that has been otherwise limited to non-bottled drinks such as unsugared iced tea or coffee.

Some nonalcoholic beers -- Kaliber and Moussy, for instance -- are made by removing the alcohol from beer. Others, such as Birell, made in Philadelphia by a Swiss formula, are produced by limiting the fermentation of beer. We probably won't be calling them nonalcoholic beers for long: Those with less than 0.5 percent alcohol will have to change their name to malt beverage or brew, unless a Treasury Department ruling made this spring is reversed. And given that they do have a trace of alcohol, they are not going to be able to call themselves alcohol-free, but just nonalcoholic (a pretty fine distinction, I'd say).

Whatever their name, these products have been lying in wait. They have been waiting for calorie-consciousness and anti-drunk-driving forces to converge, and for producers to recognize that products rarely sell themselves. Guinness is said to be doubling its advertising budget for the last half of this year, aiming at 21- to 30-year-olds as the prime market; Moussy has launched a $2 million ad campaign. With all this simmering in the summer heat, sales have taken off in the last month or two.

At Wolensky's, Gibbs has seen a "tremendous call" develop for nonalcoholic beers. "It's everybody," he observed. "I've seen young people, men and women, all age groups." A large segment of his customers don't drink alcohol at all, and "people are really, really conscious of having two instead of four beers."

Getting carried away, perhaps, Gibbs characterized it as "something brewing in the restaurant business." If nothing else, it is startling to realize that now the beer might have fewer calories than the pretzels.


My last airline "meal," which was crackers and cheese spread, prompted me to wonder what it costs to feed us frequent flyers. It turns out the average is $4.05 a person, with Pan Am spending most per passenger, $6.27, but that is because its long flights require more than one meal. TWA is next, spending $5.86 a passenger, but somebody else must have gotten my share, since my soggy lasagne lunch on one flight and cheese spread supper on the connection when I flew coast-to-coast certainly came nowhere near $11.72.

Watch out if the winds shift; Saturday and Sunday is the Nahcotta Northwest Garlic Festival, an annual event organized by Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas of The Ark restaurant in Willapa Bay, Wash.

It is a time-honored tradition at some restaurants to bring a fish you've caught and have the chef cook it for you, or to bring a wine from your own cellar and have the restaurant charge a corkage fee to serve it. But at Spago in Los Angeles a new tradition threatens. Actress Brenda Vaccaro brought her own powdered diet mix and asked the chef to whip it up and serve it in a roasted pepper. Add that to the definition of New American Cuisine.


The new brews are not just for drinking. Try your leftover nonalcoholic beer in this spread, and keep in mind that it is best after aging about a week in the refrigerator.

2 pounds mild cheddar cheese, finely grated

1/4 cup finely grated onion

1/2 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce

1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper sauce

12-ounce can nonalcoholic beer

Let cheese soften at room temperature at least 1 hour. With an electric mixer or in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine cheese with all remaining ingredients except beer by flicking motor on and off several times. With motor running, beat in the beer, a little at a time; continue beating until light and fluffy. Chill well before serving. Serve with bread or crackers, accompanied by -- naturally -- nonalcoholic beer. (c) 1986, Washington Post Writers Group