As we approach Sober October, Millie Milliken is finding new no- and low-abv fizz offerings a welcome revelation
Monday evening after a weekend of debauchery and my best friend is on her way over for dinner. 'I am not drinking,' I defiantly WhatsApp her, to which she – thankfully – replies, 'Me neither, mate.' Of course, this exchange has happened innumerable times before, always ending in one of us cracking and the other faux-reluctantly following suit. But the difference on this particular date is that I have a bottle of Real Kombucha Royal Flush chilling in the fridge.
Made from First Flush Darjeeling tea, sugar and kombucha culture, Royal Flush is the brand's Champagne-inspired serve, and comes in a 750ml format, complete with a cork (and cork cage) for that celebratory pop.
With a lively effervescence, notes of rhubarb and peach on the nose and more savoury notes on the palate, it cuts refreshingly through the shellfish and charcuterie on tonight's menu. Served in my vintage Babycham saucers (hi, I'm a millennial), it feels surprisingly celebratory. Unsurprisingly, it came joint first in our No & Low Taste Awards Best No & Low Wine or Wine Alternative category, as well as winning the Sommelier's Choice No & Low Award.
It's one of the many new no-abv sparkling wine alternatives on the UK market in 2020. While dealcoholised wines still seem to be in their infancy when it comes to recognition (and, indeed, finesse), this new wave of sparkling teas and kombuchas are enjoying a moment which, as we come into Sober October and approach Christmas (complete with a curfew), may be the answer to quenching consumers' growing thirst for no and low drinks.
Speaking as part of Club Soda's Mindful Drinking Festival, Christine Parkinson (ex-group head of wine at Hakkasan restaurants and now co-founder of no & low consultancy, Brimful Drinks) sees this particular segment of the no and low category as an emerging and exciting one. 'This is such an interesting category because yes, there is dealcoholised wine, some of which are very good, but it's actually a lot harder to produce a good dealcoholised wine,' she explains. 'What's happening is there are alternatives coming in which are doing the job of wine.'
About Royal Flush, she sees its merits as a Champagne alternative being down to both the packaging and the style: 'In a restaurant a sommelier would serve it in exactly the same way [as Champagne]... It's got everything, it's got the beautiful mousse... and one of the things about this is that it doesn't have flavours added, it's about the flavour of the tea... which makes it incredibly elegant.'
As well as Real's other sparkler, Dry Dragon, L.A Brewery's new Sparkling English Rose, is another release to bolster this evermore exciting subcategory. Another cork popper, this Suffolk-made kombucha sparkler is made using Assam and White Monkey teas, as well as rose petals. It's a beautifully balanced drink, with light floral notes on the nose, and acidity on the palate, complemented with a maltiness from the Assam and a dry finish (which may be a result of the green White Monkey tea's tannins).
Those going down the even more fermented route will find sparkling kefir brand, Agua De Madre. Sitting at 1.25% abv, this low-alcohol drink also came Highly Commended in our Best Kombucha, Shrub or Fermented Drink category and, in this imbiber's mind, would do well sitting alongside natural wines on a menu for guests looking to moderate their alcohol intake, but still after a touch of funk.
With Fortnum & Mason releasing its own celebratory sparkling tea, I wouldn't be surprised to see more of these fermented fizzes arriving on drinks menus in the coming months to keep up with consumer demand.
And as the curfew on bars and restaurants takes hold I, for one, will be spending more daylight hours in them and, for at least a few days a week, I should probably be sober.
I'll have a flute of sparkling tea, please – and keep them coming.