PORTLAND, Maine — Beer. It's not just for couch potatoes anymore.
A Bavarian brewmeister is touting its no-alcohol beer as the latest sport drink for athletes, handing it out at the finish line of sporting events and touting its regenerative benefits.
Unlike Gatorade, Erdinger Alkoholfrei is served up with a frothy head. And it comes in one color – a golden hue – unlike conventional sport drinks.
Several top athletes from Europe quaffed the beverage from giant mugs on the podium of the World Cup biathlons held this month in northern Maine.
The company touts the beverage as an isotonic, vitamin-rich, no-additive beverage with natural regenerative powers that help athletes recover from a workout. In other words, it's carbohydrate-loaded refreshment without the alcoholic buzz of beer or the jitters caused by some energy drinks.
"It's a very healthy product," said Glenn McDonald, U.S. manager for Erdinger. "Overseas, it's very popular. It's the No. 1 non-alcohol beer in Germany."
Even though it's called alcohol-free, Alkoholfrei still contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol. That makes it verboten for anyone under 21 in Maine. Other states, like California, allow minors to buy alcohol-free beer.
Promoted as a "sports and fitness drink," Erdinger began targeting athletes in 2001 in Europe with an advertising campaign featuring a pair of triathletes. Its popularity quickly grew in Europe, where it's often distributed for free in the finishing area of sporting events.
Marketing beer as a sport drink for athletes is a new concept in the U.S., though McDonald points out that Alkoholfrei can be enjoyed by anyone, not just athletes.
Whether Americans – couch potatoes and athletes alike – are ready to embrace another no-alcohol beer is unclear. Sales of no-alcohol beer have been declining for more than a decade in United States, so any new entrant faces an uphill battle, said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights.
Erdinger, which is already sold in 45 U.S. states, has identified Alkoholfrei as a priority brand as part of a larger push into North America, McDonald said.
The 125-year-old company, which makes Alkoholfrei in the same brewery outside Munich where it turns out conventional wheat beers for suds-loving Germans, promotes itself at cycling and running events in the summer. In the winter, it's one of the main sponsors of the World Cup biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship.
At World Cup events, Erdinger banners are prominently placed in the stadium and on the course for visibility. Erdinger is also on some of the "bibs" worn by athletes.
"It's not bad. It's not bad," said Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association, based in Maine, who has sampled Alkoholfrei. "It's an interesting thought to think of the carbohydrates and everything. They're definitely something athletes need at the end of an event."
No-alcohol beer made a splash in the 1990s with the entry of Anheuser-Busch's O'Douls and Miller's Sharp's, but the novelty of so-called near-beer wore off for some consumers. "Part of the appeal of beer is the ethanol," said Harry Schuhmacher, editor of Beer Business Daily.
Erdinger hopes to win over consumers with a great German beer flavor that others lack. It doesn't come cheap, however, at about $10 for a six-pack.
As for its health claims, a University of Maine nutritionist is skeptical.
Beer contains sodium, potassium, carbohydrates and B vitamins, all of which are good, but they're not found at the optimal levels for an athlete, said professor Mary Ellen Camire.
"It will help with rehydration. Whether it's the ideal drink to have, I'm not sure," she said. "Surely if people are looking to celebrate, it's better to celebrate with that than a regular beer after a workout, because a regular beer has alcohol and that would dehydrate you further."