Time at the bar

All the flavour, none of the sauce

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You could be forgiven for mistaking The Nest, which opened in Hastings in October 2021, for an ordinary bar and music venue, one of dozens like it in this seaside town on the south coast of England. It’s only when you go to order that you notice what makes The Nest so unusual – out of all those tantalising-looking bottles lined up behind the bar, not one of them contains a drop of booze. 

“There are so many spaces here that are filled with alcohol,” says venue manager Curtis Arnold-Harmer. “The town thrives on the hospitality industry. We wanted to make a space that doesn’t conform to those social norms.” 

The “we” he’s referring to is Eggtooth, a social enterprise in its 11th year supporting local young people through creative projects, mentoring and non-traditional therapies. The Nest, which operates as a limited company separate from Eggtooth, is a hub for both those too young to access traditional late-night cultural venues (which often have an over-21s door policy) and those who find alcohol-fuelled environments challenging or uninviting, for whatever reason that might be. 

“In the same way that some people don’t need conventional therapy, some people don’t want to go to a pub and have a good time with their friends,” explains Curtis. “There may be barriers for them, there may be things they can’t see, that they can’t access, and this space is to provide that.”

The lack of booze doesn’t just open up the venue to people who might otherwise have felt excluded – it has a tangible impact on the atmosphere of the place. “The vibe is much calmer,” says Curtis, likening it to “being in a pub but without the people you don’t want to be in a pub”. There’s never any trouble between customers, the toilets are free of puke; it’s even rare for drinks to be spilt. And when it comes to audiences at The Nest’s regular gigs, open-mic nights and spoken word evenings, “all of the response feels genuine: less inflammatory and more of an appreciation”. 

PHOTO: The Nest

A GROWING TREND

The Nest may be the only alcohol-free bar in Hastings but it’s not unique in the UK. The numbers are still very modest – a quick Google search yields no more than a handful of venues that define as a bar yet offer an entirely booze-free atmosphere – but there’s definitely a sense that this is a growing trend. 

Unsurprising, perhaps, when you look at the recent stats around alcohol consumption in the UK. A number of reliable studies point to the fact that the proportion of young people in the UK who choose to avoid alcohol has been rising for a while now – as many as 29 percent of 18-24 year olds according to one recent study by the University of London. Those that do drink booze are starting later than they used to and are drinking less. 

We haven’t yet been able to pinpoint quite why this is happening – better understanding of the negative health impacts of drinking alcohol has been mooted, as has a reduction in the stigma associated with teetotalism – but assuming these young people stick to their guns about avoiding alcohol as they get older, this change in outlook is going to have a profound impact on the UK’s relationship with booze. The hospitality sector could be in for a shock. 

That’ll all come though. For the moment, the pioneers of the alcohol-free social scene are trying to figure out their way through this brave new world of booze-free fun. For Craig Picton, co-founder of YADA Collective, an alcohol-free bar in Derby, it’s been a matter of suck it and see. YADA began life as a monthly alcohol-free pop-up in 2017, a response to Craig and his co-founder Rhondell Stabana’s realisation while studying at the University of Derby that, “if you didn’t drink but wanted to socialise for an evening, there was literally nothing else to do. You could go round to other people’s houses but even then, most of the occasions are focused around drink”.

It was always their dream to have their own place so when a city centre venue became available in late 2019, Craig and Rhondell jumped at the chance, working on kitting the place out through the various Covid-19 lockdowns and finally opening to customers in the summer of 2021. As a pop-up, YADA’s vibe was dependent on the type of venue it was popping up in – being based at a club saw them embrace DJs and loud music, while its late-night café incarnation had “more of a community kind of feel”, says Craig. Where they are now, the atmosphere has “settled somewhere in between”, vibey enough to feel like a night out but chilled enough to host a monthly games night, among other events. 

PHOTO: YADA Collective

YADA regulars are a diverse bunch, Craig says, with the demographic on any given evening depending on the event they’ve got going on. For some of these customers, the fact that YADA doesn’t serve booze is neither here nor there: “Whether it be the poetry night or the games, they come for that reason. We sell good quality drinks that happen to be alcohol-free.” For those seeking to avoid alcohol, however, YADA serves as a “safe space where people can come and socialise”. 

They’re not running an alcohol recovery service, Craig points out, but are happy to point people struggling with addiction in the direction of where they can get the support they need: “We class ourselves on the very cusp of the recovery journey.”

When it comes to the drinks on offer at YADA, the focus has always been on “providing a good quality alternative”, explains Craig. “If people aren't coming for the alcohol then they'll need to drink something and we don't want to be giving them water, squash, cheap coffee, those sorts of things.” It was slim pickings in the alcohol-free drinks market in 2017 – Craig remembers mixing up their own “slushy cocktail type things” for club nights back in the day, and having to go direct to producers to source good quality drinks. Now they’re spoilt for choice, with wholesalers stocking alternatives for practically every alcoholic drink going. 

A SOPHISTICATED ALTERNATIVE  

For Eoghan Proudfoot, founder of Winchester’s Proudfoot & Co., the drinks were where it all began, a chance to road test alternative models to replace our broken food system. “A lot of solutions to this lie in the past, so while most businesses are trying to out-tech our way through the challenges we face with food at the moment, whether it’s climate change, nutrition, sustainability, I’ve gone in the opposite direction, safeguarding and rebuilding these food systems that used to be pertinent, sustainable, local, nutritious,” explains Eoghan, who quit a career in finance to open Proudfoot & Co. two weeks before the first Covid-19 lockdown. 

The result of this embrace of traditional systems is an alcohol-free drinks menu (Proudfoot also serves cakes, and Eoghan is planning on expanding the food menu) that’s big on foraged herbs, sap tapped from local trees and honey from Eoghan’s own bees. Eoghan is constantly experimenting: “We’ve done so many prototypes. For every drink that ends up on the menu there’s 100 that don’t work. I just want to prove a concept and show it can be done.”

He opted to make Proudfoot alcohol-free out of a desire to “create a space that’s a bit more inclusive,” he says. “When I’ve travelled to southeast Asia, they have bubble tea shops that are open until 2am. If you go around the Mediterranean people are out until one in the morning, families having a casual drink outside. In the UK after 5pm pretty much everything shuts except the pub and there aren't any alternatives. 

There’s a big generational divide in that – younger people increasingly, even if they drink (and I drink) are looking for venues that they can relax and hang out in and feel a little bit sophisticated that don’t necessarily involve alcohol.”

PHOTO: Proudfoot & Co.

Eoghan also relishes the challenge that comes with making complex drinks without the benefit of alcohol as a fixing agent. “It forces creativity. For me it’s finding different botanical ingredients, making hydrosols [aka floral waters]. Ferments come into it as well, using all the techniques you have in your toolbox to create that depth, complexity and flavour that you would get from an alcoholic drink,” he explains. 

If that all sounds like hard work, that’s because it is. Proudfoot & Co. is only open Thursday to Sunday because Eoghan spends the rest of the week sourcing ingredients and developing drinks. He’s keen to scale up but won’t do so at the expense of his values – fixing the food system is just too important a project. 

YADA Collective, on the other hand, is a more easily replicable proposition, and one that Craig and his co-founders are keen to pursue. He sees alcohol-free venues following in the footsteps of vegan restaurants: a once niche dining category that, over the course of just a few years, has become mainstream and widely available. What form YADA’s expansion will take is still under discussion – whether the team simply take on another venue of their own or operate a sort of community interest franchise model, for example – but there’s certainly no doubting their ambition. 

“People are really starting to see this is a trend that is here to stay,” says Craig. “The plan is to have an alcohol-free bar in every city of the UK. It's a big vision.”

Cover photos: The Nest

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