Were you at the Truman Brewery last month for their latest Mindful Drinking Festival? This fifth event, produced as usual by Club Soda (Laura Willoughby and Jussi Tolvi), saw a whopping ten thousand attendees fill its rooms over one weekend.
It was, we concluded, a powerfully good-natured crowd of punters, stall-holders and motivational speaker types. So, after much tasting and experimenting (read the broader results here) we grabbed Laura for a chat to find out what motivates her.
How and why did you start Club Soda?
I gave up drinking over six years ago and realised there was a lack of something to help people, like me, do a self-guided journey. A bit like Weightwatchers but for those of us who are an idiot with booze. After nearly 15 years in local government politics, I was aware my career had been fuelled by too much cheap white wine and I decided enough was enough. I was boring myself and wanted more out of my weekends.
Some of our members are moderating. Some are alcohol-free [or AF]. Some flip-flop between the two, and others are simply taking six months or a year off. Attitudes are changing and we’re becoming more accepting that people may make different choices around their diet, for health or ethical reasons.
Our aim is to create a world where nobody has to feel out of place not drinking. So this means we can help you change your drinking habits, find new drinks, get through festivals and pub crawls, and also work to improve our social spaces so they are welcoming to everyone, whatever your dietary preference regarding alcohol.
How did the Mindful Drinking Festival come about? After being inundated with requests about what to sip on instead of beer or wine, we decided to set it up to introduce others to some of our favourite booze-free drinks brands. The first one in 2017 had 25 stands, and the last one in January this year had 60 brands. A lot has changed in under two years, with lots of new drinks to try.
So it feels like the ‘tipping point’ has finally happened?
When I quit drinking six years ago there was very little choice – instead, I cultivated an interest in loose leaf single estate tea. Now I think there’s a perfect storm of exciting things brewing. Drinking amongst all age groups is on the decline, alcohol sales have stagnated in the last few years, and a new wave of great tasting alcohol-free drinks from radical inventors are hitting the market. Suddenly there’s something new to fit that ‘reward’-shaped hole. Tesco has doubled the size of its alcohol-free section, and pubs have started stocking more (after all, they are open all day, every day, and at lunch you may not want wine, but they still want you to come through the door!). It suddenly feels easier to try and buy new products, and it no feels longer embarrassing to ask for low or alcohol-free drink or beer. It’s been like an explosion of experimentation in the last three years. There is still a way to go but I take my hat off to the new wave of drink pioneers.
Do you have a fave AF beer or spirit?
I’m a big fan of an alcohol-free beer such as Big Drop (despite never being a beer drinker when I was drinking alcohol). Next to water it is the healthiest thing you can drink in the pub. I always check the website or call venues in advance to check what they have on offer and if it looks like a poor choice I will fill a small shampoo bottle with my favourite cordial or Ceder’s so that I can pimp my own water or tonic. As a West Country girl a kombucha is the most like a scrumpy cider and some pubs now even have it on tap. I like to let venues know if they don’t have enough choice and that that they have lost my custom to make it better for the customers that come after me.
Read more on our experiments with AF drinks – and our brief guide to the best drinks options here.
The next London Mindful Drinking Festival will held at the end of July 2019 in Spitalfields. Club Soda hosts the monthly night Queers Without Beers at Cafe Babka (44 Great Russell St WC1). For AF-friendly venues see Club Soda’s venue guide here