Club Soda x Beer Adventures

10 Questions For...

Laura Willoughby

Club Soda/Co-founder

1) Hi Laura, it’s great to be chatting with you today, let’s get stuck in! First up, can you just tell us about Club Soda and how you got it off the ground, what was your goal?

So, we are what I call a ‘mindful drinking movement’. We used the word Mindful and that seems to have really hit a chord with 20-35 year olds. As a term it encapsulates everyone from people who don’t want to drink during the week to those who want to cut down, or who want to go alcohol free. I never want to tell people what to do. ‘Mindful’ is really inclusive, it removes stigma. It’s not like AA where there’s a label that you may not want or that doesn’t apply to you. It’s a very welcoming term and there are many options within a mindful approach.

We work with individuals, workplaces and pubs, bars and clubs. Within our membership we have different types of people and organisations. For me it started because I gave up drinking five years ago. My dad was a Bass tenant when they had pubs, I don’t know if they’re still a thing anymore? Anyway, I inherited two things from my dad, his drinking problem and his boobs!

I realised that I really had to quit. So I did. Five years ago. What I realise is that there are dependent drinkers, who have bodies that depend on alcohol every day. And then there are the rest of us, who are idiots generally! We all drink different amounts but it’s quite possible that alcohol is impacting on our lives and we want to change that. I was an every other day drinker, because I couldn’t drink on a hangover.

I saw that lots of people were using alcohol to cope with all sorts of situations and that they wanted to change that, but there wasn’t really anything helping them, it wasn’t a guided journey. That’s when Jussi and I started Club Soda, and we started helping people to do that. Now we have 9000 members and a massive community of people supporting each other with online courses.

Our aim is to create a world where nobody is uncomfortable about drinking, nobody feels excluded if they’re not drinking. That could even be about developing your personal skills, to ensure that you aren’t left out, or about making environments a little better. Corporate events are my big bug bear, you get loads of wine and then an orange juice if you’re not drinking. What is this, 1970?!

Anyway, things progressed, everyone was asking me for drink suggestions. For me, I find that quite easy, you go out and work it out. But for a lot of people who aren’t in London or don’t know where to start, they want some direction and some ideas on what to drink when they’re out in the pub.

That’s what’s lead to the festival. We noticed that people will buy a drink with alcohol in it whether they know if they like it or not, because it has alcohol in it. People won’t buy an alcohol free drink unless they know they definitely like it. Think about that!

Pubs and bars are exactly the same, they edit their beer lists based on the assumption that their customer will and won’t like certain things, or will think that they’re too expensive. Alcohol free beer in particular is very different to alcoholic beer. If companies aren’t confident about the product then it stays in the bottom left corner of the fridge, and they say ‘look, nobody wants this!’. But if you’re confident about a product… well that’s a different case. Look at Charlotte’s in W5, who have a non alcoholic beer and low alcohol beer list curated by Melissa Cole. If you’re confident about it then the product flies off the shelves, they sell loads!

2) You’ve got your big big event coming up, a Mindful Drinking Festival. Would you like to give us a bit of a breakdown of that?

I’m having a breakdown! It’s a really hard thing to do! But I believe totally that there is interest in these non and low alcohol beer products and that people really do want to try before they buy, and this is one area where we need to give people the opportunity to do that.

So we’ve got lots of beers coming which I’m really pleased about! We’ve got Dry Drinker coming, this is a website where you can get mixed cases of all sorts of alcohol free beers. They’ll be bringing all the beers! German beers, fruit beers, Belgian beers, wheat beers, weird beers that you never knew existed! He’s got an amazing range!

Big Drop is sponsoring the craft beer yard as well, they’ll be unveiling all their beers and their beautiful new packaging on the day as well which I’m really chuffed about. It looks beautiful. We’ll also have Nirvana, Fit Beer, Erdinger, and St Peter’s. Square Root will have their shandys too, their new one is with Five Points. And Alcohol Free Shop will be bringing its wheat free gluten free alcohol free vegan beer. I’m interested in this because so many people ask me about beer that is both gluten free and non alcohol. And of course Heineken are coming with their Master Brewer which will be fantastic, I’m so pleased that they chose to sponsor us!

3) We honestly can’t wait to come and check it out! So this is the first event of its kind here, which is very exciting. Have you ever been to anything like this outside of the UK?

No! If this works I want to take it on tour. Everyone asks me about events and we have a lot of members. They desperately want something like this, I want to take it everywhere. I just hope this first one goes well!

Low alcohol beer - Club Soda founders Laura and Jussi
Low alcohol beer - Club Soda events
Low alcohol beer - Club Soda crawl
4) We’re sure it will! We’d like to know, do you think people’s attitudes and relationships with drinking are different when they work within the drinks industry?

It’s something we are giving some thought to at the moment. We hold online courses and I’m speaking to several people at the moment who are changing their drinking habits while working as chefs or bartenders. I’m looking at creating a course specifically for those who work in these kinds of roles, to help them with challenges that can arise specifically within these working environments.

5) And also, as a company, what’s your relationship like with the drinks industry? Do you feel that your concept and movement towards highlighting non and low alcohol beer and drinks has been welcomed and understood by breweries and bars etc?

Yes. And more than I thought it would be! We are not a prohibitionist organisation, we are a mindful organisation. If you said to me ‘I’m going to go out tonight and get completely rat arsed’ that’s fine, that’s up to you! But if you came to me tomorrow and said ‘I think I’d like to cut down’ I’d say ‘Ok, here’s a way that you could start’. We aren’t judging people’s drinking, but we are giving them a different option should they want one. For me it’s about people having choices – non or low alcohol beer is a great alternative.

We managed to get a bit of money to do some research. We wanted to change the behaviour of pubs and bars to meet the customer needs. Customers were saying they want something different, pubs and bars were saying there’s no demand, but stats have shown that younger people aren’t drinking as much as they used to, so how can this be true? How do you get pubs to treat their non drinking customers a little better? Getting away from scenarios when a customer asks for a non-alcohol beer and the staff scoff ‘what, like water?!’ Fuck off! And these aren’t just customers who never drink, these are just people who are taking a more measured approach to it.

We’ve also been doing some lobbying on the mad labelling laws on drinks that are between 0-0.5%. They have to be changed by December 2018 anyway, but we are lobbying to have any low alcohol beer below 0.5% called alcohol free anyway. I think the industry appreciates that we come from a consumer perspective. We add a much needed voice I think, and I like to think that we are creating a dialogue between pubs and their customers that may not be happening at the minute. They might know customers who are drinking a lot, but they don’t always know their customers who aren’t drinking very well.

6) So for you in London, are there any venues that you would say have a great selection if you’re not drinking alcohol or searching for a low alcohol beer, places that you like to go that we could try?

The ones that we call our 5* venues, they’re good at everything. These are venues that have thought about every customer that comes through the door. One of my faves is Charlotte’s in W5. the fact that I will travel an hour and a half across London to go to that pub is testament to it being a bloody good venue! They really do have a very good drinks list.

The Draft House as a chain is an amazing group, they’ve always got a load of low alcohol beer under 3%. They also have craft sodas and alcohol free beer, and they never take the piss out of you if that’s what you ask for. Like it or not, Wetherspoons don’t do too badly on the low alcohol beer front! They have an alcohol free cider, as well as beer and free coffee refills. Then you’ve got Ye Olde Cock Tavern, we’ve done some things there in the past. We actually have some venues outside of London that would also score a 5. The Bryn Labour Club near Wigan score 5 on the guide as well, they’re fantastic.

Low alcohol beer - Fitbeer
Low alcohol beer - Heineken
Low alcohol beer - St Peter's
7) We’re pretty partial to a Brewdog Nanny State here at Beer Adventures and Mikkeller make some tremendous super low alcohol beer but we’re always on the hunt to discover new options. Which brands and products would you personally recommend for low alcohol beer, that have some excitement about them and give a bit of a sense of occasion to the drinker?

I think what’s interesting is that pubs can be afraid of the price point, often low abv or alcohol free comes in at the same price point as alcoholic beer. People think that’s grossly unfair because there’s no alcohol duty on it. But often these drinks are made in smaller batches, which means the costs can be a little higher. I think customers don’t mind so much, they just want to be treated the same way and enjoy the experience of being out. If you’re going to talk to them about how the product is made, how it tastes, and pour it beautifully for them, they’re more likely to be happy with the price point.

I have to say that Stowford Press cider always goes down well, cider is a very popular drink and people are looking for alternatives that aren’t too sugary, the Kopparberg’s alcohol free for example, is really sugary! Big Drop brew will be bringing all four of his beers to our festival. Every single CAMRA member that I’ve met who has tried their beer has said ‘wow!’, whether it’s the pale ale or the stout… it has a quality of taste and he’s done such a good job. He’s really lovely, you should speak to him! Nirvana are coming too which people are pretty excited about. Heineken, I think they’re a game changer.

Most people’s non alcohol beer is Becks Blue, it’s widely available but I don’t think a lot of people enjoy that flavour. Everyone I know that has tasted Heineken have appreciated that the flavour is very close to their usual beer, they seem to have really put some care into creating a fair replica of the taste. They are very proud of it and you can see why.

St Peter’s is a craft brewery, it’s a bit of a marmite beer I think in terms of whether people love it or hate it. I think they use rye which my business partner loves, he says it’s like drinking liquid bread! Fit Beer is interesting because of its branding and labelling. Whenever we do a drink tasting, it’s the one that most women gravitate towards, the calories across the range we taste are pretty much the same, but it says ‘Fit Beer’ on the front, it peaks curiosity.

We have a number of gym companies based in a coworking space. If they see a row of alcohol free drinks they will go straight for Fit beer. You see what people’s motivations are when you give them a line up of these drinks. It’s a brother and sister team who brought Fit Beer over here and they’re now part of Nirvana as well.

8) Working in the booze industry we notice there can be a lot of negativity or fear around things like Dry January, often people worry about brewery sales and bar sales. What do you think about these sorts of trends?

The drinks industry is scared of Dry January but actually Dry January is just hitching its wagon to something that happens naturally. Something we’ve learnt from our data is that people don’t go out at the start of the year, and generally it’s because they’re poor. It’s not because of anything to do with Dry January. If they weren’t doing Dry January they still wouldn’t go out in January, because they overdid it in December, and now they’re poor!

I think every industry has it’s down month and this is it in the drinks industry. We actually do better in February as Club Soda, more people join then. If we were to run our mindful pub crawl stuff again I’m not interested in January, nobody turns up, its cold and wet, they’re all poor and they want to hunker down and watch box sets!

All that’s happening is that a couple of organisations are managing to jump on the back of that, along with a few healthy bits and pieces. The truth is people still wouldn’t go. I want to do Mindful May or Mindful March, and say ‘this is the month where you go to your pub and ask them what they have for your that’s alcohol free’ and do it outside of January, because even we can’t get many people out to the pub then! Our stats show this, they’re not the most conclusive but we really had no benefit when doing things around January, but the rest of the time people love it.

9. We hope this doesn’t sound patronising when we use the word ‘trend!’. But wellness is very much on trend at the moment, people are doing yoga, using mindfulness apps, things like #eatclean! All these things seem to interlink quite well and have parallels with what you’re helping people to achieve. Does Club Soda work alongside any other wellness groups, or do you have any plans to do so in the future?

I’m pretty keen on sticking to what we do best, which is talking about alcohol and alternatives and cutting down and moderating. I think that complements everybody else. The truth is that there isn’t a bit of you that alcohol doesn’t impact. So if you’ve got a diabetes diagnosis, changing your drinking is part of that. If you’re not sleeping well, changing your drinking is part of that. You can practice as much mindfulness as you want but if you’re drinking a bottle of wine every night or having a load of beers, no mindfulness app is going to help you get the sleep that you need.

What you’ve helpfully picked up on while we’ve been chatting is the fact that alcohol isn’t a stand alone thing, it’s not the case that we have dependent drinkers and then ‘others’. We are all impacted by drink. People who aren’t dependent on drink are still saying ‘actually I want to lose weight’ or ‘I’ve got diabetes’ or ‘I’m making a tit of myself every Friday night and it’s making me feel guilty and ashamed’. There’s a lot of interest in mental health and I reckon thoughts about how we drink are stemming from that awareness. I would like to continue to compliment that way of thinking.

We work with lots of bloggers and websites, we’ve just done an article for a yoga website called Movement For Modern Life. It’s about how thinking about your drinking can further your practice, and vice versa. And I’ve just written a blog for a wedding site about making sure that your non drinking friends feel as loved as everyone else and have good options. Often non-drinking guests are left out and you pay for champagne for everyone else and then it’s fizzy water for the non drinkers! So I think we complement everything really well with these extra bits that we do.

10) Finally, If you could ask modern craft brewers to create a non or low alcohol beer, what would you ask them to make, and what do you think the challenges are within this?

That’s a hard one. I was never a beer drinker when I did drink, but I am enjoying the non alcoholic ones available now. There is a challenge which hasn’t been faced and that’s that there is no non alcoholic beer on cask! Obviously this is partly down to the storage and maintenance of a cask beer, and of course the demand for non alcoholic beer that isn’t in bottles. We actually have a lot of CAMRA members who for one reason or another are very interested in low alcohol beer or non alcoholic, and of course they’re all about cask beer!

I think the challenge for the industry is not only creating these products on draft but showing that there is that demand for non and low alcohol beer to be created in the first place! And I think we also see a polarisation where we have non alcoholic, and we have alcohol, and low alcohol beer tends to get a little lost in there somewhere. I’d like to see more people producing things that are 1.9%-2.5% and to see these regularly available. I’m certain there is a market for more low alcohol beer.

People suddenly went very high on the percentage for a long time and now there’s a lot more discrepancy in people’s wants and needs I think. Maybe the challenge for the industry isn’t so focussed on the taste – we’re already making progress on that – but actually on creating the right product and presenting it in the right way. And of course I’m still waiting for my alcohol free scrumpy cider to arrive, nobody has done that yet! Kombucha basically, for me that’s the most similar thing.

It’s been really great chatting to you today Laura, thanks for your time and catch you at the festival! 

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Anja M
ANJA M Small human with a penchant for all things beer. Can usually be found in a taproom or sweating off a hangover at Bikram Yoga.

Fan of aviation, motorbikes, climbing, music and eating. Professional dog botherer.

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