It’s a familiar bar-call across the land. “Oh… err… yes… um… I’ll… err… oh… I’ll just have a lime and soda.”
For many of those who, for whatever reason, don’t want alcohol, and don’t really want a sweet fizzy drink or juice either, the lime and soda has become the default choice. Unexciting, perhaps, but a safe bet.
“When a pub customer orders a lime and soda, it’s a compromise. They don’t believe you’ve got anything better,” says Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, the ‘mindful drinking’ organisation that’s given voice to the growing number of people who don’t drink or are cutting down but still enjoy a session down the pub.
They deserve more than that. And for a pub, they represent a profitable opportunity, a chance, as Willoughby argues, to “upsell to healthier and nicer drinks”.
She adds: “Pubs should make sure they offer choices to non-drinkers that reflect the quality of their drinks list. They have to demonstrate they’ve changed.”
Leading multiple operators are stepping up. Mitchells & Butlers’ All Bar One chain is among those praised by Club Soda, and senior marketing manager Laura Clarke confirms the group is “embracing the mindful drinking trend” with an enhanced offer.
“By increasing our softs category to include the likes of Kombucha and DA-SH flavoured sparkling waters, we’re providing a more extensive and diverse range.
“We’ve also added four new cocktails using lower-ABV spirits, appealing to guests looking for something that’s not as strong as a standard cocktail. They sit alongside three lower-ABV wines as part of our ‘Mindful Drinks’ range.”
Emulating this strategy might be easier said than done . Pubs face a daunting challenge in finding space for a wider range of non-alcoholic drinks as customers demand more choice across every category.
Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider which drinks best represent the kind of a pub you are – and make sure your alcohol-free range matches those aspirations.
Every pub will need the standard array of softs customers expect, but it’s how you go beyond them that makes the difference, that can make your pub stand out.
low or even lower?
The UK is currently out of sync with other nations by requiring drinks to have less than 0.05% alcohol in them before they can be called alcohol-free. Elsewhere the threshold is 0.5%, which is designated low-alcohol here.
A Government review last year declined to tackle the anomaly, and the drinks industry is divided on the question. St Peter’s Brewery, which has had great success with its St Peter’s Without 0.0% beer, believes it’s worth maintaining the distinction. Others think consumers don’t much mind whether it’s 0.05% or 0.5%. Perhaps ask customers if you should offer both?
A number of sub-categories have emerged that offer non-drinkers alternatives that are perceived as healthier and more ‘adult’ than regular soft drinks and deliver some of the benefits of alcohol.
No-alcohol and low-alcohol beers, or NABLABs as they were once flabbily acronymed, have been around since the 1980s.
But only now, thanks to improved brewing tech and adventurous brewers, are they beginning to shake off a poor reputation.
Rather than having a single alternative, pubs serious about their beer are able to offer a choice of no and low-alcohol styles that goes some way to reflecting the variety the modern beer drinker expects.
If you’re wondering how you’re going to fit all that in your fridge, the good news is you can now have one or two on draught.
Rob Fink, founder and CEO of Big Drop Brewing, which currently has seven different beer styles at 0.5% ABV, believes the arrival of no and low-alcohol beers on tap is “a seismic shift”.
“Moving from the back bar to be front and centre not only creates a surprising choice for customers but opens up more opportunities for venues.
“Putting our beers on tap in a meaningful number of on-trade outlets is one of our key goals. So far this year we’ve sold in excess of 100 x 30-litre kegs.
“That still only represents about 1.5% of our production but it’s growing. One thing that’s helped is a smaller keg size pubs can shift within a week, so it remains fresh.”
Alcohol-free spirits, led by the phenomenal success of Seedlip, are really taking off. Eight different brands were launched at Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival last July, and Willoughby is aware of at least another eight that have hit the market since.
They fit well with the gin craze and give bartenders similar scope to be creative by pairing them with the equally proliferating flavours of tonics and other mixers.
Wines are a little behind the alcohol-free curve but we’re beginning to see some interesting innovations.
Look out for low-alcohol versions of the Rawson’s Retreat range. It made a big splash when it hit Tesco’s shelves last year, and they’re about to be launched into the on-trade.
Kombucha is a fermented tea that typically comes in under 0.5% ABV. Pub groups such as All Bar One and Greene King have recently added them to their lists, and it’s now available on draught, delivering a remarkably similar experience to beer, complete with foamy head.
Left Field Kombucha, founded by former Sharp’s brewer Geraint Roberts, launched two products in KeyKeg, Yunnan Black and Sencha, earlier this year.
“Tea is an interesting ingredient, rare, elegant and stylish,” he said. “It has more complexity than regular soft drinks and on draught it’s a living product like a cask ale so store it in a cold cellar.
“Draught kombucha is a challenge, though,” he admits. “Like wine, it makes sense to have it on draught but people can sometimes have an issue with it. And the benefits of dedicating a beer line to a low-alcohol drink is something we have to get across to publicans.
“But there’s a sea-change at work.”
Shrub is based on a vinegared syrup that brings some of the complexities of alcohol to non-alcoholic drinks.
Aspall Cyder’s Henry Chevallier has developed a range of four bottled ready-to-drink shrubs, in flavours such as Blackcurrant & Juniper and Sour Cherry & Garden Mint, under the Nonsuch label, and is about to launch a shrub syrup that can be mixed in alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
“Alcohol is a brilliant ingredient so when you take it out of a drink, it becomes hollow,” he says. “You lose body, flavour, finish, heat, mouthfeel and a certain savouriness.
“Where else do you get that from? Usually sugar and salt. We use fruit sugar, which isn’t cloyingly sweet and is metabolised more naturally by the body, plus vinegar to balance the sweetness and then add savoury herbs.”
Alcohol-free aperitif Everleaf, created by London bar operator and botanist Paul Mathew, was launched at the beginning of this year.
“I wanted the texture and complexity of an aperitif or vermouth, and something that was easy for a bartender to make, that can be mixed with soda, like an Aperol spritz.
“We describe it to customers as a bitter-sweet aperitif so they know what they’re getting, and bartenders can explain more.
“Everleaf performs well for us in the early evening trade and as a food pairing.”
Where space is tight, a range of cordials on the back bar can offer a variety of alcohol-free flavours to mix with water and soda. You could introduce extra interest by supporting a locally made brand.