Sobering thought: why are booze-free drinks so expensive?
Low and non-alcoholic beverages have never been so popular, yet they can cost nearly as much as your regular beer or spirit. Is there any justification? Regina Lavelle reports
It seemed like a punchline in need of a joke - the Irish pub with no booze. And with the flurry of headlines heralding the arrival of Dublin's The Virgin Mary, it seemed everyone else was thinking it too. But oxymoronic as it may seem, the new venue reflects a growing thirst for healthier lifestyles - alcohol consumption fell from 14.2 litres per person in 2005 to 10.9 in 2016.
Indeed, according to Bord Bia, sales of low- and no-alcohol drinks increased by more than 20pc in the year to August 2018.
But what is the cost of sobriety?
Excise tax adds roughly 55c to a pint, €3 to a bottle of wine, and around €12 to a bottle of whiskey, and yet a 70cl bottle of non-alcoholic spirit Seedlip costs €30. Meanwhile, you can buy a 70cl bottle of not-fancy gin on special in the supermarket for as litle as €20.
Out in pubs, there doesn't seem to be much difference between buying alcoholic beer or non alcoholic beer, except one of them won't give you a hangover.
If low and no-alcohol products do not incur excise, what's going on with the pricing?
Baked into pub prices of non-alcoholic drinks are the associated running costs, which include insurance premiums.
Vintners' Federation of Ireland (VFI) Chief Executive Padraig Cribben says: "The cost of staying in the pub business is escalating at a serious pace. Insurance premiums have increased for all publicans by anything from 30pc to 100pc and more in extreme cases. When discussing price, you also have to take into account value. The pub offers a unique atmosphere, something that is appreciated by both locals and tourists."
At The Virgin Mary, owner Vaughan Yates says his beers retail for roughly €4.50 to €5.50. Cocktails are in the €7 to €8 range.
"Our overheads are no different to an alcohol environment. We don't have to pay for a licence, granted. But our bar is a proper bar. It's small but fully kitted out and the running costs are the same, whether it serves alcohol or not," says Yates, who is a drinks industry veteran.
"We juice all the fresh tomatoes for our Virgin Mary. We make all our own fresh strawberry juice," he says. "The products are kind of the same. They're difficult products to make, especially some of the spirits because alcohol amplifies the flavour."
Yates stocks scores of alcohol-free products, be it international - Seedlip and Freixenet - or local. These include Dublin's Silk Tree, a 0.5pc spirit which has already won a BBC Food and Drink Award for Best Tasting Spirit, despite only launching last July. Husband and wife team Andrew Oates and Tracy Cassidy developed Silk Tree after they both gave up alcohol.
"We were your quintessential middle-aged, binge drinking couple. We drank wine at home four nights a week and when we did go out, we really went for it," explains Tracy.
They joined a group called One Year No Beer, and swapped to alcohol-free alternatives. "We bought a bottle of Seedlip to get us over the Friday night hump."
The couple, with backgrounds in marketing and the drinks industry, made a bid to create a drink of their own and began experimenting with herbs and spices, using products from an organic garden.
They developed a prototype with help from Enterprise Ireland and experts from Loughrey College. The result, Silk Tree, is now stocked in SuperValu, as well as bars and restaurants, and they are moving into the UK. A 70cl bottle costs €34.99 retail.
As Tracy explains, the distillation process mirrors that of alcohol.
"In order to replace the taste, we need to fill the product full of flavour. We tried different types of strong botanicals, like coriander seeds. We need to use a lot more ingredients - the distillation process takes a lot longer. It's all about temperatures and blending. There's a lot to do with maceration types," she says.
"There's quite a big process behind it. It's very expensive to run. There's the cost of our production, the cost of our ingredients, bottles, labels, caps, it can come to a lot. Then you add your VAT in."
Earlier this month, Waterford's Dungarvan Brewing Company released their first alcohol-free beer, Main Sail, a 0.4pc pale ale which online reviews describe as "fantastic" and "fruity". Main Sail costs €2.50 to €2.60 for 500ml, compared to €3.30 to €3.40 for their alcoholic beers.
Head Brewer Cormac O'Dwyer also maintains that while alcohol-free products don't incur duty, there is little saving in the production process.
"There's a couple of ways of making a beer non-alcoholic. One of them, which the bigger breweries might use, is to brew in the standard way and then take out the alcohol. Or you can brew a really, really low-alcohol beer, around 0.4pc," he says.
"In very simple terms, in the brewing process, we add malt to get starch to convert to sugar. When we made this beer, we put in far less malt than we normally would. The challenge that leaves is that there are far fewer flavours from the malt. So it's a bit of a balancing act."
O'Dwyer explains that while there is a small saving on malt, the rest of the brewing process proceeds as normal, but what saving there is, is passed on to the customer.
Of course, for many, the point of alcohol-free products is saving your health, not your money. "Alcohol-free beer is slightly lower in calories - about half, depending on the brand," says dietitian Maeve Hanan of Orla Walsh Nutrition.
Meanwhile, drinkers can easily consume "a meal's worth of calories". "A pint is around 180 calories, a medium glass of wine is around 160. A bottle of wine is around 680 calories. Cutting back can definitely have an impact on appearance.
"The liver is able to do its job properly. Skin can start to appear plumper. And there can be weight reduction, just from cutting out the number of calories."
For Professor Frank Murray of Alcohol Action Ireland, the alcohol-free movement is something to be "supported and encouraged", but there is more work to do. "Most drinking now takes place outside the pub. It's at home, it's not regulated and there is so much cheap alcohol available - bottles of wine for €1.99. We need to see the enactment of the Public Health Alcohol Act. It's been six months since it was passed and in those six months, there were at least 500 deaths from alcohol.
"The cost to the Exchequer is about €4bn a year, including one in every €10 spent on health."
Silk Tree's Cassidy and Oates say that some of their best customers are rural bars down the country where bar managers are helping designated drivers on a given night to find a more palatable alternative to "the mineral", now that enforcement of the Road Traffic Act has started to bite.
"We're retailing a lot in these bars down the country. It's great. We're trying to promote mindful drinking - we're not against alcohol," Andrew says.
Perhaps moving towards a lower-alcohol lifestyle which makes space for the pub is a pragmatic way forward.
At The Virgin Mary last weekend, Vaughan Yates said his customers ranged from non-drinkers to those who wanted a break from drinking, including "two guys on a stag do".
"There are three components to a night out - the people you go out with, the environment you go to and then there are your drinks. All we're doing is altering one of those components slightly."