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Is Dry January the Beginning of the End for Drinking In Pubs?

Landlords plan for a quiet first month, but must be increasingly ingenious all year round to fight the changes in boozing behaviour.

“Pubs prepare to be hit by ‘nightmare’ dry January as millions give up alcohol for a month.” So said the Daily Mail at the beginning of 2016. And who could argue? The assumption that dry January could cause a spending drought is a sound one in terms of economic seasonality. In the first month of every year, purse strings are tightened. The bar is ignored in favour of the barbell, gym memberships renewed in hope of paying off a festive calorie debt in sweat. By that logic, the health industry’s gain is every brewery’s pain. And the hangover from last year’s gluttony puts December’s consumer behaviour to bed with a headache.

Just ask your local pub landlord; according the British Beer and Pub Association, the number of beers sold in January is falling year on year. Sales of beer over the entire year are also taking a tumble. It’s another threat to an industry trying to outmanoeuvre the social and economic changes clipping at its heels.

Take the craft beer ‘revolution’. It was a shift that even saw Irish brewing stalwart Guinness update its range, releasing several ales to hopefully quench the thirst of consumers given over to this trend. For trendy bars with local hipster beers on tap, it’s a boom; for traditional boozers selling standard pints, it could be the final bust. Despite a 1p cut in beer duty in each of the three years to 2015, about 30 pubs and bars are closing in the UK each week.

We’ve started selling cold-pressed juices and smoothies. It’s a health push to counteract the dip in alcohol demand

So, here’s the tipsy elephant in the room: how much of a significant impact can dry January have? With its backing from Public Health England, approximately two million people pledged themselves to a booze-free month in the UK in 2016. That’s a lot of customers telling the hospitality industry they won’t engage with its products. Compare that with December’s uptick and it’s a stark contrast many pub owners face with gritted teeth.

Behind the pumps, though, it can be a different story. One man weathering the drought with good grace is David Abrahamovitch, co-founder of Grind & Co, a chain of bars and restaurants across London. “When we forecast our sales, we do expect to sell less alcohol in January,” he says. So Dry January tallies with traditional revenue calendars.

“October, November and December are typically the best months in hospitality,” he continues. “So you’d expect sales to dip in January, but they don’t always do so as much as you might imagine.”

Abrahamovitch’s venues are in London – country’s largest city; country’s largest customer base – but he suggests another reason to be cheerful in January: Christmas parties taking place then instead of December. “Some companies either can’t afford parties in December or can’t take the time for them, especially if they are in hospitality. So there’s a flow of events even in January.” It’s something that venues would do well to capitalise on.

Yet people are cutting back on the booze by other means. “There’s certainly a dip in mid-week drinking,” he continues. A way around this, according to Abrahamovitch, is to take advantage of trends, rather than waiting for them to blow over. “We’ve recently started selling cold-pressed juices and smoothies. It’s a health push to counteract the dip in alcohol demand.” It’s a deft riposte to January’s blows.

And then there is coffee. Across the UK, the coffee boom continues, most recently fuelled by the strongly brewing trends of artisan espresso and barista art. At Grind & Co, and an increasing number of bars and pubs, dips in revenue from alcohol are being offset by sales of espressos and flat whites. If not a complete solution to the problem, it’s nevertheless a lesson in adaptation and market trend awareness – and you don’t need beer goggles to see the benefit.

Alex Harris is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Men’s Health.