How to review the alcohol-free options at your local

Many of us who are looking to cut down or take control of our drinking find that alcohol-free drinks can be game changing. We still get to enjoy the taste and hold a glass in our hand, still get to relax and so on, but without the alcohol.

Here's our guide on how to review the alcohol-free offerings of your local pubs and produce an article in your local newspaper.

By Dr Richard Piper

Many of us love going to the pub. But many pubs do not stock anywhere near a good enough range of alcohol-free drinks, especially compared to what we can order online or in supermarkets. That means that we can put off going out altogether and in particular worry about asking for an alcohol-free drink at the bar.

If we are able to tell people which pubs do serve a good range of alcohol-free drinks, we can help them go out with more confidence, support those pubs that are doing well, and encourage those pubs that are further behind to catch up. We can even encourage people to try these drinks.

By publishing in the local newspaper (whether hard copy or online) we get good reach into the local community, as well as a degree of credibility, compared to writing a blog which is likely to be read mainly by those who are looking for these drinks already. The best solution is a newspaper article and a blog. But if you can only do one, the local newspaper article is the best.

If you’re interested in doing this for your local town, village, or district, do please just give it a go and feel free to make up your own way of doing it. But, if you want a bit of a guide, I’m happy to share my learning. In 2021, I did this for all 36 pubs in St Albans and was able to secure a huge full-page article published in the local paper, and on their online version. It got lots of attention and positive feedback, but I definitely made some mistakes and learnt some stuff along the way.

Here are my twelve top tips.

1. Get interest or agreement from your local newspaper in advance

Contact the editor of your local newspaper in advance and offer them the article. They will usually be desperate for well-written locally-relevant content that they don’t have to produce themselves, but you may need to sell them the idea. Try to get a full page or half page, but either way, get an agreement up front of how many words it will be.

2. Make a plan: scope, dates, timings, and routes

First, decide on your geographical scope. Which areas are you going to include? I did all pubs in St Albans, but not those in surrounding villages or towns. You can also decide to include or exclude bars, or indeed restaurants. This guide is about pubs, as restaurants probably need a different approach.

Then decide how many pubs you can get round per night and plan some routes. I found 12 pubs was enough in one go, and in total took four evenings to do 36 pubs. I did once a week for four successive weeks, but do whatever works for you (there’s no reason not to do it all in one week). I did this in November, in time to write up the article ready for Dry January®, but you can pick any time of year really.

Next decide on timings. I strongly recommend the earlier part of the week, perhaps a Tuesday (we found a number were actually shut on Mondays, but perhaps that was COVID related). When it’s quieter, the serving staff will have longer to talk with you and, if their offering really isn’t good, five of you walking out when they only have three existing customers can be pretty powerful.

Finally, agree your first pub and a time to meet your gang (see tip 3).

3. Get a gang together!

I went out on four separate occasions, doing different pubs each time, and almost always had someone else with me. On my first trip there were five of us. On my second trip there were a four of us. Then there were two. Then I did the final three pubs on my own. Five was a good-sized group and allows you to try the range of drinks without having to drink them all yourself. It also has a pretty powerful effect when, if they only serve Becks Blue or Heineken Zero, you all walk out! Finally, we had a really good evening. You can do this on your own, of course, like I did my final three pubs, but starting off in a group helped me feel more confident. It’s helpful to bring along at least one person who is good on social media and has a good following (see tips 4 and 11).

4. Create a buzz

Two of my party are big on social media and they posted on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as we were doing this, including photos of the places where we stopped and giving the name of the pub, its street, and what it had on offer. This generated loads of interest and meant people were really looking forward to the article, with lots of people thanking us for putting in the legwork. Check out my twitter feed for some examples. However, don’t criticise any particular establishment. One thing we didn’t do but should have done was tag the pubs’ own social media handles in these posts.

5. Be confident and polite

Inside the pub, start with something like “I’m writing an article for our local newspaper on alcohol-free offerings in pubs in our area. Please could you tell me what lagers you have?” Then move onto ales, ciders, wines, mocktails, spirits and finally any kombuchas. Be aware that the staff member you’re asking might not know, so do ask for the manager or landlord if needed, and also look yourself: on a couple of occasions I spotted a drink behind their bar that they didn’t know about!

They might want to get into a discussion with you, like “Is there much demand for this?” and some might ask what sorts of drinks are available, in which case absolutely feel free to ‘educate’ them. You can also chat to them, if they are in the mood, about whether these products are selling well. Some could be a bit negative, even critical. If that’s the case, just thank them for their time and leave. This only happened once for us, in 36 pubs, and I had my gang with me, and we reflected this in our scoring (see tip 9)!

6. Reward those pubs that have a good offer by buying a drink

If they do have a decent enough range that everyone in your party can find a drink they are happy with, definitely stop, get a round in, and sit and enjoy it. This positive reward for the pubs with a good offer is an important part of the process. If it is anything like us, we didn’t stop very often because too many pubs had hardly anything so we were actually very ready for a sit down after all that walking!

7. Take photos

Take good quality photos, either of the outside of the pub with the sign, or inside of you and your gang having a drink, in those places where you stopped. Obviously, get permission from your mates that you can use their photos in the article and/or on social media.

8. Have a recording sheet

Unless you have an incredible memory, you’re going to need to keep a track of what pub sells what. We had some printed recording sheets on a clipboard but obviously you could also record on a device. At first I was a bit sheepish about my clipboard (feeling like a weird inspector), but actually I realised pretty quickly that the pub landloards really didn’t mind and actually preferred it when I was more up front rather than surreptitiously trying to write on it while having a drink or while walking out. When you say you’re writing an article, as the first thing you say, have the clipboard or device confidently in hand. Here’s what our recording sheet looked like – really simple:

Pink LionPeroni Libera (1)Adnam’s Ghost Ship, Doom Bar, Brewdog Punk AF, Beavertown Lazer Crush (4)Old Mout Berry, Thatchers, Kopperberg (3)0000

9. Have a scoring system

We played around with this a lot until we got something that felt right. Obviously you can diverge from our approach, but we did try lots of alternatives and settled on this as the fairest system to balance (i) the different categories and (ii) the number of different types of drink.

There are seven categories (lagers, ales, ciders, wines, mocktails, spirits, kombuchas/specialist soft drinks) and pubs get one point for each category in which they have an alcohol-free drink. This gives a total score for the number of categories they hit, which is multiplied by three. So if the Pink Lion has only alcohol-free lagers, ales and ciders, and no other categories, they hit three categories, so score 3 x 3 = 9. Then they get extra points for every additional drink in a category, over and above the one that counts for the category scores (to avoid double counting). For example, if the Pink Lion had one lager, four ales and three ciders, it has no additional lagers, three additional ales and two additional ciders, so they get 0 + 3 + 2 = 5 extra points. The additional drinks score is always the total number of alcohol-free drinks they serve minus the number of categories they scored in. Finally, the total score is the category score plus the additional drinks score.

PubLagersAlesCidersWinesMocktailsSpiritsKombuchasCategoriesCategory scoreTotal drinks servedAdditional drinks scoreTotal score
Pink Lion1430000398514
Red Lion221033051511621
White Lion3433342721221536

This might seem like a hassle, but actually it’s really easy and very helpful. It allows you to identify your overall winner (see tip 10) and show change over time (see top 12), and gives you something rigorous to point to if you are challenged (we weren’t).

10. Write a positive human article and offer photos

My first draft of the article was all wrong. I was really pleased with it, but when I showed it to my partner and another member of the gang I had gone out with, they rightly pointed out that it was far too methodical, too nerdy, too comprehensive (every pub got mentioned) and too scoring based. I mentioned the numbers of drinks, but not the actual drinks.

So, I wrote a completely new version that people seemed to like much more. For each category, I introduced what that category was about, named the winning pub(s) in that category, and then listed to recommended/runners-up in that category. The article finished with the overall winners – the pubs that were best in terms of serving across a range of categories and having more than one drink in some categories. This was much more human, much more useful for people. Give it a good headline, or the paper will do that for you and may use something you don’t like! Do not refer to this as a pub crawl, even if your gathering of the data felt like one. Focus on the “best pubs for alcohol-free drinks”.

I also included photos of our party enjoying themselves. In the end, the paper opted for photos it had on file of the outside of pubs (St Albans is a very pub-centred place!), but your paper might well not have this, so do offer your photos. Ensure you have the permission of the people in the photo and the person who took it on file and share that with the paper (as they need to be able to show this, if asked).

Expect the article to be edited. If you’ve stuck to the word count, you’re likely to get fewer edits, but it will be rare for it to be published with no edits at all – and you just need to accept that. This is the editor’s job, and rightly so.

11. Promote the article yourself

If your article is published online, as well as in print, promote the hell out of it! You can do this on social media or, if you don’t use this or don’t have a huge following, you can ask one of your gang to do this. This will ensure it is seen more widely.

12. Repeat!

Turn this into an annual event. Offer the newspaper the chance to call it “The XXXX Advertiser Alcohol-Free Awards” and repeat the article next year, to show progress, to update readers, and to encourage pubs to keep improving. You could even have a simple awards ceremony, hosted by the local council or a winning pub!

Finally, do actually go out to the pubs that are doing well. They need your support and the more custom they get for their alcohol-free offerings, the more likely they are to continue or grow their alcohol-free offer.

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How to create and publish an alcohol-free drinks pub review

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