Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Everything you ever wanted to know (and more)

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Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Everything you ever wanted to know (and more)

We’re pretty proud of the fact that, despite having only just reached our first birthday, Real Kombucha is being written about as the choice when it comes to non-alcoholic drinks. In little over a year, we’ve found ourselves on the selection list in articles by The IndependentThe MetroThe Times, and The Guardian, on the shelves at over 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, and listed at pub chains as well-known as Fullers. And, with around 30% of young drinkers now claiming to be teetotal, it’s a great time to be serving the non-drinking community. We regularly raise a glass of booch to each and every one of you.

On the course of that journey, we’ve learnt a huge amount about the ins and outs of the world we’re working in: sobering (ahem) facts about the history of non-alcoholic drinks, as well as fun tidbits that we’ve found you can use to mesmerise and distract the next bore that asks you why you’re not drinking. Here are a handful for you to share.

What are the earliest known non-alcoholic drinks? 

The correct answer to this is water, or “Adam’s Ale” as the poet Philip Freneau (pictured above) had it in 1780. But that’s too obvious, and a little bit dull. If we take ‘non-alcoholic drink’ to mean something that is consumed as an alternative to strong alcohol, an argument could be made for “small beer” as one of the earliest examples.

It was a common enough drink in Europe during medieval times, where it was sometimes known as “table beer” and knocked back by pretty much everyone who congregated. Mum, dad, kids, animals… everyone got stuck into the table beer. Why? Because it was safer to drink fermented stuff than drinking water (Adam’s Ale wasn’t quite a pure as folks might’ve liked – in fact, it was so unsanitary it could kill).

Of small beer, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s dad), once wrote, “For the drink of the more robust children, water is preferable. And for the weaker ones, small beer.” We’re not sure if this had any influence over his son’s theories concerning survival of the fittest, but it’s certainly true that small beer eventually became problematic. As the Industrial Revolution arrived, labourers operating heavy machinery were required to keep a clear head… or get mangled.

In the 1790s, a physician named Benjamin Rush began researching the notion that alcohol caused “a disease that leads to a lack of self control (which sounds an awful lot like drunkenness to us). His findings prompted him to make wide-reaching calls for abstinence, which directly led to the Temperance Movement and subsequently Prohibition.

Of course, small beer reappeared during the Prohibition years (1920-33). Known in the States as “near beer”, the Anheauser-Busch (Budweiser) company developed a malt beverage called Bevo, while Miller developed a malt syrup that almost bankrupted them. If all these malt extracts sound a little off-putting, bear this fact in mind: if you had walked into your local in 1888, the likelihood is that you’d have been served a steaming pint of Bovril. At the height of their powers, the meat extract company were served in over 3,000 British pubs. Cheers!

A nation of tea drinkers

With so many people hitting the small beer, perhaps it’s a good thing that tea arrived when it did. Of course, the Chinese had been drinking it since the early days of their civilisation (and fermented tea, too), but it only reached Europe during the 17th century. Catherine of Braganza had a particular thing for it (if Instagram had been invented, she’d have been the third of the Hemsley triplets), and worked her socks off to make it fashionable among the European elite. By the mid-18th century, it was being widely consumed across Britain. The Nation of Tea Drinkers found its feet here.

Pop culture

The process of carbonation was discovered in 1772, when Joseph Priestley found a way to trap carbon dioxide in water, although people had already realised that adding sodium bicarbonate gave things a bit of fizz (it’s also where we get the shortened word, “soda”). While this could also benefit alcohol producers, Priestley’s discovery paved the way for the creation of soft drinks, which did not initially have the same playful connotation that they have today.

Coca Cola began life in 1886, initially the product of a drug-addled mind. Confederate Colonel John Pemberton, having become addicted to morphine, set out to find something that might give him some respite from his cravings. He eventually settled on a recipe that he referred to as a “coca wine nerve tonic”. And the rest, after a lot of further twists and turns, is history.

Tonic Water, meanwhile, was initially concocted in an attempt to ward off malaria. Quinine powder (the malaria prophylactic) was a particularly bitter substance, so the colonial British would mix it with a little sugar and a little soda water to create something more palatable. Being the colonial British, they also realised that it mixed well with gin. And lo, an everlasting cocktail was born.

Shirley’s Curse

While we’re on the subject of everlasting cocktails, it’s a little-known fact that the Shirley Temple – perhaps the most famous non-alcoholic cocktail – was hated by its namesake. It is believed to have been invented by a bartender at Chasen’s, a restaurant in Hollywood, as something that could be served to Temple herself (then still a child).

In an interview in 1986, she was asked whether or not she liked the cocktail. “The saccharine sweet, icky drink?” she replied. “Those were created in the probably middle 1930s… I had nothing to do with it. But, all over the world, I am served that. People think it’s funny. I hate them. Too sweet!” We hear you, Shirley. 30 years on, we still hear you. 

We need to talk about… tomato juice

For a long time, bars would serve tomato juice as an alternative to alcohol, making the rather wild assumption that because the drink was savoury (and therefore not sweet), then it must be what the people wanted. Instead, it became the butt of quite a number of jokes… at lower altitudes, at least.

In the air, it was another matter entirely. In 2010, the German airline, Lufthansa, were analysing their inflight menus when they came across a peculiar statistic. Tomato juice, while rather boring at sea level, seemed to be the must-have item at 30,000 ft. Amazingly, they found they were serving 53,000 gallons per year, but only once they’d reached cruising altitude.

Researchers discovered two fascinating reasons that may account for this. Firstly, our taste and smell receptors are somewhat dulled at higher altitudes, something that tomato juice is strong enough to combat. Secondly, it appears that loud noises dull our sweet taste buds and make us more receptive to the umami flavours found in the red stuff. Combine those facts and you’ll find that a jet plane way up high is the ideal place to knock those bad boys back.

The times they are a-changing… fast

They really are. Take a look at this article from 2014, published on The Independent website.

Taken from “On the wagon: 10 best non-alcoholic drinks”, The Independent, 2014

Nearly every drink suggested here is what you might class as a soft drink. As great as each one may be in their own category, some of these drinks would be a tough sell for anyone settling in for a night with friends, or with a tasty meal. Members of our team have spent years as non-drinkers, and they find that when they meet other non-drinkers out and about, the story is the same: soft drinks aren’t great for non-drinkers. They don’t want that much sugar, and they’re hoping for something a little more complex – a little more adult – in the flavours they’re offered.

That’s why Real Kombucha was started in the first place. Whether you’re looking for a non-alcoholic Prosecco, a non-alcoholic cider or a non-alcoholic Sauvignon Blanc, we’ve created it because we’ve been looking for it, too.

Taken from “I’ll have a nogroni: the rise of the no alcohol drink”, The Times, 2018

Scroll forward just four years and you can see that we’re not alone. The range of non-alcoholic drinks available to the non-drinker has improved enough that journalists are able to compare several adult-oriented options without having to resort to heavily sugared softs. What with the likes of Bigdrop, Nirvana Brewery and, of course, Seedlip also pushing things forward, it’s a great time to be making the move to a less alcohol-focused lifestyle.

The stats they are amazing!

We’ve talked about this a lot on our blog before, but it’s worth underlining (especially as the numbers keep rising): non-alcoholic drinks have a new and increasing market. According to a study recently completed by Laura Ng Fat, Nicola Shelton and Noriko Cable (published on the the BMC Public Health website), 29% of 18-24 year olds say they do not drink alcohol, while 50% of of 18-24 y olds had not drunk in the week prior to the study. Furthermore, the study showed that even those that still drink are moving towards a less alcohol-reliant lifestyle.

Are there such things as non-alcoholic drinking songs?

Yes, and thanks for asking. Always best to go out singing, don’t you think?

You almost certainly know the most famous non-alcoholic drinking song. The Wild Rover is a traditional folk song that is thought to have emerged with the rise of the Temperance Movement. Traditional folk songs tend to evolve with the times – they can rarely be attributed to a single songwriter, which is what makes them ‘folk songs’ (songs of the folk) – and “The Wild Rover” is no exception. Several versions exist, but if you listen to a commonly-sung set of lyrics, it clearly warns against drinking too much. Here’s a more recent recording of the folk band Belshazzar’s Feast performing it…

And here’s an even better-known version with a particularly spicy set of lyrics…

What’s bizarre about this song of temperance, however, is that it’s hugely catchy and great for singing along to – especially during alcohol-fuelled occasions. We’re pretty sure that’s not what the founders of the Temperance Movement had in mind. Maybe it’s time the nation’s non-drinkers stole it back.