When the pint of zero is your only man



With deregulation of our licensing laws about to come into force — allowing some pubs and clubs to serve alcohol until the sun comes up, and the getting of a pub licence a lot easier — the fact is we are still a nation of heavy drinkers.

The most recent data from Dr Deirdre Morgan, research officer at the Health Research Board (HRB), shows that, while alcohol consumption in Ireland has plateaued since 2013, we rank ninth among OECD countries in consumption and eighth in the world when it comes to binge drinking.

That said, figures show there is a new era of the ‘sober curious’; the apparently ever-growing movement of people exploring what life could look like alcohol-free. For those who constitute Generation Z, it’s mocktails not cocktails, and zero beer the new buzz word.

For years, non-alcoholic beer required a sacrifice: to lose the high, you also had to lose the flavour. But that has changed in recent times. For beer fans who want the deep flavours of stout and lagers (and the popular IPAs) without the baggage of alcohol, the new brews are almost hitting the spot. According to my local, friendly publican, the shift is due to a culmination of factors, including “innovations in vacuum evaporation, filtration and other techniques that let brewers extract alcohol from beer while leaving its flavour largely intact”.

I’ve tried Guinness Zero and some lagers and they are pretty good, taste-wise, the bottled Erdinger and Becks being my favourites.

Social media finds feeds in which people in their late 20s or early 30s announce they are embarking on sobriety journeys of their own. Not because of what might traditionally be perceived as a drinking problem but simply because, health-wise, they’ve decided they’re better off without. In many case the gym is the new pub.

While the phrase ‘sober curiosity’ gained popularity in 2018, this change in drinking habits can be traced further back. Dr Amy Pennay, a senior research fellow at La Trobe University’s Centre for Alcohol Policy in Melbourne, monitors global alcohol consumption. “In rich countries we are certainly seeing a decline in young people drinking,” Dr Pennay told the Guardian. But this is not unique to the past few years.

Adolescent alcohol consumption has, since the turn of the millennium, been in decline. “The US was the first place to peak, back in 1999,” the Australian scientist says. “In Iceland, Sweden and Scandinavia, the reduction started in 2001. Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand followed, before most of Europe by the mid-2000s had caught up.” (Alcohol is an important source of annual tax revenues, in Ireland €1,250 million. In Japan, ironically, the government has launched a competition to boost drinking among its youth).

Historically, when alcohol consumption changes it’s mirrored in all parts of a country’s population. Yet, in Ireland and elsewhere, older people are continuing to drink, while with young people it’s declining.

Future-wise, what this new culture means for the pub and alcohol industry is anyone’s guess. The pandemic has already cast its toll on many once-famous watering holes. And the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) is warning that the deregulation will result in widespread closures of rural pubs. That the new Sale of Alcohol Bill could lead to the ‘homogenisation’ of pubs that remain, leading to the death of the world-renowned Irish bar.

My Uncle Tommy gave me my first bottle of stout at age 14. Three years later I entered that sanctuary that is the public bar, joining old men lost in familiar, old overcoats guarding their pints and chasers. I have since then, hands up, consumed my fair share of the stuff, in recent years to the point of damaging my health. Indeed my halcyon days in the newspaper trade saw many a source disclose facts in exchange for drink in the dark recesses of the nearby bar.

All these years on, I see the significance of that first bottle of stout from my Uncle Tommy. And even more so the significance of the first drink on any given occasion. The first one is the one that matters; the one that gives you that emotional buzz. All subsequent drinks are fruitless attempts to recreate that ‘hit’ to the system. In my bad years I was constantly seeking that elusive bigger high.

Seemingly, Gen Z are getting their high elsewhere. In the gyms, in the coffee bars.

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