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What is the Deal with Alkoholfrei Beer on Race Day?

I feel like I sound like German Jerry Seinfeld when I ask the question: Was ist mit dem alkoholfreien Bier vor und nach den Rennen in Deutschland los?

What is the deal with the alcohol-free beer before and after races in Germany?

Düsseldorf Brückenlauf

Duesseldorf-Brueckenlauf-2017
If only we knew of the horror sneaking up behind us.

I first noticed it in the moments leading up to Düsseldorf’s Brückenlauf (bridge run). It was a crisp, sunny spring race morning in the Altstadt. Walking around the start line, sliding in between the huddled crowds of runners waiting for the porta potties, I noticed tents set up by Erdinger–the world’s largest wheat beer producer. They’re based in Bavaria, where the style comes from, but you see them and their Hefeweizen competitors across the country. Most towns and cities have their own preferred style (Altbier in Düsseldorf, Kölsch in Cologne, Export in Dortmund, Rauchbier in Bamberg), but an Erdinger is almost always on the menu alongside the local variety.

Beer after sport is pretty common. Hell, most cyclists and runners I knew back in the States only went through the suffering to justify filling their stomachs with untold quantities of the good stuff. I certainly can’t say it’s not a motivator for me to cross a finish line (either on race day or one I made up). Few things are more refreshing on this godforsaken planet than, well, a Hefeweizen under the sun, not giving a damn about how bad you smell.

When I saw the Erdinger tents, I thought “Cool! They do beer after races, too. Splendid. I shall return after this 10K.”

Alkoholfrei?

Something strange started happening. As we (my wife and two friends) started to line up, other runners were quickly grabbing a plastic pint, scarfing it down before the race.

“Ah, those runners,” I thought. Those runners being your frat runners, people who drink themselves silly on race day, before, during, and after the race. Sometimes you’ll see supporters along the route offering up free beer for runners and these guys (it’s almost always guys) are the ones woo-ing as they chug their way through the impromptu aid station.

But as it happened, they weren’t those runners. They were, apparently, the norm. Because what they were drinking wasn’t a refreshing Hefeweizen, but rather an Alkoholfrei beer.

Yes, an alcohol-free beer.

First of all, I struggle to understand the purpose of alcohol-free beer. Is it like the nicotine patch for alcoholics? It’s not like they ever make alcohol-free versions of the best tasting stuff. So you’re basically asking for that bitter, sometimes watery college beer taste without the effects that make you forget that you’re drinking a questionable product. Above all, how are we to drown our sorrows in a beverage that just makes us feel bloated but still alert? I’m lost.

But why is this a thing before the race? If it’s about the carbs, I don’t think it scientifically checks out that an alcohol-free beer can give you a carb-boast minutes before running a 10K. I can’t recall ever seeing men or women line up in Boston, savoring that last drop of alcohol-free Sam Adams before the gun goes off. Maybe Klaus is on to something, but I doubt it.

The bridge run goes over, well, bridges.

I put the Alkoholfrei nonsense out of my mind for the duration of my run, which for posterity, I completed in 44:48, running at a 4:26/km pace. I remember feeling pleased with myself, because I hadn’t been really training for anything, so the decent time gave me that, “Hey, you still got it” feeling where you wink to yourself in the mirror, momentarily feeling good about yourself until the next breaking news alert comes through your phone.

Soaking in a post-race glow, I started walking over to the Erdinger tent. Sure, they were handing out that Alkoholfrei nonsense, but surely they would’ve switched to the real stuff to reward runners. It was about noon, so a reasonable drinking hour on a sunny Sunday.

To my horror, I realized there was no beer beer–only Alkoholfrei. And the Germans were loving every last drop. The race volunteers couldn’t put them out fast enough.

I’m not a religious man, but I prayed that this was an anomaly. A quirk of life in Düsseldorf. I sunk the memory into the recesses of my brain, like the good emotionally repressive man that I am, and forgot what I saw, switching my athletic focus back to road cycling and hiking for the summer.

The Return of Erdinger Alkoholfrei

Come winter, Melanie signed up for the Bonn Half Marathon to give us something to motivate ourselves through the punishingly short days of German winter. Race day came in April during the heart of cherry blossom season in Bonn. The city must have looked as regal as the days when Beethoven was getting loaded up and dancing at Em Höttche.

On race day, it happened again. I saw the tents with the Erdinger logo. The memories I had suppressed from a year earlier came pummelling back like a torpedo fired out of the hull of a submarine, slowly rising to the surface just before impact.

Alkoholfrei.

Again, runners were grabbing their pre-race plastic pint for a swig and followed up the race for a refill. I couldn’t suppress the memory any longer and was prepared another year later when I ran the Düsseldorf Half Marathon, knowing I shouldn’t get my hopes up at the promise of beer tents. There were no beer tents–only carbonated beverage tents.

Hitting a bit of a runner’s craze, we signed up for another half marathon a few weeks later, this time in Gelsenkirchen. After the race, we noticed a variety of Erdinger Alkoholfrei options, one of which included grapefruit flavoring.

Grapefruit!

I’m highly skeptical of artificial flavoring in beer to begin with let alone when you’re adding grapefruit and alcohol-free beer to the equation. Who finishes a challenging athletic endeavor and thinks, “Mmmm, I sure would like to suck on a grapefruit but only in the form of an alcohol-free, carbonated beverage.”

Who are these monsters?

Melanie and I always refuse out of principle. If we don’t stand up to Big Fake Beer, who will? In a country where beer is often cheaper than water, I’d rather spend the euro on something that’ll actually sooth my asphalt-induced pains rather than mock them.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.

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