Near beer is a malt beverage which does not contain enough alcohol to be considered a true beer. This beverage arose during the Prohibition in the United States, when alcohol was not permitted, but people still had a taste for it. It is not the same thing as small beer, a low-alcohol beer which has been brewed for centuries. Many markets sell near beer, and because it is not a true alcoholic beverage, purchase is generally not restricted, although in some regions people must reach a certain age before being allowed to buy these beverages.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) in a near beer can vary, depending on how it is brewed and handled. Generally, the ABV hovers around .5%; in many places, if the ABV is below .5%, it can be sold as “non-alcoholic.” Many near beers are brewed in the lager style, although some are made as ales. All of them tend to be light and a bit watery. Beverages with a slightly higher ABV are sold as “low-alcohol beer” in some regions.
During Prohibition, people often added a little extra illicit alcohol to their near beer, turning it into so-called “spiked” or “needle” beer, a reference to punching a small hole into a keg for the purpose of adding alcohol. After Prohibition, of course, it was no longer necessary for breweries to make near beer, since they could return to regular production. However, some people had acquired a taste for it, creating a small market for the product which lives on to this day.
People should be cautious with near beer, since it does contain some alcohol, even when it is labeled as non-alcoholic. Alcoholics and people who struggle with substance abuse may want to avoid near beer, since it can trigger cravings, as it tastes a lot like beer, looks like beer, and is packaged like beer. These associations can be difficult for people who have experienced alcohol addiction.
In case you're wondering, small beer, also called small ale, is a completely different beverage. It is made by adding water to hops which have already been fermented to create beer once. The hops and water are heated, creating a weaker brew which tends to be slightly bitter. Small beer was used historically in regions where water was unsafe to drink, and it has a long and illustrious brewing history. It can be difficult to track down small ale, as only a few breweries continue to make it. Small ale can also be made from the materials used to ferment hard alcohol, which case there's nothing small about it; it can pack a formidable alcoholic punch, in fact.