The Mindful Drinking Festival – a happy review
When I read about the Mindful Drinking Festival, I was pretty surprised. Not that such a thing should exist per se – because these days there are festivals for absolutely everything.
But that it should be so well attended by both major brands and tiny brands a like. Whatever it was going to be like, I decided I had to go.
Right in the middle of the Great Heatwave of 2018, I sweltered down the street from Liverpool Street tube to Old Spitalfields Market. I heard the pumping music before I even rounded the corner and found a little pop-up festival happening right before my eyes.
The weather had taken a turn for the windy – clearly a situation no one had bargained for and there were little plastic shot glasses and festival branding drifting around in miniature tornados amongst the market’s towering entrance.
A brand new non-alcoholic gin
I immediately found myself at one of the first stalls, the Duchess Gin stall. Since giving up alcohol 8 months ago, gin and tonics have been one of the only drinks I’ve really missed.
Despite having drunk a lot of red wine previously, I haven’t missed it at all and my craving for beer is satisfied by the excellent non-alcoholic beers you can get these days. But a G&T? Surely it was impossible to recreate.
I had heard about Duchess, or rather, I’d run into the brand on Instagram. Difficult to find for sale online (the South African brand has only recently started marketing itself in the UK), it was actually one of the primary reasons I wanted to come to the festival.
I was given a little shot of the drink within moments and my god, it was good. And good as in good not just as in I’ve-just-got-off-the-hot-tube good.
‘It’s sold ready to drink,’ said the affable South African. ‘Straight out the bottle. Its great with a slice of lemon or lime too.’ Having no idea when I would next be able to track it down, I bought a four pack of the 275ml bottles. It was going to be a heavy trip home.
A huge mix of different flavours
The next stand I found myself at was a fiery ginger beer stand. It was good, but ginger beer wasn’t exactly high on my list of non-alcoholic drinks to discover.
After all, it’s been around forever and it contains more sugar than a bag of Silver Spoon. So I persevered onto Botonique. This brand has been advertised far more than most of the other nonalcoholic spirits I’ve been researching and, perhaps due to this and it’s rather fancy packaging, the stall was swamped.
I got the impression I would never make it past the linen and wide-brim hats so I changed course for the neighbouring stall, Shrb.
I’m a big fan of words with vowels removed. It’s a little adorable and that, combined with a passing memory of Eric Idle shouting out the word, ‘shrubbery!’, I was keen to try it. It wasn’t immediately obviously was Shrb was.
Presented in dark brown beer bottles, it didn’t shout beer but it didn’t shout anything else either. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but there’s a reason why packaging has industry norms – it makes it instantly recognisable.
Still, I like its branding and today was all about discovering new things anyway so who was I to judge.
Shrb, it turned out, was a ‘Prohibition Soda’. Which is potentially why I didn’t automatically understand its look. I’ve never been a soda drinker. I’m not even really sure what it refers to. Fizzy drinks?
Anyway, Shrb is all about full flavour, using apple vinegar for the punch and a little fizz to round things off. The four flavours that were at the festival were Original (fennel and gingseng), Lime Juniper, Apple Cinnamon and Orange Ginger.
I’m going to be honest here, when I read the flavours I felt like I’d made a mistake to jolly over so enthusiastic. In general, if a drink sounds like it should be either a cake of a Body Shop product, it’s probably not going to rock my world. But again…Here. To. Try. New. Things.
So I did.
I tried both Original and Apple Cinnamon and you know what? They were great. They actually had taste which, let’s face it, is often lacking from a lot of major brand drinks. I don’t know if it’s because large brands want to appeal to the masses and so make their flavours vague or if it’s just that pubs and restaurants only order the blandest flavours but either way, Shrb had flavour like nothing else.
It wasn’t a drink I’d easily drink quickly, but given that I never drank alcohol for its hydration, that’s not a problem. In fact, surely it’s a bad sign if a drink is so easy to knock back that you whizz through it?
Shrb was something worth savouring, but I needed a palate cleanser so I accept a little cup of Heineken 0.0. That sounds a little like an insult, but it’s really not. Heineken 0.0 was the beer that got me into non-alcoholic beers in the first place, back in the New Year.
It was on offer for an impressively low price at my corner-shop and it was so perfectly largerish that I developed a real fondness for it. It’s just blanket lager. It’s like every lager I’ve ever tasted – it has no discerning features unlike some other, not very nice alcohol free lagers. It’s a perfect drink for a hot summer’s day and is deeply inoffensive.
Alcohol free beers – it’s all about innovation
I wandered down to the Nirvana Brewery stand, another reason I wanted to come to the festival. Nirvana only create alcohol free beer and they seem pretty dedicated to crafting ales and other beers that are full of flavour and utterly drinkable.
I tried them all.
An entirely different ball game from Heineken 0.0, Nirvana’s pale ales were outstanding. They only have a tiny collection but they’re so good, I’d happily have bought a crate.
Next up was Silk Botanics, an Irish brand which had been going for a matter of weeks and had mislaid all of their branding on the plane over. What they lacked in fancy stall decoration they certainly made up for in chat and personality.
Another alternative to gin, Silk Botanics was a powerful drink that absolutely tasted like a spirit. I didn’t really enjoy it straight up, but I’ve never been one for straight spirits anyway. I had it mixed with an excellent tonic and it was actually very nice. Something to sip.
I moved on to yet another gin alternative, this one about a week old. It was Devon-based and I felt like this might be it, my new drink. I sipped it carefully….huh. It tasted an awful lot like flat lemonade.
But the cheap stuff that doesn’t actually taste of lemon.
The bottle was beautiful and very artistic and I wondered if that was the problem. All efforts of making it look good and not so much on making it delicious. It very much tasted like flavoured water.
The delights of Kombucha
I needed a break from the pumping music and headed off down the street where a couple more stands were creating shadows in the midday sun. Here I was handed a bottle of apple kombucha – okay hand’s down, one of the best drinks I’d had all day.
It was awesome.
I’ve had kombucha before and always found it a little hard to drink but this one was outstanding. I would drink it every day if I could find it.
Here I also discovered a drink truly out of this world. Freshly made and with three flavours, it was the ultimate in hipster beverages.
Its ingredient list was small but read like a page from an ancient Pagan cocktail menu. ‘We don’t want to be selling in supermarkets,’ said the founder of Outsider, ‘we want to stay in local markets and sell direct through our website.’
The drink itself was rich and flavourful, strangely refreshing but also sippable, not neckable. To be honest, it was borderline indescribable. It was just like nothing I had ever drunk before. ‘That’s what I want to aim for,’ he said, ‘I don’t just want an alcohol replacement, I want something that’s entirely separate.’
Non-alcoholic is not second best
I wandered on through the festival, thinking about what he said. It was true, most drinks advertised as ‘non-alcoholic’ were just alcohol free versions of…well…alcohol.
So what did that mean for sober people? A lifetime of drinking a replica? Always opting for the simulation of the real thing?
And why, when it is obviously not beyond the realm of possibility to create entirely different drinks that happen to be non-alcoholic, are we always looking for a fake version?
Hopefully, with the innovation I was seeing around the festival was an indication that at some point soon, going into a pub might not be an option of alcohol, Coke, one option of non-alcoholic beer.
But instead, dare I imagine that it could have an entire range of interesting drinks that happen to not be alcoholic?