George Orwell’s fictitious perfect pub, The Moon Under Water may not exist but the Clean Vic does or should I say it did exist for 3 days in July 2019. The Clean Vic boozer was the perfect pub for people who do not drink or do drink but fancy something other than alcohol. The Clean Vic was a project by Sainsbury’s supermarket to showcase the chain’s range of 50 No and Low alcohol drinks – beer, wine, cider and alt spirits.
Pubs have a particular buzz and ambience that bars and restaurants do not and as I approached the Clean Vic (in reality, The Old Crown, a traditional 19th century boozer in London’s Bloomsbury) that unmistakable hubbub of people chatting and enjoying themselves heralded itself from metres away. People were sitting outside drinking Instagram worthy cocktails, inside the place was packed, the atmosphere was rocking, and the bar staff were adeptly pouring drinks as the customers waited 3-deep at the bar. (Click here to see the short video on You Tube). The only indication that The Clean Vic was anything other than a busy pub that sold alcohol was that the gender split was 50-50, and there was an absence of broken glasses and lairy lads. There was also little chance of the publican showing anyone the door with ‘Get outta my pub’ ringing in their ears.
I love pubs and given a choice I would always choose one to socialise in. So why am I supporting the efforts of a supermarket? Full disclosure, I was hired to host tutored beer tasting sessions at The Clean Vic using some of Sainsbury’s No & Low beers but I was not paid to write this article. I wrote it because judging by the enthusiasm of customers I spoke to in my sessions, there is a demand for a pub where non-drinkers can find delicious adult drinks. Another reason for writing it is that I really enjoyed the time I spent at The Clean Vic socialising with customers and I think the formula is a viable model for a Pub Co or a business person looking for a unique selling point in an era when so many pubs are closing. The reason for pub closures is complicated and cannot be attributed to one thing. Beer tax, business rates, high prices, demographics, lack of choice of drinks that people want with too many pubs selling exactly the same brands so customers drink at home instead, and lifestyle changes are just some of them.
It may seem odd for someone (me) who drinks alcohol, educates about drink and founded a business called School of Booze to be interested in the No & Low category. But most No & Low contained alcohol until it was removed by filtering or vacuum distillation. Decaffeinated coffee is still referred to as coffee so by that logic, School of Booze can include No & Low too.
Since I started writing, advocating and teaching about No & Low in 2016 the category has developed at an astonishing rate. Not that you would know it if you asked for an alcohol alternative in a regular British pub. On that, they score a massive fail. Ask for a non-alcoholic beer and some might have a Becks Blue rotting away in a fridge. Ask for a non-alcoholic cider – you’ll be lucky. Ask for a non-alcoholic cocktail and your option is likely to be J2O.
I have learned that there are myriad reasons for not drinking, including those who drink at weekends but not during the week, pregnancy, training for a marathon, trying to lose weight. It is not just sober drinkers who choose No & Low so why are British pubs missing out on the No & Low market when there is money to be made? What about designated drivers, what about lunchtime customers? Just because a person may not want alcohol does not mean they do not want to socialise in a pub and buy an adult drink not an infantilising glass of pop or a sugary fruit juice.
If I could I would open a version of The Clean Vic and it would be similar to the description in the opening paragraph of George Orwell’s essay ‘The Moon Under Water’.
‘My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.’
As I don’t have the finances, I am relying on someone with money to do it instead. That person is out there, and so are the customers who will make business boom.