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Friday, February 19, 2010

From the Woodshed (In Which I Attempt to Walk It Back)

Well, that was bracing. Yesterday, in response to a Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker, I hypothesized that the arrival of good beer had changed beer drinking habits for the better. A hypothesis rejected, based on my reading of the dozens of comments, by about two to one. The problem with the post--the meta problem which was the source of all the the baby problemettes--was that I bundled a bunch of points together to come up with a final thesis. Let's pull some of them apart and see where we stand.

Let's start with Gladwell's article, which I used as a jumping-off point to make my own argument. In comments, Mark observed:
However, the Gladwell article points out that drunkenness itself is not moderated by culture, but the deleterious affects may be. His citation of the Camba society drinking behavior shows them to typically get quite drunk, pass out and awake to more drinking. It is their rules and cultural practices that seem to prevent some of the problems associated with over imbibing.
Mark's exactly right. Gladwell's article talks a lot about how culture is what dictates drinking habits, not laws. In some cases, these cultures produce drinking habits with substantial downsides, even if alcoholism and revelry are not among them. Point taken.

One of my data points for demonstrating the rise of a "culture of connoisseurship" was to mention that while craft beer consumption is on the rise, per-capita consumption is falling. Hugh Johnson, seeding his impassioned rebuttal with exclamation points, rejects my statistics.
No one could be that inept! The number of servings are down, but the % of alcohol per serving is up! Beer today are routinely 5% and up. Compared to the previous average of 4% or so. Look around any local pub. You won't find people socially drink 1-2 servings of beer. They are drinking 2-3 pints of beer that is 5-7% or higher. That would equal 4-5 regular servings. Less beer in numbers, but more alcohol is being consumed.
Well, Hugh, I got you there: apparently I can be that inept. On the surface, I thought I might be able to find stats to confirm or deny the point, but it's not that easy. And worse, when I started poking around, what I found contradicted the Brewers Guild stats. In the last 15 years, Oregonians increased their consumption by about a gallon per capita, from 22 to 23 gallons a year according to the Brewer's Association. I found no stats on consumption habits, however, so it's harder to resolve the central question.

Since Hugh was so adamant in his point, I'd like to refute some of what is just as anecdotal an argument as mine. Hugh may see a lot of people drinking high-octane beers pint after pint in his local, but many of the state's most popular beers are relatively low-alcohol: Widmer Hef (4.9%), Deschutes Mirror Pond (5.0%) and Black Butte (5.2%), Session (5.1%), BridgePort IPA (5.5%). These are not extravagantly higher in alcohol than tin-can beer.

Next we get to a point made by Mr. Murphy, which starts to get to the heart of the matter:
The only people that are drinking fewer beers are doing it because the beer is stronger now (me included) or they are just getting older. I personally think it is a solid fact that the majority of people drink to get buzzed.
(A minor theme in the comments involved people pointing out that my incipient geezerdom was responsible for me thinking everyone else drinks less--you know, just because oldsters like me drink less. Thank god a few whippersnappers raced to my defense!) Murphy raises the key question: has craft brewing been responsible for creating a competing culture of consumption that is focused on tasting the beer? Or do people really still just drink beer to get drunk--albeit more fashionably and with tastier beverages, thanks to craft beer?

Conclusions
I first want to acknowledge that my thoughts on this matter are not informed by hard data. Reading through the comments, I saw that people's own individual experiences differed, so they had different opinions about patterns of consumption. College town Eugene, in particular, appears to be much more oriented around the buzz--to no great surprise.

That said, I still just can't buy the argument that nothing's changed. It is true that alcohol is always going to be popular because of its effects on human perception. Humans like to alter their consciousness--this appears to be one of the few consistents across the globe. Yet Gladwell's article ably illustrates that "culture determines how we drink" (as Patrick summarized it). What I see when I go to brewpubs or alehouses--and here is my sample bias; I don't spend much time in either upscale or dive bars--is an amazing diversity of people drinking beer together. I see families, seniors, women--I once saw a children's birthday party at the Lucky Lab! A great many of them are not drinking to drunkenness. To me, that represents a massive sea change.

Before craft beer, there really wasn't much point in drinking beer except to get buzzed. Schaefer famously made this truth the center of their ad campaign: "Schaefer, the one beer to have when you're having more than one." Nobody was spending a lot of time writing about, reading about, and rating all the different varieties of tin-can beer. It was all the same; a passably pleasant beverage that got you drunk.

With craft beer, what has emerged in certain parts of the country is a different culture of drinking, where an appreciation of the brewer's craft is front and center. This brings people together in a pleasant, relaxed environment that is far different from the way people drank beer 30 years ago. Whether this has resulted in lower consumption or more healthy patterns of consumption I can't say. But that new culture is in itself to be celebrated. Which is I guess what I should have said in the first place.

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4 comments:

iggir said...

i agree with you that the environments we've created around craft beer - pubs, alehouses, tasting rooms - are healthier examples of drinking than the old smoky tavern.

i'll add to the fun anecdotes: when i was a kid, my parents used to stop off at the tavern fairly often in the evenings. this being 20-some odd years ago and taverns being what they were (smoky, dingy, dark places with lots of full-time alcoholics), they opted to leave me in the car while they hung out in the bar. so, i spent many (many) extraordinarly boring hours sitting locked in the car while my parents boozed it up.

so, i guess my point is (beyond the potential child abuse issues), is that if we'd had brewpubs and alehouses back then, i could have come inside and enjoyed the atmosphere rather than playing with my G.I. Joe figures on the floorboard of our Buick. i can't say whether i'd be drinking healthier today, but i sure would have enjoyed myself more.

Anonymous said...

"This brings people together in a pleasant, relaxed environment that is far different from the way people drank beer 30 years ago."

iggir's abandonment and lack of corroborative statistics aside, I still don't know if your base argument holds water. I doubt I would have a hard time finding others with memories of the omnipresent tin-can beer in their parent's fridge with a COUPLE of beers broken out after work, when dad's brother stopped by, after rewiring the kitchen, etc. Not getting hammered, but having a couple of beers.

Also, my folks rarely had more that two or three beers out at dinner or at the baseball game or the company picnic. They didn't have the beer "culture" of pubs and alehouses but beer was everywhere (arguably more accessible and accepted than today in many circumstances) and many of them no only lived to tell about it, but have less harrowing and exciting stories than may come out of Deschutes - Pearl on a Friday night.

jbx said...

Collaborative websites such as BeerAdvocate.com, BeerMapping.com, and blog.Taplister.com bear witness to a beer subculture different from the buzz beer days of yore. You don't need to search Maps.Google for |brewpub| to pickup a 6er of PBR at 7/11. And, yes, without the InterWeb thinga this collaboration would not be possible.

My wife and I are on a 10 day roadtrip holiday in coastal NE Florida and coastal and NW South Carolina. We have visited at least one brewpub, taproom, or beer parlor each day [facilitated by Maps.Google and BeerMapping]. Several were gastropubs of regional restaurant chains. I was aware of very few such business a decade ago.

To me, the proliferation of alehouses and gastropubs signals a rise in craft beer appreciation and moderate beer drinking. And, yes, near closing time, they are most likely populated by buzz drinking, hormone flush youth [I suppose, it's past my bedtime].

Mark said...

Not sure we can quantify the impact of the brewpub and craft beer as changing drinking habits. That is not to say that habits haven't changed as a result. I recall what one of the founders of Portland Brewing told me as we were discussing the marketing and sale of craft beer. He said that in the early days, they were surprised to find that craft beer was not replacing imports, as they expected. Certainly, it wasn't taking share from the tin can beers, either. It was creating a new market. Either folks were switching from other beverages--alcoholic or otherwise--or they were coming to the market for the first time. I think that supports the thesis that things have changed and perhaps for the better.

Another possibility is that we have "transferred" locations. Using your birthday party as an example, that would have been done when I was a kid at home or in a local park. Likewise, drinking of alcohol in social settings at home. Sitting in the Deschutes pub in Portland at lunch today, with my grandkids next to me, sun streaming in, etc. certainly illustrates a welcome environment where alcohol is served, but the cultural milieu mitigates offensive behavior. And that with the beer list leading off with Jubelale 2010 at 10% ABV. (No comments about my descent into geezerhood required.)

Things have changed, for the better. We are drinking far better beer now, perhaps just catching up with England and Europe generally. And, like them, drinking in places where the environment's conditions and the cultural rules have a positive impact on our consumption, however great that may be. I would add that we are still pikers compared to many countries if you measure annual consumption of anything alcoholic.

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