Social & sober inclusion: How can alcohol-free drinks become equals at events?

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Would that be a classic or alcohol-free martini? Caterers need to be asking the right questions. Pic:getty/hillstreetstudios
Would that be a classic or alcohol-free martini? Caterers need to be asking the right questions. Pic:getty/hillstreetstudios

Related tags: NABLAB, non-alcoholic, alcohol-free, Uk, Low2No Bev

The acceptance of non-alcoholic alternatives is growing. And yet at formal occasions, alcohol-free consumers are still likely to find themselves with a warm glass of orange juice served at a side bar while champagne and wine flows freely for everyone else. How can non-alcoholic drinks – and their consumers – find their rightful place at formal events and festivals?

A number of caterers, events organizers and their clients are increasingly trying to put the growing number of premium non-alcoholic drinks center stage along with alcoholic beverages – but they admit the task is not an easy one and requires challenging norms and practices than have been accepted unquestioningly in the industry for decades.

Choosing a vegetarian option at a formal occasion or festival is now as easy and as hassle-free as choosing a meat dish. And alcohol-free advocates want to see the picking of a non-alcoholic alternative enjoy the same level of normality.

Away from the apology serve

Since its inception, the alcohol-free category has been plagued by perceptions of inferiority. Those who choose an alcohol-free drink risk end up with nothing more than an ‘apology serve’ or fear being sidelined as ‘being othered’ for not following the drinking norms.

The rise of the low and no alcohol sector is now creating much excitement in the beverage category. And yet while such drinks are gradually becoming more socially acceptable, alcohol remains the norm at catered events, formal dinners or festivals. And with such events based on economies of scale with the pressures of catering for large number of people in tight highly-organized timescales, sticking with a limited number of set alcohol choices has remained the norm, with non-alcoholic alternatives likely to be nothing more than fruit juice or soda.

Guests at an event are still likely to find, for example, that champagne and cocktails are brought to them on trays – while alcohol alternatives need to be searched out. Even worse, alcohol may be included in caterers’ packages or attendees' ticket costs – with any decent alcohol alternatives incurring a separate, additional cost.

Even if society today now considers alcohol-free drinks a positive mainstream choice, alcohol-free drinkers can still find themselves set apart by their choice at events.

Changing the scene

This year, the British Film Institute made the decision to make alcohol-free choices an integral part of their events, teaming up with mindful drinking campaigners Club Soda to deliver on its goal. In the same way it insists on accessible venues for its events, it now insists on special alcohol-free options (in addition to the previous choice of soft drinks) as part of the catering.

Furthermore, "it's not about providing a token drink, it's about providing a range as well,"​ said Thomas Harrington, guest services and partnerships manager from the institute, speaking on a panel on the subject at The Big Hospitality Expo and Low2No Bev at London Olympia this week.

What can such ranges look like? There's everything from alcohol-free beer to drinks from neighboring categories that can fill the space - think kombucha or sparking tea. Today, the issue is not so much that there aren't good alcohol-free drinks available; it's more that they haven't yet become part of the norm when it comes to mass catering and large-scale events.

Supply will lead to demand

Such caterers see the inclusion of alcohol-free drinks as just the start of a whole shift. A number of people, they suggest, only drink alcoholic drinks at events because of the lack of other options. Start offering decent alcohol-free drinks, and the demand will follow. 

"A really interesting fact is that a large number of consumers of non-alcoholic drinks are actually people who do drink,"​ said Narmeen Kamran of creative events agency Desert Island Events. "So you're not just catering for a small number of people, you're catering to the entire event."

When it comes to serving up non-alcoholic drinks, it's key to ensure the non-alcoholic drink looks just as good as the alcoholic drinks. That could mean considering the glassware used or the garnishes on top of the drinks (in fact, Murray Soper, talent and team manager at Bartlett Mitchell Caterers, reports that the company recently used a garnish to distinguish an alcohol-free alternative against a non-garnished alcoholic drink - ensuring that the alcohol-free version was not presented as a positive choice rather than an inferior alternative). 

Danger, danger

There is, however, an element of responsibility placed upon caterers trying to bring alcohol-free versions into their mainstream mix. Drinks need to be clearly distinguished from their alcoholic counterparts for those who do not want to drink and for whom an accidental alcoholic choice could cause distress or harm.

Alana Buckley, managing director of events and private caterer, Kerb Events, acknowledges this is a challenge. “It’s a really, really tricky issue: the growing desire to create a like-for-like experience also can be the thing that stitches you up.

“It’s this real push and pull of wanting to be as safe as possible but not wanting to create this non-otherness – it’s a really tricky balance and unfortunately you’ll probably find more and more of those situations. Fundamentally, it comes down to educating the staff. But we’re also at the moment, struggling terribly to find good staff. So it’s a struggle, a conundrum, and we’re just going to have to continue to work through as we bring these offers forward.”

Narmeen Kamran of Desert Island Events agrees, saying it's about ensuring staff are aware of the offer. “This is a massive, massive education piece: across hospitality – across caterers, venues, everyone – with this whole new growing sector. Everyone needs to stop for a moment and train their teams: it’s about getting people to stop and think and ask - is it a virgin mojito you want?"

Ultimately, they argue, it's no different for catering for people with allergies - and caterers are experts at dealing with these requirements. With time, they hope, caterers can also become experts - and leaders - at catering for alcohol-free drinkers.

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