It’s a tough time for pubs. Their costs are high and their drinkers are skint. January was always a slow month, long before dry January was a thing. But if necessity is the mother of invention you’d think they would be busting their guts to entice in all the non-drinkers. Where are the pavement advertising boards chalked up with alcohol-free come-on-in offerings? Something like: “Draught alcohol-free beer in here” or: “We have enough zero gins to knock you clean out if they were the real thing.” Or, more radically: “Not drinking? Come on in and we’ll show you it’s possible to have a good time anyway.” OK, I’ll never earn a living as a copywriter, but you get my drift.
I say this out of love for pubs. Across the UK there are communities where, of an evening, the pub is the only place where people can commune. Yes, pubs aren’t for everyone, but to flourish they need to be. And a bit of come hither to non-drinkers, especially at this time of year, seems an obvious move.
Laura Willoughby, co-founder of the mindful drinking organisation Club Soda, has a long list of ideas. She points out that online drinks menus with low- or no-alcohol options will bring in more customers, and displaying the stuff loud and proud in venues always helps. And she is right when she says bar staff are rarely trained or inclined to run you through the alcohol-free options with any enthusiasm. Also, note that special offers such as a free glass of wine with your meal or beer with your pizza rarely feature alcohol-free alternatives. These are the products that, unaccountably, dare not speak their names.
I suspect part of the problem is down to commercial relationships with drinks companies that discourage much of a song and dance being made about no- and low-alcohol offerings. They know what’s buttering their bread. Some companies, as far as I can see, even seem reluctant to push their own products. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but how else to explain the difficulty in getting hold of Guinness 0.0? It’s a great drink but weirdly hard to find. In my local Sainsbury’s the shelves groan with the real stuff but the 0.0 is tucked away in no great quantity – if it is there at all. I doubt lack of demand is to blame – in Club Soda’s London low- and no-alcohol shop it is the most requested item. Please tell me Diageo isn’t scared of 0.0 cannibalising its own sales.
For moderating or ex-drinkers, alcohol-free beer on tap in pubs is a game-changer. Non-drinkers and heavy drinkers alike won’t get this, and I suspect it is a bit of a bloke thing. But there’s just something important about seeing it there, of equal standing with all the other draught beers available. If pubs are your thing, it makes drinking less, or no, alcohol so much easier. It ought not to, but it does.
To be fair, there are technical challenges to having the stuff on tap. In the absence of alcohol acting as a preservative, beer doesn’t last as long, and the pipes it is pumped through need more attention. But alcohol-free beer Lucky Saint is on tap in 600 places now, due in no small part to the company’s support services keeping it flowing cleanly. And, of the brewing giants, Heineken has put its corporate shoulder to the wheel in getting its 0.0 stuff on tap too.
I’m sorry if this reads like an advertorial but needs must. Up against the might of corporate power and societal pressure and, not least, our own temptations, we reforming drinkers need all the help we can get.
Adrian Chiles is a writer, broadcaster and Guardian columnist