As I’m writing this blog, I’m sipping a cool beer and have a half-full, opened bottle of rose sitting next to me. “What?!” I hear you gasp. “But it’s Dry January!” Don’t worry – it’s non-alcoholic – and I’m beginning to develop a taste for it.
Drinking imitation wine and 0% alcoholic beer is not something I thought I’d ever take to. Before this campaign, I’d only once had a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. I’d recently passed my driving test and was much too young to sit in a pub without a ‘real’ drink. But I felt like people were looking at me funny, so I never tried one again.
Sorelle, Becks Blue, Equator and Bavaria beers – some more consumed than others.
My bubble burst when we moved house a couple of weeks ago. After days of packing, all I could think about was what a shame it was we couldn’t toast the new flat with champagne over the obligatory takeaway. Fortunately, I had been sent some non-alcoholic wine called Sorelle, and this really saved the day. Having fixed the legs onto our dining table and located the cutlery, we ceremonially opened the bottle with some friends. Simply because it looked like a wine bottle made me feel we were drinking something a bit special. It looks like wine, and while the taste is not as complex, it’s satisfyingly winey and refreshingly not as sweet as the usual soft drink alternatives. It’s made of grape juice and flavourings, and has only 24 calories per 100ml – which is a bonus. So that made the evening a bit different, guilt-free, and no hangover the next day when the great unpack began.
Opening the flood gates
Since then, my boyfriend and I have tried a few non-alcoholic beers. Sainsbury’s and Tesco (among other supermarkets) have pretty wide selections, which I’d never noticed before. And they’re much cheaper than the real thing. We tried one called Equator, which looks like a trendy bottled Spanish or Mexican beer. This tasted flat and more like a light ale than a beer.
I’ve also been testing them out on my other Dry January friends. As people have been coming to see the new flat, we’ve been tying over these difficult later January days with some Becks Blue. I must admit, it makes you feel like you’re cheating a bit. Becks Blue tastes so much like real beer, but joyfully you don’t get hit by the sudden fuzziness and you feel fine the next day. Bavaria’s Regular and Wit beers (like a wheat beer) are also great and I’ve treated myself to a couple of these during the week after difficult days at work.
I’m sure it’s just psychological, and maybe the effect would wear off if you went without alcohol for longer. But the taste of beer is so associated with relaxation for me that I find these drinks help me unwind, even though there’s no alcohol in them. That’s a good thing, because it means I can get up again after a drink and get on with other jobs. One of the aspects I hate about alcohol is that a couple of glasses can write-off your whole evening. But are these alternatives better for your health?
Is non-alcoholic healthier?
According to the non-alcoholic beer producers, they are. Bavaria says its non-alcoholic beers have about 79 calories per 330ml bottle, which is much less than a comparable bottle of Budweiser at 135. A similar-sized soft drink would also have more at around 150 calories. Equator has no calories at all. Even Becks Blue, which is as filling as a normal beer, only has about 60 calories per bottle. Those are big calorie wins over an evening or a week. In that sense they are much healthier.
The low alcohol content also makes them better for your insides. Bavaria, Equator and Sorelle are all brewed to ensure they have 0% alcohol, whereas Becks Blue uses a process where the beer is brewed normally then the alcohol extracted afterwards. This means it could have up to 0.05% alcohol in it, so someone who was strictly alcohol-free wouldn’t be able to drink it. But if you’re just cutting down, that’s a tiny amount. Replacing a few alcoholic with non-alcoholic drinks each week, if not completely, could have a hugely positive effect. Considering the stats that show rising levels of liver disease among people in their 20s and 30s, it’s clear it doesn’t take long to do serious damage to your insides.
Sorelle prior to drinking on the recently assembled dining table
Is non-alcoholic the future?
These non-alcoholic options are sounding great, but come February, am I really going to continue with the imitation drinks? Looking at the evidence, I’d be silly not to. But I think this is where culture comes in and makes you feel like you’re doing something weird. My boyfriend says there’s too much stigma attached to non-alcoholic drinks. “Because there is a certain kudos with drinking alcoholic drinks, drinking non-alcoholic drinks is the opposite of that. Therefore, non-alcoholic drinks are less cool than other soft drinks,” he told me. I can definitely see that case – and probably more so for men.
Another friend, who is a strict vegan and regularly eats meat substitutes, also turned them down. “I have never drunk, and would not be interested in drinking any non-alcoholic beers or wines – I don’t see the point,” she told me. “I would much rather have a more interesting mocktail like a home-brewed shrub or an exotic fresh juice.”
The drinks companies say they are targeting people like us. Equator is for men in their late twenties who are “health and image conscious”, while Sorelle hopes to attract women in their 30s “who lead busy lives juggling a family and work”. I could see myself drinking these drinks out in a bar, because they do look quite sophisticated and I wouldn’t stand out. It would be great to have some better non-alcoholic drinks available in bars, because apart from elderflower cordial (which I’ve drunk a lot of this month), the other options are all so sweet. They would also be good for people who drive and, according to Bavaria, pregnant women who are one of their customer groups.
So maybe I will mix it up a bit in the future. In some ways, I think these are the perfect alternative. In other ways, I wonder if it’s not a clean-break from a form (however mild) of alcohol dependency. Should you replace alcohol with something that mimics alcohol? Or should you move away completely?
I asked Emily Robinson, director of campaigns at Alcohol Concern what she thought, and she told me: “Your social life doesn’t stop just because you’ve given up booze for a bit and we want people to carry on socialising and going to the pub during Dry January. But we know it can be tough going out and not having a tipple so it’s great to see more non-alcoholic and soft drink options out there for people to choose from.”
So maybe I over-think this. More choice is a good thing and any way we can drink less must be a positive. After all, they’re just another kind of soft drink.
Here are a few interesting facts about non-alcoholic drinks:
- According to Bavaria, beer sales in general are experiencing a decline in Western Europe, but the sales of non-alcoholic beer are on the increase.
- Spain is the highest consumer of non-alcoholic beers in Europe, with non-alcohol beer sales per capita in 2011 at 13% of all beer consumed, compared to the UK and the rest of Europe where only about 2% of all beer consumed is non-alcoholic.
- In Spain, it’s quite normal for pubs and restaurants to have at least one non-alcoholic beer available on draught, let alone on offer in bottles and cans.