Given my job, it’s never easy doing Dry January.
Apart from missing booze, there’s the added strain of the hostile response I get both from people who I can only assume are insecure about their own drinking (“It doesn’t work, you know!”) and from elements of the trade (“You’re betraying pubs in their hour of need!”).
We all have strategies to moderate our drinking. For me, January is the quietest month in my calendar so it makes sense to take a break now.
At the time of writing I’ve been dry (and on a mostly vegan diet) for 10 days. I’ve lost half a stone, I’m sleeping about an hour longer each night, and my blood pressure has dropped into a zone healthy for men my age. So I find it fascinating when people who have never met me feel qualified to tell me my period of abstention isn’t doing me any good.
With regard to the second argument, I can safely say I hand far more of my meagre earnings over the bar in 11 months than most people do in 12. And if you don’t want me to desert the pub in January, why not offer me something a bit more interesting than an eye-wateringly over-priced lime and soda?
I have these arguments at the start of almost every year. But 2019 has started off differently.
You’ve heard it said many times before, and every time it’s proved wrong. But this time, brewers have finally cracked low and no-alcohol beer.
There are three main reasons low and no-alcohol beer has always been awful. One, for the past 40 years ‘beer’ meant ‘lager’. Of any beer style, lager is the one that will show off-flavours or undesirables because it leaves little place for them to hide. Two, the production methods for making low- and no-alcohol beer created a shed load of off-flavours and undesirable characteristics. And three, no one was really interested in drinking them. All this has now changed.
The technologies to de-alcoholise beer have vastly improved. Craft beer has broadened the palate of beer styles people want to drink, so low-alcohol beers can be enhanced by dry hopping or rich, deep malt bills. And we know that Millennials are abstaining more from alcohol and looking for alternatives. That’s why the low- and no-alcohol sector has grown by more than 150% in the past four years – something it has never done before.
Feeling a bit of a buzz
Earlier this month, I chaired a British Guild of Beer Writers seminar on ‘low and no’ at which about 10 brewers were present. A few days later, I spoke at the Mindful Drinking Festival.
At both events, I drank many different beers that were so good that I not only finished them, I could have happily had a second or even a third.
After a few hours, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. It definitely wasn’t from alcohol. Maybe it was psychosomatic – part of my brain knew I was drinking a lot of beer, it expected to feel an alcohol kick, so it imagined one.
But I think part of it is that the warm, gentle glow we get from drinking beer in a pub doesn’t all come from the alcohol in the first place.
Everything about the beer drinking occasion has evolved over centuries to promote relaxed, social interaction.
The ambience, the glass in your hand, the buying of rounds and the gentle, mellow, moreish taste with its hoppy buzz suggesting you might have just one more, are all present if you’re drinking a good beer with everyone else and, therefore, feel included in the occasion. Even if that good beer contains no alcohol.
Having learned this, I think I’m going to drink more low and no-alcohol beer when January ends – maybe in the pub on a Monday or Tuesday, or even for the first pint or two of a big session before graduating upwards.
Given that these beers sell on the bar for almost as much as a full-strength beer, despite the fact that the publican is paying hardly any duty on it, that means the publican will make more profit if I do this than if I drink a full-strength beer instead.
Look at it that way, and if you make the effort to stock and promote a decent range of low and no-alcohol beers, Dry January need no longer be a desert for the pub trade.