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 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.


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!


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.


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.


*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…