Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Trousered on Craft

Stumbling home the other night, we reached a conclusion: the biggest problem with ‘craft’ beer (def. 2) is that it gets us more drunk than ‘normal’ beer.

It’s a multi-pronged attack.

First, it seems to us generally stronger. Whereas old-school breweries are pushing best bitters at c.4%, trendier breweries tend to have as their flagship products pale ales and IPAs at 5-6% ABV.

Then, secondly, that almost inevitably forces special releases and one-offs into high ABV territory and, let’s be honest, to people like us, those are all but irresistible, quite apart from the fact that big flavours paired with big booze often tastes so nice.

‘So drink smaller measures!’ people tend to say at this point and of course they’re right, but three third-of-a-pint measures of three different interesting beers at 6-7.2% equates to a full pint of something pretty poky, while lulling you into a false sense of smugness at how sensible and restrained you are being.

Or, to put this another way, we don’t often drink too much in ‘normal’ pubs because (a) the beer is weak and (b) it’s often so familiar there’s no real incentive to keep drinking for fear of missing out.

At any rate, the idea that ‘craft’ has a somehow intrinsically more sober and responsible culture seems less credible to us now than it might have done a few years ago.

(We had our first hangovers in a while on Saturday — horrible, but probably just about worth it.)

Main image: ‘Hangover on Board Badge’ by Annie Mole, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

43 replies on “Trousered on Craft”

I know the feeling – and even with ‘So drink smaller measures!’, if the beer is under 6% or so that just means I visit the bar more often and end up having the same volume I normally would. Takes north of 7% before I seem to subconsciously slow down and drink at more wine-like speeds!

How exactly do you differ between ‘craft’ and ‘normal’ beer? (Your inverted commas). All beer differs in ABV. Carlsberg and Special Brew. Fuller’s Chiswick and ESB. BrewDog Dead Pony and Jackhammer. And where do Belgian beers fit within this.

I’m not entirely sure what you’re trying to get at in this post… Plus you do make your own choices at the bar and I’m sure you realise in advance that a beer that’s 7% ABV will get you drunker than one that’s 4%, regardless of who made it or how you choose to label it.

The other interesting angle is what we (vaguely, collectively) consider to be an appropriate strength for drinking in pints. I have no trouble with 5%, 5.5% (“just north of 5”) or 6% (“lots of beer used to be this strength”); I’d go to 6.5% or even 6.8% (“why not, even if I had two that would just be like having three at 4.5 when you think about it”). But if I saw a beer at 7% I’d never order a pint (“whoa, serious loopy juice – better just have a half and make it last”). Clearly this isn’t an entirely rational thought process!

This is true of myself and most run of the mill beer drinkers:

Below 4% is ideal. These are the beers I look at first.
4% to 5% is ok.
5% to 6% I might have if I’m not driving but it better be good. Probably wouldn’t have more than one.
Above 6%, I’m not touching it except in extremely rare circumstances.

My only tactic that has yielded some positive results is to reduce the number of Pale / IPAs / one off’s and switch to some lower abv (but still great tasting) craft such as Kernel Table, BBNo / Fourpure Session IPA, Five Points Pale or Siren Half Mast. All are in the 3-4% range so I can keep on drinking and avoid the dodgy head the next day.

Maybe you could run a low abv taste test once you’ve completed the Saison’s!

I guess part of the problem is that beers at c.4% are the quintessence of the British session-beer-in-the-pub experience whereas, if you’re after a big city trendy ‘craft’ experience (as we were), they feel like a compromise.

That’s the thing: if its not session beer, don’t expect to have a session. 6 drawn out halves and then home to bed.

I sort of see your point, but your comment also reads that you are assessing the merits of a craft brewer by the abv of the beer they produce as opposed to the quality and taste of it. Shouldn’t we be embracing the fact that (some) craft brewers can make lower strength beer that tastes as good as (or sometimes better than) say a flagship IPA rather than a compromise that it’s not as strong?!

No, that’s not what I’m saying.

Of course there are some very good lower ABV ‘craft’ beers (def 2) but ‘craft beer’ as a movement/cultural phenomenon in the UK has been built on beers like Thornbridge Jaipur and BrewDog Punk IPA which are well over 5% ABV and were pitched as the antidote to supposedly in-authentically weak English IPAs such as Greene King.

(And Punk/Jaipur are flagship beers — the big sellers — rather than outlying specialities as ESB is in Fuller’s range.)

We know *how* we could have avoided a hangover last weekend — not drinking the kinds of beers we wanted to because we can’t get them in Penzance — but that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.

In other words, relatively higher ABV is (or at least has been — maybe it’s changing) an essential part of UK craft beer’s brand.

The obvious question being whether you’d get as drunk if you could get all of that stuff in Penzance any night of the week?

Or to put it another way, if you spent the evening in a pub that had, say, Buxton’s Axe Edge (6.8%) on but nothing else worth drinking, would you be more likely to do a sensible session drinking halves of it slowly?

Couple of semi-related reflections from a recent trip to the US:
i) a lot of the beer bars we went into gave you a glass of water as standard when you sat down, which seems quite sensible when you’re mostly selling big, strong beers and
ii) one place where American brewers still seem to be ahead of their UK counterparts is in producing beers that are about 6.5% and big on hops but still relatively understated and drinkable. I suspect that even among crafty types in the UK there’s a bit of a sense that because a beer’s SIX POINT FIVE PERCENT!!! and hence BRAIN-DAMAGINGLY STRONG!!! it has to leave you feeling like you’ve done ten rounds with Mike Tyson by the time you’ve finished.

I’ve watched crowds at craft fests, brewers and beer writers getting tanked for years on high test juice. It’s stunning that someone could not get what you are saying. Craft’s the dipsos best pal.

The problem essentially is the craft beer enthusiast is trying to consume multiple varieties of beers that, because of their style and/or strength, are really only intended as one-off specials. That is why, as I wrote here, they tend to see alcohol content as a barrier to enjoyment in a way that “normal” drinkers don’t.

The typical drinker in Belgium doesn’t spend his evening drinking Chimay and Duvel.

In my experience the typical drinker in Belgium is the old bloke having Duvel for breakfast.

It’s all a question of the net alcohol ingested. For decades I convert in my mind to the equivalent of standard drinks. This standard was developed here many years ago and suited our conditions: thus, 12 oz. (approx. 333 ml) of 5% beer was a standard drink and equated to 5 oz of wine at 12% ABV to 1.5 ox of 40% spirits. It’s all .6 per cent ethanol content. Just decide in advance how many standard drinks I will have and go from there, today, usually it’s two, occasionally more (weekend).

All the rest (serving size, actual ABV) is disregarded other than on pure taste grounds.


I was going to make the standard comment here about how wine drinkers can drink something that’s twice as strong as most mainstream UK craft beers, yet still often avoid getting completely sozzled. And how this demonstrates that even crazy-strong one-a-night specials are perfectly sessionable if you happen to have developed the habit of drinking them proportionately slowly.

But lately I’ve been finding that I tend to get drunk whenever I start on the wine, because through drinking mostly beer I’ve lost the habit of sipping things slowly and end up necking it far too fast. I’m not sure whether that undermines my point or proves it!

Wine is consumed in a different way, though. Very few wine drinkers would have a session, without food, during which they consumed eight widely differing varieties.

I don’t really see how that’s relevant, though.

The point is that if people can spend a whole evening in the pub drinking something that’s 13% ABV – which they do – then they can presumably survive a whole evening in the pub drinking something that’s 6.5% ABV.

I reckon habitual wine drinkers just have better levels of what a former colleague of mine used to call ‘pissed fitness’, compared to habitual bitter drinkers.

But one of the great joys of being a beer drinker rather than a wine drinker is that you can take great enthusiastic gulps of the stuff without falling over after 20 minutes.

Beer is far too nice to sip.

Doesn’t it seem more likely that they’ve just picked up an instinctive feel for how fast they’re drinking and what state they’re going to be in tomorrow as a result?

Dave — well, we know they’re (a) drinking more slowly; (b) consuming less alcohol overall; (c) better able to process alcohol; (d) better able to withstand the effects of alcohol; or (e) some combo of the above. I’ve got no idea which is more likely.

At what point do we start talking about craft beer and alcoholism?

I often get the feeling it is something we would all rather avoid, but with the additional strength of the beer I imagine it will have an impact there too at some point.

Before I saw the error of my ways I sometimes entered into Facebook discussions about beer. One such ended up talking about hangovers and how macro lager (or rather “chemical fizz” as they put it) gave hangovers from 2 or 3 pints, whereas you had to drink 8 odd pints of real ale to get a hangover. Complete nonsense in my opinion but it is funny how people perceive different drinks and their affect.

A very long time ago – when I was under age and the Big Six stalked the land – a well-meaning family friend bought me a half of Bleeding Watney’s Red Barrel, to give it its full name. It was cold, it was fizzy, it gave me a weird impression of tasting exactly the same all the way through – as if somebody had put Beer Flavour in a Sodastream machine – and, more to the point, I had a headache before I’d got to the bottom of the glass. I was young, and this was only my second experience of beer, but my first and third beers (which were real ale) didn’t have that effect. So maybe it’s folk memory of the evilness of Evil Keg, back when it was really evil.

Incidentally, who’d have predicted that this thread would take off? “Craft beer gets you drunk – local couple’s shock claim”.

We thought we had it covered with our ‘stating the obvious’ post tag but people don’t tend to notice those…

As an ex-pat living on the west coast of America I can whole heartedly sympathise with this post. While I’ve generally found that strong US beers tend to be easier to drink and more balanced (yes, gross generalisation) than UK counterparts it’s most definitely the case that a good session down the pub is hard to find. 5.5% constitutes low alcohol, most are 6.5+. Smaller pours do help (even a “pint” is smaller than UK), as does the (usually) higher price, but a good thirst quenching beer that you can sink a couple of without worrying about it doesn’t exist very much.

Not that this is a bad thing, just a different beer drinking experience.

As an ex-pat living on the west coast of America I can whole-heartedly sympathise with this post. I’ve generally found that strong US beers tend to be easier to drink and more balanced than their UK counterparts (I know this is a gross generalisation and the situation is improving, but for the sake of argument…) but it’s most definitely the case that it’s hard to have a good session down the pub (bar). 5.5% constitutes low alcohol, most are 6.5+. Smaller pours do help (even a full pint is smaller than UK), as does the (usually) higher price, but a good thirst quenching beer that you can sink a couple of in quick succession without worry is rare. If you’re in the mood for trying a few different things, or you’re having a long evening with time to get through a few pints, then it’s hard to avoid some ramifications the next day!

Not that this is a bad thing, just a different beer drinking experience.

“Not that this is a bad thing, just a different beer drinking experience.”

Yes, exactly. (We weren’t having a go at ‘craft beer’ with this post.)

I’m in San Francisco, and there isn’t really a “standard” measure as such. 16-oz is definitely the common size for regular bars (i.e. those that might sell a good range of beer but said beer is not the focus or point of the bar – such as sports bars). But go to any bar that focuses more on the beers it offers and while 16oz seems to be seen as the ‘default’ size it’s common to find 8oz or 12oz pours. And it isn’t always strongly correlated with alcohol content – while I’d be surpred to see 10+% in anything larger than 8oz you often see 4-6% beers in a 8 or 12 oz pour too. Is it because they don’t have much of this beer? Or it’s more expensive than others? I don’t know.

As an example, see this beer list:

Pour sizes of 5oz, 6oz, 8oz, 10oz, 13oz and 16oz across a range of alcohol content.

Personally I think they have higher alcohol in the US because the beers are served cold (via keg) and they need it for the body. Even with a maltier beer you don’t get so much of that at lower temps.

A thing I noticed in some places in New York a couple of years ago was if it said 16oz on the menu they wouldn’t do you a “half”, which, with my ticking connoisseur hat on, was a bit annoying…

So craft drinkers are in denial about the generally high strength of craft beer. Or so it seems.

There is the point too that highly carbonated drinks tend to enter the bloodstream more quickly. Think champagne. High carbonation may also make you a bit more headachey, especially if you don’t have it a lot.

Someone else said beer (and I paraphrase) is meant for swigging and it is hard to sip even if strong. That seems to me to have some credence. Experimentation with differing strong beers might induce headaches too.

Best stick to Draught Bass it seems.

I don’t think anyone’s in denial about the strength of craft beer per se. Or even that drinking stronger beer gets you more drunk for the same volume.

The bone of contention is more whether it’s possible (or desirable) to drink smaller amounts of stronger beer in the same amount of time and hence not get any more drunk overall.

I think comparing is difficult because, as in the original post, being somewhere with multiple 6%-and-over beers means kid-in-a-sweetshop mode for a lot of UK beer geeks at the moment. Probably if you’re a bright young urban thing who spends every evening in cutting-edge craft-temples then the temptation to try as many beers as possible every time is a bit weaker…

Nitro-keg beers had a reputation for bestowing hangovers incommensurate with their strength; Caffrey’s being the worst offender. Truly terrible stuff.

Soon after Murphy’s was introduced in the UK in 1989 I had a session on it; I was in company & away from home – and that stuff does go down very easily – so I can’t say I was counting my units. I was worse affected the next day than I ever remember being before or since – I thought my liver was packing up there and then. (The worst time was the next afternoon, oddly enough.)

I blame the nitrogen.

Blaming N2 doesn’t make any sense. You mostly breathe the stuff.

Plus it is not very water soluble, so a “nitrogenated” beer actually contains bugger all actual nitrogen. The purpose of the nitro is purely to allow added pressure without dissolving loads of CO2 in the beer. Yielding a “flatter” beer that you can pass (at high pressure) through a restrictor plate to get that tight creamy head. Essentially it is how you implement functional sparklers for keg.

Hangovers more likely related under-attenuated sugary beer, or badly fermented beer full of fusel alcohols (which you don’t detect so well in a very chilled keg pint).

I don’t really blame the nitrogen. “Under-attenuated sugary beer” – how would this work? I’m interested, because the Murphy’s was definitely sweeter, & I think it was ‘heavier’ in mouthfeel, than Guinness – that was one reason I drank so much of it.

I don’t get “hangovers” all that much, but when I do it _seems_ to be on beers that match that general sort of description. (Cask and keg.) Higher ABV red ales with a lot of residual sweetness do me in nearly every time.

This may not be the sweetness that is the problem but perhaps more the alcohol profile commonly found with it, more fusels for example – yeasties more stressed out and a less “clean” result maybe.

Given it is often red(der)/darker ales to blame I’ve also wondered if tannins (from rye, roasted barly, etc) could be behind it. (Totally wild speculation alert!)

Mainstream keg (CO2 and mixed gas) beers tend to be quite sweet – you don’t notice when they’re served at close to zero degrees – but let it warm up and many, Stella for example, are horribly cloying.

That said I’d expect mainstream/”factory” beer to be clean on the alcohol profile. That’s why Bud is a classic base beer for off flavour kits. But I don’t know… perhaps it isn’t always the case and again a lot is hidden/masked temperature and sweetness/body.

[I drank a lot of “craft” last night… i.e. wacky strong stuff at the Cambridge Blue fest. Got pretty “trousered”, so much so I bought what we call “evil chicken” for pre-bus 11pm dinner. (In my scale of drinking that’s only just down from the top rungs of “I don’t remember last night”). I was tired this morning but not at all “hung over” in the “oh, god, what have I done, I’ll never drink beer again” sense. Hangovers are interesting beasts.]

The Evil Chicken metric – like it. A bit like Barm Pork Scratchings Index:

It is quite simple: a sober person finds the very idea of pork scratchings revolting. Thus, once the idea of getting a packet of pork scratchings starts to seem attractive, you know that you have consumed too much beer and need to go home.

These days I find my threshold for feeling shagged-out and this-too-shall-pass for at least a couple of hours the next morning is only about four pints, or somewhere in the region of 10 units. I rarely go as high as six pints (or 15 units) except at beer festivals – and if I do, the following day is always a bit memorable. And people say we do this for fun…

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