Who needs a drink to have a good time? Not us. Elise Rana Hopper looks at the rise of teetotal socialising in the North East and beyond
Something’s changing in Newcastle’s party central – it’s drying out. When it comes to new openings, it isn’t bars or nightclubs, but cafés and restaurants that are on the rise, and of these some of the most interesting success stories share the distinct unifying factor of being pretty much booze-free. But is this a fad – the hospitality industry equivalent of the odd month of detox – or the harbinger of a greater cultural shift?
The figures paint the picture. In 2015, the rate of pub closures as monitored by CAMRA slowed slightly to 27 a week, but this is compared to an ever-growing coffee shop market which for the last decade and a half has been one of the most successful in the UK economy.
Even pub chain JD Wetherspoon sells almost as much coffee as it does real ale, while Andy Harrison, chief executive of Costa parent company Whitbread, has said that coffee shops have now filled a hole in British society that would previously have been met by pubs.
The growth of female spending power has been credited, but it isn’t just women who are picking pots of tea over pints of lager – it’s the next generation.
“Drinking has always been the default for students, but there are a lot of youngsters who are saying – that’s not for me,” says Patrick Quilliam, one of the three brothers whose eponymous late-night teahouse in Newcastle has proved a popular student haunt despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it does not serve alcohol. Based on the teahouse culture of Budapest and borne of the brothers’ own frustration at not being able to find a decent cup of tea past 5.30pm in their hometown, the teetotal nightlife destination is a hit. “We thought, if this can be popular in a country where even breakfast culture includes half a pint of beer, it can work in Newcastle,” says Patrick. “It took a few months, but now evenings are almost as busy as the daytimes. I remember the first time we had a group of 17 and 18-year-old local lads who were here until 1am tasting tea – that felt like a moment of victory!”
Again, it’s reflected in the figures: according to the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by more than 40% between 2005 and 2013, while binge drinking in the same age group has fallen more than a third. With decreased spending power and an uncertain job market, blithely getting hammered every night is no longer the default for the Instagram generation. While the Diamond Strip continues to twinkle for some, it’s a total turn-off for many young people, according to Pat Quilliam. “They get off the train and walk through the Bigg Market on a Friday or Saturday night and see 40 and 50-year-olds staggering around – they don’t want to be like that.”
Witness the rise in the UK university towns of alcohol-free residences, sober freshers’ weeks – and café culture, fuelled in no small part by a growing intake of international students whose cultures do not involve drinking but do still involve late nights. Newcastle University was apparently delighted to have the Quilliam Brothers providing an alternative to the casino, which is where many of its international students were ending up in search of tea in the evening. Sugar is still an acceptable vice, and catching up over ice cream sundaes or indulgent bakery products is also growing in popularity. 2015 saw not one but two late-opening dessert parlour chains opening outlets in central Newcastle just streets apart, with Grainger Street’s Creams following hot on the heels of Kaspa’s on Clayton Street.
Want to meet friends somewhere you can get a seat and hear each other speak, but don’t have the time or the budget for a full restaurant meal? Meet for a waffle after work instead. Even when alcohol is on the menu, it’s no longer the primary focus for some of the city’s more interesting venues. The offer at Ouseburn gem Ernest currently includes Macrame Mondays, Drink ‘n’ Draw, and talks on cosmology with Kielder Observatory’s Gary Fildes. The recently revamped bar and café at Tyneside Cinema has a packed schedule of free screenings from cult classics to silent film, as well as knitting, book and language clubs. Meditation, art and dance classes are proving popular at ¡VAMOS! Social, the late-night cultural hub operating in the former Venue nightclub at the heart of the emerging ‘creative quarter’ around Newcastle’s Pilgrim Street, Market Street and New Bridge Street West.
“The scene in Newcastle has diversified and developed its own ecology of authentic independent activity,” says Nik Barrera of ¡VAMOS!. “Nightclubs’ presence have lessened, but also audience tastes have developed to include food, film, dance and cultural activities.”
“The atmosphere in Newcastle has changed,” concludes Pat Quilliam. “People are taking more of an interest in what they’re eating and drinking, and if they are drinking alcohol, it’s often to enjoy the taste rather than to just get wasted. But it’s just a lot more acceptable to want to do something a bit more sociable when you’re going out. When I see people taking pictures of themselves to show they’re out drinking tea and playing Scrabble at 10pm, it’s really encouraging – I think that’s a brilliant thing to show off about.”