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Wet January, the ethical choice?

Dry January might be good news for your health, but it’s bad news for your local.

It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? The revelries of Christmas and the turn of the year are out of the way. The purse strings are likely to be that little bit tighter and it’s the month of resolutions, fresh gym memberships and the ‘new you’. So in many ways it makes a lot of sense that the first month of the year was the one chosen by Alcohol Concern (way back in 2013) to host the now seemingly all-permeating phenomenon of Dry January.

It goes without saying that abstaining from alcohol for a month has a number of potential benefits that span health, personal finance and self-awareness, among others. But being a self-identified persevering drinker (my attempt at Dry January failed during the first weekend), I can’t help but think that Dry January is a two-sided coin, the reverse of which gives a fresh perspective into the brand strategy of the on and off trade, as well as a potential look to the future.

There are pubs and (to a lesser extent) bars, like the award-winning Roscoe Head in Liverpool, that implore patrons to shun the temporary teetotaling1 of ‘Dry Jan’ as it represents another layer of difficulty in an industry already struggling with various pressures. This has led to a number of enterprising players in the licensed trade arena attempting to instigate counter movements, such as Try January, which encourages patrons to become more experimental and adventurous in their food and drink choices at the local, for a month. Or the similar Tryanuary; specifically aimed at fostering support for independent brewers, retailers and beers with a focus on craft and local heritage.

Other than a similar name, these reactionary concepts share a message of moderation, that something novel or socially mindful can and should be discovered and enjoyed responsibly. There have been signs for a number of years now that the beer and ale market in particular are in a state of change; developing an, until-now, lacking sense of sophistication (or pretentiousness, depending on your opinion). Indeed, academic papers have been written about the ‘taste, sociability and self-control’ of the new breed of craft beer enthusiasts, who reject the ‘unruly and hedonistic determined drunkenness’ often associated with the night-time economy2.

Beer is no longer simply beer (or lager). Head to the right on or off trade establishment today and you can choose between stouts, saisons, APAs, IPAs, pilsners and porters to name a few. The provenance, brewers’ pedigree and focus on aroma, mouthfeel and finish all draw clear parallels with the wine drinking experience. Elevating beer to this level has, on the one hand helped to rejuvenate the category, and on the other encouraged more premium beer choices, putting the established mass market brands firmly on the back foot. Now it’s about savouring and experimenting, rather than heavy drinking sessions. Framing beer in this context provides a compelling narrative to tempt consumers out of hibernation and shout down Dry January.

Scott Gibson

All views expressed are those of the author and not HPI Research.

1. “Why you shouldn’t do Dry January – one pub landlady’s plea” – Liverpool Echo 15/01/2017

2. “‘Did you ever hear of police being called to a beer festival?’ Discourses of merriment, moderation and ‘civilized’ drinking amongst real ale enthusiasts” – T. Thurnell-Reid, 2016