You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How We Drink

In the current issue of the New Yorker (Feb 15 & 22, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell turns his attention to drinking habits. As is usual with Gladwell, the upshot is somewhat obvious, but it's padded with such nice stories that you don't mind. (As a serial padder of often trivial observations, I am in no position to judge.) Drawing on the research of Bolivian-traveling ethnographers from the 1950s, Yale alcohol researchers, and assorted other anthropologists working in Mexico and Kenya, Gladwell comes to this (sorry, it's not available online):
"There is something about the cultural dimension of social problesm that eludes us. When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.... Nowhere in the multitude of messages and signals sent by popular culture and socail institutions about drinking is there any consensu about what drinking is supposed to mean."
Gladwell could have saved himself some trouble by turning to Oregon, where we've known about this phenomenon for years. The Oregon Brewers Guild proudly touts the fact that while consumption of Oregon-brewed beer is up, way up, over the past decade, the total consumption of beer is down. This paradox is solved by recognizing that what the craft brewing renaissance has provided Oregon (and probably many other less-statistically-oriented states) is a culture shift.

The act of drinking has changed. Formerly, the buzz was the point. At the dawn of my drinking life (for legal purposes, we'll say that was 1989), brewpubs and alehouses were not yet well-established. Instead, the standard place to drink was a box with no windows, a pool table, and a haze of smoke. Women were a distinct (if highly visible) minority. Outside pubs, we took home "suitcases" of Hamms (18 or 24 beers--the details elude me), purchased and drunk in bulk. Part of this was my age, but a big part of it was that that's the only beer culture that existed.

Now we drink less, but we drink because the beer is tasty. As a result, we drink it together, as whole families, in pubs and in our homes. One of my neighbors, a minister, and I share a relationship based on the appreciation of craft beer. He has a lovely family who presumably do not regard this as a transgressive act. The smoky bars are not all gone (though they're not smoky anymore!), but they are now the niche. Mostly we drink our beer in well-lighted places where we can see and smell and enjoy it--and each other.

The result is that we are abandoning the larger quantities of cheap beer for the smaller quantities of good beer. While getting drunk will always be a motivation of some folks, we have a competing cultural model for alcohol consumption that encourages healthy behavior.

So the answer to the problem of alcohol, obviously, is more breweries.


  1. I think your white washing the drinking culture of Oregon.

    I notice people everywhere drinking for the buzz, even with craft beers. Many people pointed out the drunkeness at the Holiday Ale Festival, where many patrons seemed to be concerned about quantity drunk rather then quality.

    Or how about Eugene? Their under age drinking has been noted as an extreme problem with youth openly getting drunk in public. One of my coworkers went to school there and loves to tell stories of the drunken antics that occured in that town.

    I think you could legitimatly say many craft drinkers in their 30's and up are in it for the beer. But I'd still say the younger people are in it for the buzz.

  2. Whitewashing? I don't think so. I'm talking about the "competing cultural model" which I don't think existed, at least not among beer drinkers, even 25 years ago. The effect is that, over time, the habits of the population of Oregon has changed. We drink less. Gladwell's point is that you can't mandate this through laws; it has to be cultural. We drink less because we drink differently.

    Obviously, college campuses and college towns will always be hot spots for par-tays. We live in a diverse country with lots of micro-cultures.

    I should probably have shaded thing a bit and said "formerly, the buzz was the only point." But I think the larger analysis is accurate.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I'm not sure things have changed all that much in 25 years, though my experience with drinking precedes yours by a good bit. I do agree with your point about cultural norms and the influences they have on drinking. 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.
    Not everyone thinks that rules are all that valuable in drinking. In doing "research" many years ago to uncover an authentic Wassail recipe, I found a wonderful quote included in a Dutch recipe for Hoppel Poppel, a sort of egg nog. It seems the cultured French were not so enamored of drinking rules in the 17th century, According to the poet de Viau, "All these gentlemen of the Netherlands have so many rules and ceremonies for getting drunk that I am repelled as much by the discipline as by the excess."
    Jeff, in quoting Gladwell, you seem to be suggesting that we have reached a "tippling" point in drinking.

  5. You can't be serious! Jared is 100% correct. Look at the Holiday Ale Fest, Oregon Brewer Fest or any other local fest! 10% of the beer aficionados attend and drink they're samples and leave. The majority of the rest linger all day drinking pint after pint of 6-10% beers. Yea, that's responsible drinking! It's more of a drunk fest than a drink fest.

    "The Oregon Brewers Guild proudly touts the fact that while consumption of Oregon-brewed beer is up, way up, over the past decade, the total consumption of beer is down."

    This is obviously and play on reality. 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. Do you see responsible social drinking in most pubs or festivals? The answer is, no. I don't see many people socialize by drinking one 8% pint and say, "That's it, I've had my daily allowance of beer. I'm going home."

    To stay within the guidelines of drinking a healthy amount of beer, experts say no more than 2 beers a day.

    People are getting just as drunk if not drunker do to the increased alcohol contents. 18 Hamms or 9 Double IPA's. No difference.

    If you think Oregonians are drinking responsible, you are either delusional or wishful thinking at best.

  6. Oh Jeff, you better hurry and put a new post up. This ones not going your way at all.... ;-}

  7. As I read this post and the New Yorker article, I asked myself, "Would any of us drink beer or wine or liquor if it did not have the mind-altering affect that it does?" I don't think so. We can wax philosophic about all the many benefits of social drinking and how alcoholic drinks were safer than water not so many years ago and the like. But, along with the social and cultural aspects of drinking and the valuable community building benefits, we would not continue to produce these products in such great numbers and variety if it weren't for the affect. It may not be the only reason we like alcoholic beverages, but it is certainly one of the reasons. I don't think that's wrong. And, the article points out that drunkenness, however modulated by cultural norms, often, though not always, accompanies the use of alcohol.
    I don't think that having one's mind altered by drinking, even to the point of drunkenness, however you define that, is in conflict with societal drinking practices that suppress bad behavior. That is precisely the point of the Gladwell article. And, I think your point, Jeff, is well taken and a good example that proves Gladwell's thesis.

  8. I, in fact, was confused by the Gladwell piece. I am not quite sure what it was saying other than culture determines how we drink. Well, thanks for that.

    He discusses both the regular but social and moderate drinking ala the italians of New Haven, and the Bolivian falling-over-drunk-major-two-day-long-bender session. So exactly what is the result of culture? I suppose it is either drinking moderately, or drinking to get drunk but not being obnoxious, violent or dangerous about it.

    In other words it is neither about the motivation nor the quantity, but about the behavior that goes along with it. And in this sense, Gladwell has, once again, managed to package the painfully obvious in cutesy anecdotes and make lots of money doing it.

    But to me this is the same old story: why do the French have such healthy drinking habits and the Brits don't? Gotta be culture since everything else seems trivial.

    And in this sense I agree that the brewpub culture in the NW is modeling good behavior and healthy attitudes to drinking for the young-ins. But remember pub culture of this type has been around for eons in England and the reality is not so pastoral as one might expect.

  9. Oh Jeff, you better hurry and put a new post up. This ones not going your way at all.... ;-}

    Indeed. But I've been blogging long enough that I've come to fear no comments much more than getting beaten on by engaged readers.

    However, so far I remain unpersuaded--despite the passion--by Jared and Hugh.

  10. Saying you only drink beer for the taste is like saying you only read Playboy for the articles...

  11. Sadly I have to disagree with your assessment, Jeff. 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. Whether it is a young person openly getting drunk or an old veteran drinker that has learned to hide his buzz the result is the same.

    Some percent of people tone down their drinking as they get older because they want to keep their life together and/or the hangovers are too brutal. That is a phenomenon of age not culture.

    Don't get me wrong, culture (read: peer pressure) will have some effect on a person’s drinking. However, in this case I think your assessment of Oregon drinking has more to do with a reflection on your own path versus that of the average drinker.

  12. "I think you could legitimatly say many craft drinkers in their 30's and up are in it for the beer. But I'd still say the younger people are in it for the buzz."

    Nothing like painting with a broad brush. I'm 24 and I, like many friends of similar age, drink because we enjoy beer, not for the buzz. If anything, I'd say that the younger generation is MORE likely to get the craft beer thing, and at worst it's a problem that cuts across age demographics. Sure, underage kids drink to get drunk, but don't confuse the twenty-somethings with the college crowd. If anything the fact that very young kids are a problem backs my point up, in that their behavior would likely be different if they had had modelling of responsible drinking behavior by parents.

  13. All right, it looks like I'll have to look at some more statistics and do a follow-up post. Like Gladwell, my softly-padded, anecdote-rich post has convinced no one.

    I will pose this for the assembled critics: do you agree or disagree that there is now a competing culture of beer connoisseurship that focuses on tasting beer and enjoying one another's company, or not? Because if we fail to agree on this point, I think all other analysis will be futile. For those forty and over, I would love to hear you explain how the multitude of all-ages brewpubs, some with kids rooms, had an analogue in 1980.

    If we can agree on that point, then perhaps we can ask the subsequent question: has this competing culture in fact had any appreciable affect on alcohol misuse and abuse in the larger population?

    Would you go with me that far?

  14. Jeff, though I tend to agree with you, I'd love to see some numbers supporting it. Get crackin' on that government study grant!

    That said, would you agree that drinking behaviour at festivals is something that's outside the bounds of your thesis? Intoxication at festivals seems to be what they were, are, and have always been intended for.

  15. Most drinking beer are not doing it for the buzz. That is a myth, and only something you see at younger, more trendy and less expensive 'hangouts'... $1 night for PBR... etc.

    Yes, growing up as a kid, the Grandparents split a 40 oz. of Bud w/ a bowl of pretzels a short while after dinner... while my Dad would be part way into a suitcase of Hamms.... drinking until he got hammered.

    Me? I like to enjoy a good pint. I often only drink craftbeer on-tap for lunch, and cut myself off at 2. Am I drinking heavy beers? No. I think most are doing the same.

  16. I particularly like this part: "Mostly we drink our beer in well-lighted places where we can see and smell and enjoy it--and each other."

    I know how I'm supposed to read that; but to the 10 year old homunculus in my head, it sounds like "... we drink our beer ... where we can see and smell ... each other." Maybe that's why Oregon beers are so strong? So we don't have to smell each other! ;-)

  17. Wow, hot topic, Jeff. Good read. Comments, too. It think all points are well taken. I recently befriended a guy who just turned 21 and he reads beer blogs and drinks craft beer. When I was 21, I was seeking out bang for bucks like Mickey's. I love craft beer, and I love the effects of alcohol (to a certain degree). To each his own. I better get a beer.

  18. Jeff, I agree that there is now a competing culture of beer connoisseurship that focuses on tasting beer.

    However, I believe the "enjoying ones company" part has been around forever and includes drinking macro and watching the game, drinking whiskey at the VFW, drinking pints at the Horsebrass, etc., etc., etc.

  19. Jeff said: “For those forty and over, I would love to hear you explain how the multitude of all-ages brewpubs, some with kids rooms, had an analogue in 1980.”

    For “Brewpubs” there is not an analogue. Brewpubs are much better today and I love it. However, in “restaurants” adults could certainly imbibe with the kids around.

    Could you not just as easily teach responsible drinking in that scenario? It doesn't have to be brewpub specific.

  20. As stated before, I agree with your contention that there are outlets for beer (and other alcohol) consumption that may be considered competitors to poorly lit barrooms where drinking to distraction is the norm. That there is a focus on connoisseurship I'm not so sure about, but we certainly have opportunities to drink many different beers whose flavors are far more varied than what comes out of limited taps at some of the places you mentioned in your post. That we have such opportunities is welcome. Those are places I prefer when I spend my limited dollars. Of course, a good dive bar is often a welcome place, too.

    The real question, at least the one raised by the Gladwell article, is not whether societal norms and culture control or encourage excess consumption. It's whether those norms, and in the case of this argument you are trying to make, modulate inappropriate behavior. In my mind, being altered, mildly or formidably, by alcohol consumption is not the definition or misuse or abuse in this context.

    So, I'm agreeing with your first point that there are competitors for the less salubrious drinking halls and they may have a very positive impact on behavior. What we would have to define is "misuse and abuse."

    Perhaps blogs and the internets are among the competitors to the dive bar. Otherwise, we might be hurling epithets at one another over a watery, macro brew in a dimly lit hall.

  21. Jeff - I hate to tell you you just may be getting older and not hanging out at the same places you once did. There's a lot of overconsuming pale yellow beers with well whiskey backs still going on, perhaps not in the company you keep. Going to agree with other commenters on the ABV as well, we just don't need to drink as many 6.5% beers to get the same effect as a 4%.

  22. I think your post is well written and accurate. There will always be idiots that "over-consume" but my experience is that craft beer enthusiasts are generally responsible drinkers. Man has consumed alcohol for a very long time - - I am fed up with people on their moral high-horses that preach of the ills of alcohol, especially when done while thumping a bible. If you want to see some hard-core alcohol consumption check out Japan or a few Scandinavian countries. They make American's look like lightweights.

  23. I liked the post, especially the closing paragraphs. Sure it's a little light and anecdotes don't make data, but not only does Jeff know that, he acknowledges as much in the post. So he overplays his hand and there might be a confusion over who's matured, the author or the beer scene. But he's not the only one arguing one-sidedly. Those that deny that there is now a beer scene that emphasizes flavor, complexity, balance and presentation are just arguing against the truths in the article to be contrary.

    These things are never cut and dry, but Jeff didn't argue that binge drinking or inebriation have gone away, just that, thanks to the craft beer boom, that just isn't the _only_ reason we drink now.

    Jeff's essay may not really find the right causal mechanism for the drop in beer consumption but I don't think that's anything to get angry about.

  24. Wow, Jeff! Good thing your didn't bash any religions! ;-}

  25. "I will pose this for the assembled critics: do you agree or disagree that there is now a competing culture of beer connoisseurship that focuses on tasting beer and enjoying one another's company"

    I will whole heartedly agree. But focusing on the taste of beer,and the people, has nothing to do with how people imbibe. When I go to homebrewers meetings I pour short samples of 4 or 5 beers and call it good. On a night when I'm cutting loose I'll pour maybe 7 small samples. A majority of the homebrewers in the club, of all ages, pour half pints and consume 5 or 6. Is this moderation?

    When I go to the local craft beer hot spot Venti's I watch as people down 4 or 5 pints of great beer while I cut off at 2, sometimes 3, and I'm not even counting the shots most people start drinking by their third pint.

    Craft beer culture is full of people who drink to drunkeness on a regular basis. In fact I'd say the people who over consume are the majority. How we act drunk is a different story though.

    "Nothing like painting with a broad brush. I'm 24 and I, like many friends of similar age, drink because we enjoy beer, not for the buzz"

    I'll be 24 in a few months. I was introduced to responsible beer drinking by my father long before I turned 21. I grew up in a house where drinking a beer or two with a meal was the norm with a beer or two before bed. But to be honost people in their young 20's who drink responsibly are rare, even in the craft beer scene. Most of my friends who drink craft beer think a night out shouldn't end at beer 2 or 3.

    Whether or not you include college towns and festivals I still don't think Oregons craft beer drinkers are any better then frat boys except they drink more expensive beer.

  26. I came of age during the shift, and yes, there's a difference. My peers in high school and college drank swill, so I missed a lot of what passed for socializing.

    Now, I'm married to a sometimes brewer and love great beer. I love beer so much that the first few sips is my favorite part of the experience, and getting buzzed is counterproductive. Almost twenty years after our first craft beer together, I'm still a lightweight and it's still unusual for me to drink more than a pint; he'll twice my size and will drink two, maybe three, over two hours.

    At home, I'll split a bottle with my husband rather than get buzzed and miss half of it.

    Do I ever drink to get buzzed, or without much regard? Sure, once a month or less I'll have had just about enough of everything and everybody and have two glasses of wine. And when we're traveling and I've got one crack at a great brewery, I'll drink more, and faster, than usual. But it's not *about* getting tipsy.

    What does this have to do with the kids who binge drink?

    When I was growing up, there was nothing between binge drinking swill, and no drinking at all. There was no culture of drinking something delicious, slowly and appreciatively. Craft beer is something to talk about, something in the hand, something to share and enjoy and tell stories about that begin with something other than "Ohmigod, I was soooo drunk that I...;" it's a social lubricant because it has so many qualities other than its alcohol content.