A Pint is a Human Right. Even for the Sober Guy
This week I hopped on the train to Oxford to take my daughter out to lunch. She just started at the university there and we got to talking about some of the arcane rituals which characterise what remains a reassuringly old-fashioned place.
While Dave and Boris have ensured that the Bullingdon Club is ‘totally not a vibe’, virtually every subject grouping, society or sports team comes with an unofficial initiation ceremony. It being England, these often take the form of Anglo Saxon-style drinking competitions.
And here’s the thing – a lot of these kids don’t drink – the daughter estimates that somewhere between 15%-30% of her classmates are teetotal. So, forfeit substitutions are made in the form of chilli sauces, raw eggs etc. And a good time is of course had by all.
This real-world confirmation that Gen Z is not keen on the hard stuff is of course no surprise. It’s become a commonplace that the British young, raised by parents unsteadily putting them to bed smelling of lager or Chardonnay, and who are terrified of social-death-by-smartphone, are taking the pledge in numbers.
But it got me to thinking about the future of another arcane, but powerful symbol of adult British life.
The pint drunk in a pub and nowhere else. The pint glistening cold with condensation, stood on a bar, winking at you. The pint which when finished leaves behind a delicate lacing of foam on a magnificent branded glass. The pint which refreshes in a way that no other drink can - and certainly refreshes in a way which no containerised beer served in a hi-ball ever will.
The pint which says, I am not here for any other reason than to hang out with my friends, relax, have fun, make off-colour jokes. The pint which says, ‘I am somewhere’ - not sat at home on the sofa watching Netflix. The pint which is as essential a part of our national identity as the Queen and her Grenadier Guards.
A pint, I say, is a human right in Britain.
The £1m question is – in a society where a significant and growing minority choose not to drink – does that pint need to contain alcohol? And in fact, faced with a demographic-behavioural apocalypse, how on earth can it be that the vast majority of pubs do not serve dry pints?
So, on the way back to Oxford station I stopped into six city centre pubs recommended by the Daughter as places frequented by her and her mates. Only one – big kudos to a Nicholson’s pub called the Crown – served a non-alcoholic pint – Heineken Zero – although admittedly it was dispensed from an enormous branded beer engine which was hidden away in a corner of the back bar. Even Wetherspoon’s, generally so far ahead on beer trends, was a blank. A town full of thirsty students, up to a third of whom don’t drink, doesn’t serve non-alcoholic pints in five out of six student pubs. The more you think about it, the more insanely stupid it seems.
But before you retire to that darkened room with revolver and bottle of (80-proof) whisky in despair at the management of our national pub businesses, there are those who are thinking smart about this stuff.
The Barworks founders have backed Big Drop, an exciting new Alcohol Free craft beer brewer. Marc Francis-Baum and Patrik Franzen – with proven form having co-founded Camden Town and backed Hawkes Cider - are as usual putting their beer where their wallets are and Big Drop brews are available on draught in all Barworks venues. And, yes, surprise-surprise, it sells. I was in Harrild & Sons, a beautiful Barworks bar next to Ludgate Circus this week and suffice to say I wish that this column could carry photographs. See my Instagram for a picture of a pint taken that night which defines the object: a beautiful, golden glass of Big Drop Citra IPA, beaded with condensation and you’ll have to take my word that it was utterly delicious. And 0.5% ABV. While I was ordering at the bar, a bloke stood next to me waiting on a couple of pints of Camden Hells asked what I was drinking. When I explained his face took on an expression of wonderment. Oh, he said softly, if I’d known I would have had one of those.
Other innovators include BrewDog, who announced earlier this year it was putting Punk AF on draft in its bars. Adnams is busy rolling out Ghost Ship Alcohol Free across its pubs on keg. Brewer Fergus Fitzgerald says the market is not teetotallers, rather those who want to drink a bit less or are on a temporary abstinence. Some drinkers are even ordering a ‘half ‘n’ half’ of Ghost Ship full fat and the 0.5% version. Where Adnam’s has put it in on draught sales of non-alcoholic beer have doubled.
Cirrus Inns’ Langy Langlands-Pearce is working with Heineken to get Heineken Zero right on draught before rolling it – and other AF beers – out across their estate. A big target market for these rural gastro-pubs and inns is the poor old driver who wants a pint. Of course, there will be many other forward-thinking publicans.
So whether it’s Generation Z teetotallers, health-obsessed Millennials or designated drivers – there seems to me to be a nailed-on logic to adding AF beer on draught to the bar. The quality is unquestionably now there via Big Drop, Heineken, Adnams, BrewDog and many others. And other markets point to the scale of the opportunity, one in 15 beers sold in Germany does not contain alcohol.
PubCos! What are you waiting for?