Somewhere in the backlog of site content that's been building up since the start of 2020 is a pair of posts relating to what happened during January. Specifically, The Belated Birthday Girl's decision to go both dry and vegan for the first month of the year, and my decision to tag along in order to see what it was like. (That decision was also influenced by my desire to avoid awkward social situations where she's forced to sip on glasses of water while I'm chugging egg nog by the bucketful.)
One of those posts is going to focus on the vegan side of things, and will note how targeted a demographic I felt in early January, as everyone from McDonald's on up suddenly announced new vegan lines on sale. The other one - this one, in fact - is just looking at how we managed to avoid booze for a month. And once again, there was a big push in various quarters to provide new products for the newly alcohol free. You've probably guessed one of them by now.
I mentioned a month ago that our Dry January had somehow managed to take in one bar launch, one pub crawl and two beer festivals. Briefly, the pub crawl was a research visit for our Bermondsey Beer Mile site to see how many of the breweries there had an alcohol-free offering (tl;dr: just Hawkes and FourPure). And one of the festivals was a celebration of low- and no-alcohol drinks at National Theatre craft bar The Understudy. That one was notable for a few of their nearbeer selections running out during the course of the day and having to be replaced by normal ales, making this the one time in my life I've seen people drink a bar wet.
As for the bar launch and the other beer festival? Well, this is where we get to introduce BrewDog AF Old Street, their latest London bar. Built on the site of one of their old Draft Houses, it was launched at the beginning of Dry January with the usual hype you'd expect, starting with a carefully worded claim that it was 'the first alcohol free beer bar in the world'. Primarily intended as a showcase for their own AF range - veteran Nanny State, relative newcomer Punk AF, plus latest additions like Wake Up Call - the plan was also to present alcohol-free beers from other breweries, along with other types of drinks.
It's an announcement that's been greeted with some confusion all round: is there even a market for this sort of thing?
It's hard to tell on our first visit, because we're there at the EFP preview afternoon, where shareholders like us get to scope the place out a day or two before it opens to the general public. Aside from the fact it takes a bit of effort to find the bar - it's tucked away inside a modern development full of identical-looking units, with no big sticky-out sign to warn you you're approaching the right one - anyway, once you're there, and have managed to get the incredibly stiff door open, you get to see how they've made it similar yet different to the other bars. Whitewashed walls and white neon make for an unexpected backdrop for the usual distressed furnishings, augmented with a couple of swing chairs that presumably they couldn't get away with if there was a risk that people would sit in them pissed.
There are a couple of teething troubles on the night - most notably, a beer menu that's imprecise about which of the 0.5% beers has been padded out with lactose, which is an important factor for those of us trying to do Veganuary. But there's a nice breadth of beer available from BrewDog, the usual alcohol-free suspects like Big Drop, and a few surprises like one from To Ol. The biggest surprise for me is that even though everyone's stone cold sober, the place has the atmosphere of an actual bar, not a restaurant or cafe. Then again, it is full of biased punters who are willing it to succeed to keep their share prices up.
It's also hard to tell if BrewDog AF has a market on our second visit, because we go there specifically for AF Fest, the bar's all-day celebration of booze-free booze. This means that on top of all the usual stuff, we get stalls and presentations from a number of producers in what appears to be a rapidly expanding market. The beers are interesting, sure, with the likes of Lucky Saint, Nirvana and Big Drop all around to present their wares. But the really interesting stalls are the ones dedicated to other types of alcohol-free drinks. Thomson & Scott have an almost perfect sparkling wine substitute called Noughty: Everleaf bring a fascinating aperitif accompanied by a small box of samples of the aromatics it's packed with. Best of all are Three Spirit, who go one stage further, combining herbs and aromatics to produce three liqueurs that don't seek to imitate any particular type of booze on the market, but rather their function: a livener, a session drink and a nightcap.
Okay, then, how about our third visit? Well, that turns out not to be entirely typical either. We're there on a Friday night for a pre-gig nosh (the excellent Joe Gideon, since you ask), and there's the sort of reasonably buzzy crowd you'd expect in a real bar on a Friday night. But the date is January 31st, the last day of most people's Dry/Veganuary (though not ours, as I'll explain some other time), and the bar's been running a couple of offers throughout the month to capitalise on that - an all-you-can-drink deal on AF beer, and a two-for-one offer on veggie and vegan mains. The BBG is concerned that once we get into February and the offers stop, the bar won't be as popular. We discuss this with the guy serving us, and he thinks it isn't such a big problem, as the bar seems to be attracting the sort of groups you wouldn't normally find in a BrewDog: families, or Muslim lads, to name but two.
We're still not sure. So two weeks later, we're back for our fourth visit, before and after a nice Italian at Officina 00 down the road. What's the market for the bar like on a normal Friday night when people aren't consciously trying to stay off the booze? On the evidence of this particular night, not that great: the bar's a little too quiet before dinner, and when we return after dinner we're literally the only people there. Now, in the bar's defence, it's not quite a normal Friday night, it's Valentine's Day (hence the nice Italian). And we're on the outskirts of the City, whose inhabitants are notoriously unable to copulate while sober. And our post-dinner visit is the latest that we've been in this particular bar (9.30pm), suggesting there's a natural time of night beyond which people's interest in non-alcoholic drinks tails off to zero.
So in the end, I still haven't really come to a conclusion about whether there's a market for this particular bar in this particular place. It's a bold idea, and when it works it really works: but when it doesn't, it feels like a slightly too brightly lit room with slightly too quiet music occupied by slightly too few people pretending to drink. I hope they find their market, and that my confusion's just down to the fact that we haven't been there on a 'normal' night yet. Maybe we should just keep returning until we hit one.
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel†, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead, Itaewon, Le Marais, Outpost Manchester, Perth, Edinburgh Airport, Carlisle, St Pauli]