Hospitality, the last frontier of growth in the non-alcoholic drinks space. Whilst the production and retail of non-alcoholic beverages has grown exponentially over the last two years, we are still seeing bars and restaurants seriously dragging their heels. This problem is not unique to us here in Australia either (in case you were quick to blame our deeply ingrained, unhealthy drinking culture). My trip to London in mid-2022 showed they are not much better off and my sources in the USA and NZ tell me they are both waaaaayyyy behind.
And it’s shit. For me as a full-time non-drinker, the hospitality setting is the one where I am MOST inclined to want to knock back a bottle of non-alcoholic bubbles or a glass or two of non-alcoholic red wine with dinner. 940+ days into my sobriety, I barely touch an alcohol-free beverage unless I am socialising (or reviewing). Where does the majority of that happen? Bars and Restaurants! Now don’t get me wrong. Change is happening, there are some venues with excellent non-alcoholic lists (you can find many in my venue register) and organisations like the AHA (Australian Hospitality Association) are working with industry experts such myself, to get the message out to their member base of hospo venues. But the change is slooooooow. Like those delightful sloths in Zootopia, only less cute and funny.
WHY you might well ask
Well, I think there are a few reasons. But these are the top four:
The Covid effect
In case you have been living under a very big rock, you will have noticed the ongoing effects of the pandemic, long after we’ve been released from the terror of the eternal lockdown (yes I am Victorian). There are workplace shortages across the board, but hospitality it seems has been one of the worst hit. A year on and businesses are still struggling to get enough staff on a weekly basis, there has been a chip shortage this year (yes really) and the price of everything has gone up. Many businesses are focusing on surviving each week, not on considering their non-drinking clientele.
Lack of quality (or the perception of)
You and I both know there are really great non-alcoholic drinks available, and they are getting better by the week (or so it seems). But for a LOOOOONG time, non-alcoholic wine was terrible. Whilst non-alc may seem like a big successful industry to those of us on the inside, the non-alcoholic drinks industry is really in its infancy, with so much growth and product development still to happen. But while the quality has come a long way in the last two years, there’s still a reluctance for venues to put on anything other than a non-alcoholic beer or two. This seems to be the safe bet with alcohol-free beer an easy entry point into non-alc. There’s a lot of education to be done and drinks to be tried and you know I will keep banging the drum!
There’s a widespread notion that if a venue puts on a non-alcoholic wine by the glass, nine times out of ten they are going to be chucking most of it out. And if they put it on by the bottle, no one is going to order it. I call poppycock. There are a lot of alcohol-free wine options now available in single serves so that’s not an excuse.
Not seeing demand
This is a total chicken and egg scenario, and someone has to make the first move baby! Venues are not seeing the demand. But at the same time consumers are so used to having a soft drink as their only option, they don’t think to ask if there is a non-alcoholic wine or beer option available. This is where we come in, the passionate non-alcoholic champions. It’s up to us, who have seen the light, and know the good drinks are out there, to ASK. And KEEP ASKING. 20 years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a vegetarian meal in an Australian country pub. Now there is hardly a menu in the country that doesn’t have options for our meat-averse friends. Hell, there’s even a pub here in regional Victoria that has a whole plant-based menu. Why has this happened? Because the consumers asked. They asked, asked, and asked again and demonstrated the demand. Not sure where to start with this? You’ll find all my top tips and experiences here in my Squeaky Wheel guide. I go into how to prepare, what to say, how to ask for BYO if need be and where to draw the line (yes I will cancel a reservation).
One of my favourite things to push for (if there are no decent options on the drinks menu) is BYO. Especially when fine (or even half-fine) dining, I still really love enjoying quality wine with my meal. It’s in this setting where the taste, ritual and experience of a non-alcoholic wine is really most important to me. What do I take with me when doing a cheeky BYO? I have a very short list. I leave the white wine and rosé drinking for the cheese and bikkie plate at home. If I am going for a special meal, you’ll find me with a bottle of either Thomson & Scott Noughty or Langhorne Creek Blanc de blancs under one arm and the Next Destination Barossa Valley Shiraz under the other. Yes, I may drink two bottles over dinner, don’t judge me!