The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Dry January: Why you should give non-alcoholic beer another chance this month

Until now, beer lovers have become accustomed to getting their booze-free fix with a side of disappointment

Jo Turner
Thursday 17 January 2019 18:11 GMT
Six surprising health benefits of drinking beer

Dry January and Sober October have become firm fixtures in the UK calendar. The public health campaigns captured our imaginations because we have become a nation of habitual drinkers. So much so, that the idea of going for a month without booze is apparently – for some of us – out of the ordinary enough to raise money for charity.

Beyond the admirable fundraising initiatives, there’s a call to consumers to consider their lifestyles and the myriad benefits that can come from 30-odd days off: more energy, better sleep, lower blood pressure, improved mood… not to mention the financial benefits.

The movements have seen remarkable growth: Alcohol Change UK kicked off Dry January in 2012 with 4,000 participants. This year an estimated 4.2 million people have pledged not to touch a drop until February; 1.1 million more than in 2018.

Taking a break seems to create habits that last: six months after giving Dry January a go, participants’ average number of drinking days, units per session and “frequency of drunkenness” were all lower than before the challenge – whether or not they got through the whole thing.

But as the downward trend for alcohol consumption in the UK – especially among young people – continues, it’s useful to have real alternatives. There’s a risk of losing the social aspect of drinking, and our beloved pubs are already closing at an alarming rate.

While the drinks industry has moved fast to provide mocktails, sodas and even healthy green juices, beer fans have – until fairly recently – often found themselves somewhat bereft.

Thankfully the days of the lonely old bottle of Becks Blue are coming to an end. There’s a new generation of non-alcoholic brewers and the category is catching up.

It’s been hailed as the biggest beer trend since craft brewing, but it’s also an extension of that scene. The UK has seen the launch of three dedicated low-alcohol craft breweries within the last couple of years: Nirvana, Big Drop and Infinite Session; all of which aim to shake off preconceptions and produce bold, flavourful modern styles.

Infinite Session is an ‘unapolagetically alcohol-free’ east London-based craft brewery that launched at the end of February last year
Infinite Session is an ‘unapolagetically alcohol-free’ east London-based craft brewery that launched at the end of February last year

Meanwhile UK brands like Adnams and Thornbridge have brought alcohol-free offerings to the table, following the enduring popularity of Brewdog’s Nanny State. And small beer – a 17th century style typically between 0.5 and 2.8 per cent ABV – has seen a resurgence; craft favourites Wiper and True and Siren each have one on the market, and Small Beer Brew Co opened last year in Bermondsey.

So why has booze-free beer’s popularity lagged behind for so long, particularly compared with how well it sells on the Continent?

Dan Pavey, an organiser of Heist Bank Beer Festival in Paddington which last year hosted its first alcohol-free tasting, says it’s partly to do with the more food-oriented European drinking culture, and partly to do with the brewing process.

“Until recently these beers were made by either heating the finished beer to evaporate the alcohol, or by using very fine filter to remove it,” he says. “Both processes strip a great deal of flavour from the final product.

The results have tended to be overly sweet and malty, or lacking in body entirely. But for more modern styles brewers have improved by the taste by picking strains of yeast that produce less alcohol, or blending different grains that create less fermentable sugars, so the brew really does come out at 0.5 per cent ABV or thereabouts – and nothing needs to be removed from the product.

The real problem in the UK is cultural, believes Infinite Session co-founder Chris Hannaway. And it’s a culture that comes from above. “The legislation in places like Germany has been kinder – the government has commissioned more [campaigns] into 0.5 per cent beer being safer for drivers and pregnant women,” he says.

Tom (far left) and Chris (far right) Hannaway with their partner brewers at Sambrook’s
Tom (far left) and Chris (far right) Hannaway with their partner brewers at Sambrook’s

“Brewers have been slower to catch on here and it always has to be an industry-led thing, I think. You can’t just completely expect consumers to demand it outright.”

Chris and his brother Tom, with whom he launched the “unapologetically alcohol-free” brand last year, are all about moderation, and have “flex-sobers” – people like themselves who enjoy a full-strength brew, but also want the option of taking a break without compromising on flavour – in mind.

“For us in creating the brand it’s about completely ignoring any stigma, and almost turning a blind eye to it,” says Chris.

“You don’t have to drink it because you can’t drink alcohol,” adds Tom. “It can be a positive choice.”

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Their beers are dry and bitter, crisp and refreshing, without that aforementioned malty sweetness. And the taste of non-alcoholic beer is continuing to improve as brands from within and without the UK (special mention to Danish craft powerhouse Mikkeller here) develop and hone their techniques and shake off the bland old stereotype.

The focus now, says Chris, is making sure the category finally gets a fair chance.

Five new-wave low- and no-alcohol beers to try

Infinite Session IPA – 0.5% ABV

Cascade and Amarillo hops give this the bold bitterness you’d expect from an IPA, with a good backbone provided by six different grains.

Big Drop Stout – 0.5% ABV

The Ipswich brewery has made waves since its stout dropped in November 2016, so start with the original. There’s hints of coffee, vanilla and cocoa here with roasted malt character.

Nirvana Karma – 0.5% ABV

The first dedicated non-alcoholic craft brewery in the UK has an expanding selection which even includes a beer cut with kombucha, if that’s your thing. Karma pale ale keeps it simple with light hops and citrus.

Brewdog Nanny State – 0.5% ABV

Love or hate Brewdog and its marketing campaigns, it can’t be denied that Nanny State gave the non-alcoholic sector a jolt. Brewed in response to complaints about its higher-ABV beers, this one comes with notes of citrus and pine.

Small Beer Brew Co Dark Lager – 1.0% ABV

Bermondsey-based Small Beer Brew Co looks back in time to the low-strength beers that were enjoyed as part of daily life in 18th century Britain, when alcohol was a safer bet than water. For its coffee and chocolate notes, the dark lager is still highly refreshing.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in