When you've decided to cut out or cut down your alcohol consumption, a Coke or sparkling water just doesn't do it if your mates are on the beers. Lee Suckling's found the ultimate alternative.
You probably think beer without alcohol is like coffee without caffeine. It's the sad version of the real thing, the tasteless one to look down on, right?
Wrong. Since I stopped getting drunk this winter, I've fallen in love with non-alcoholic beer.
Much of our culture revolves around alcoholic beverages. When it's cold we cuddle up with a hearty red wine or a frothy stein; in summer we love to crack open rosé amongst mates or take it on dates.
Without that social lubricant, social affairs are more brief and less fun. I find myself socially stunted and more likely to notice the awkward silences and the embarrassing verbal missteps. When you're not drinking there's a feeling of isolation as well (not to mention the fact you have to swat away questions on WHY you're not drinking).
I've always thought teetotallers would have less-than-desirable social lives. Alcohol is the glue that often binds friends together – without it, we're just people sitting around talking about the banalities of our lives. But it's not actually the alcohol content in the beverages that makes these experiences worthwhile. It's the joy you get from a shared experience.
Yet drinking a Coke or sparkling water just doesn't cut it when others are on the beers. There's no satisfaction in fizzy. Soft drinks are very difficult to nurse. They're not made for sipping or savouring; they are for gulping.
Whenever I've been out with friends and they are slowly getting buzzed from their wines but I'm on Coke Zero, my glass seems to be self-emptying. I'm always left pushing that final centimetre of diet cola around melted ice cubes with my straw, ever-conscious that if I finish my drink, my hands will have nothing to do.
This is where non-alcoholic beer comes in. Firstly – just like decaf coffee – it pretty much tastes the same as regular beer. I enjoy light Italian lagers, like Peroni, so have been buying Moretti Zero – it's 0.05 per cent alcohol and honestly, I can't tell the difference. Non-alcoholic beer like this is easy to sip slowly. Steinlager drinkers might prefer the Barbican Special Edition. And Heineken 0.0 speaks for itself. Nobody knows you're drinking a different beverage from them, so there are no questions, either.
I mentioned the need to do something with your hands when you're socialising. I don't know why it's so tricky to engage with other people without something resting between your fingers, but it is. It's comforting to be holding a green glass bottle like a safety blanket (in the same way people enjoy holding a cigarette, which is why "social smoking" is still so popular). It's a non-verbal communication to others that you are "one of them".
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The main reason why non-alcoholic beer is such a good idea is simple. What it really gives you is what's called a "contact high". It's a psychological phenomenon in which sober people have the joyousness of the drunk people around them transferred to them, without their lips touching the alcohol itself. With a non-alcoholic beer as a symbol of bonding, I find I get at least 90 per cent of the pleasure of social drinking. I absorb the ambience in a way not possible with soft drinks. Non-alcoholic beer's malt flavour slows your intake. The key difference from real booze being I'm not smashed at the end.
I will admit, I have fallen off the wagon during my non-drunken winter at a couple of dinner parties, including one at my own house when I didn't have to drive home. I got caught up in the gratification of sharing a bottle of wine (or, er, three) with others and quickly found myself a little hammered. But what came to my rescue halfway through? Good old alcohol-free lager. I switched to it while tipsy, continued to enjoy the high of drinking with friends and actually felt like I was getting drunker and drunker, but in actuality had completely sobered up by the end of the night. The non-alcoholic drink stopped me from bingeing, but not from having fun.
Non-alcoholic beer isn't sad or pointless. It's bloody brilliant. It's the icebreaker most of us need. It makes you feel comfortable in social situations because you are part of the culture, and thankfully lots of bars and restaurants are now stocking versions of it. The only reason you should be questioning booze-free beer is if you're strictly a wine drinker, and you're wondering where on earth the alcohol-free bottles of grape-based plonk are.