Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
"We're pro-pub,” says Club Soda's cheerful Laura Willoughby as we're introduced. This instantly brings a smile to my face. I’ve long been opposed to what I like to call the neo-prohibitionist movement. A lobby of various organisations that want to tighten legislation on alcohol. The intentions of this movement varies wildly - from the introduction of minimum pricing and more detailed information of potential health risks on packaging to, at its most extreme, outright bans on alcohol. As you’d expect, I am opposed to a great deal of this.
When I arrived at Mother Kelly’s for a low and no alcohol beer tasting hosted by beer expert Dani Neal I wasn’t sure what to expect. I already knew Dani quite well but I hadn’t heard of Club Soda before. With my opinion on temperance groups quite clear in my head I can't honestly say I approached the evening with a positive attitude. That is until I met the smiling Willoughby. “One of the biggest hurdles to changing your drinking is thinking you'll have to give up your social life, I don’t think that's the case.” She continues, “We run our socials and events in pubs, so you can see its just about different choices and new experiences.”
“I don’t believe in telling people what to do, so its up to you to set your goal whether you want to cut-down, stop for a bit, quit or stick.”
We’re lucky that we can enjoy alcohol with freedom as a regular part of our lives. It can often pay to remember that. I’ve known people who haven’t been so lucky. These have ranged from people who were unable to control their habits to people who just got sick of the way alcohol made them feel – both during and after drinking it. If I’d known about Club Soda before this tasting, then I’d have felt confidence in recommending something that could’ve been of real value to these individuals.
Willoughby smiles as she recounts her own experience, “I gave up drinking 3 years ago - I was great at it! But in the process of quitting I realised there was nothing to support people who wanted to take a self-guided journey to change their drinking.” She radiates positive vibes as she tells her story. As she does so I watch the varied group assemble to receive Dani’s tutored tasting. The staff then bring out our first beer, Beck’s Blue, things can only improve from here.
That was the point though, Beck’s Blue is an utterly dross, uninspiring, pseudo beer that litters fridges in pubs across the country. There has to be something better than this. Thankfully there is, and we were about to taste them. Half of tonight’s beers were billed as alcohol free while the other half weighed in at less than 3% ABV.
Brewdog’s Nanny State didn’t fare much better than the Beck’s, despite being its opposite. It was far too bitter for a beer of such a low strength, or at least it was for me. From those who weren’t accustomed to regularly enjoying high gravity beers came smiles and murmurs of contentment. It’s nice to see a beer being appreciated when put in the right context.
Of the no alcohol beers two really shone through to the point where they almost took me by surprise. Beer is so much a part of life in Germany that alcohol-free beers are treated much the same as soft drinks. In fact Erdinger’s ‘Alkoholfrei’ is billed as a ‘refreshing isotonic drink’ on its label. Remedial qualities aside it was a decent drop, not terribly exciting but a world apart from Beck’s Blue. The Rothaus Alkoholfrei lager was another story, here was a beer that I already knew I liked a great deal in its alcohol rich form. To my delight it was just as satisfyingly snappy and herbal here in its alcohol-free form. It tasted like a great pilsner, I wasn’t surprised to hear that it’s Mother Kelly’s best selling alcohol-free beer.
There were some surprises to be had from the low alcohol beers too, although sadly not from Bad Seed’s Berliner Weisse. I thought I detected the faint scent of butyric acid on my first sniff but went in for a second just to be sure. Yep, baby sick. I shared my concerns with the staff who agreed and immediately took the beer off. However the rest of the group, who had already been served, merrily tucked into it, perhaps slightly unsure if they were meant to be enjoying what they tasted.
It wasn’t all bad news though. Weird Beard’s Dark Hopfler, a lactose infused dark beer made with the second runnings of their imperial stout was a delight as always. At least I enjoyed it, a few in the group found it too bitter and taking a step back I could see why. Dark Hopfler is an intensely flavoured beer for one so weak – it’s absolutely mega though.
“One of the biggest hurdles to changing your drinking is thinking you'll have to give up your social life, I don’t think that's the case.”
We were also treated to Jester King’s Petit Prince, a 2.8% ‘farmhouse table beer’ from the Austin, Texas based brewery. We don’t often see Jester King beer in the UK so I lapped up the opportunity to try this one. It was excellent, full of complexity and subtle, tart nuances that recalled similar style beers of a much higher strength such as Orval. It wasn’t just me that liked it though, it seemed to bring a smile to the face of nearly everyone sat around the table. Perhaps its champagne-like effervescence brought with it some kind of familiarity. Either way it proved that it’s a style that would no doubt do well in the UK if it was more prevalent.
To finish we sampled a pair of beers from Mikkeller called Drink’in The Sun. One sat at 0.3% ABV, the other at 1.4% and I found them both to be a bit style over substance, all mouth and no trousers etc. However once again the remainder of the group appreciated the zesty, citrus flavours, despite it having little to no body to speak of.
As the tasting drew to a close I asked Laura what she hoped to achieve with Club Soda. “I want people to feel this is a trusted place to come for information and support and that you can connect with other people on the same journey.” She goes on, “You will only know how to deal with persistent mates trying to get you to have a pint if you can get advice from others that have been there and done that.” She also pointed out that as well as being focussed on great tasting low and no alcohol beers that she was a huge fan of modern soft drinks producers such as Square Root Soda and Dalston Cola.
Willoughby finishes by saying “I don’t believe in telling people what to do, so its up to you to set your goal whether you want to cut-down, stop for a bit, quit or stick.” I was certainly impressed with a modern, pro pub attitude that most certainly wasn’t anti-alcohol. Organisations like Club Soda have an important role to play to ensure that pubs and bars are seen as social hubs for everyone, not just drinkers of alcohol. In fact, it’s the kind of forward thinking the industry needs to ensure that pubs and bars remain an important part of our social makeup for decades to come.
Club Soda and Dani Neal plan to run another low and no alcohol tasting in October. Keep an eye on their website for details.