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What The History of Drinking in England Can Teach Us

Eno Sarris, November 03, 2015 -   

Remember your pathway through alcohol.

It might seem random. I had some brandy from my mother's bar in Jamaica, a few uncle-types handed me a sip of Red Stripe, tried some wine, had malt liquor in high school, early craft beer in college, euro lagers in London, upscale vodka tonics in New York, craft beer as I transitioned back to California. Was it just what was in front of me? 

Chrissie Giles chronicled her own experiences growing up with drinking in England for The Atlantic, and it lines up way too well with what the alcohol industry was trying to do to ignore their influence. The lagers she loved, the pubs she frequented, the wine she brought home with her -- all of these things could be traced back to different boom and bust cycles in English drinking. Even mild feminist victories came from the search for the woman's dollar, it seems. Even the rave culture shaped alcohol offerings -- all to sell more drinks to more people. 

Stateside, we like to think that craft beer is a nobler venture. Even as we ignore the alcoholism it masks within the people working the industry, and the cover that 'just enjoying the taste' provides hard-core consumers, we talk about freshness and community and innovation. We do so here, at least, for the most part, even as we try to shine a light on addiction issues. It's easy to get caught up in the fun of craft beer. 

But this piece puts another spin on the craft beer boom. The lens of history renders all things smaller. The timeline can create false equivalencies even as it reveals similarities between different times.

If you told the story of Americans and alcohol two hundred years from now, how would you classify this time? Would it perhaps fit behind caffeinated beverages? Does the juicy IPA come after 4Loko? Are we just enjoying another product that is being marketed to us in order to capture our dollar? Is the bomber an attempt to get more shelf space after we turned our backs on wine, and hard liquor, and wine coolers, and pre-mixed margaritas? Did hairy hipsters show too much of an instinct towards teetoling before someone somewhere had the brilliant idea to market self-made locally sourced intensely flavored innovative beer to their demographic? 

Is craft beer the cause of big beer's falling sales, or is it a response? 

Maybe, in the light of this year's beer news, it seems a stretch to give big industry credit for something they seem to be catching up to. Craft beer was created by the people, it looks like, and now is being appropriated by big beer. That's more the story of sharing music online than it is the story of 4Loko. 

Still, these things may wash away when it comes to telling the story down the road. As big beer appropriates craft beer and buys the soul out from under it, it also buys the power that usually rewrites history. 

It's certainly possible, that years from now, when someone tells the story of alcohol in America, there will be a chapter on moonshine and prohibition, a section on three buck chuck and wine imports, a full quarter of the book on issues of distribution, something on caffeine and hard alcohol soft drinks, and then a chapter or few on how craft beer recaptured the imagination of America's drinkers and opened up a brand new sales avenue that sent America down the road to its own Peak Booze. 

But what can we do, we won't write tomorrow's history books. In this household, the response is just to schedule more than two sober days a week when possible, eat greens and drink plenty of water. Try not to go too far on any given night. And stay aware of who's brewing your beer, and with what, and how they're distributing it. That's about all we can do when we're in the middle of the thing.

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