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  • Writer's pictureCharlie McVeigh

A Sobering Thought

Those of you who know me might be surprised to learn that I gave up drinking in May. And I don’t really have a plan to start again. Being stubborn, I suspect I might stick with the teetotalism. Unless someone comes up with a better argument than Winston Churchill who, when confronted with a non-drinker next to him at dinner, said: ‘Do you mean when you wake up that’s the best you’re going to feel all day?’

Why stop? Well, drinking was starting to take more out of me than I was taking out of it. The old Dean Martin line on the Martini says it all: ‘One is perfect. Two is too many. And three is not enough.’ The vectors of my drinking were ecstasy and doom – by contrast the sober me is a fuzzy happy-sad. Life without booze is a level existence where I don’t wake up feeling like someone has told me some bad news but I can’t remember what it is. Or not every morning anyway.

Boring, right? I am sure the reader imagines it’s like spending your entire life in Vegas before suddenly having to move to Zurich. The reality for me anyway is it is indeed duller but happier. Like everything, there’s a trade-off.

There is a point to my confessional. Parts of our great industry face an existential threat from a rising tide of sobriety. Gone are the days of my first job – as a financial journalist in the early 90s – where my boss would come in at 10am, put his jacket on the back of the chair, and head straight out to the pub with the hurried question ‘everything running smoothly?’ – he never waited for the answer. If you wanted a decision on anything you had to go down to The Stag to ask. This was considered eccentric, though not particularly unacceptable.

From rapidly shifting societal mores to unwelcome stats. We all know yet want to disbelieve that 26% of Generation Z don’t drink. What better way to rebel against the parents who took them unsteadily to bed smelling of beer and chardonnay? Now apparently 37% of all restaurant meals are not accompanied by alcohol with 29% of visits to the pub completely soft. I attend Chatham House-type round tables on the The Future Of The Pub where pale male pub execs of a certain age look like they’re playing blind man’s buff when it comes to attracting the next generation. On some occasions there is not actually a young person in the room, just the threatening idea of one, balefully preferring the coffee shop to the pub.

And this is not just a market / customer challenge. When I first got into the industry the recipe for a staff party was simple. Hire or borrow a space, bring in some cheap booze from the suppliers, crank up a CD of party bangers, light the blue touch paper and stand well back. The bar gradually rose on staff expectations of entertainment, but for a long time booze was the universal catalyst of a night when legends were forged. Mini-seas of sick were cleared up, and in the latter years HR and management might have had to pick up a few pieces the following day. It was all just a laugh. Or was it? Whichever, it certainly isn’t a viable option for staff parties now – much greater care is being taken to ensure that everyone feels included and safe.

I last wrote a column for Propel on this subject back in 2019 under the heading ‘A Pint Is Human Right. Even for the Sober Guy’. My point then was, inspired by BarWorks listing non-alcoholic Big Drop on draught, why do all pubs not serve non-alcoholic beer on tap? Things have improved and a solid minority of pubs, led by Star/Heineken, do offer it now. Heineken thinks that by 2025 there will be as many 0.0% taps as full-fat ones pouring their beer.

The appointment of David McDowall to the top job at Stonegate, Britain’s biggest wet-led group, is relevant too. David and BrewDog did a brilliant job brewing and branding credible non-alcoholic beers while creating the venues to drink them in – as much remote working hubs as craft beer bars. They even converted one of my old Draft Houses into an entirely dry pub.

It is absolutely possible to evolve Britain’s thousands of wet-led venues into somewhere also appealing to the coffee-shop devotee, but this is a monumental task. I think of Tim Martin’s apparently mad quest to turn Wetherspoon’s from a 90% wet business into a 50/50 wet/dry concept where families feel as welcome as day-drinkers. Unlikely as it seemed at the time, he succeeded. This required brave management, a wholesale change in culture and deep pockets. We need that same combination of vision and total commitment to make this next evolution of the pub work – there is no choice.


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