High Functioning: Craft Beer and Alcohol

Miles Liebtag, February 11, 2014

First off -- how many beers did you have today?

Fine. And yesterday?

The day before?

When was the last 36-hour period in which you did not have a beer? Bonus points if your answer is 'within the last seven days'; double bonus points if that's your answer and you're in the beer business.

We don't talk about alcoholism in connection with craft beer. There's an implicit assumption that craft beer drinkers' foremost interest is in quality, taste and craftsmanship, and that developing an appreciation for finer beer signals a progression away from antisocial relationships with alcohol that are characterized by bingeing on swill just to get shithoused. Why would anyone, the thinking seems to go, spend so much time and money on high end speciality beers if all one wanted to do was get drunk?

Why, indeed. It takes somewhat less than superhuman powers of deduction to look around at the current craft beer scene and conclude that there are plenty of people plugging away at chronic substance abuse problems under the ameliorating imprimatur of connoisseurship. Craft beer culture (whatever that is) 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.

With so many new breweries and so many new beers, there's always an excuse for a taste; in my job as a wholesaler sales rep, I rely on weekly new/special/limited releases to round out (if not drive) sales, and certainly there's a sense of professional obligation in sampling new products. Being "in the industry" (that's how people talk about it, I promise), you're obliged to drink. A lot. Tap takeovers, bar promos, retail tastings, beer festivals, buyer sampling, supplier demos -- there is always a reason to drink. It can be difficult to honestly and accurately evaluate one's own consumption habits in this environment, but it's fair to say that by any objective rubric of risk behavior, a week in the life of your average beer rep would set off a few alarm bells with a disinterested observer.

There are those within the craft scene and the larger alcohol industry generally who absolutely should not be there. Wine reps making sales calls with red teeth at 10am; brewery reps falling down drunk in bars where they're ostensibly trying to promote goodwill toward their brand; glassy-eyed hoarders at bottle shares soused on some of the most coveted beers in the world, so drunk that any pretensions to actually tasting that pour of Cantillon Gueuze are ludicrous. These are people with underlying mental health issues whose position in the industry or participation in the scene is normalizing unhealthy and self-destructive behavior. I've known more than my share of high functioning alcoholics; until recently, most of them did not have draft spend accounts.

Physician, you might be saying, heal thyself! Ain't I a beer rep? Well, yes, and it's been my recent attempts to reflect on my own drinking habits that precipitated this here article. You see, O my human brothers, in addition to being a beer rep, I'm also a consumer -- it's my operative social identity, after all! Not long after taking my first wholesaler job in New York, I was blessed with an expense account myself, and given the mandate to go out and drink in my accounts. Tracking all of those receipts made me a little more clinical about how I spent money on beer, especially in bars. I became more aware of a certain calculation I was running, often unconsciously, when presented with a draft list: ABV for cost. What beer on the list would provide the most bang for the buck, in other words -- if I'm only having two beers at Rattle n Hum before taking the R back to Queens, I guess on balance I'd rather be a little buzzed. So gimme the Lagunitas Gnarleywine. And a Sucaba.

When I took that job, I was still learning quite a lot about beer. I was still a novice craft consumer, and my tastes ran toward the big and strong. I remember quite clearly the day I had my first session IPA at Sunswick 35/35 in Astoria: a Barrier Brewing unImperial IPA  Hoppy, flavorful, and 4%ABV. It left quite the impression on me, and I spent a lot of time that autumn seeking out and learning about other session beers. My drinking habits began to change, and I found myself consciously pushing back against that ABV for cost calculation. I tried more pilsners, kolsches, lambics, milds, bitters, porters and pales. More and more breweries began rolling out fantastic session beers, reacting to a broader consumer desire for flavorful, low alcohol alternatives to all of the huge IPAs and imperial stouts. These beers also had an advantage in being, sometimes, less expensive. 

The rise of session beers as a viable product segment in craft beer heralds some maturation in the drinking habits of craft drinkers, but there's still plenty of fixation on gravity and strength. Here in central Ohio, our favorite hometown beer is Bodhi (a 9% unfiltered double IPA from Columbus Brewing Company), and Grandview just hosted the first High Gravity Hullabaloo  a mini-festival devoted entirely to local beers above 8% (and I'm told this was a great event).

There's also been a great deal of discussion lately about Ohio's ABV cap. Ohio is one of a handful of states that place arbitrary legal restrictions on the strength of beer that can be sold within its borders; no one may produce or sell in Ohio any beer exceeding 12% ABV. The 12% cap means that many of the most sought after beers in the country (your BCSes, your Black Tuesdays, etc.) never make it here--at least not legally. Retailers just outside of Ohio's borders (like Party Source in Covington, KY)  become pilgrimage sites for craft consumers looking for the best of the biggest.

Indeed, the potential loss of business is one of the central arguments behind Ohio H.B. 391,  a bill proposed by Democrat Dan Ramos of Lorain, OH that would raise the ABV cap from 12% to 21%. If successful, this legislation would bump the cap for the first time since 2002, when it was raised to 12% from 6%. Ramos argues that the current limit puts Ohio at a competitive disadvantage at the level of both supply and distribution, and raising the limit would be a boon to one of the state's few current growth industries. Both the Ohio Attoreny General and the Ohio chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving have had predictable reactions against the bill, arguing essentially that consumers are too dim to be able to distinguish a 21% beer from their standard 5% American macro lager. 

Craft culture engenders thoughtful appreciation. My own relationship to alcohol has deepened and matured immeasureably since I started learning about beer. Giving a beer its due consideration has made me a more finicky consumer; it's also greatly reduced the likelihood that I will pound a whole sixpack without thinking about it. Imparting an appreciation and respect for beer as a living vessel for culture, knowledge and life is, I think, the noblest calling to which any craft partisan can aspire. When one knows something of the history of a thing, something about its power, influence, and potential, one is (hopefully) less inclined to simply see that thing as a mere medium for intoxicant. It's my hope that the ascendancy of craft beer in this country will improve our drinking culture generally over the next several generations, and make Americans more thoughtful and respectful drinkers. As more and more young people turn from beer to things like flavored spirits (despicable products which exist solely to mask the flavor of alcohol with syrups and additives geared toward the palates of children), craft beer has the chance to set a new example. 

But it also persists like this. A writeup of the recent Columbus Winter Beer Fest in the Toledo Blade shows how durable the no-neck party ethos remains, even among craft beer, uh, aficionados. Detailing a young man's journey into debauch through the lens of an unevenly-maintained Hunter Thompson parody, the article is Argument Prime for why beer festivals so often suck: 

I didn’t have a bad beer at Revolution. I think my tongue was just tired at this point. Not saying this brewery isn’t solid, because it is. But only so many extremities of flavor can pass through your mouth before your taste buds call it quits. I wasn’t drinking for taste, I was drinking to drink. And so it went.

Leaving aside the (probably apocryphal) stories about bodily fluids and the dude's persistent attempts to gain "VIP status" by mentioning that he owns a bar (which on the Continuum of Dudes Who Are Special puts you roughly between the Left-Handed and the Uncircumcised), I think that there passage above is the money shot. "At some point I stopped tasting and just started drinking" is the moral of just about every beer festival story ever told, from our local biannual events to the considerably more sophisticated East Coast Savor to the Great American Beer Festival out in Denver. Beyond a certain point of inebriation there's no more appreciation, just drinking; reaching the terminus of connoisseurship at these things means that you're lurching from table to table demanding rare and limited beers of which the brewers are very proud, and you are pounding them back with no intention (or even ability) to evaluate them fairly or intelligently. Make sure you check in on Untappd, though! Because you wouldn't want to forget that your 22nd beer of the evening, an imperial stout that someone spent months and years of their lives crafting and perfecting, was "a little thin" and "kinda sucked." Note especially that "It's no Dark Lord." But hey, Three Floyds is "totally overrated" anyway. 

I'd say it's an open secret that many people who work in this business hate beer festivals, and the culture of drunkenness that (one might say necessarily) accompanies them is certainly frustrating for anyone trying to make a meaningful connection with potential new craft consumers. At festivals especially, the ABV for cost calculation reigns supreme, as attendees weigh the cost of their tickets against the length of the lines and the limited amount of time they have to tie one on.

But the drunken chaos of festivals is just the most visible public expression of an inclination that haunts all drinkers everywhere. For my part, it's not my cathartic, raucous, public overindulgences that cause me to pause and reflect on my ever-changing relationship to alcohol. Rather I find that I look the hardest at my drinking habits on days where there is no cause to celebrate, when I'm at home, or alone, or depressed. Those few questions that open the piece are ones I try to ask myself routinely, though I rarely have very healthy answers. At the beginning of 2014, I realized that there likely hadn't been a single day in the last sixty on which I hadn't had a beer, and so elected to take ten days dry. Miraculously, I had more energy in the evenings (not to mention the mornings), more time to spend on a number of different projects, and certainly some more money in my pocket. And at the end of the interregnum, hey, that Reissdorf Kölsch was tasting pretty damn good, indeed. 

Last week, The Full Pint revealed the Top Craft Beer of 2013, according to their reader poll: Firestone Walker Pivo Pils. 

In the world of bourbon barrel aged stouts and ultra hopped IPAs, this is quite a remarkable feat, and hopefully paves the way for other craft breweries to take a stab at brewing a quality craft lager. It’s now our duty to keep an eye on standout beers that debut here in the present.

Amen. As Dan points out, this is a huge accomplishment given the craft consuming public's penchant for the big and powerful. Many of the quote unquote beer people I know don't even consider pilsners worth their time or money. A quick look at RateBeer's Top 50 bears this out: of the 50 beers there listed, only 4 of them are under 8% alcohol by volume (and those are all sours). The other 46 range from 8% on the low end to 15% and above, depending on vintage and release. The Best Beers in the World are also, curiously, incidentally, some of the strongest. For a pilsner to win out in one of the most influential online craft beer straw polls, well, it gives me hope.

At GABF in Denver this year, the Firestone Walker booth was predictably mobbed up; of the four or five beers they were pouring, there were hugely long lines for all but one of them. Every time I passed their booth, I found I could get a nip of Pivo with no wait. Often someone passing by would ask what was being poured, and the sense of disappointment was palpable. "Just a pilsner?" they might say. "When's the XV getting tapped?"

Thanks to Flickr user smileycreek for the header image.