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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why We Drink

I just got this comment on a previous post, and it struck me that the timing was appropriate. I was looking for something to write about at end of year, and this challenge begs a response. Read the comment first.

No offense to you, but I just do not understand why so many people have to be drunk in this country. It seems like if you are not a "drinker", then society looks down on you. Why?

I am 35 years old, never drank and have no desire to. I live in Maryland, a state that denies anyone to smoke in public, even considering a ban on smoking in your own home yet you can drink til the cows come home. I was at a restaurant where the manager received a complaint about a smoker standing outside the entry so he called the police and they made the person leave the property. Yet during the same visit to this place [Fuddruckers in Columbia], they sell beer to anyone who has the money. There are open containers of beer on pretty much every table in the place on a weekday afternoon. This drinker [aka: loser], he got up to go to the bathroom, and while gone, two kids maybe 11 or 12 years old walked up and drank from that bottle of booze.

During my visit there, this same person drank 2 beers and looked like he had some before getting to the restaurant too. When I complained to the guy and the manager, everyone acted as if I was from another planet. Like nothing is wrong with everybody getting boozed up and stumbling around and allowing minors to have free access to illegal products.

It seems to me that america is seriously flawed in their values now, we have major issues going on currently including a "depression" hitting the economy, jobs being lost daily, shitty healthcare standards, and so much more. Yet our leaders are focused on blocking marriage to those that want it, are entitled to it, etc. I bet a guy could marry his keg of beer though if he wanted to!!!

In closing, I just don't get it. Want is the fascination with life that sad that everyone would rather be lost in a liquor fog that to face realty and deal with life 1-on-1.
This screed sums up a lot of what passes for anti-alcohol, New Dry "thought:" everyone who drinks is a drunk, the only reason people drink is to get blind drunk, children will all drink alcohol at every opportunity, alcohol is an evil that society must be protected from by the government and societal strictures, and life can be enjoyed without alcohol. As such, it deserves a response. "Anonymous," here's my look at "Why We Drink."

Why do we drink? We drink because our ancestors and forefathers drank, with traditions going back thousands of years. The first drinkers probably drank because of the mind-expanding effects of alcohol. Alcohol is not, as is commonly said, simply a depressant. It is a much more complex drug. When they drink too much, some people weep, some laugh, some fight, some become gregarious, and some fall asleep. But all have impaired judgment, impaired attention, slowed reflexes. Drinking too much can be dangerous; drinking too much, too often, can ruin your life.

Given the potential danger of alcohol, then, why do we drink? The traditions we put around alcohol, much like the rituals we put around sex, or eating, or religion, regulate our enjoyment...if we heed them. We drink with friends, we drink in groups, and we assign a stigma to drinking alone. Cultures with stronger versions of these fences around drinking generally have a healthier attitude towards drinking. Laws have been tried to substitute for these cultural strictures, generally without success, any more than a law against puppies would succeed (yet most Islamic cultures shun dogs as unclean, resulting in dogless cities without anti-dog laws...).

So we drink in moderation. This is the concept that seems to escape the New Drys like "Anonymous." To the Drys -- not non-drinkers, but the anti-drinkers -- any drinking is being drunk. To be honest, I don't understand "why so many people have to be drunk in this country" either. But I truly do not understand why some people equate moderate drinking with drunkenness. It is as if drinking is a binary switch: don't drink, and you're sober and upright; drink one beer and you're "a drunk" and a menace. Do they believe that everyone who drives floors it as soon as they get out of the driveway?

We drink for pleasure. Drinks taste good, once one has developed the taste for them. There is nothing non-alcoholic that tastes like a good beer; if there were, we'd drink it. There is nothing non-alcoholic that tastes like whisky, or gin, or wine of any quality. The non-drinker knows nothing of these tastes, the aromas. Alcohol carries aromas in spirits and wine and beer like the alcohol in perfume; there is nothing like it without the alcohol. The effects of yeasts and distillation and barrel-aging create aromas that are too delicate to survive "de-alcoholization."

We drink to bond. Drinking is best enjoyed as a social activity among friends, family, or lovers. Moderate alcohol use leads to "social lubrication," a disinhibition of shyness, a willingness to speak without the howling mania of drunkenness. A few beers, a couple hours of conversation, and you have a fine afternoon. You can have that without the beers, to be sure, but if it is pleasant with the beers...then why the antipathy? Some cultures even tend to drink weaker beers to prolong the golden period of 'lubrication.'

We drink because we can, not because we have to. I had two beers this afternoon with lunch. I'm going to go out and have another this evening. I won't be drunk, I had no intention to. I went out for a meal, and tonight I'm going out to spend some time with my wife on a holiday. I could do it without alcohol, and oftentimes I do. I don't really know of anyone who drinks with every meal, and I don't know where anti-drinkers got that idea. "You can have fun without drinking," is the constant refrain, and they're right. But you can drink without getting bust-up drunk, too. Drinking is optional, though if I'm at Oktoberfest, I'm having a beer. If I don't want a beer, I'm probably not going to go to the beer hall in the first place.

We drink despite the disapproval of non-drinkers. "Anonymous" feels left out, looked down on, because they don't drink. Yet drinkers are looked down on all the time, oppressed even: that's why there are "sin taxes" on booze, that's why there are laws that disallow drinking to all because of the actions of the few who overdo drinking. I don't know of any laws that punish non-drinkers, I don't look down on long as they don't look down on me. "Anonymous" crosses that line. But you know? Despite that, I'll probably have a drink later. And more tomorrow, when we toast the New Year with family. And no one will be drunk, or "lost in a liquor fog."

We drink because we like it. Those who choose not to drink do so for their own reasons. If a person is over-served, and becomes an annoyance -- to a majority, not one whiny teetotaler -- then sanctions should be imposed: cut off, sent home, shaming. But if a person is simply enjoying a beer...where exactly is the harm? There is none. Indeed, there is a benefit. Booze means jobs: production, transport, retail, advertising, sales, marketing...even writing. Booze means taxes (unfortunately). Booze means places to go for fun, because sales keep restaurants afloat. Towns in the South that have been dry for decades are turning to booze because restaurants don't want to be in dry towns. No one forces anyone to drink, but why do some people get to force others not to?

That is why we drink. I doubt this will clear anything up for "Anonymous." But I will sign my name to it.

-- Lew Bryson 12/31/08


camper said...

There must be some sort of anti-alcohol blog convention going on right about now. The New York Times new Proof blog is full of hundreds of these "evils of drink" comments now also.

Steven said...


TC said...

First, to quote Brenden Hartranft, in regards to low alcohol beers: "I don't want to drink 2 beers, I want to drink 10 beers". My favorite new beer of 2008 was EB+B's Love Your Mother Mild, which clocked in around 3%, I believe. I view drunkeness as a side effect to my consumption of alcoholic beverages. I tend to avoid high alcohol beers, often, because I want to avoid that side effect. I know I could spend most of the night drinking Love Your Mother without exceeding an easy buzz. Drinking whiskey, however, I don't last long, so I keep my whiskey consumption low and carefully controlled.

As to why I drink, though: I'm interested in the life of beer, of wine, of whiskey, and, for that matter, of bread. Virtually all food you eat is dead food. Dead plants, dead animals. In some cases, long dead. But alcoholic beverages hold the unusual distinction of actually being alive the moment you drink them. They're still growing and changing. Bread is the same weigh. Sourdoughs taste and feel different the day they come out of the oven than they do on the second day. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Personally, I WISH people put the kind of time and effort and money and passion into making non-alcoholic juice and soda and other drinks that they do in soda. But the fact is that few, or perhaps zero beers are made with the kind of skill and creativity that colors the craft brewing industry. The only beverage I can think of that comes close is coffee in its varied incarnations. And certainly, while the cheap coffee will do in a pinch, nothing quite beats freshly roasted Jamaican Blue , finely ground in a burr grinder, served hot but NOT boiling. Other than that... well, I just don't know.

Happy new year, Lew.

RICH said...

We drink to SHARE, to share the experience, compare the drink, share ideas, share more of ourselves than previously shared. It's slightly different that bonding, but close enough not quibble about it. I hate drinking alone, and rarely if ever do so. Why? Because I prefer---no CRAVE--- the shared experience.

Deuane said...

Amen Brother, Amen!

Oh, and Happy New Year Uncle Lew!

Harry Spade said...

Nothing I can add here, I just wanted to lend my name to the spirit and intention of this piece. Very well stated Lew.

On a kinda-related note, a week or so ago my local paper, the Lancaster New Era, published an editorial railing against the Amethyst Initiative. The rant seemed illogical and was disappointing to say the least, but as fired up as I was I could not find the words to respond intelligently. Not all of us are as eloquent as yourself. So, what should a person in my position do in such a situation? I've been reading your blogs and paying a bit of attention to the alcohol vs. anti-alcohol debates over the last few years, and I feel it's time I started to add my voice to the argument. Baby steps, of course.

I'm also disappointed in that I don't recall reading any submitted rebuttals in the paper over the next few days. A missed opportunity I think.

fishead said...

You neglected to mention one primary historical reason. Alcohol acts as both a preservative and a cleanser. Watch any nature show about surviving in the wild and you'll be warned of all the horrendous bugs and creatures that reside in regular everyday stream water. One sip, and you've got yourself a nice little parasite.
Our ancestors discovered that in addition to it's other more physical effects, alcohol kept your water clean, your cider fresh, and your beer storable over a long winters sit-in.
So yes, we drink because we can, but also because alcohol is one more tool in our arsenal for survival.

Lew Bryson said...

Ummm...what is that, a sturgeon? I'll call you Ted: alcohol as a preservative and the process of boozemaking as a way of making safe drink is indeed why we drank. I was about to say that it's no longer why we drink...but then I remembered a trip to Ensenada when I drank beer rather than water cuz I just didn't trust it. So I guess you're right!

Harry, I'm glad to hear you want to take some action, because that kind of thing must be answered. Might I suggest grabbing something from my website? It's not all that well-organized, but there's plenty there for ideas:
Just keep it short, 250 words or less; keep it cordial and polite; point out errors where you can; and point out that 18 year olds are already drinking...without any kind of supervision. Making them legal would actually make them safer if we follow through with more enforcement and more inducement to keep people from being overserved; that's crucial.

Welcome to the fight, Harry!

Spencer said...

Why do I drink? It's a complex question. There is no doubt in my mind that one (minor) reason is to remove myself slightly from the world. For some reason, that is viewed as a "sin" in American society. Humans have always sought ways to find an "altered reality," ranging from alcohol and drugs to meditation and dervish dancing.

There is also no question that there are people who abuse alcohol. Some are close to me, and I have seen firsthand the damage and pain that alcohol addiction can do to a person's life and spirit. I have learned compassion for their affliction. I also know that no prohibitions and laws will keep addicts from their drug of choice.

Last night I was at a sober New Years Eve party. One alcoholic related a story: he used to work at an auto plant. A co-worker always teased him about his not drinking, "Hey, Joe, how about a drink? Oh, yeah, you don't drink!" One day, this co-worker came up to him and asked "How did you stop drinking?" It would seem that his teasing was part of his denial of his own condition, but Joe's constant example eventually gave his co-worker hope that there was a way to sobriety.

I feel blessed that I can drink in moderation, because I do enjoy it. I enjoy the camaraderie of a session at the pub. I enjoy the flavors that for some reason only alcoholic beverages can carry. I enjoy the creativity of the current generation of micro-brewers and distillers. In many ways, I drink for the same reason that I dine (as opposed to just "eat") -- it adds to the enjoyment and texture of my life.

Lew Bryson said...

Nicely put, Spencer. I have no sympathy for anyone boorish enough to tease someone for not drinking. As long as the person isn't preachy about it, that's their choice, for whatever reason, and I respect it.

Anonymous said...

I recall a poster displayed in my high school. There was a rugged looking dude with a lit cigarette hanging out of his nose. The poster said, "I smoke for smell."

Well, I drink for taste. Although I admit the buzz is a nice side benefit.

Rick Lyke said...

On New Year's Eve I enjoyed a Sapporo Reserve with an Asian-style dinner and then a bottle of Chimay Red as dessert before going to watch Slumdog Millionaire. After the movie I had a glass of Gruet Sparkling Wine with my wife while we watched the ball drop at Times Square on television. I'm quite certain I did not fall down once.

Not all drinkers are drunks, just as not all teetotalers are Neo-Prohibitionists. Intolerance is a form of intoxication that I'm happy I don't suffer from. There ought to be a 12-step program for these folks.

@SKeithJ said...

I drink for the experience. It's about the people, the place, the time of year. I think the undertone is put well in Don's column this week. He picked his 6 favorite beers of the year, but really they were beers that were associated with 6 of his most important experiences of 2008.

It was the trip out to see the gloriously updated Victory Brewpub (132 cent IPA,) it was the short detour on the way home from the in-laws through Berwick to see One Guy (Peach Wheat,) it was the anticipation at the Drafting Room of Baltic Thunder or getting into Bavarian Barbarian for the tour (Headbangerz Brown,) it was the happily lubricated crowd during the bar crawl for Philly Beer Week (every beer that was served.)

For me, it's the experience (as well as the taste!)

Anonymous said...

What a homer! did you ever stop and think me taking a drink does not give you lung cancer? And don't give me that about drunk driving or public drunkeness, they are both ILLEAGAL with steep penalties and fines so do not even try to compare the two

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! Well said, Lew.

The New Albanian said...

I was going to make a comment sooner, but I've been too busy enjoying beer in the new year ...

Cheers, Lew.

Lew Bryson said...

Hey, Roger!

Hell, just glad to see you. You know you're always welcome here.

Anonymous said...

I have eaten at that Fuddruckers. I drank a Coke. I didn't have a beer because their selection wasn't very good. I don't consider Yuengling to be a premium beer and won't pay over $4 for one.

Matt Hendry said...

To be honest I don't drink that much and Ive worked in a few breweries where the beer was free after work or really cheap (like $1 a bottle).

I enjoy the taste of beer and the experience of brewing and have been known to drink one beer and be done drinking or just a taste when working to evealuate the beer but i dont enjoy the feeling of getting drunk or the morning after effects so I tend to pace myself if I do havew to have a drinking session .

Beer in Moderation is good for you and can be enjoyable and just like anything should not be used in excess.

Jay Zeis said...

Sorry for the late comment on this.

I didn't drink until I turned 21, which was weird to many people, but I didn't mind (I wasn't against drinking, I just didn't do it). Anywho, Why I drink:

I went to college in Selinsgrove, I went to the Brewpub (I am sure you have been there). The Brewpub made me try "exotic" (to a northeast-central pennsylvania) beers. When I moved to Baltimore, Max's and Mahaffeys helped me build on my beer knowledge and it still keeps me learning about new tastes. I drink because it is always something new. I will never run out of beers to try, and my taste is constantly changing. I went from being devout lager guy (Yuengling as my go to), then to IPA/hopbombs and now Belgians. I still enjoy all the other beers. I know know what "mood" I am in, based on beers. It has been a great addition to my life.

yruaidiot said...

Just minutes before reading your eloquent response to "Anonymous'" blog, I read a similar essay posted to "craigslist". Your post speaks volumes for moderation and I personally feel a sense of enlightenment having read it. Thank you.


Max Regent said...

I drink cause I always have. From the day I felt that first glow when I was 9 years old pulling off a bottle of Reunite my parents left on the counter one Saturday morning. I realized that there are people in this world that like to be impaired, others that don't. I happen to be one of the ones that does.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading after this:

"I am 35 years old, never drank and have no desire to."

how can you expect to understand something if youve never experienced it? that is why I stopped reading, because you lost your credibility after that line

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. However, I have to put out there that marijuana is the correct answer.

Anonymous said...

It's not that everything you said is wrong, it's that you have no idea about... anything