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January is a rubbish month for beer and pubs, as well as for drinkers.
Even though many of us didn’t make it past last weekend with our well-meaning resolutions, the party is definitely over in the pub trade for another year.
In recent years, the blame for this had fallen squarely on the concerted campaign to encourage people to do a ‘Dry January’. Fine, but there are other factors too. January is the most miserable month of the year: the festivities are over, people are skint, credit card bills have arrived and we see just how much we splurged in December, and it’s still a loooong time till Spring. Given that Christmas supposedly marks midwinter, the second half always feels ten times longer than the first.
And then there’s the cyclical thing. We’re mammals, and many mammals hibernate. There comes a time when it’s dark outside, and all we want to do is hunker down with a book or a box set. For a few brief weeks, a hot bowl of soup genuinely sounds more attractive than a pint of beer.
It’s all part of nature’s cycle. And however much we barricade ourselves in city concrete and lose ourselves online, we’re still part of that cycle.
But in the last two or three years, the post-Christmas lull has become politicized. Anti-alcohol charities have hidden their agenda behind the call to raise money for worthwhile charities, and Dry January has become part of our collective calendar.
This year, the pub trade is fighting back. Every time the #DryJanuary hashtag appears on social media, it is swiftly countered by #TryJanuary, encouraging people to visit their local, or #Tryanuary, urging us to try something we haven’t had before from a local brewer or supplier.
I’m all for these initiatives and their attempt to take a stand against Alcohol Concern’s liars hiding behind friendly “Hey, it’s for charity!” masks. But in the heat of the battle, I frequently find myself behind enemy lines.
Because I have a confession to make.
I’ve done Dry January now for fifteen years. I’ve done it since before it was called Dry January, before it was hijacked to push anti-alcohol agendas, before it was so controversial. And like a civil war, I find it puts brother against brother.
Within the pub trade, the ire against Dry January grows every year. Publicans appear in local newspapers calling it an attack on the community pub, a direct assault on small, local businesses.
To an extent, I see their point. If you equate a month off alcohol with a month of not going to the pub, the effects on an already beleaguered sector could be devastating. Our streets are quiet enough in January as it is, without campaigns actively encouraging people to stay away. When cashflow is king, one slow month could prove a fatal virus in the balance sheet.
But here’s my problem: in January, I want to stop drinking. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want to stop going to the pub. Last year, my wife and I had some friends round to finish off the last of the cheese, turkey and sherry before the annual detox, and as they left they said, sadly, “Oh well, see you in about a month then.”
We protested that we would still be going to the pub and we would see them there. And so we did. But in our collective reaction to Dry January, we seem to have confessed that pubs are nothing but shops that sell alcohol.
I never thought this was true. I started writing about beer and pubs partly because I bought the blurb that pubs are community centres that have something for everyone. When they’re attacked as the root of drunkenness, we spring to the defence of pubs by reminding their assailants about great food, darts ladders, Sunday league, pub quizzes, the upstairs rooms that host Women’s Institutes and charity AGMs.
But as soon as we decide to give our livers a breather, all this seemingly vanishes and we are traitors to the cause, biting the hand that waters us.
The average Brit now visits the pub about once a month. When I’m drinking, I visit, on average, five times a week. That means that even if I avoided pubs completely during January, I’m still visiting them 22 times more often than the average Britain across the whole year, even taking my Dry January into account. So when I am denounced as a traitor to the pub trade in January, it smarts a little.
But more importantly, I would still like to visit the pub in January. I’ve recently been introduced to the tomato and beetroot juice Virgin Mary. It’s so good I would happily pay £3 a pint for it even when I’m not detoxing. It’s just one of many non-alcoholic cocktails that dry bars and restaurants are pioneering, but are still mostly absent from pubs. Too fiddly and fussy you say? Well how about a healthy shot of a good elderflower cordial with cold sparkling water, a kind of methadone to anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms from dry, bitter pale ales. And then there’s tea – tea! Fine teas offer enough scarcity, variety, complexity and discovery to satisfy the most studious beer ticker.
So why, in most pubs, is my choice limited to lime and soda or J20? And if I reluctantly order one of these childishly sweet, blandly sugary drinks, why does it cost me almost as much as a really good pint, when it only costs the pub a few pennies?
I applaud campaigns that encourage people to try something new in their local. But January is a tough time for all of us. Sometimes pubs act as if we have a duty to support them. That’s arguable. But what is inarguable is that pubs have a duty to make themselves attractive to as wide a range of people as possible if they expect their custom. As well as a decent range of adult non-alcoholic drinks, why don’t we see more quizzes, gigs, comedy nights, film nights, special food events, art exhibitions, or anything else that might make bored, miserable people want to pop into their local for a laugh?
January is always going to be quiet. But it could be the time when pubs really show what they’re made of.
As for drinkers, remember – the pub, if it’s any good, is not just a shop that sells alcohol. It’s a community hub, all year round, whatever you’re (not) drinking.
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