Four million Brits are ditching the booze this month in the annual trend known to most as Dry January. But does that mean you have to ditch your social life at the same time? Thankfully, a rise in conscious drinkers – and alcohol-free alternatives – is making it all a bit easier. Tom Banham finds out how easy it is to be teetotal in London.
Small Beer Brew Co. are paving the way with low-ABV beers that actually taste good
It’s tough to keep up with the mercurial medical advice on how much booze is too much. Ask one expert and a glass of red a night adds years to your life. Another will tell you any amount of alcohol is poison. What’s less debatable is that not drinking, for those who like to, is hard. I am a fan of the stuff; it is the solvent for my entire social life. After-work hang-outs invariably happen in the pub. I choose restaurants at least as much by their wine list as their menu. My first port of call in any new city is its best cocktail bar, to sample its house martini.
But after Christmas, like four million other Britons, I tend to fancy a break. On the back of a month’s solid indulgence, Dry January arrives like an oasis (albeit one light on liquids). I’ve always abstained by staying in, rejecting pub trips and dinner invitations. And that’s mostly because the options for teetotallers have always been so damn boring.
Water is no fun to sip on all night (and even less enjoyable to keep requesting from the barman). Fizzy drinks leave you wired and are arguably even more deleterious to your health than a glass of the hard stuff. As for alcohol-free drinks, that means boozeless versions of lagers that taste of barely anything even when they’re fully leaded. Stripped of alcohol, they’re about as much fun to drink as dentist’s mouth rinse.
Mindful drinking is now a thing: the rise of low & no
In 2019, however, everything’s changed. Young folks have apparently given up drinking pilfered bottles of white cider in their local cemetery, and students are swapping happy hour for Saturday night spinning classes. They need something no- or low-alcohol that’s actually pleasant to drink, rather than just a liquid to pass the time with while your friends down pints.
This January, my poison has been kombucha, the funky, fermented tea that’s started appearing behind more switched-on bars. Like beer, it gets its flavour from yeasty byproducts, particularly acetic acid, which provides the kind of mouth-puckering tartness found in sour lambics.
Jarr Original Kombucha: an alcohol-free alternative that pairs brilliantly with food
Its complexity makes it perfect for food (numerous Michelin-starred joints have added it to their menus), because unlike the usual alcohol-free options it’s almost sugar-free, so enhances the flavours of what you’re eating, rather than smothering them. Jarr Original Kombucha, created by the folks at east London’s Crate Brewery, works with anything from curry to pasta and means I’ve not felt left out when everyone else bangs on about how well the wine pairs with their meals.
My other big find has been Seedlip, the world’s first distilled alcohol-free spirit. Launched in 2015, its founder, Ben Branson, started his company to counter cloying mocktails, drawing instead on herbal remedies from the 17th century. It’s got a similar florality to gin and is delectable with tonic or soda, but can also be a base for more complex recipes. You’ll find them all over London – the brand has partnered with 40 bars to create unique, no-alcohol drinks for Dry January. My favourite find so far has been the Nogroni at Petersham Nurseries in Covent Garden, which swaps Seedlip Spice 94 in for the gin. I didn’t miss it.
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Booze-free beers that taste good
But perhaps the most exciting development for this unreformed beer drinker has been the explosion in high-quality, low-alcohol strains, brewed by folks who actually care about what their products taste like. Small Beer Brew Co. is especially innovative, albeit by looking to the past. ‘Small’ beer was what folks in the 18th century drank instead of disease-ridden water; the alcohol content of between 0.5% and 2.8% was enough to kill nasties, but not your sobriety. And while developments in sanitation might have put paid to that particular market, it’s the perfect tipple for anyone who wants the taste of beer, but not its side-effects.
They brew a lager that makes the stuff from the big breweries taste like swimming pool water, and a dark lager that’s even better, full of caramel sweetness and a heft that belies its low ABV. The only danger is that it’s so delicious, you might find yourself being tempted by one before the sun’s anywhere near the yardarm. And when your partner comes back from walking the dog to find you enjoying a pint, before she’s had her coffee, even low-alcohol beer’s hard to explain away.
Get your fix of booze-free beers, kombucha, Seedlip and more Low & No drinks at farmdrop.com.
Try our pick of the best alcohol-free bars and cocktails in London for Dry January and beyond.