How Much Beer Do Americans Really Drink?

Matt Murphy, May 21, 2014 -   

Back in February, Miles Liebtag wrote a compelling article for BeerGraphs, discussing the use, and occasional abuse, of alcohol among craft beer enthusiasts. The article clearly hit home with a lot of beer drinkers, as it quickly became one of the most popular reads on the site. One of the topics that was brought up in both the article and the comments section was how people define "a drink." I found this particularly intriguing and wanted to look a little bit deeper.

One thing I remember learning back in High School Health class was that "a drink is a drink is a drink." Whether you're having one serving of beer, wine, or liquor, it's still one serving of alcohol. By definition, a serving of alcohol is 0.6oz of pure alcohol. In terms of different types of alcohol, one serving of alcohol is:

1.5oz of a 40% ABV (80 proof) spirit;

a 5oz glass of 12% ABV wine, or;

a 12oz glass/can/bottle of 5% ABV beer.

Many drinkers are familiar with these numbers, but the serving sizes listed above rarely correspond to what we find in the real world. A mixed drink at a bar may, in fact, have two or more servings of alcohol. It's becoming increasingly common for red wines (such as California Cabernets) to push 14-15% ABV. What percentage of craft beers that you drink are actually 5% ABV? (The average of the BeerGraphs top-50 by BAR is 10.1% ABV.)

That cocktail you had at the bar down the street? Who knows how much alcohol was really in there?

That 14.5% ABV red wine you split with three friends at dinner? That's closer to being two servings of alcohol than one.

The bottle of Hopslam? The can of Heady Topper? The 8oz snifter of Bourbon County Stout or the pint of Lagunitas Sucks? That's two servings of alcohol for you.

As a result, drinkers across the spectrum tend to underestimate their total alcohol consumption, and I'm no exception. Partially driven by Miles' article, over the past couple months I've been making an effort to track my drinking as accurately as possible. Very consistently, I found that the number of servings of alcohol I consumed on a given day or over the course of the week was almost a little bit higher than I expected.

Let's take two weekends ago, for example. I went to a local brewery where I received free tastings of some of their beers. I split a beer with my fiancée at lunch. In the evening, I split a pair of growlers from the aforementioned brewery with several friends. Normally, I might say that this was 3.5 beers. One at the brewery, a half at lunch, and one beer from each growler. This sounds like a pretty reasonable estimate.

In reality, the brewery poured us samples of five beers that were probably about three ounces each, with beers ranging from 5-9% ABV. This is pretty close to two beers (1.75 servings). The beer at lunch? Let's be honest, I probably drank most of that one (.75 servings of a delicious Blue Point Mosaic Session IPA, if you must know).

In the evening, a drink of each of the two beers was probably about a pint of each, one being a 5.2% ABV Wit, but the other being a 9.1% ABV double IPA (ouch). And in the blink of an eye, two beers becomes four (3.8 servings) and the daily total climbs close to six instead of just over three as I estimated.

And I know that I'm not the only one who does this. Back in 2012, a Gallup poll that surveyed over 1,000 individuals found that Americans who drink alcohol (roughly two-thirds of the population) have an average of 4.2 drinks a week.

Are these people telling the truth? Does that number make you feel bad about your drinking habits?

Luckily, we can take a look at the World Health Organization's Global Alcohol Report from 2014. The report shows that Americans aren't anywhere the close to the top of the list in terms of alcohol consumption, they still drink their fair share, at an average of 9.2 liters of alcohol per person per year. (Beer accounts for half of this alcohol, with spirits account for one third, and wine one sixth.)

9.2 liters might not sound like a lot for an entire year, but first we have to remember that only two thirds of the American population consumes alcohol, which means that those who do actually consume 13.8 liters of alcohol each year. This equates to 467 ounces of pure alcohol, and we know that one serving is 0.6oz of pure alcohol.

That's right, according to the World Health Organization, the average alcohol-consuming American drinks 778 servings of alcohol each year. That's an average of over two servings per day, and fifteen servings each week. That number represents a 255% increase relative to what Americans themselves reported in the Gallup poll.

Fifteen servings a week might be a bit high, but I have little doubt that the self-reported four drinks per week figure is too low. People not only underestimate how many servings of alcohol they consume when they do drink, but when asked about alcohol consumption over the previous week (as the poll did), it wouldn't be surprising if they forgot about a glass of wine they had when they got home from work last Wednesday, or a gin and tonic that their friend brought them at the bar on Friday night. And let's not forget about the fact that people may have a tendency to underestimate or "round down" their alcohol consumption when approached by a third party, because they don't want to be viewed as someone who drinks excessively, even by a complete stranger over the phone who they'll never speak to again.

For those who are curious, I would recommend a little exercise. First, estimate how many beers you drink in an average week, and then keep track of your alcohol consumption for a few weeks (or longer). Make sure you are as accurate as possible when calculating alcohol (my method is to use an excel spreadsheet and multiply ounces by % ABV, which effectively gives you centi-ounces of pure alcohol, where 60 = one serving). Also, make sure to log your drinking as frequently as possible. The longer you wait to write it down, the less accurate it will be.

Maybe you already have a good sense of your drinking habits, and this exercise will just serve to confirm them. However, if you're like me (and the majority of Americans, as the data shows), you might be a little bit surprised by what you find.

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