News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 Jan 2016

Hydrometer measuring a sample from a microbrewery fermenting vessel.

These are the beer-related blog posts and articles that caught our attention in the last seven days, from low-alcohol beer to the eccentricity of Samuel Smith’s.

→ There have been lots of articles questioning the UK Government’s new alcohol consumption guidelines most of which, frankly, we’ve ignored as seeming shrill and defensive. This critical take-down from Adam ‘The Stats Guy’ Jacob, however, seems pretty well balanced and, crucially, offers a textbook example of how to disclose potential biases. (Via @PhilMellows.)

→ Those of you unable to drink for medical reasons, during pregnancy, because you’re the designated driver, or just because you fancy giving your innards a break, will be interested in Tony Naylor’s round-up of the best alcohol free beers for the Guardian. Conventional wisdom is ‘Don’t bother!’ but Mr Naylor found a couple of decent contenders:

The lemony, herbal saaz hop flavours that distinguish Czech pilsners shine through remarkably well. OK, it tastes cardboardy at the back, but this has more character than many alcoholic big-brand lagers. Shockingly good.

Detail from a sign reading Praha, Prague, Praga, Prag.

→ The official designations for the different categories of Czech beer are changing, reports Max ‘Pivni Filosof’ Bahnson:

Speciál will be called Silné Pivo… Porter as a legal category will be scrapped… The most contentious issue in the proposed amendment—at least for the local beer community—is that the current text does not contemplate renaming the category Ležák, something a few people have been fussing about for some time already.

Tandleman highlights an established brewery’s craft-style sub-brand that had escaped our notice:

Perhaps living in Manchester (well, nearly) I should be aware of Hydes Brewery’s seasonal range under the “Provenance Brewing from Hydes” banner, but sadly I wasn’t… Recommended to me by the landlord, Hokkaido is a pale, hoppy, citric little number, containing that most difficult of hops Sorachi Ace.

→ Joe Tindall has been collecting examples of contemporary brown ales in the UK market:

When I wrote about Brighton Bier’s Free State, billed as “21st century brown” here, I remarked that the nevertheless delicious beer had very little ‘brown’ quality. Brewer Gary Sillence got in touch with me to clarify his intentions – “My main ambition was the brew down the mainstream perception that brown beer means dull or old fashioned”, he said, and the beer was never intended to be received as a brown ale as such…

Sam Smith logo from beer bottle.

→ A dispute over the construction of a temporary footbridge in the wake of flooding has shone a light on the reclusive eccentricity of the Samuel Smith brewery of Tadcaster in the last week. For the Yorkshire Post Grant Woodward spoke to residents of the town:

Few of those I talk to want to give their names. Local councillor Chris Metcalfe explains that it’s because so many in Tadcaster are reliant on Samuel Smith’s. They lease their business premises from the company, live in a house it owns, or depend on it for their pension.

“We’ve lived with this for so long that we just think, ‘Oh, it’s Humphrey again’,” he says. “It’s in our DNA. People have become accustomed to how the town is and think it’s never going to change. That’s enormously sad. We feel we’re living in a community that’s heading to oblivion.”

9 thoughts on “News, Nuggets & Longreads 16 Jan 2016”

  1. My problem with the outrage at the public medical advice is summed up in this paragraph from the stats blog you have referenced:

    “The guideline itself says “The risk of developing a range of diseases (including, for example, cancers of the mouth, throat, and breast) increases with any amount you drink on a regular basis”. That is true, but it ignore the fact that it is not true for other diseases. To mention only the harms of alcohol and ignore the benefits in the guidelines seems a dishonest way to present data. Surely the net effect is what is important.”

    It is not actually the net effect which matters as people do not die statistically. When a 2% increase in mortality is identified with certain drinking behaviours it means to me that two more people out of a hundred will die prematurely. Could be folk I like. Could be me. Or you.

    Having taken deathbed wills from folk obviously about to go early due to a smoking lifestyle, I am used to the idea that (especially with the current spate of pop icon cancer deaths) smoking shortens life. I am freckled and suffered bad sunburns as a kid. I am comfortable with the idea that that might cause skin cancers as it has in relatives. I would hope that folk thinking about beer might start from the assumption that medical advice is valid or at least worth heeding even if not perfect.

    Yes, anecdotally we know the grannie who drank and smoked into her nineties. My great-aunt did. But the vast majority of her generation in my family – especially the men – went in their fifties. Chips, smokes and drink. I am delighted that the public health improvements saw my Dad last into his eighties. I hope my choices, including with drink and based on the best medical information, might see me last as least as long.

    1. Alan – what you’re overlooking is that the demonstrable protective effect of moderate drinking also affects real, individual people. A statistical increase in mortality has actually been identified both for excessive drinking (mortality from cancer) and for reducing drinking below a certain level (mortality from heart disease). The responsible advice would be to keep your drinking between (say) 7 and 14 beers a week and avoid bingeing – not to treat 7 as a maximum.

      1. Not missing it at all. But that is for saying so. Just aware that a significant percent of folk in beer who both dismiss the science and the advice drink well past these levels. Them making the beer as health food argument is a bit silly given that.

        1. Alan — We’re not fans of ‘beer is good for you’ articles being Re-Tweeted by breweries and industry groups either but there is some room for debate around the specifics of how bad for you booze is, and how much.

          As with so many subjects, though, it’s hard to have a meaningful discussion because lobbying and politics tug the discussion to the extremes. As we say above, some of the rebuttals of the new guidelines do sound like people who might themselves drink too much, or rely on others drinking freely for their livelihoods, reacting defensively.

          Equally, having worked in government, I know that official guidelines are rarely the unvarnished work of experts — in my experience, they always reflect, one way or another, the needs and prejudices of the politicians who have commissioned them, especially when researchers aren’t in agreement and, in effect, they are free to pick the research that gives them the answers their supporters demand.

          1. B: Well, that’s a fairly (mildly) cynical view – something of a role reversal -but I understand. As a regular purchaser of professional advice in a wide range of specialties, I actually find that most professionally developed understanding of tolerances in any field is actually well founded if not welcome. As a result, I probably give heed to the health advice more than most beer writers even if, again like most beer writers, I don’t follow them perfectly. My soy intake is sub-optimum, too. But that does not lead me to seek out reasons to dismiss rather than consider whether I should improve its place in my diet.

        2. Ben Goldacre says something somewhere about people using figures that show it’s OK to drink a little to justify drinking a lot, and presumably that is how the Chief Medical Officer and her team are thinking. But it’s a bad tactic – not least because the scientific model the current advice rests on is elaborate and wobbly, and there’s very strong evidence to support higher limits. Even if we assume that it is a good idea to drive down the level of alcohol consumption across the board – and I’m not at all sure that it is – science shouldn’t be bent out of shape to produce the required answers, and it shouldn’t be used to create scare stories intended to nudge people’s behaviour in the desired direction.

  2. Alan — I think cynical is an over-statement. Medical advice = worth listening to. Medical advice filtered through the political machine, perhaps a little less so.

    EDIT: To expand on that a bit, I’m not surprised people want to test whether these new guidelines are watertight having learned to live (more or less) with the old ones which were more forgiving. They seem to ask people to fundamentally change their lifestyles and, by extension, the wider culture. That’s not something people are going to do merrily, with a shrug, on receipt of a leaflet from the Department of Health.

  3. True. But I am also mindful that alcohol is a pleasure giving thought altering drug. It gives comfort. One has a positive relationship with it caused in no small part by its effect which also layers upon the unwelcome professional advice. The lifestyle is not optimum. The recommended slow drip for heart health has always been tiny. Hours spent in the pub might be spent otherwise. We know these things yet choose to live as we do. And we don’t like harsh reality to intrude. It is a lot like the complaints from some beer writers in the US primarily about lowering the safe driving limits. Every other explanation is offered to ignore the obvious social harm. US craft ignores the issue as intentionally as a 1950s cigarette company might. We lean towards the comforting justifying response as much as we lean away from the nanny state.

    1. Alan – not everyone is deluded! There’s a huge body of medical evidence that says that drinking moderately is better for you than total abstention – and that drinking at levels above the new guidelines is better for you than keeping at or below them. That’s not wishful thinking or kneejerk libertarianism, it actually is what the science says. (The Chief Medical Officer’s response on this point is that cutting out alcohol is still a good idea, but that people who cut it out altogether should also exercise more, so as to offset the loss of the protective effect.)

      I’m sure there are people out there saying “sod the science, another little drink won’t do us any harm”, and those people are deluding themselves. Perhaps the idea of these new guidelines is that, if it gets out there that one drink a day is the safe limit, it’ll give people who are currently drinking four or five a day enough of a jolt to make them cut down to the actual safe limit of two or three. But bending the science until it gives the right answer is a dangerous game, as well as being dishonest in its own right – it risks discrediting any and all health advice, among precisely those drinkers who ought to be listening.

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