My name is Mark and, like most people I know, I like a drink or three. This year, instead of a Dry January, I have decided to aim for something more – maybe even permanent abstention. It’s not that I’ve been waking up in skips or adding vodka to my cornflakes. Well, not every day. However, after many years of regular, enthusiastic drinking, often above and beyond the call of duty, it’s time to slow down while I still can.
I’m not alone. A quarter of us are apparently looking to cut back on our alcohol consumption and one in 10 are attempting a Dry January. And it looks like drinks producers and retailers have been listening. Sainsbury and Tesco have large gondola-end displays. Claims of ‘no compromise on taste’ are being made. Sales of alcohol-free beer are up 40% year-on-year (admittedly from a very low base). After many years of massively disappointing products, is this the year that low or no alcohol drinks finally come of age?
By the way, from now on, I will use the term ‘alcohol-free’, as the legal definition of no or low alcohol varies by country of origin. All the products discussed in this article have no more than 0.5% alcohol, some as little as 0.05%: it’s impossible to make wine or to brew beer without ending up with some alcohol – and it is equally impossible to get even slightly inebriated when drinking them. But are they worth drinking?
To drink the impossible dream
If we're going to drink less alcohol, we need to have an alternative. We'll want something close to what we've previously enjoyed - not just water and soft drinks, no matter how 'adult' they are. Ideally, the same beer and wine, but with less alcohol. Just the one variable, please.
Is this possible? For many years, we have been told that the quality of wine depends upon alcohol – reduce the alcohol and you reduce the integrity of the wine. And all the alcohol-free wines I have tried have proved this – they taste nothing like wine and often like nothing on earth. So the options have been: drink less or drink something else.
But what if we want to continue drinking wine? After all, it's about more than the alcohol. After drinking many gallons of wine over the years, we have grown to like the aroma, taste, mouth-feel and so on. Social reasons are important too – holding a glass of wine attracts less comment than holding a glass of juice or water. Wine that looks and tastes like wine, but has low or no alcohol – this is surely the holy grail.
When we decide to reduce our alcohol consumption, my assumption is that we want to change our behaviour as little as possible. I don't want to start drinking glasses of alcohol-free concoctions made from rare herbs and exotic fruits by hipsters and health-fiends. I just want to drink beer that tastes like beer, in a pint glass, but with less alcohol.
Because beer is not just about getting alcohol into the system. Many of us have become accustomed to holding a pint glass, to swilling large volumes of liquid and to enjoying the taste and sensation of beer fizzing around our mouth before swallowing. Yes it’s all a bit old school, a bit male-orientated and Gillette would probably not approve, but I would regard it as a traditional social ritual.
There have never been more wines and beers claiming to offer all the taste but no alcohol. Has this impossible dream become a reality?
But first, a fowl digression
For many years now, I have been involved with brands and products that offer ‘all of this, but none of that’. Brands that look good in a marketing presentation (and I’ve written a few of them) but ultimately fail to convince the consumer – and to survive.
For example, many years ago, I was at the lavish launch of the ‘Churkey’ at the Cafe Royal, London. A chicken that had somehow become the size of a turkey, this monstrous beast provided lots of easy-to-carve breast meat, but very little bone. It was just what the consumer had been waiting for.
Except it wasn’t. I took one home at the weekend and my Mother threw it away soon after cooking it. And she never threw food away. Yes, it was indeed fowl and not surprisingly, the Churkey never saw Christmas. To this day, the descendants of escapees are said to roam East Anglia, waddling across fields, scaring ramblers and injuring sheep.
More recently, I was involved with developing and launching a reduced-alcohol wine (called Sovio). This used spinning cone column technology to reduce the alcohol content of wine, while maintaining all the wine characteristics, including flavour (or so the story went). To cut to the chase: the entire first batch, sitting proudly in a vast semi-derelict Victorian warehouse in Huddersfield, was impounded by the Wine Standards Authority (part of the Food Standards Agency) on the grounds of illegality. The business never recovered: but it was very clear then and now that there is latent consumer demand and trade interest – provided that the ‘all the taste, none of the alcohol’ proposition can be delivered. So, can it?
Let’s hear it for the beers
I have made it my mission to taste as many of the new alcohol-free products as possible. In the process, I am hoping that I will become alcohol-free myself – or at least, a much more moderate drinker. To start with, I have focussed on what is available in three retailers - Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury and Tesco – as they have been promoting their alcohol-free ranges with a new degree of confidence. This confidence may be partly due to the greater use of ‘new’ technology to reduce alcohol (the spinning cone referred to above), which has some claim to improving taste and quality, but I will put that to one side for now.
Let’s start with beer. Beer producers have become increasingly bullish about alcohol-free beer of late and sales have been increasing rapidly. For example, Heineken 0% has recently invested in TV advertising – to ‘make alcohol-free beer cool’, according to their agency, Publicis. Back in 1986, Guinness launched Kaliber (alcohol-free beer) on exactly the same basis . However, anyone who remembers it will surely agree with Which magazine, which described it as ‘bitter and unrefreshing’. My view is that coolness cannot be separated from taste.
And the good news is that many of the new alcohol-free beers do actually taste like beer. Amongst the ales, Ghost Ship 0.5% has an eerie resemblance to the real thing, as does Marks & Spencer Southwold Pale Ale 0.5%. Both are brewed by Adnams, and are remarkably similar. They were a revelation to me and I’ll be drinking more of them.
The secret seems to be the heavy use of hops to mask the lack of alcohol and they’ve gone for that fashionable IPA American hops sort of taste, resulting in the tang and flavour reminiscent of ‘real’ beer. In a 500ml bottle, both beers look and perform much like a real pint – as long as you don’t over-think it - and are worthy of consideration by any ale drinker wanting to cut down a bit. Brewdog’s Nanny State is in a similar style and is also more than acceptable – but in a smaller 330ml bottle.
However, Old Speckled Hen Low Alcohol (0.5%) is a great disappointment. Its proposition is apologetic to start with, claiming taste and aroma that are merely ‘evocative’ of the full-strength variant. To my palate, it’s nowhere close and not even particularly pleasant. It does a great disservice to such a trusted parent brand.
The lagers impressed me, too. Ales have strong malts and hops to lean on for flavour, whereas lager relies more on alcoholic strength, meaning that reducing alcohol also reduces flavour. And as mentioned earlier, expectations are low in the first place, having been managed by Kaliber and Barbican (both launched in the 80s).
So both Beck’s Blue Alcohol-Free and Budweiser Prohibition Alcohol-Free were a real surprise. Beck’s in particular had all the crisp flavour, fizzy mouth-feel and slightly bitter after-taste of standard lager. That ‘fizzing behind the eyeballs’ characteristic of strong lager is absent, but otherwise, properly-chilled, these are excellent alternatives to full-strength lager. And by properly-chilled, I do mean very, very cold indeed. What's more, Beck's Blue contains only natural ingredients (malt, barley, hops and water) and has a third of the calories of normal beer.
Let’s whine about the wine
For many years, alcohol-free wine has been the poor relative of full-strength wine. And I mean the sort of relative whose name is never mentioned, even at Christmas. For good reason: to get from 14% down to 5% or below is asking a lot – and flavour is almost always lost with the alcohol, along with body and what we wine experts like to call ‘finish’ or ‘length’. As a result, it is usually little more than fruit juice. Until now, we are led to believe.
Unfortunately, my experience with all the alcohol-free wines I have tasted this week has been slightly disappointing. But there are some positives. First, they are pleasant to drink: all are a massive improvement on any alcohol-free wine I have tasted before and at the very least, they offer a superior standard of fruit juice. Second, they at least look like wine: all the packaging cues suggest good quality wine. And thirdly, at around £3 per 75cl bottle, they are significantly cheaper than even the most basic normal-strength wine (as they should be – there is £2 duty on a full-strength bottle of wine).
Perhaps I am being picky. Maybe these are wines to be quaffed, swilled or gulped (my normal method), not sipped, rolled around the palate and analysed. On that basis, the alcohol-free whites and rosés – whilst way too sweet for my palate – would undoubtedly be drunk in volume, without question, by just about anyone - if the weather were hot enough and the liquid cold enough. For the barbecue season, these could be real winners. The Tesco low alcohol Garnacha-Rosé (fruity and sweet) and Rawsons Retreat Semillion Chardonnay (crisp and citrus-like), both at 0.5%, are recommended on this basis.
The Marks & Spencer Sauvignon Blanc (0.05%) was a poor third. It had the best aroma of any of the wines I tried – comparable with any Sauvignon Blanc, I’d say - but is otherwise little more than an extremely pleasant fruit drink.
The biggest challenge must be red wine. More complex and substantial than white or rosé, this is the province of most wine connoisseurs and their poor relations, red-trousered wine snobs. So I was a little surprised to find some reasonable contenders which, while you would never mistake them for the real thing, are much closer to it than previous efforts. The top tips here are to give them some air – both of the following ‘wines’ improved massively overnight after the bottle had been opened – and to serve them at a cool room temperature.
Tesco low alcohol Cabernet Tempranillo and Sainsbury Taste the Difference Cabernet Sauvignon (both 0.5%) were not unpleasant: medium-bodied, smooth and fruity – but with no ‘finish’ or ‘length’. It is hard to imagine that anyone who has ever drunk red wine would mistake these for anything but a very poor relation. The experts say that expectations should be lowered for alcohol-free wine – but this should not be the case if the promise of ‘no compromise on taste’ is to be delivered.
As I’ve discovered whilst researching this piece, there is a lot going on in this market. This is great news and I will continue my research. I am genuinely delighted to have found alcohol-free beers that I can happily swill. And with fewer calories, lower cost and no artificial ingredients, there is no excuse not to keep swilling. As for the wine equivalent – my search continues.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised by this article, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Review of Glenn Tillbrook. St John's Church, Farncombe, November 7th 2018
Glenn Tillbrook’s solo performance in an atmospheric St John’s Church demonstrated a rare breadth of talent which was greatly appreciated by a sell-out audience. The writer of songs that are catchy and smart, he not only sings beautifully – his clear, distinctive voice seemingly untroubled by 40 years on the road – but also embellishes those songs with creative and dextrous guitar solos.
As part of Squeeze, the band he formed in the 1970s with Chris Difford and Jools Holland, Tillbrook has been responsible for many highly-acclaimed hit songs. The evening’s set also included selections from his own impressive back catalogue.
After a tolerably short opening set from his son Leon, Tillbrook senior bounds on stage to an enthusiastic reception, opening with the infectious ‘Ter-wit Ter-woo’, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar. ‘Do we roll? Yes we do’ he sings – and the audience is clearly in no mood to disagree. Squeeze songs are not forgotten and the audience particularly enjoy Up The Junction, the moving Labelled With Love and From the Cradle To The Grave, written for the recent TV series.
Switching to his Fender Telecaster, he makes a number of cover songs his own, including the Bacharach and David classic Always Something There To Remind Me. These preface more Squeeze songs, including Slap And Tickle and Pulling Mussels From The Shell, which enable us to appreciate the sheer inventiveness and fluidity of his solo guitar work. He closes with the mini-drama of a song that is Tempted.
As an encore, Tillbrook is re-joined by his son to perform an impressive version of the Fleetwood Mac classic, Oh Well. They are joined by the audience for two early Squeeze favourites, Take Me I’m Yours and Goodbye Girl. Did he roll? He most certainly did - raising funds for foodbank charity the Trussell Trust into the bargain.
As published in the Surrey Advertiser, 16.11.18
Photo by Peter Earle