If You Party, Think of The Non-Drinkers

This post is scheduled to be published the day after that the UK (where I live) is “un-locking” by removing pretty much all of the Covid restrictions. This means that, even more than before, people will want to party. Not that the full unlock was necessary for that, as a number of us who already got both doses of vaccine have been meeting up, following mask and distance protocols, in the past few weeks.

What will likely change is that work outings, parties, and general meetups (tech and not) will begin again, at least until we get to a point where it’s too scary to keep open, and we’ll bounce back into a partial lockdown (yes I’m not particularly optimistic about the whole situation). And with that comes the usual equivalence of tech with beer. And while Kara’s Model View Culture article is still my favourite pointer to give people to make it clear that alcohol preferences are a diversity dimension, I thought I could make a few more explicit points from the point of view of a non-drinker that is otherwise playing at the lowest difficulty setting.

First of all, let’s clarify one thing: I’m not arguing that those who like to drink alcohol at parties should not be allowed to. While I’m uneasy in events where alcohol is flowing too easily, I’m not going to say that my preference should override that of other people. My wife enjoys wine, spirits, and cocktails, and we have fun out together and with friends without problems. It just means that we choose where to go with a little more attention to the menus and the options provided.

The other thing to talk about, before I go into the nitty gritty details, is that there are many different reasons why people don’t drink, and some of the people will be more open than others to discuss them, even when they are the same reasons. I don’t drink for health reasons, but there are people who don’t drink because they don’t like the taste, people who don’t drink because of their religion or philosophy, and there’s also people that may not be drinking for a time being — and that again can be for a multitude of reasons: driving and pregnancy are two of the often listed reasons, but there’s a multitude of other reasons, that can include things as normal as not feeling like it. You don’t get to know why people are not drinking, you shouldn’t insist on asking a group if they are all cool with alcoholic drinks being the only thing on the menu.

Soft Drinks, Softer Drinks, Softish Drinks

By experience, a number of drinkers think that the world of soft drinks is boring and thus as long as some drink is available that doesn’t have alcohol, they think everything is done. This is neither true from the point of view of requirements nor from the point of view of preference. Which usually means that, if you only provide one type of soft drinks, you’re likely to still disappoint some people.

For instance, most of the readers of this blog know that I’m diabetic, so I generally avoid sugary drinks (but can still have one or two a day without too much risk depending on the drink, the sugar, the meals, and the physical activity), but I also avoid drinks with ginger because it tends to over-exert my pancreas, and just makes me feel sick afterwards.

What follows is going to make it sound fairly negative, and complicated, as I’m going to shoot down every single common answer to the soft drinks choices made available to non-drinkers. This is not to make us sound extremely picky, but to illustrate that soft drinks can, and should in my opinion, take more space on a menu than the small corner next to the kids’ options.

Let’s start with a classic: non-alcoholic beer — the common choice for drinkers that need to drive. I’ve actually been suggested that a few times, and while I did use to drink Bavaria-branded non-alcoholic beer, that was when not drinking was a personal choice, rather than a survival matter. But it’s generally not a great idea: beside the fact that a lot of non-drinkers would probably not like the taste, way too many beers are sold out there calling themselves non-alcoholic, but having 0.5% ABV (Alcohol-by-volume) which make them… pretty much the same as normal beer, from many points of view, both philosophical and physiological.

The next, near ubiquitous option is colas – whether brand name like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, store brand, or independent – the vast majority of these frizzy, sugary, and caffeinated. I’m usually okay with these, as long as they are sugar-free, since as most of the readers of this blog know, I’m diabetic. I can have one glass of sugary Coke if my blood sugar level is falling rapidly due to exercise, but I’m unlikely to get a second. But I know a number of people who can’t, or don’t want to, have caffeine. Again, this is both philosophical and physiological: some people are affected more than others, and while I survive on caffeine, other people would have strong negative reactions to it.

To wrap together another point for frizzy drinks: they don’t go well for everyone — whether it’s a problem with gassiness, with teeth, or anything else, it’s always nice to have a flat option of some kind. I mean, would you trust a restaurant that only had gas water, and no tap water option.

Speaking of fizzy things called beer but that are not alcoholic, ginger beer and root beer are not as common here in the UK than they would be in US and Canada, particularly the latter. Unfortunately for me, ginger beer (or ginger ale, or most things with ginger) are not a great idea — it looks like ginger stimulates the pancreas and it makes me feel just ill.

Fruit juices are often a safer option — although again you should be careful with sugars, and there’s a few combination of juices that tend to be unsafe for people. For instance, strawberry allergy is not uncommon — but since it’s usually a nuisance rather than being life-threatening, it’s not usually listed as an allergen, but it definitely wouldn’t be a good time to be had for someone who would get a reaction to it.

Another interesting option are milkshakes and smoothies, which tends to be something different, but also include many of the already noted risks (sugar, allergies), plus they are often dairy based, which means they come with their own limitations, for those who are allergic, or vegan — and despite me not being one, and having heard all of the jokes, this is still an important diversity dimension.

My personal favourite, honestly, is mocktails. The problem with them is that they are not usually around in the same place you organize a “beer party” — and it might sound fancy, but I want to say that for the most part this is my usual fare at hotels, and not just when I’m actually staying in one. They still include some of the issues noted before: sometimes dairy, often sugary, and in certain cases a risk for allergies, but with enough choice, these can be overcomed.

If we do not restrict ourselves to hot, thirsty weather, we should also consider hot drinks such as coffee, tea, and various types of herbal teas. For conferences, these are pretty much the standard fare for non-alcoholic drinks. The latter in particular, since they require making available hot water, and a selection of teabags, or variation thereof. Remember though, that as I said above not everyone will be happy with caffeine, so it’s a good idea to have something that is caffeine free available, even if it’s just camomile tea (which I hate, to be quite clear, but that’s me.)

And to finish the list off with the worst option you can give non-drinkers: spa water. If you think you’re giving plenty of options for non-drinkers by providing multiple “flavours” of spa water (that is, water infused with fruits and vegetables), then please go back to read this whole post from the beginning, and just don’t do it. As a non-drinker who has been told before that four flavours of spa water was a “selection”, I want to say that this adds insult to injury: spa water is pretty much “less fresh water”, as it ends up just sitting in a container, often under lights making it warmer than room temperature. Just don’t count on this as an option.

Again, going through all the various options is not to make non-drinkers appear picky and choosy. It’s to remind you that there is no one magical option that everyone will be happy about. If you intend to have an inclusive event (which I’d consider a requirement, if you’re organizing a work event), then you should consider a selection of non-alcoholic beverage to be available.

Event Organization Is Hard

I’m not good at organizing events myself, which is why I try not to be the one doing it, as my preferred place would be a bookstore, ignoring the chit-chatting and rather exploring books and tastes. Actually, now I think I would suggest that as a possible activity one day — I wonder if it would be possible to book Waterstones Piccadilly for an event, and just have people browsing through and convincing other colleagues to read their favourite books.

So for the most part, events that I have attended have been organized by other people, more often than not by the administrative business partners of the org I was working on. And they were almost always perfect organizers, with… a few exceptions. I want to talk about the exceptions as pitfalls, not to blame the organizers of said events, but to show possible mistakes that I’ve seen happening, and that should really be avoided.

Before going on the problems though, let me give a huge shout out and a hug to the one organizer who tried reversing the stereotype on its head and organize a “dry” holiday party for once, being on the receiving end of complaints, rants, and abuse — folks, if you really can’t imagine spending an evening with your colleagues while all of you are sober at a party, then think for a moment at why would your non-drinking colleagues want to spend time at a party while they are sober and you are not! If you think this is a perfectly reasonable state of affairs, we should have a talk, because it really isn’t.

The first common answer that I got a few times in the past is that alcohol is brought in, but the fridges at the office are stocked up with soft drinks, so “just grab one on your way to the event“. This makes us non-drinker feel less important, because it means that we’re not worth the extra effort to bring something special in, while the rest of the folks are getting something that is indeed not readily available at any moment. It waters down the event for the non-drinkers, and makes us feel unwelcome. But even more so, it makes us not even worth the effort to put our drinks next to the others: we need to bring our own.

If you think I’m being a bit harsh here, let me give some more context: in particular in bigger companies, event organization and catering is contracted out to vendors. Often, those vendors are different from those that stock the fridges in snack areas and similar. To run an event, the organizers are constrained by a budget: any drink (alcoholic and not) ordered from the “event catering vendor” is charged against that budget, but the drinks in the fridge are not accounting against the event, as they are part of the regular budget for the office.

This means that, for an organizer wanting to maximise the booze available, asking the non-drinkers to just pick up drinks from the regular fridges means having more budget available for the drinkers, practically subsidizing the good time for the drinkers. Now, you could argue that it doesn’t matter since it’s company money, but let’s remember that for work events, this is the same type of policy that reminds you not to take bribes or misuse funds — fair is fair, right?

I do have a suggestion for this, which is to make sure that in the catering ordering process (which exists, either as a third-party software, or a set of forms that need to be filled in — every big company would have event organization forms!) there is no space for an order to be made of alcoholic drinks only. That is, ordering 𝑥 servings of alcohol should require ordering 𝑎𝑥 soft drinks — either automatically, or by rejecting the form until corrected.

Speaking of company policies, sometimes they have alcoholic drink rules at work-sponsored events, such as a limit of two drinks per event. Enforcement of these rules is… varying, in my experience. Fairness (again that work) would want that rules would apply to everyone, but I have experienced different approaches from organizers, some of which only paid lip service to the rules by ordering two drinks per invited person (which makes the presence of non-drinkers a useful way to let people breach the rule), though most of the time this is implemented by providing tokens to exchange for drinks.

Drink tokens implementation are also somewhat different. The “best” implementation I can think of was when soft drinks were unlimited, with the tokens being used to get the alcoholic drinks — unfortunately this has limits as well, particularly if the needed amount of soft drinks was underestimated. Plus in one case I found myself being scoffed at by an organizer for not having given my drinks token to them or someone else for extra drinks, since I wouldn’t drink. To balance the scale, let me say that I have more experiences with good organizers that were happy to take the tokens back off me to avoid misuse — kudos to them.

Where things go very wrong is where beers are free (with a token) but soft drinks are not. This only happened to me once — and hopefully won’t ever happen again. It’s more common when the event is hosted in a catered facility such as a restaurant or a bar, since it’s really strange for a in-office event would even allow you to pay for anything.

Another similar situation, that has less of an effect on non-drinkers – except for the part where it creates a two-tier system of which company policies are enforced and which ones are turned a blind eye for – is the situation in which an event is held at a resort or other similar venue, and beers require a token (limited by company policy) but cocktails and spirits can be purchased separately at the venue. Not my problem, but keep an eye for those situations.

Finally, let me say that non-drinkers are not monsters. We understand that different people perceive drinking and having fun differently. I personally wouldn’t go and make character judgement on organizers for falling trap to one of the mistakes I listed here — particularly at their first event, or the first event with a new group. But please own the mistakes, and don’t hide them with lies.

One of the worst interpersonal experiences in my career has been related to the lack of soft drinks at a company event. When I raised the issue, trying to understand if there’s any process failsafe that could be added to avoid this (such as the ordering limits I wrote about earlier), I was told that the order was done correctly, but the caterer “forgot to unload the soft drinks”. Well, it happens, right? The problem was when a month or so later, at the following events, the selection of soft drinks came to be four types of spa water (see above) and a half-tray of smoothies… and this was after an explicit reminder of what happened at the previous event. Difficult to trust the organisers after that.

Drinkers Come From Bars, Everyone Else, Venues

As I said above, I’m not usually in the business of organizing large events. But at least when it comes to my small social circle, I have organized a number of dinners, so I can at least give a few pointers about what may make it smoother to make non-drinkers feel more included in a social event.

The first thing I would suggest anyone looking go organize even a small, inclusive event is to check out what the menu of the venue (restaurant, pub, bar) is, and whether they have a drinks menu with more than three items in the non-alcoholic section. I consider it a red flag is the only mention of soft drinks is in the kids’ menu, because that would just be silly. Do note, though, that particularly pubs and bars tend to not have a browseable drinks menu because most of their alcoholic choice is seasonal — a quick call to the place, or dropping in, would be useful to confirm in those cases.

What I find confuses people quite a bit, is that sometimes medium-sized chains are better at that than both small independent venues and larger chains. This is understandable when you consider the scale of them, but left a number of people confused that I would rather go to a Brewdog pub than to a local — in my experience every Brewdog always had at least a handful of soft drink options in addition to the usual Coca-Cola or Pepsi varieties, while locals tend to be happy with the supply of soft drink kegs they would receive in subscription by their distributor. But at the same time bigger chains (think, McDonalds and Burger King) have also no interest in stocking small-batch independent soft drinks so you’ll end up with the same, boring selection of drinks. If you’re lucky, at least in North America, you may find a Coca-Cola Free Style machine (or the equivalent Pepsi), that at least allows you to get a Coke Zero with lime.

If you go to a “craft pub“, which is very common in UK and Ireland in my experience, you may also need to pay some attention to what is on the food menu. A lot of pubs are very proud of their beer-based sauces and beer-marinated meats — make sure that you don’t end up at a place where the only safe option is french fries, which I have been to before. I personally look for places that serve at least partial halal food, since that requires them to be cooked without alcohol, and are safe for me, but do remember that just because something is okay for one set of people doesn’t mean that it’s okay for everyone else.

Conferences are often organized in hotels, many of which are designed for it, either by being or being attached to a convention center. In my experience, any hotel with a bar, above the “budget level” tend to have a long menu of alcoholic drinks but also a page or two of soft drinks and mocktails. In particular because it doesn’t take that many more ingredients to make a Virgin Mary, if you’re already serving a Bloody Mary. And did you know that the bars in most hotels don’t require you to be staying at the hotel itself to serve you? I used to grab drinks with friends at the St Pancras Renaissance, which was next door to my office — not only it served a great virgin mojito, but it always had a few pages of mocktails available.

The only thing I would ask everyone is to be also mindful of pricing. In the tech field, price sensitivity is often ignored, because a bar bill tends to be “a rounding error” for the most part. But when you hear drinkers complaining about their pint (568 ml) coming over £5, you may be feel less pressed to join them to grab a small Coke (250 ml) for £3. It’s obvious, when you think about it, that particularly for alternative, small-batch and independent soft drinks the costs are higher — but you should keep in mind that if the non-alcoholic options are there, but costs more than the beer, the non-drinkers are unlikely to feel welcome.

To put some context on this last problem — many venues in the UK offer a “two for one” deal on cocktails, either during happy hours, dinner time, or even constantly. But only a few of them extend the same deal to mocktails and other soft drinks. This means that when you look at the menu without the offer in place, the soft drink may not be cheaper than alcohol… but if you factor in the offer, it would be. This is not a great problem for the non-drinkers (after all, it literally just mean the cost is the same for them, offer or not) but the fairness comes back into the consideration, and we would feel more welcome in a place that extends the deal to our soft drinks of choice. To put some names into these issues, Brewdog runs similar 2×1 offers during happy hours, but doesn’t extend them to soft drinks, while Las Iguanas does — and they even have a long list of non-alcoholic drinks and mocktails (huge kudos to them!)

At this point you may have noticed a pattern: with the exception of coffee and tea houses, which for the most part don’t serve alcohol (the only exception I know for sure is Notes that serves great coffee, as well as wine), you end up having to raise the bar (pun not intended) in the venue selection to provide enough options to non-drinkers, at least in the UK. This is unlikely to change, at least until we socialize more the idea that soft drinks can be as interesting, and as varied, as alcoholic ones. Given the amount of ads I keep receiving for “hard lemonade” and similar drinks (so much for ads knowing “too much”), marketed towards a “macho” culture where drinking is the only way to have fun… I don’t expect much.

Personally, what I miss in London is a place as interesting as Dernier Bar Avant La Fin Du Monde in Paris (and now, it seems, Lille): their menu is filled with both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, that cover pretty much any variation of preference or requirement. By feeling of geekiness, the closest places I know here are The Ludoquist in Croydon and Library Pot in Richmond — but while both of them have a selection of Fentimans Botanic Brews, they end up costing more than the beers!

For the time being, one of the best places – in terms of selection of non-alcoholic Mocktails – is Luna Gin Bar in North London. Not a cheap place, let’s be clear, but it has something different, and the Atomic Cat is quite something.

Options Exists, If You Look For Them

As I said, there’s plenty of options to choose from beside the “usual suspects” (Coke, Pepsi, 7up, Sprite, …) I think this is important to say because, when I previously complained about work events not providing any interesting non-alcoholic drink I was asked to provide examples — so I came up with a list of them, never to be heard of again.

So let’s start with the one I already named: Fentimans Botanic Brews. Fentimans makes and markets a number of different soft drinks including various types of tonic waters, lemonades, colas, and even ginger beer. As noted above, these are often the choice of more indie venues here in London, in my experience. While ordering direct provides a significant choice, bars and cafes only appear to keep a limited selection of them. They also have some surprising combinations, as their Victorian Lemonade appears to have a significant (to me) amount of ginger — unfortunately their store pages don’t list ingredients nor nutritional values.

A similar selection in North America (and, as it turned out for me, in China) is available from Boylan. I had their Cane Cola a few times while visiting Shanghai (but only if my sugars allowed it — they didn’t have the Diet version available) and it tasted great. I haven’t had a chance to taste more of their options, but from their website, it looks extremely interesting. Ordering them in London does not appear to be trivial though, so I guess I’ll have to taste them after the pandemic is really over.

Geeks who have been at hacking conferences in Europe, particularly around CCC, definitely already know Fritz-Kola, the Hamburg-based brand of vastly caffeinated drinks (that feels almost an opposite impression of Boylan, which markets mostly caffeine-free options). I have found that some Brewdog pubs have them available in London, which is awesome — but even more awesome is that you can buy them online in UK through different retailers. Personally I’ve been buying mine from The Belgian Beer Company (referral link), since they also have a selection of beers including my wife’s favourite.

More recently, I found a different, non-fizzy source of caffeine: ChariTea Black, which is sold by the same company also selling Lemonaid — also based in Hamburg, like Fritz! They sell on online in the UK through their own webshop (referral link), although I’ll warn that the packaging feels a bit lacking for shipping long distance. Both ChariTea and Lemonaid taste awesome, at least the ones I can have (no ginger) — and I’m more than happy to risk the delivery disruption to get it directly from the source.

To come back to local brands, Square Root are a London soda company that has a long list of interesting flavours, although I only tried one of them up to now, they are often available at Brewdog, though only one or two flavours at a time it seems. Square Root is interesting for another reason: they use a variation of a “crown cap” for the bottle, which is typical for beers, Coke, and Fritz. Possibly knowing that their audience is unlikely to to have a bottle opener on them, they come with a pull-off ring. Neat!

I haven’t tried Franklin & Sons sodas themselves, though they make the base of mocktails at Luna Gin Bar referenced earlier, and they can’t be that bad. Also even though they were sugary, they weren’t horribly sugary, so that sounds like a good option for me to try again.

There are more, obviously. I was going to talk about the non-alcoholic Senser spirits, but their website is gone, and I guess even the lockdown didn’t help them. They tasted… different, but not something I would be getting again any time soon. And if you go out to randomly look for alcohol-free alternatives to certain drinks, you can find something, but quality is very… variable. That’s why I prefer trying new soda brands at a pub or a bar, it allows me to try something without committing to a huge mistake.

Not-Interested Based Advertising

Full disclosure: I work for a company that is known for IBA (Interest Based Advertising), and that is often criticised for it. I have already expressed my opinion, repeatedly, so I don’t represent the view of anyone but myself.

With the exception of Senser (which appears to have gone away in less than two years), all of the other brands I found by trying the soda at a venue. You would expect that, as a non-drinker, I could actually see a bunch of ads about sodas like these. Clearly I’m the perfect target for them. Instead, I get ads for Brewdog beer subscriptions (because I visit their locations for the soft drinks), and for “hard lemonade” (because they seem to be spending all of the money).

This is a clear example of failure of IBA, and it shows how much less “surveillance” and more “stereotype” this targeting is. But it also may be that the crowd that works on independent soda manufacturing is not interested in using the more “big tech” corporations. Which is fair, but it also makes me fear it hides these options from the “mainstream” of culture. Because whether we like it or not, alcohol is, and makes it very hard to take the spot.

So what we can do instead, is to socialize the idea that non-alcoholic drinks don’t need to be boring. And hoping that organizing events that cater to non-drinkers becomes easier, particularly now that we have a “new normal” in front of us.

If you do have a suggestion for other drinks to try, either available in the UK, or for local venues in other parts of the world that may be offering them, please leave a comment. I’m honestly looking forward to try more alcohol-free options in other countries when we can finally start traveling again.

One thought on “If You Party, Think of The Non-Drinkers

  1. I personally like beer and do not have any bad reaction to alcohol, so I do not end up in your situation as a result. I am further disqualified from having an opinion as I don’t go to conferences and my company only rarely has social events (maybe once a year at a fancy restaurant, not bar, during the holidays). I mostly drink my beer alone at home—it is a lot cheaper per pint that way. The closest I get to the sort of event you are talking about is a wedding reception which normally has a bar with a small selection of beer, two or so choices of wine, coffee, and water. I have seen sparkling grape juice offered when kids are present. I feel like that small selection is complete enough, especially if even the beer selection is limited to just one or two choices.

    Trying to make an event inviting to those not interested in alcohol without disappointing those who look forward to the alcohol-powered social portion of the event would require intentional planning. One can look at this coldly and say this is an example of diminishing returns: it would take a lot of effort to keep drinkers happy while still making non-drinkers feel included. But this effort might not increase the attendance or perceived success of the event by much. I wonder if there are studies/numbers on this.

    I find it unfortunate that the majority of alternatives to alcoholic drinks are super sugary carbonated things like cola. Coffee and tea are good, but is there anything else? Kombucha is good, though it might be sugary too and, being fermented, probably has too much alcohol for you. Yikes, having no tolerance is really limiting. I would probably just drink a lot more coffee than I already do if alcohol were not an option for me.

    Properly (i.e., traditionally) made ginger beer should have a small amount of alcohol in it. The soft drink called ginger ale seems inauthentic to me—I’d rather have the “real” version myself x.x.

    Liked by 1 person

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