In early March, after a boozy February, I’m hoping that this year will finally see some permanent changes in my drinking habits – after all, it’s never been easier.
For a while back there, I almost didn’t want to start drinking again.
The dramatic fall in my Fitbit’s resting heartbeat rating brooked no argument. It’s never been that low before. I felt fantastic. I’d lost a stone in weight. And thanks to the best range of alcohol-free beers I’ve ever seen, I didn’t often feel like I’d stopped drinking beer.
People can get defensive in conversations about how much you drink. The hysteria and lies from the anti-alcohol lobby represent a gross and disgraceful distortion of the facts surrounding the scale of the problem they supposedly care about, but that doesn’t change the fact that working near alcohol can pose a danger of you don’t stay in control of it. 14 units a week may be an utterly ludicrous weekly ‘guideline’ with no basis whatsoever in fact or research, but that doesn’t change the fact that 100 units a week is too much.
Unlike the lower figure, that higher one is not plucked from thin air with no justification: it’s a figure I exceeded every week when I kept a units diary through November and December. I know various people who won’t keep a diary of their alcohol consumption because they’re too scared to see the results. I’d suggest that’s the best possible reason to keep one.
I’ve written a lot about the pros and cons of Dry January before. I don’t need to justify yet again why I do it, and why I’ve done it for twenty years now. But I thought this year’s observations might be useful.
For most of us, alcohol is largely benign – yes, really. As young adults we experiment, we feel the exhilaration. We go too far. And then, when we get older, we modify. Many people I speak to have kids, and that’s when their consumption falls dramatically. Liz and I never did, and we’re happy with that. Many people find the responsibility of work to be a counter to their drinking. I find work to be an active driver of my drinking.
I love booze and I plan on never giving it up. As I write this, I’m half-cut, in the zone where the typing is sloppy but the words flow freely and I feel the weight in them as I write them, rather than tossing them off casually. I love drinking. I love alcohol. I love it so much that I still drink it like I did when I was in my mid-twenties. I’m now 51, and looking to make some careful changes.
Yeah, so Dry January made me feel fantastic, a much-needed reset, and fuck anyone on either side of the debate around alcohol who has a problem with that.
But this year, I want some of that for the rest of the year too. I have said this before and failed. I don’t want to fail again.
February was booze-soaked and brilliant, but I was alarmed at how shitty the mornings were, remembering the clarity of January. If you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do Dry January because I drink in moderation all year round,” good for you – I want to be more like you. But I spend way more of my time in pubs and around beer than you do, and the temptation, the tendency, the titillation, to drink rather than not to drink is there every single day.
That’s why the advent of ranges of beer that taste just like beer but have none of the alcohol has been so brilliant. That’s why I didn’t just get through this year’s Dry January; I actively enjoyed it. And it’s why I hope to take some of the behaviour with me through the rest of the year.
I’ve found that if you can go to a pub and drink something that tastes like a really good beer, by the pint, and it only contains 0.5% alcohol, you still get a social buzz. To those who take to social media to whine defensively that there’s no point drinking beer if you can’t get pissed from it: you’re wrong. All I want from a first pint is the sense of reward, the weight of it in my hand, the coolness spreading through my skin, and then the whiff of hops on the nose before a greedy glug, wondering how much of the pint I’m going to do on one go, the dust-destroying hit of bubbles at the back of the throat, exorcising the stress of the day. If you can deliver that, it doesn’t matter what the ABV is. And given that that pint is getting destroyed in about fifteen minutes, it’s better all round if it’s low ABV.
I now do drink-free days regularly, and I go to the pub anyway. I’ve had a few sessions where I’ve been drinking nothing but AF pints. The buzz, the warmth, the opening up, are all still there. The only difference is, after three pints I feel like I’ve done the evening, got all I want from it, and I go home. When I’m drinking alcohol, this tends to be the point where conversations enter loops. Drunk, or even tipsy, we might enjoy going round them again. Sober, an early night appeals. Both are fine in their own right. Either would get boring for me if that’s all I did.
So I’m writing this in support of AF beer and cider becoming part of my life and yours on a year-round basis. If I could have the nights I had in January three or four nights a week year round, and the nights I used to have all the time before then three or four nights a week year round, that would be perfect. Maybe you do, and I’m happy for you. But if, like me, you spend most of your time in and around pubs and beer, here are five AF drinks that – if you can find them – will give you sober days without making you feel like you’re missing out.
Brooklyn Special Effects
I’ve drunk my body weight in this recently. We ordered it from Ocado by the case when it was on promotion for £1 a bottle. You simply forget you’re not drinking full-strength beer – it tastes better than most 4% or 5% beers I’ve tried recently. A remarkable feat.
BrewDog Hazy AF
Punk AF isn’t bad either. But once you nail the flavour (and lack of off-flavours) in AF beer, the one deficiency most of them still have is that the lack of alcohol makes them feel thin on the palate. The lactose, oats or whatever else brewers add to make hazy beers feel thick and smooth counteracts that here, giving a satisfying mouthfeel as well as a very ‘now’ flavour profile.
Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher
Not a beer at all, but a soda water with the same hop addition they use in Lagunitas IPA. OK, so it’s not available in the UK yet because of cost and price point issues, but I was chugging this every day when I was in California last year and brought bottles back in my case at the expense of leaving some very nice IPAs behind.
Andechs Weissbeer Alcohol Free
See BrewDog Hazy AF above – if you prefer a weissbier to a hazy boi, the same thing applies here – the weight of the body is no different from a normal weissbier, making this feel and taste like there’s no compromise at all. Erdinger AF is not bad, but this one is really, really good. Imported by Euroboozer.
I delight in telling my friends at Heineken that this tastes no different from normal full-strength Heineken. They can’t work out whether I’m praising the AF version or dissing the full-strength one. Or both. It’s never going to be a beer you love, but if you find yourself stuck with a mainstream selection, this is a massive improvement on Becks Blue and all the rest.
Honourable mentions also go to Adnams Ghost Ship 0.5%, Thornbridge Zero Five, Lucky Saint, and the whole Big Drop range.
Really good AF drink are still difficult to find – hopefully this will change soon. But if you want to stock up at home, Dry Drinker have the biggest range. If you want to find places that stock decent drinks while you’re out, Club Soda have got your back.