'The pub is primarily about alcoholic beverages. I’d like it to stay that way'

By Sophie Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Glass act: There’s more to the pub than just drinking
Glass act: There’s more to the pub than just drinking

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Sophie Atherton wonders if our arms are being twisted into not having an alcoholic drink

Dry January ​may be behind us, but I’m sure many in the trade will agree that the booze bashers seem set on pouring cold water on enjoying a drink all year round. The cynic in me has started wondering if all the noise around the alcohol-free category is less about marketing and more focused on manipulation.

One of the latest stories (as reported in the The Morning Advertiser ​17/1/20) is that 25% of pub visits are now alcohol-free. When I read the headline, I felt a little shocked, then breathed a sigh of relief that it meant 75% of pub visits are still about going out for a drink. Reading further, I spotted 45% of people are already satisfied with the low and no-alcohol offer in pubs.

Perhaps this suggests pubs could be doing a little better, but it doesn’t seem to warrant the amount of fanfare around these products. I just can’t shake the idea that the big push to promote and prominently fill fridges with alcohol-free drinks is another way of furthering the anti-booze agenda rather than a response to consumer demand. The feeling was further cemented when I read yet another newspaper article written off the back of Dry January​, trumpeting alcohol-free spirits and the idea of being ‘sober-curious’. The former didn’t exist, for the purposes of measuring market share, until very recently. (Thanks to start-up ‘accelerator investment, it now lays claim to nearly 6% of the category). The latter would seem to imply anyone who enjoys a drink is a hopeless drunk with no experience of being sober.

Then there’s the multiple press releases about alcohol-free alternatives to booze I’m sent every week. One of the latest was from Glasgow-based Drygate telling me of Shred, ‘a vitamin C-rich alcohol-free pale ale launched to help fight the common cold’ and ‘boost battered immune systems across the UK’. Claims which, were they made of an alcoholic beverage, would no doubt have the new age temperance movement hitting their Portman Group speed dial buttons in an instant.

Sick of alcohol being demonised

More annoying are the ones written in the manner of Mary Poppins (if she was pumped on caffeine via triple shot latte with syrup), all ‘super excited’ to share with me the latest, must-have booze-free alternative that makes me want to shout expletives. Not least because they all sound the same, but because I’m so tired of people going on about cutting alcohol consumption. I’m not the only one who’s had it up to here. Claire Alexander, who runs two pubs on the fringes of the Cotswolds, concurs. “I am so sick of people demonising alcohol,” she said. “We are living in an age of judgment with huge rises in depression and anxiety. People talking to people on screens is not an actual, real, social connection. It’s no coincidence that the rising suicide rates are in line with high streets, pubs, libraries, community spaces all closing. Loneliness is the biggest killer of all these days and we should be promoting the benefits of getting out to the pub more than we should be pitching people against each other for what they’re drinking.”

Her last comment was in response to my asking around to see if anyone had ever been frowned upon for ordering alcohol in the pub (excluding if it was because they’d had one too many) because I wondered how far the ‘Thought Police’ have got. You’ll be relieved to know they don’t seem interested in the ‘evils’ of alcohol yet. My modern equivalent of a vox pop was to a quick Twitter poll. Of 64 responses, fewer than five said it had happened to them – and all had an alcoholic drink regardless.

I’m not pretending for one minute that alcoholism isn’t a problem by the way, and one that should be talked about because it’s linked with some of things raised by Claire Alexander above. But as I’ve written before all the finger wagging and, now, the trendy ways of cutting down aren’t aimed at alcoholics.

I’ll admit, there are occasions when I go to the pub and only have a cup of tea. One of them was only last week – when I met up with a pal at 11.30 on a Monday morning. But culturally, and personally, the pub is primarily about alcoholic beverages. I’d like it to stay that way. Rather than mindful drinking driven by marketing, let’s keep our eye out for attempts to replace joyful, social pubgoing with soulless, booze-free, cafe culture.

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