NEW YORK (AP) _ The beer industry is getting a sales buzz from brews that pack the least alcoholic wallop.

Non-alcoholic brews, led by relative newcomers like O'Doul's, Sharp's and Coors Cutter, have grown at a double-digit pace in the past few years even as overall beer sales have gone flat.

Experts cite the trend toward moderation in drinking and a heightened awareness of the dangers and penalties for drunken driving with helping fuel growth in this still tiny segment of the $50 billion brewing business.

They say brewers have made non-alcoholic brews more appealing by making them taste more like beer. ''They are still not as good as real beer but they are better than they were,'' said Jerry Steinman, who publishes the trade newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights.

The entry of Anheuser-Busch Inc., Miller Brewing Co. and Coors Brewing Co. into the category in the past few years also has helped trigger growth as the major domestic brewers muscled ahead of imports like Kaliber and Clausthaler.

They are spending millions of dollars on advertising, creating a more socially attractive aura for the entire category even as they plug their own brands as a hip, if only occasional, alternative to beer.

The group got unexpected attention recently when Lee Janzen sported a Sharp's cap on his televised and widely photographed march toward the U.S. Open golf championship. Janzen is one of three touring pros backed by Miller Brewing.

Non-alcoholic brews have been around for years but mainly appealed to drinkers who couldn't drink beer due to alcholism or other health reasons.

Sales have nearly tripled since 1988 as awareness has grown about the risks people face when they drive after drinking alcoholic beverages and as mineral waters and juice drinks have become fashionable alternatives to beer, wine and liquor at business lunches and on social occasions.

Despite their name, non-alcoholic brews may contain up to 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. Federal regulations forbid marketers of such beverages from labelling or advertising them as beer, however.

That distinction may elude TV viewers, though. Many companies use the same style of commercials for non-alcoholic brands as they do for alcoholic beverages, often featuring a party or vigorous athletic competition.

Recent Coor's Cutter ads have been set on the beach where revelers lip- synch, ''Your body knows the difference but your mouth don't know.'' Coors Brewing of Golden, Colo., had previously used ''Nothing cuts it like a Cutter'' in ads for its two-year-old brew.

Miller Brewing of Milwaukee touts Sharp's as offering ''great beer taste anytime'' in ads that have been set in rock music haunts and country music bars. Sharp's ads also have featured young adults enjoying the brew while playing vigorously at basketball, softball, football and other sports.

The games are going on mostly in the head of the Walter Mitty-like star of the commercials for O'Doul's, the leader among the non-alcoholic brews.

St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, which once used the O'Doul's name for an ale that failed to emerge from market tests, pitches its non-alcoholic brew as ''what beer drinkers drink when they're not drinking beer.''

In its ads, the character Jim imagines himself thrashing through a jungle when it turns out he was only looking for a lost golf ball or careening around an auto race track when he is only on his lawn mower. An offer of an O'Doul's brings him back to his senses.

O'Doul's replaced Anheuser-Busch's LA beer, a poor-selling brew that had half the alcohol of the company's regular beers like Budweiser.

The Stroh Brewery Co. of Detroit uses the same Jack and Andy duo that wind up where it ''doesn't get any better than this'' for Old Milwaukee in similar ads for Old Milwaukee NA, which became available nationally only last year.

There are more than 30 non-alcoholic beers on the market. The major brewers say they want to appeal to regular beer drinkers.

''Our target is the beer drinker who wants the taste of beer but in that specific situation is looking for a non-alcoholic option,'' said Anne Suppiger, brand manager for O'Doul's.

Groups that are critical of alcohol abuse generally support making non- alcoholic drinks more readily available as alternatives to beer, but express reservations about how the non-alcoholic brews are marketed.

''The idea that people need this taste to enjoy themselves is something that we would try not to encourage,'' said Jeffrey Hon, a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

The brewers say they market non-alcoholic brews only to adults and discourage sale of the beverages to minors.

But George Hacker, an alcohol policies specialist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he's concerned children will obtain non-alcoholic beer and develop a taste for the real thing.

Both Hacker and Hon also worry that recovering alcoholics view non- alcoholic brews as safe to drink. They say the brews not only contain trace amounts of alcohol but could tempt an alcoholic back to beer as well.

Frank Walters, research director for the beverage industry publisher M. Shanken Communications, said the non-alcoholic brews grew nearly 30 percent to 31 million cases in 1992, capturing about 1.3 percent of a beer market which posted an overall slight decline.

Marketers of the major brews are confident their brands can continue to post double-digit sales increases and market share gains.

But Walters said growth has slowed to 25 percent this year. He expects growth will level off in the mid-90s and that the category may never surpass 2 percent of the market.

Others analysts tend to agree that non-alcoholic brews cannot maintain the category's recent growth rate.

Michael Bellas, president of the consulting firm Beverage Marketing, said ''most likely, it will stay a niche beverage'' that will grow to 2 percent of the market in the next year or so.

Most people who buy a non-alcoholic brew already have decided not to drink too much on that occasion, and that almost assures limited growth potential for this segment, he said.

But he said it's understandable why brewers are trying non-alcoholic brews. In a time of rapidly expanding beverage choices, Bellas said, non-alcoholic brews ''gives the consumer another alternative.''