Are you an alcoholic?

allourbeers.jpgWell, that depends what you read and whose questionnaire you do.

This post started as a bit of a joke. A friend of mine who lives in the States was telling me about a questionnaire her students have to do about alcohol use which would have classified most Brits as alcoholics. Ha ha, we all said. And I thought it might be fun to post a crazy puritanical questionnaire compared with a “more sensible” one.

However, as I started going through various questionnaires I found online I found out that there was no particular difference between American and international questionnaires, and also that I drink too much according to most websites, and may be an alcoholic according to others.

In fact, the one questionnaire that puts me in the clear is American website Alcoholscreening.org. Although it thinks that I drink more than the average (American) woman, I’m below the levels typically associated with alcoholism. Other questionnaires are not so kind, and I’ve been told I’m causing myself health problems and should see a specialist immediately.

So should I worry? Part of the problem with these questionaires is that they’re often designed so that any negative answer indicates that you may have a problem. The Alcoholics Anonymous one is a good example. Basically, if you score yes to any of them, you MAY be an alcoholic. Apparently, I’m definitely an alcoholic, because I’ve ticked three; yes, I have (once) lost my memory, I have drunk alone once or twice, and I have felt remorse after drinking. Not because I’ve done (or failed to do) anything significant after drinking, but because I get awful hangovers and I’m the kind of puritan that regrets wasting time being ill.

In fact, guilt and remorse are a recurring theme in these questionaires. Admitting to feeling guilty about drinking and wanting to cut down occasionally are seen as indicators of potential alcoholism, which I find a bit weird. It’s as if just by doing the questionnaire you’re admitting you have a problem. That combined with the fact that “denial” is a key indicator is enough to condemn anybody!

You may say that Alcoholics Anonymous has a vested interest in making people believe they are alcoholics. So I looked for some neutral authorities. The World Health Organisation has several diagnostic tools, which appear in various forms on various websites. Here’s the version I did. I actually thought it was pretty good, as it goes through the amount you drink, but then seeks to analyse whether this is a problem or not. My result? I don’t have any alcohol related problems at the moment, but;

“Alcohol is probably slightly too important in your life and you may have the earliest signs of a developing alcohol dependency.”

Well, brewing is my hobby and I have a beer-blog, so yes, alcohol is important in my life. Or rather, beer is. That leads me onto another point. One of my personal indicators has always been that if there isn’t any nice beer, I tend not to drink at all. No shite lager, no vodka and tonic — I stick to the softies and spare the liver. If someone told me I could never drink beer again, I’d be gutted. If they told me I could never drink beer, but could drink other alcohol, this would not be a consolation. Oh, there goes the denial again.

Shouldn’t there be some recognition of these types of factors, rather than straight number crunching? Well, yes. If you look up technical definitions of alcoholism, they focus very much on your behaviour, not how much you drink. The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as;

“a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations…It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial”

To finish with, I want to heartily recommend a brilliant article in the Observer, via Guardian Online (by Euan Ferguson) from earlier this month. As well as saying extremely sensible things about the current panic in the UK about binge-drinking, it has some “from the heart” guidance from an alcoholic as to how you really know. The difference between drink as a treat, and drink as a necessity. The importance of “the first drink of the day” to the alcoholic. The need to listen to the mornings, not government guidelines. There are just so many quotes that I want to reproduce here, as I feel it is bang-on about so many things.

“The great danger, surely, is that by telling everyone they drink too much (when, as we have seen, we have been following spurious guidelines for decades) we are left bereft of proper guidance. The tactics leave us more confused than ever. When are we drinking too much? Should I feel guilty? What’s wrong with a couple of glasses? Am I an alcoholic? Is there a difference? Oh yes. Yes, there is still a difference, between those who enjoy a drink and those who tip into hell. Our studies today show the difference, and it is, I would argue, supremely irresponsible for a government minister to attempt to blur the scare-lines.”

I can’t speak for how accurately he describes the life of the alcoholic (fortunately) but I can say that this article is also the best analysis of British drinking culture I’ve ever read.  Do go and read it.

Boak

What’s in a name?

There’s a common stereotype that real ales have silly names. You can see this stereotype in action in Viz‘s “Real Ale Twats” sketches kindly uploaded by Stonch back in September.

Actually, this isn’t as true today as it used to be — I was looking through a couple of festival programmes recently, and the truly daft names were few and far between.

But look hard enough and you can still find the Old StoatWobblers, Tiddly Vicars, and the famous Piddle in the Wind. You can groan at terrible puns like “Santa’s Claws”, and “Smoking – then they bandit”. Then there are the “ha-ha, aren’t we being politically incorrect” names such as “Dry hopped Naked Ladies” and “Top Totty”, usually with a highly amusing pump clip too. Very seaside postcard.

Why do brewers go to all that effort to produce what might be a good brew and then cheapen it with a lousy name? I’ve thought of three possible reasons;

  1. they think it appeals to the sense of humour of the average real ale fan
  2. it’s a way of catching the eye at a beer festival, when there are hundreds of others to choose from
  3. actually, the beer isn’t very good, but they’re hoping to sell it on its novelty value.

There might be something in (1) but it’s based on a generalisation which doesn’t hold true. I’m sure I’m not the only real ale fan to find silly names a bit tacky and an insult to my sense of humour. So, by extension, (2) doesn’t work for me either. It’s not that I won’t drink a beer such as “Cunning Stunt” because of the name, but I’m more likely to pick something with a sensible name and label, that suggests quality and integrity. This is because I’ve now started to believe in option (3) and associate stupid names with amateur gimmicks, and thus don’t expect the beer to be any good.

Incidentally, while “researching” this, I found an old article (from August 2003) on the subject. It makes pretty much the same points as above:

‘There are too many rather suggestive names in real ale, which I don’t think does the industry much good,” said Steve Reynolds, marketing director at Springhead brewery.

Do these silly, sexist or crude names actually appeal to *anyone*? Or am I just a prudish, po-faced stormtrooper of political correctness…?

N.B. I’ve never had any of the beers mentioned above — they might taste great!

Boak

Small town blues

bridgwater.jpgI’ve just come back from my home town (Bridgwater, in Somerset) where the pubs are having something of a crisis. For years, it’s been one of those towns that claims to have more pubs per head than any other. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are a lot of pubs. And, for almost as many years, those pubs have managed to make their way, despite the heavy competition.

Sadly, in recent years, a couple of big (and, crucially, cheap) chain pubs have opened in the town centre, leaving many of the smaller “locals” all but empty, even on Boxing Day (traditionally a very busy day).

Big business and the council are partly to blame here, but I have to say that some of the pubs are doing themselves no favours. In the face of stiff competition, they should be rising to the challenge and making the local the place to be. Instead, the pub nearest my parents house has decided that:

1. the best way to make the pub feel more lively is to put Radio 1 on at full volume and turn off the juke box

2. they’re too depressed to greet people when they enter the pub, or smile at them during service

3. it doesn’t matter if the excellent local bitter — Butcombe, on which more later — is stale or off

4. there’s no need to wash the glasses

5. that currying favour with five grumpy regulars is more important than making newcomers feel welcome.

This is typical, sadly. So, in my home town, the local pubs are now less friendly, more expensive, dirtier, less atmospheric, and have worse beer than Wetherspoons. And that’s saying something. My Dad, who has been drinking in Bridgwater pubs since he was old enough to lie to a barman about his age, got so depressed we had to leave.

I suspect that in Bridgwater, and many other towns across the UK, we’re going to see an end to the days when a population of 36,000 can support almost 200 pubs. Bad pubs are going to die. Cheap chain pubs will prosper. But good pubs — pubs that keep a small range of ales in good condition, which make their customers feel welcome, that create atmosphere, and that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month — will survive.

I’ll name names: the Bower Manor is a fairly unassuming restaurant/hotel, with a small bar. It, too, was quiet on Boxing Day, but the landlady was friendly; there was one fresh, well-kept real ale (Sharp’s Doom Bar — the best pint of this I’ve ever had); a roaring fire; and a Christmas Tree. It was hard to leave!

Oh, and I promised to say something about Butcombe Bitter: it’s a great beer. One of my favourites (my judgement being partly clouded by homesickness, I’ll admit). At its best, it’s very bitter, very satisfying, and slightly sulphurous on the nose. I can’t vouch for how it will taste if you see it on tap outside the West Country, but try a half and let me know what you think.

Bailey

Happy bingeing

Apparently today is the day most chosen for Christmas parties, and therefore the day when ambulance crews are most poised to pick up the pieces. I seem to remember that last year there was a lot of hysteria in the media about this, but there aren’t so many silly stories this year, perhaps because society didn’t in fact break down and the streets did not run with blood as predicted.

The Evening Standard and other related papers are having a go, though, with the story that Londoners are estimated to spend £120m on booze in two days (today and yesterday). However, that’s only £20 per Londoner (assuming 6m adult Londoners*), spread across two days. £10.00 doesn’t buy you many drinks in Central London these days, particularly in a wanky City bar (bottle of Becks – £4.20!!!!!!!!!**)

Given the hysteria about binge-drinking at the moment, £120m seems surprisingly low.

Boak

*Figure derived from the Office of National Statistics estimates in 2006. The figure of 6m includes the over 16s (because apparently they’re all drinking a bottle of wine a week) and excludes short-term migrants.

**That’s about a million dollars for our readers across the pond.

Accountants and breweries

Accountants get a lot of stick from home-brew books, beer blogs and the like. Apparently we’re responsible for everything bad that has ever happened in beer, such as the move from cask to keg in the UK, use of rice as an adjunct, and the development of high-alpha (i.e low-flavour) hops.

I’m fed up with this laziness. Firstly, as anyone with any business experience knows, the job of the finance team is to support the goals of the company. If the company wants to sacrifice quality for profit, that’s the board’s call. And of course the board will take that decision based on (a) shareholder opinion (b) analysis of the market. So it’s all the fault of the consumers really…

Secondly, in my experience, real-ale lovers are well-represented within the accountant population. Maybe not that surprising given our reputation for being pedantic bores.

Thirdly, we just don’t have the (diabolical) imagination for the crimes we’re accused of.

Now the marketing team — that’s a different story…

Boak