“Do you think the rise of craft beer will impact binge drinking?”

Do you think the rise of craft beer will impact binge drinking?

I was asked this after Good Beer Week by someone who is aware of good beer but not completely immersed in it (outside of the “craft beer bubble”, if you will). They attended the Good Beer Week launch party and observed people swirling and sniffing; gazing and pondering. All that pretentious crap that us beer geeks love to do. The idea of encouraging people to drink better beer, and not more beer, is one that doesn’t get a lot of debate but rather instead used as the basis for statements on social media and in beer marketing.

So are we really drinking better? Are we building a shining example of drinking culture that flies in the face of popular binge drinking trends?

To unpack these questions; let’s first look to Europe where Italy is often held as an example of positive drinking culture rather than having a binge drinking culture. The idea that it’s ok to drink from a younger age in a controlled setting, and drinking to get drunk is frowned upon.  From this study into Italian drinking attitudes, it was concluded:

Socialisation into alcohol occurs gradually during childhood within the family context, mainly thanks to the value of wine.  It is therefore reasonable to ask whether this could be a protective factor… It would challenge the common opinion that would like to postpone the moment an adolescent is allowed to drink in order to prevent later hazardous drinking

However it was also noted that convergence of Western culture is leading young people away from the traditional wine culture and towards beer and spirits. This change has been noticed and discussed in news articles over the last few years; with some pointing out that it is no longer taboo to get drunk in Italy. This article from the Telegraph suggests Italian teenagers are starting to mirror their British counterparts. It seems that Italy is making laws more restrictive in a reaction to the social change, but from the research paper above and this article from the Guardian, it’s concluded that the more restrictive the laws the more likely bingeing will occur. So how does this relate to beer and this current trend to sniff and swirl rather guzzle and vomit?

Recently some online media and bloggers (the idea of specifically “craft” beer culture changing wider beer culture is one that I’m yet to see discussed outside of a handful of bloggers) have started questioning the attitudes within the scene. One recently suggested the gamification of drinking popularised by the ubiquitous app/website “Untappd” was harmful to the scene and to blame for a lot of issues. Before I quote and link the post I should make clear that I’m an Untappd user. I’m also someone who has a long history of binge drinking and at times I felt I have been close to slipping over the line into needing to drink rather than wanting to. Even when I was in high school there was a period when I was drinking not only on weekends, but on weeknights too. That continued past high school and into my years in hospitality; where we had a “fun” name for each day of the week to excuse drinking and more often than not those days ran into the next without a second though.

It could be suggested that the idea of labelling harmful behaviour with a playful name makes it seem more socially acceptable… and I’m suggesting it now.

Untappd does exactly that. Gives you a badge for completing a task that borders on binge drinking. A fun name to excuse drinking. From Hoosier Beer Geek

  My biggest issue with Untappd is that I believe is encourages binge drinking and overall disrespecting what Craft beer is all about.  The founders of Untappd have repeatedly said they are not about binge drinking, but they load these badges into the system that for some reason people feel the need to obtain. Think about that for a second. People are drinking when they don’t want to simply to get an electronic badge on the internet and then share it with their social media network.  I don’t fully believe they are not promoting binge drinking though. They put badges into the system that you get for 5+ check-ins for beers with ABVs above 10%, a badge that encourages people to check into 5 beers in a single day, a badge that toasts you with “drinking your paycheck badge,” one that encourages drinking 10 beers from the same brewer in 30 days, one that encourages three check-ins after 8PM, and an entire assortment of badges that can only be obtained on a single day by drinking a beer. Untappd has helped turn craft beer into a drinking contest, and that isn’t what I think craft beer is all about.

I don’t think I agree with all of the sentiment here. I don’t think it’s the fault of Untappd but rather the users. The gamification is what helped Untappd cement their place as the app that everyone uses. It encourages you to keep using it. The by-product when it’s an alcohol focused game, is that it’s encouraging you to drink. It’s almost a chicken and egg scenario. I think Untappd has many positives for beer lovers. If nothing as a log of what you have tried, but also as a way to meet like-minded beer lovers, which has happened to me in a foreign country.  After logging a beer that was spotted by someone a couple of tables across we struck up a friendship which led me to finding some incredibly rare beer.

To balance that positive anecdote with a negative one: On Thursday night I met some friends at a bar with a limited selection of beer. Going into the night I knew that it was a great opportunity to get an Untappd badge that I hadn’t received. The badge was for drinking six of the same beers consecutively. While I had done this many times, I don’t log every beer so had never got the badge. I made up my mind going into the evening that I was going to drink six beers; and I did. For some reason I started drinking pints – so I drank six of them.  Purely to achieve a badge. Earlier in the day there was a small celebration at work and someone handed me a Peroni. I can’t stand Peroni and I hate drinking at work. But I knew I hadn’t checked it in to Untappd… you know where I’m going with this…

Another trend in beer at the moment is the rise of the “session beer”. Basically breweries are taking traditionally big flavoured beers and whittling the ABV down to “session” levels (which is a joke, because most of them are about 4.5% anyway, which is still a full strength beer rather than a traditional sub-4% session strength, but that’s a whole new blog). A writer over at Drinks Business looked at the names of these beers, along with the labels and names of other craft beers and suggested that craft beer marketing was becoming “irresponsible”. In an interesting look at the hypocrisy of craft beer being allowed to get away with marketing that the big players would not, he was widely panned in the comments and other places online. Comments like this from “Charles Goin”:

Seriously..? This the most idiotic article I have ever read. These are CRAFT beers, most are sold only in the hig end section of the Beer area in the grocery store.. but MOST require going to a specific BEER store. Has everyone lost all sense of humor and fun..? To whomever wrote this drivel.. GET OVER YOURSELF.

Or this classic from fiat128

People like you are utterly destroying America. Crawl back in your hole pussy! Children would never drink something as bitter as Hopslam. You are an idiot,

The point of the article being completely missed, what’s telling is the attitude towards “craft” beer in the comments. It’s the idea that people who drink craft beer are above binge drinking and anyone who suggests otherwise is an idiot. While I don’t agree that regulation around labels and names is a good thing (and anyone with basic reading skills could clearly see the author was definitely not asserting that), it’s obvious to anyone that a name such as “All Day IPA” certainly suggests it’s designed to be drunk for long periods of time.  Again, that is not something I’m anti. I like a long day in the sun drinking a few beers and the All Day IPA is a beer that I would reach for (because it’s delicious) but I’m under no illusion that such a day wouldn’t constitute binge drinking.

A few months ago there was an excellent blog post from BeerGraphs.com suggesting there are major problems within the scene but again, people seem to be unwilling to talk about them. The author says that the culture…

 encourages curiosity and exploration among consumers, but has relatively little to say about healthy drinking habits. By turning beer into a hobby and a lifestyle, craft as a market trend smoothes out a lot of the stigma that would otherwise be attached to, say, drinking an 11% double IPA at lunch. And then having another.

While at times the author of the piece did binge hard on his thesaurus, it’s an excellent take on the subject and hammers home the idea that we are probably all just kidding ourselves. So where does that leave the original question posed?

Do you think the rise of craft beer will impact binge drinking?

I think it can. Swirling and sniffing is a great way to enjoy beer and focus on the product rather than the drunken result. It shifts the focus away from volume and towards quality. However, binge drinking has, and will always be a thing. I would be a complete hypocrite if I said I didn’t enjoy a long drinking session where I end up pretty drunk. The nearest teenager probably wants to go out and get shitfaced and end up in a puddle of vomit, and any local sports team will play any number of drinking games in the club-rooms after the match or on the bus home. It’s just what happens and I doubt that will ever change.

Maybe we need to move the debate on from simply “how do we stop it” or “regulation” or in the case of craft beer “pretend we are better than everyone else while downing half-a-dozen 8% beers and then deciding it’s time to drink an imperial stout”. I’m not sure where we move it to; but at least keep having the discussion.

Right now craft beer drinkers are still early adopters. We are still the minority and have an almost unprecedented chance to shape how drinking trends change over the next few years. We can stick our heads at the bottom of a pint and keep telling ourselves we are morally superior or we can admit that we are probably just as bad as everyone else but unlike everyone else, we just like to be wankers about it.

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7 Responses

  1. You’ve hit an issue I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while – but from a slightly different angle. Guess I’d better pull my finger out now and write it 🙂

  2. Pats Pints says:

    A well written post that makes a lot of good points. I think it is possible to go the Italian wine culture approach and limit yourself to maybe 10 beers a week spread out and at appropriate times, but anything more than two beers in a sitting and we are fooling ourselves if we think we are any different than someone throwing back mass produced beers for a good buzz. I know I dont have the willpower to always stop when I should.

    The fact that I really love the way good beer tastes has both good and bad consequences. For me it makes it harder to resist going beyond 1-2 beers on a weekend night when i have the luxury of doing so. At the same time it does sometimes make me pass on another beer when my palate is shot and I know I won’t be able to appreciate it.

    • It’s tough to make decisions after a few drinks which I think plays a big part of it. i know I’m guilty of grabbing something special or rare when I should probably just stop. If you are able to stop yourself then you are doing a great job.

  3. Leonard says:

    In my mind, There’s nothing really wanky about sniffing and swirling, it’s just appreciating the drink and engaging the senses – just like you would with wine.
    When you go to a restaurant, you swirl, sniff and taste before you give the “all clear”
    People don’t binge on a good Shiraz – maybe a cheap Lambrusco (getting some sad flashbacks of my uni days)

    The point I like the most from your blog is that we are early adopters. Another way of saying that is that we are the first generation of craft beer drinkers in this country.
    Binge drinking has been handed down over many generations. I see it in my neighbours. I’m introducing craft beer and the many styles of craft beer to them with varied success.
    They don’t laugh at me anymore when I say no to Carlton Draught when they offer it. They are now bringing James Squire and other craft offerings they can find at DMS. A step in the right direction at least!
    I don’t know if they called me a beer snob behind my back, but I don’t care.
    When it comes to food, wine and beer; I make no apologies for setting high standards for quality and taste.
    I got it from my Italian parents and extended family.

    So let’s not get caught up in the debate too much, even though it is worthwhile for some. But let’s enjoy the fruits of the craft beer industry alongside the magnificent food and wine industry we are lucky enough to have in this great nation of ours.

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