I don’t do Dry January because I do not have a drink problem and I like drinking.
I like beer, specifically. I like the look of it. I like the smell of it. And by Jove, I like the taste of it. My only regret is that I can’t drink more of the stuff. I’d like nothing more than to spend day after day drinking ale in the sun with friends, chatting, laughing and listening to music.
However, due to an incident last summer, I know that this avenue is no longer available to me. The incident in question was a seven-day seaside bender – also known as Broadstairs Folk Festival – during which I spent day after day drinking ale in the sun with friends, chatting, laughing and listening to music. By day four I was a wreck. By day seven I was a mere husk, extant in body only. My friend Slates, who despite – or perhaps due to – having eight stents fitted in the vicinity of his heart, outpaced me daily, surely a sign that something had to give.
‘Fancy a pint, mate?’ he asked on day eight, on the way to the station.
‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘Can I?’
Having dragged my sorry carcass back to London, I heard a voice say, ‘Look at the state of you. If you carry on like this you’ll be dead by Christmas.’ It was Mrs Raider, with her customary welcome.
A week off the sauce sorted me right out, though. The lolling and groaning gradually gave way to something resembling reasonable health and I was back in the game. I’d dropped the ball, yes, but now I felt good. And ready to feel great, through the medium of beer.
And that’s when something else dropped. A fucking great penny.
Maybe, I thought to myself, I should have more weeks off the booze. Or – no need to go mad – bits of weeks off the booze. Then I could live till Christmas and enjoy drinking. Simple. Why hadn’t I thought of it before?
Then I remembered. Weekdays. These poor, half-cocked cousins of the weekend, long and numerous, are vastly improved by a bevvy, especially in the evening, with the football. What was a man to do?
I had a vague recollection of some cans in the bottom of the fridge that had once looked alluring but that I now knew to avoid due to the danger of disappointment. They were Mrs Raider’s Bavarias, an alcohol-free ‘lager’ from Holland.
I opened one and had a gulp. It was sweet and malty, like, well, a malt drink. It reminded me of wort, the sugary liquid obtained from the mashing of malted barley, before it’s boiled with hops and fermented to become beer. We’d tasted it during the making of Deserter beer at Southey Brewing. That was it, Bavaria tasted like a beer that hadn’t been finished.
‘This beer of yours tastes like beer that hasn’t been finished,’ I said to Mrs Raider, eager to share my valuable insight.
‘Don’t drink it, then,’ she said.
I opened another, just to be sure. It was not unpleasant, but it wasn’t beer. Surely there must be something better, something more… beery. Something that might get me from Monday to Friday. Or Thursday.
On my next visit to Sainsbury’s I surveyed, wide-eyed, the low-alcohol beer section, a new kid on the aisle. ‘Aisle’ is an anagram of ‘is ale’, I thought to myself – this is the sort of aimless dreamstate I can achieve in supermarkets – and yet in this one, it isn’t! Here, the bottles and cans on offer looked and even sounded like beer, and yet, at less than 0.5% alcohol, were but a cruel optical illusion, like the opposite of a magic trick.
I replaced Mrs Raider’s Bavarias and loaded up with a selection of other hopefuls, including Infinite Session IPA, Brewdog’s Nanny State and Budweiser’s Prohibition. I caught the eye of a young fellow abstainer who reached for the 0.5% Punk AF, also by Brewdog, and put three four-packs in his trolley.
‘Aisle is an anagram of “is ale”,’ I said, ‘but look at this shit.’ He looked at me with something resembling pity and scuttled off. I added a carton of the Punk to my trolley, too. Good move, as it turned out.
Over the course of the following week I tried my booty. They weren’t bad, but they didn’t excite me. They lacked body or flavour or hops, or all three. Then I opened the Punk AF and my life changed. At least, my life changed Monday to Thursday. Or Wednseday.
Here was beer. Or something very like it.
Obviously it was cold like beer, it had fizz like beer, it even smelt like beer. But crucially, it also delivered a hoppy hit like my favourite IPAs. I was sold. Next time I went to the supermarket, I put three cartons in my trolley, like the experts.
It turned out I wasn’t alone in discovering Punk AF. My mate Goose was also a fan.
‘Yes, I always have a few in the fridge,’ he told me. ‘I actually look forward to them.’ And there it was, summed up, the difference between the Punk and the also-rans. Now, like Goose, I look forward to them. They twinkle at me from the fridge all day, until the first ‘pshht’ around six o’clock.
Yup, I like drinking Punk AF. There it is. Lord knows in the beer world there will always be someone ready to tell you why you shouldn’t like what you actually like, but the way I look at it is, if you’re lucky enough to find one or two low-alcohol beers that you enjoy, great. If not, tough tit, you’ll have to stick to milk. As Mrs Raider so succinctly points out, if you don’t like it, don’t drink it. You don’t need to tell me about it.
Low-alcohol beers may not be for everyone but, if shelf space is anything to go by, they do seem to be the fastest growing beer genre in bottle shops. Since my Punk AF epiphany, I’ve found a few others I like to keep on rotation, including Gadd’s No.11 and Big Drop Pale. Together they have revolutionized my weekday home drinking.
But a sterner test was to come.
Last month Brewdog announced an extension of their AF range. As well as the Punk and the Nanny State, there was now to be a Coffee Stout, a Hazy AF (a version of their Hazy Jane NEIPA) and a Raspberry Blitz Sour. What’s more, they were offering bottomless refills at all their branches. For a one-off payment, you could drink gallons of the stuff.
Drinking it at home was one thing, but could you have an evening out on it? Would jokes be funny? Would people be interesting? Could you still have crisps?
I put in a call to Deserter colleague, Dirty South, to see if he could be tempted.
‘Can’t make it,’ he said, ‘I’m doing Wet Wednesday.’
But Goose, Roxy and the Professor were up for giving it a whirl.
Brewdog Brixton is an industrial bar on Coldharbour Lane with exposed pipework and smart, wipe-down booths. It was busy for a January midweek and I had to wait to buy my pint of draught Punk AF. Keep the receipt, I was told, and unlimited pints are yours. I warmed to the place. It was a mixed, younger crowd, unfazed by handing over an average of £6 for pints. These were the folk of New Brixton, folk who’d never set foot in the Canterbury Arms or the Railway, the poor sods.
There was Goose, waving his receipt, and Roxy and the Professor joined us at our table, Roxy on the Coffee Stout, the Prof on a Nanny State. Perhaps predictably, our initial conversations revolved around beer: What we thought of our drinks, our favourite alcoholic versions, when, oh when, might we have them again, etc.
The draught Punk AF, for the record, was delicious. The Nanny State, decent. The Coffee Stout, good for a half or so, I thought. As well as drinks, there was a fulsome food menu, including a range of dishes featuring seitan, a wheat gluten vegan meat substitute.
‘Perhaps we should try that, too,’ said Goose.
‘Blimey. What with seitan and the no alcohol, I’m going to live forever,’ I said.
‘Or it’ll just feel like it,’ said Roxy.
And then, just as in a normal pub night, conversation leapt with quantum randomness across an assortment of other crucial matters.
First, we learned about the marketing man who single-handedly increased Marmite consumption simply by removing the legend ‘spread thinly’ from the jar.
‘Now people slather it all over the fucking shop. Sales are up 60% and there’s a bust of the feller in the lobby of Unilever.’
Then Goose revealed that his nickname was not, after all, from a ‘MeToo’ incident in the lift at work with the head of HR, but rather from the time his Nectar app declared him the No.1 buyer of goose fat from East Dulwich Sainsbury’s. Whereupon he demanded we all download the app and check our own buying habits. I was pleased to be crowned the No.5 buyer of pork chops, 2019.
‘Nice one, Porky,’ said Rox, who doesn’t shop at Sainsbury’s and thinks anyone who does is ‘probably the enemy’.
Next up was fruit flies.
‘How do you get rid of the little twats?’ asked Roxy. ‘I don’t even have any fruit.’
‘Do you have a moist environment?’ asked the Professor.
‘That is the worst chat up line I’ve ever heard,’ said Roxy, and the Prof blushed. ‘I mean live and let live and all that, but what even is the point of them?’
As luck would have it, the Professor (No.2 buyer of Rose’s Lime Cordial, 2019) had done his masters degree on fruit flies, or Drosophila melanogaster, and it turned out they are in fact a model organism for genetic investigations because they can be readily reared in the laboratory, have only four pairs of chromosomes and breed very quickly.
‘Time flies like an arrow,’ I said, adding, I hope, my own contribution to the sum of human knowledge. ‘Fruit flies like a banana.’
And so the evening progressed, lurching from the sublime to the ridiculous, until we were all beered and chatted out. There were, I think, three key learnings from the night:
1. The maximum number of pints of Punk AF you can drink in a single sitting is five.
2. If it hadn’t been unlimited refills, that would have cost just shy of 30 quid. For £30, we agreed, you at least want to feel a bit tipsy.
3. When you’re finished, you just go home. There’s no ‘one in the Junction’ or ‘lasties in the Albert’. You just go home, sober. And you don’t eat ice cream straight from the tub and you don’t fall asleep on the sofa and you don’t awake thinking of chips for breakfast. Extraordinary.
‘When are we doing this again?’ asked Goose, as we said our goodbyes on Coldharbour Lane. But there was silence. ‘We’re not doing it again, are we,’ he added.
‘No, we’re fucking not,’ said Roxy.
‘Not unless it’s bottomless refills, again. On a Monday or something,’ I ventured.
‘Not gonna lie, you guys are better when I’m pissed,’ said Roxy.
Brewdog have now opened an entirely booze-free bar at Old Street, serving their own AF range and an extensive selection of guest no or low-alcohol beers. I have no plans to visit. But regardless, I maintain that a few decent low-alcohol beers in the fridge at home is a fine way to go if, like me, you’re looking for ways to give your liver a rest, Monday to Wednesday. Or Tuesday.
And it’s going to be a challenge, I’m under no illusion about that, but I fully intend to become the 2020 No.1 buyer of Punk AF in East Dulwich Sainos. Cheers!