Sunday 30 January 2022

The unlicenced off-licence

Continuing my theme of finishing off Dryanuary, last week's tasting at the Club Soda pop-up shop* was an interesting experience - and also a reminder of just how mixed-up AF attitudes can be. It has the feel of an off-licence, with wine, beer and spirits sections, yet contains almost no alcohol, the drinks being between 0.0% and 0.5% ABV. 

Just as the shop resembles an off-licence but isn't one, the drinks trade people I met there described some of the odd things that arise when assumptions about "beer" collide with not actually being alcoholic. 

For one, it was a big bonus - at least, it is in his company's US market. One of the legacies of Prohibition is that brewers can't normally sell direct to the public outside their taprooms, but must instead go through distributors. However well this was intended, it has become hugely distorting - in some cases, small brewers with their own bars downtown have to sell their beer to a distributor, then buy it back at an inflated price! 

When you add in the fact that some of those distributors are now under the control of big brewing groups, you can see how distorting this can be. Yet this being the outwardly puritanical USA, and with this system favouring the big brewers, getting rid of these rules is very hard.

But if you brew AF beer, those rules don't apply. Johnny, who reps in the UK for Connecticut's Athletic Brewing Co, explained that during lockdown, Athletic was able to sell by post where many others weren't. Similarly, US retailers are not allowed to import alcohol themselves, but must work through distributors, but AF products aren't restricted in the same way, so AF bottle shops can more readily offer a global range. 

Others had tales of opposite problems. For example, one of the Lucky Saint reps noted that Amazon still demands proof of ID/age when delivering AF beer. In fact, Amazon came up in discussion a number of times as a company that has difficulty recognising that AF beer is not actually an age-gated product. There's also problems with some social media platforms auto-deleting AF beer posts, presumably because their algorithms are too stupid to do more than go, "Mmm, beeeeer!" like some braindead robot Homer Simpson. 

And there's possible problems with UK regulations, with elements within the government trying to move towards a ban on 0.5% beers being labelled alcohol-free - even though several soft drinks can also contain up to 0.5% but will still be able to carry their AF label. 

There's even the suggestion that AF beers should have age limits and carry the "don't drink alcohol in pregnancy" warning! I fear this could well be the pernicious influence of the nannies, neo-prohibitionists and killjoys of the anti-alcohol fake charities. 

It's something to watch out for, anyhow - and it's going to be counter-productive if, like the AF drinks business, you want people to carry on drinking nice drinks but to drink less alcohol in the process. As Club Soda's Laura (right) pointed out, the bigger market share held by AF beer in countries such as Germany and Spain "didn’t happen by accident – all the relevant organisations there aligned on [supporting and promoting] it."

*Open until the end of February 2022. 

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