"I do feel a sense of freedom from not drinking anymore, because it took up so much brain space," said Laura Willoughby at London's Mindful Drinking Festival, an event founded to suggest that you don't need to be paralytic to have a good time. "It's been the best decision of my life."
Alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. Granted, The Simpsons said it first, and it's a phrase that now adorns the fridges and kitchen walls of every member of your mum's Echo Falls mafia, but that doesn't make it any less true. Booze has been my fiercest demon over the years; I've burned many bridges thanks to my inability to stop putting drinks away when I should.
Check every alcohol statistic from the last couple of years and you'll see I'm not alone: lots of people seem to believe that regularly poisoning yourself for fun isn't such a good idea. In a survey by Drink Monitor, almost a fifth of respondents said they were changing their drinking behaviours, while at least two-fifths have utilised planning methods to cut down, with older drinkers sticking to old-fashioned restraint and millennials being more likely to avoid alcohol altogether.
In fact, there's been a sharp rise in teetotallers generally. According to the Office of National Statistics, there are over 2 million teetotal adults in London – 30 percent of the adult population – while nationwide it's 20.9 percent. This trend only seems to be catching on, as you'll know from the endless reports of Gen-Z (16 to 24-year-olds) supposedly swapping Stella for sobriety
A decade ago, an event like the Mindful Drinking Festival (MDF) might have been derided as some kind of puritanical love-in. But today, in this climate, in makes perfect sense. Run by Club Soda – which describes itself as a "mindful drinking movement" – the festival at Spitalfields Market this past weekend was busy with people trying the various alcohol-free drinks on offer.
"I started Club Soda because I gave up drinking six years ago and I wanted to [provide] something for people to join that would change their drinking habits in whatever way they wanted, whether to cut down, take a break or go alcohol-free," explained co-founder, Laura Willoughby. "We now have 20,000 members. What we found was that our members still wanted to go to restaurants and pubs, but felt like they were treated – especially by pubs – as they were idiots, when really they were paying customers."
At MDF, those paying customers ambled through the cul-de-sac of stalls, tasting concoctions that – to me – mostly tasted like conspicuously hollow versions of fruity, fizzy cocktails. One brand whose drinks I did enjoy, though, was Punchy, who were selling alcohol-free rum and ginger cocktails (they also had alcoholic versions on display, but weren't allowed to sell them at the event).
"Our approach is getting a balance between non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks – it's important not to position ourselves as a binge drinking brand or a teetotal brand," explained co-founder Paddy C-B. "At the Henley Regatta, for example, we sold about 600 alcoholic drinks and 300 non-alcoholic ones. I think it's boosted by the fact that people are always posting on social media, so there is a pressure to look good and stay healthy, and that feeds into it. I think that's why there are so many brands here today."
There did seem to be a huge amount of brands peddling their wares at the festival. Heineken were selling their "0.0" alcohol-free beer, Gordon's were pushing their 0.5 percent gin and tonic cocktails, and there were a whole load of independent wine, champagne, beer and even stout manufacturers to sample. None of this should come as a surprise, really: the low or no alcohol market is an increasingly lucrative one. According to analysis firm Kantar Worldpanel, sales of beer and cider with under 1.2 percent alcohol rose by nearly 30 percent in 2017, compared to 2015, while zero-alcohol wine sales were up 8 percent.
Personally, I'm not sold quite yet. It was strange spending all day drinking stuff that made my brain sizzle with the promise of being pissed, but didn't get me pissed. Maybe this is my alcoholism talking, but all the drinks were a bit lifeless. The Heineken tasted like beer water, the Gordon's like mildly flavoured tonic, and I can imagine the alcohol-free stout conceivably being used in some kind of torture scenario. It's almost definitely because my brain was anticipating a buzz that never came, but I was left feeling like I'd rather just have an orange juice than any one of the Monopoly beers on offer.
"Heineken 0.0 is actually delicious – it's the one that tastes the most like a nice beer, from my memory," countered Yasmine, 26, a Club Soda member who's been sober for 22 months. "I'd known for about eight years that my drinking was problematic," she elaborated, "but it was so socially acceptable to be shit-faced all the time – it's all my friends and I did – that it never really occurred to me to stop. It's really hard to turn your back on the only life you've ever known, but I wish I could have known then what I know now: life is infinitely better without it."
That was something I kept hearing over and over, speaking to the punters, stall owners and organisers: that – unbelievably – when they stopped drinking to excess, making bad decisions and being forced to struggle hungover through work, their lives actually improved. It sounded ridiculous, but there they were, telling me with a straight face.
Famously, we in the UK drink too much, turning to booze to celebrate, commiserate or just simply pass the time. I only ever argue with the people I love because of alcohol, and I only ever seem to hurt them or let them down, really and truly, when I've got alcohol in my system. I can't remember the amount of times I've told myself, "Right, I'm going sober for a month," only for the next social occasion to trample all over my plan, in the same way I can't stop biting my nails or checking my phone, even though I hate myself for it.
So, I'm glad events like this are becoming more popular, and that perhaps the lowkey stigma around being alcohol-free is lifting. If people want to drink, and can enjoy alcohol responsibly in a way that isn't massively detrimental to their existence, absolutely have at it. But soon, you'd hope, it will also be seen as completely normal that we don't have to rely on an ancient drug to help us through the increasingly relentless challenges of the modern world.