Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer Can Be A Crime?

There was a news item a few days ago that recently a fifth grade teacher in Michigan offered students non-alcoholic beer — O’Douls — as part of “a lesson on colonial times,” with the intention to “represent ale common in the 1700s and consumed because of the scarcity of clean water.” Sounds harmless enough. No students were forced to try it, but they had the opportunity to sample it if they wished to. What could go wrong?

What the teacher didn’t know is that apparently it’s actually illegal to give a minor in Michigan a non-alcoholic beer. The law was passed back in the 1950s, when people were even nuttier about alcohol than they are today, if that’s possible, but Michigan did pass a law making it illegal for minors to drink non-alcoholic beer. Here’s the entirety of the law:

Act 328 of 1931

750.28 Cereal beverage with alcoholic content; furnishing to minors, penalty.

Sec. 28.

Any person who shall sell, give or furnish to a minor, except upon authority of and pursuant to a prescription of a duly licensed physician, any cereal beverage of any alcoholic content under the name of “near beer”, or “brew”, or “bru”, or any other name which is capable of conveying the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcoholic content, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

History: Add. 1957, Act 283, Eff. Sept. 27, 1957

How Kafkaesque. The state defines what non-alcoholic means then still makes it illegal even if it’s within their own definition, and if it’s 0.5% or below, Michigan state’s Liquor Control Commission doesn’t even regulate it. So alcohol in cough syrup. No problem. Non-alcoholic wine? Go for it. A cereal beverage? Heavens no. That’s going too far.

And perhaps more curious, the law can be read to suggest that what’s at issue is giving the “impression” that the drink has alcohol in it, not that it really does. Because it seems like you could create a non-alcoholic beer within the legal definition but call it something random, like “Barley Pop” or “Brown Cow” and not be in violation of this law if you gave some to your children. The name seems more important than the alcoholic content. Why would that be the case?

When I was a kid, the only reason near beer existed was for kids. No sane adult would drink it. My first taste of beer was from a can of near beer that my parents bought for me when I expressed interest in trying beer, which was the case for some of my friends, too. It was horrible. I think that may have been the point, I don’t know.

The Flint Journal reports that the school sent letters home to parents after they discovered the “incident” but according to school district Superintendent Ed Koledo. “Nobody complained to the teacher, principal or me,” or to the police, and no disciplinary measures were taken against the teacher. Despite nobody being upset in the least, you’d think a nuclear blast had gone off, the way they talk about it.

“We talked to the teacher and said this was an inappropriate choice,” Koledo said. “There were a lot better choices to represent a colonial-era drink than what was chosen here.”

Really, what would have been a better choice to represent what the vast majority of people drank during the colonial era? And he says “a lot of better choices.” A lot? Really? I can’t wait to see the list.

“I know there was no intent to expose anyone to harm, just poor thought in this situation.”

Seriously, “poor thought?” It’s non-alcoholic beer for chrissakes, and a few kids had a sip of it in a controlled environment, not a back alley clutching a paper bag. And it was a sip. What is a sip? A teaspoon? Half an ounce? Oh, the horror.

Linden schools are drug and alcohol-free zones and Koledo said he did not know if O’Doul’s beer would constitute a violation.

Again, are we really going to split hairs because it has 0.5% alcohol (or less) in it? So is cough medicine allowed on campus? I’m pretty sure caffeine can be considered a drug, so I hope they’re going to remove the coffee maker from the teacher’s lounge. Up until the 1970s, schools in Belgium served students table beer every day.

So how exactly did this end up being a news story?



  1. says

    Non-alcohol beer is illegal for minors in PA too. Here the reasoning is that it prevents the “I was drinking O’Doul’s” defense when a young adult is caught with beer. It saves the state the expense of chemically testing the liquid to determine if it is beer or near beer.

  2. Christopher says

    In California it is Not Illegal (though not recommended) to sell or give NA Beer such as O’Doul’s to a minor.
    Note the response from the Trade Enforcement Unit at California ABC

    Dear Christopher,

    Non-alcoholic (or “N.A.”) beer and wine generally contain trace amounts of ethyl alcohol but the amount is less than one-half of one-percent (0.5%) alcohol by volume. Hence, such beverages are not classified as “alcoholic beverages” and are not regulated by our Department. These N.A. beverages are generally found on shelves with alcoholic beverages and not on the shelves containing soft drinks. Manufacturers of N.A. products typically market them to an adult audience as an alternative to alcohol. Selling such products to persons under 21 years of age does not violate the ABC Act but, perhaps, is not the best idea for other reasons.


    David K. Wright
    Trade Enforcement Unit

  3. Torsh Johansen says

    When a drink has less than 0.5% alcohol, or typically 0.42%, which is 1/10th of a common light beer like Miller Lite, Bud Light, and Natural Light — for even a pretty rapid pace, you can’t get a buzz.

    Although theoretically possible to get a Small buzz off of it drinking at a historic record pace (see guy drinking 28 O’Douls in 1 hour — BAC = .02) — that’s not practical by any means, and truly Impossibly by virtually all humans. One can get a greater high in an actual practical way legally at any age — in many ways. Drinking NA Beer, put in place during the Prohibition Era that said it was kosher, is not one of them. :)

    So yes, have at it if it’s a beer confirmed to be at less than 0.5%. You’ll never hit the legal upper limit (BAC of .07). Ever. Impossible. Down the O’Douls as fast as you want, and drive your actual buzzed friends with no worries.

    Fruit juices can get up close to 0.4%, near NA Beer. Ever hear of people getting drunk off that? Relax. Your body’s designed to process super-low amounts extremely well.

    What you will want to look out for though is ones that Claim less than 0.5%, but are really more.

    Guiness’ “Kaliber” beer is one of them. You can deduce this from the nutritional facts on the back of the beer to ensure you’re taking in less than 2 grams of alcohol in the bottle.

    Kaliber has more like 3 grams, instead of 1.1g-1.2g that O’Douls, Bush NA, Erdingers have. But that’s just a result of incorrect marketing that Kaliber should be called out on.

    66 calories
    9.3g Carbs
    1.7g Protein
    0.0g Fat
    = 11g Carb+Protein = 44 calories

    22 calories left over of Alcohol, which is 1g = 7 calories
    = ~3g alcohol

    You’re drinking about 2.5 O’Douls when you drink 1 of those Kalibers, so Kaliber is about a smidge over 1% — not a smidge under 0.5%.

    But it’s pretty thick and tastes great. Best to go with Edingers — that tastes great and is in the True NA beer range where there’ll be no worries by one’s body type or driving.

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