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To Kickstart or Not to Kickstart

I didn’t want to post twice on Friday…my blogging is sparse and inconsistent enough as it. But that means I’m getting in a little late on commenting on the anti-Kickstarter rant on dontdrinkbeer that took the Twitterverse by storm late last week. Such is life.

So let’s start here and afterward I will keep my comments pleasantly short. First of all, if for no other reason than that the rant is funny and full of some truly excellent cursewording, go read the whole thing. Seriously, you don’t want to miss sentences like this one:

Recently there have been ropes and ropes of precum turned out by “brewers” who promise eternal anal massages for pennies on the dollar and forthcoming ambrosial treats…

And there’s a very cute pangolin statue.

OK. So it’s funny, it’s a rant, and I like both funny things and rant things. So I suppose I should just settle there and say “Enjoy!” I’ll also admit that I think that the “every new business needs a Kickstarter campaign” thing has gotten a little out of hand. Sifting through Kickstarters I might give a crap about is now far more a cognitive load and timesuck than I think it’s worth. It’s like trying to sift through the rap section at Sam Goody’s in the late 90s. I just need one poorly printed ‘zine to find the good stuff.

That being said, it is not at all uncommon for new businesses to seek investors in their new enterprise. And there are lots of models for how you might do that. You could, for example, get a small business loan, which is a kind of investment. The bank gives you money and you, in turn, give them their money back (eventually) plus interest Hopefully the interest is some <100% amount of profit derived from your business. Another model is to get a straightforward investor who will give you money for some pre-determined return on the amount provided. These are normally in the forms of stocks or bonds.

Kickstarter isn’t offering anything different than this old model, except a platform to reach out to a lot more people who will (presumably) give much smaller amounts than either a bank or stock- or bondholder and in return they will get a seasonal six pack at some undetermined date in the future, or a free pack of stickers…or get to name the mash tun or whatever.

There is no necessary link between a person who makes a Kickstarter video and a lack of a business plan, or lack of ability to make beer, or any other of the ranty charges leveled by dontdrinkbeer. “Make a Kickstarter” could easily be part of a genuinely well thought out business plan. I’m sure they know that. I’m sure none of these words needed to be written. But just in case someone was persuaded that a Kickstarter campaign necessarily precluded business acumen, I just wanted to toss my two cents in to support crowdsourcing.

Yay, crowdsourcing!

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


The Session 83: Against the Grain

I have a naturally contrarian disposition. I’m not a fan of over-using the word “literally,” but I literally don’t know a single person who would doubt, contradict, or otherwise challenge this simple statement of fact. It would be a chorus of nodding heads and some punctuated shouts of “shit yeah he does.” “Against the Grain” would have made a great name for this blog.

“Beer bloggers”—well Hell, let’s just start there, shall we? I’m not a beer blogger. Pretty contrarian statement for a dude playing along with this month’s Session. I like to blog about all drinks, although I concentrate on beer and the beer industry. I’ve even blogged about water, and I’ll do it again. But insofar as I am a beer blogger, my entire modus operandi runs contrary the grain.

Beer bloggers are mostly evangelists. They love craft beer!!!! They cannot put enough Os in how much the loooooooooove it!!! They want you know how much they love it. They want you know exactly how they love it. They want you know that if you don’t love it in precisely the same way as they love, that’s OK…or maybe it isn’t.

Maybe if you love it slightly differently then you’re “a newbie,” or maybe you’re a “beer snob,” or maybe you’re just “a ticker.” Maybe your pursuit of the Next Rare Beer qualifies you as one of those who “are ruining craft beer culture.”

If you deign to ever purchase a Bud product, even to be a good sport at a BBQ at an acquaintance’s house, you have certainly transgressed an unwritten line in the Craft Beer Lover’s Code. This is true now, for some reason, even if the Bud product you buy is Goose Island. God forbid you’re beer is contract brewed—which is a thing we care about this year.

But me…well…I will defend the macros. I will defend Goose Island. I will defend the eBay traders (as well as the Event Beers/Beer Events that spawn them, like Dark Lord Day). I don’t think every craft beer is good. I don’t think you should buy a local beer if it tastes bad in your mouth. I don’t think we serve our purpose as “citizen bloggers” if we shy away from accurately pointing the way to the good stuff and away from the bad stuff. I don’t think we should mourn every time there’s a craft beer merger–or a macro buy-out. I don’t think we should cheer every time a craft brewer writes a snide note to a mega-corp whose trademark they’ve violated. I don’t think we should get our panties in a wad every time one craft brewer writes another a cease and desist letter. I think we do the business a disservice if we pretend that craft brewers are not also savvy businessmen. It’s OK that after all the collaboration beers are brewed that there’s still competition to get into package stores. It’s OK that when a bar has a limited number of taps to dedicate to a product that they choose the one they like more (or, more wisely, that their customers like more).  We’re not all memorizing the BCJP just so we can sit around and not judge beers. All beer may be good beer, but some beer is better. That’s OK. I’m not sure why these positions mean I primarily write contrarian posts.

When it comes down to it, I drink beer. I drink a variety of beers. I think about beer. A lot. And I love it. And I don’t really care what you think, however….

However. (It is my favorite word).

Actually, before I go on, I want to preface this next bit. I used to be an English major and one of the best classes I took was in the the Theater Department, a class on how to perform written poetry. One of our three textbooks was a book by poet John Ciardi called How Does a Poem Mean? From that book I learned a fundamental critical approach to all the narrative arts, including how to interpret the humans I surround myself with. It doesn’t matter what the story is “about.” There’s only a handful of stories in the world once we pare them down to broad outlines. What matters is the specific way a story is told and whether it corresponds to the truth and resonates emotionally with the reader/watcher/listener.

Which is to say, I do care why and how you have come to the conclusions you have come to. I care very deeply about those things. And I argue to get you to clarify your stance and to help me articulate my own. I argue to get you to be more accepting of people who have arrived elsewhere than you have and to build that understanding in me. Is it a public service? I like to think so. Is it an irritating, abrasive, and mostly irrelevant public service? I have been told that it is. I like to argue….and beer is a thing I like to argue about.

It’s sort of like Sayre’s Law: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Just replace “academic politics” with “beer blogging.”

When we’re talking about beer, we could be just talking about beer, but I doubt it. How do you define “a session ale”? How do you know when a beer is on this side or that side of some taxonomic dividing line? What qualities make Goose Island 2004 a good thing, but Goose Island 2014 a bad one? How did you get here? Your arguments…the way you determine what we should be looking at…the way you determine what things qualify as “facts,” the way you value this or that side of an issue…that’s the important part. That’s what makes you interesting. That’s what makes you you.

I once read a blog entry that claimed (citing some studies) that philosophy students are just more abrasive than others because to them (me) the argument is the thing. The argument is the true test of whether the company you’re keeping cares as much about the issue as you do. It isn’t where she’s arrived; it’s whether she thought it interesting enough to look out the windows along the way.

I’m no Socrates, but it’s worth considering his fate as I lay claim to myself as a beer blogger gadfly.

Oh, and for the record: spiced beers. Wit beers, Christmas Ales, Pumpkin Ales. I just don’t care for them. I try…every year. I try and try. I used to love them. In some ways Blue Moon was a gateway beer for me. The first beer I homebrewed was a pumpkin red. My favorite non-GABF beer festival in recent years was Indianapolis’ Winterfest (chock full of holiday beers, winter warmers etc). I just lost my palate for them. I don’t hate them. I continue to try them, especially in sampler flights. But every time, I’m like “meh” and order something else.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


Here’s a Thing I Like

I spend a lot of time here complaining, criticizing, and generally being a fairly negative sort. It’s my natural disposition. So, in the spirit of the season, here is a link to a thing on which I offer no criticism. In fact, I like it, practically every word.

I especially like Roger’s quick summary of the various “craft beer cultures” (as opposed to the myth of the a monolithic “craft beer culture”:

A homebrewing culture analyzes beer by ingredients and methodology, espousing a “brew it yourself” ethos, while traders and swappers revel in the mechanics of the chase, the art of the deal, and the joy of collecting.

There is a priestly ratings caste trumpeting the presumed exactitude and objectivity of language in quantifying beer, and a localist persuasion embracing the personal, grassroots experience of craft beer in the context of places and people.

And his lionizing of Michael Jackson and the value (virtue?) of storytelling as opposed to linking, sharing, Tweeting, ticking, bragging etc.:

For those of us who grew to beer-turity prior to the Internet’s incursions, when social media was a figment of Dick Tracy’s wrist radio – the downtrodden tightly clutching dog-eared books written by the late beer writer Michael Jackson and anointing him as a reliable guide for pursuit of the perfect pint — one of the most important aspects of craft beer is the ability to tell a good story.

Jackson excelled at it. He was a journalist by trade, and relentlessly factual in his approach, yet a sheer delight in storytelling is his primary legacy, especially through a knack for linking good beer with interesting people in specific places. At the end of the day, what else is there?

Central to all of this was, and is, storytelling. Nowadays, quality craft beer storytelling is hardly dead, although I fear it’s gone into some manner of cryogenic hibernation. In the present time, craft beer enthusiasm is expressed with a throwaway brevity, defying any true depth of feeling; miles-wide, inches-deep. Social media affords an abundance of minimal exposure, trivializing and often eliminating context. Beer lovers check in, tweet, post and rate – and yet they hardly ever tell stories.

I quote in excess, but do read the whole thing. It’s short, accurate, aspirational. Although I have and will continue to effuse about Baylor’s beer, I don’t normally do so of his writing. So take heed. I know from goodness.

All here.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


Beernomic Impact Studies

I’ve held on to this post for a few days because it occurred to me when I initially conceived it that I write a lot of things here that are critical of the craft-beer-drinking worl. I tend to defend the Big Three against what I think are nonsensical attacks, while not writing posts when I agree with other attacks against them; I tend to write posts defending the notion of marketing; I tend to agree with those that would overtly write “drink responsibly” everywhere they can. I criticize scientific studies that I think use questionable methods, primarily when those conclusions are pro-booze, while not linking to pro-booze stories I support. The reason for this is simple, I get most of my liquor news from liquor evangelists and my deeply rooted contrarianism leads me to respond with “the other side of the story” as often as possible, not necessarily because I believe it, but because my knee jerks when I see people going to too far to one side or the other. It’s not always the case that the right place is in the middle of two extreme points, but it is the case that even when we are to one side of an argument, we not be so far that we cannot at least something of the other side, something that tempers our extremism, something that leaves room open to be persuaded by alternative arguments.

Which leads me to this, a recent economic impact study of the craft beer industry. I have no problems with economic impact studies. I like them. I enjoy them. I often write the authors a list of questions they often fail to respond to. But I am always uncomfortable with the intent or possible implications of these studies. Economic impact analyses are often written (or paid for) by industry lobbying groups with a bias in favor of exaggerating the economic impact of the industry. There are lot of assumption in economic impact studies: you can pick and choose variables, you can pick and choose the method of measuring those variables, you can choose how you weight the importance of those variables, you can pick and choose how many levels of effect you want to measure. It’s very easy to generate numbers that don’t reflect what’s really going on. But the intent of these studies is to write a report that claims the highest “economic impact” that is at least moderately supportable.

The reason these exist is to highlight the (1) the number of jobs dependent on the industry and (2) the number of tax dollars generated and maybe (3) the level of philanthropy from the constituent participants in the industry. All of these to make it harder to pass laws that would limit (or eliminate) those benefits (i.e., by curtailing the growth of the industry through additional regulations or tax increases).

What is always left out of such reports is any notion of questioning whether this is how we want our fellow citizens to make money. For example, no one has (as far as I know) done a full impact study on the economic or social benefits of the illicit drug trade. Every so often you will hear about a soccer field that Pablo Escobar built or a clinic built in a poor neighborhood in Tijuana, but no one talks about the money that is passed into banks’ coffers through laundering, or the amount of leisure cash collected by drug cartel “soldiers and spent in local shops.  Nobody talks about how many Escalades have been bought from legitimate car dealers destined to be armored and driven through Mexico’s deserts or mountain passes. Those cars contribute to Cadillac’s bottom line, they support union workers, janitors, salesmen, etc. Stop the drug trade, and you take away those sales. You take away the sales taxes collected from purchases made at convenience stores by inner-city youths in the employ of domestic distribution networks (read: gangs). No one writes these pieces because we all know we don’t want people participating in these activities even if they generate trillions of dollars in “economic impact.” (btw, they do).

I don’t want people to think I’m comparing Craft Brewers to Cocaine Barons. I am in full support of a profitable and growing craft beer industry. I want it bigger than it is today. I think the work is honest. I think the product is excellent. I think a vibrant local beer market has proven to have extremely positive economic, psychological, social, and artistic benefits all across the country.

I just think it’s worth pointing out that the mere fact that beer has a measurable positive impact on economies is to be taken as the sole argument for its continued existence. And the reverse of this is true to. You sometimes read economic impact studies that try to diminish the effect that new regulations or taxes might have on the beer industry, the fact that these changes are small are taken as evidence that we should do them. Economic impact is never and argument for whether we should nor shouldn’t do a thing. They can lend support, I guess. But the real value question lies elsewhere.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


The Call was Coming from Inside the House

I wrote yesterday about the woman who tried to sell over the internet 120 bottles of Heady Topper for $825 but instead found herself the target of a sting operation.

I sort of went off on a tangent about arbitrage and how if breweries were really concerned about it, they should just price their beers appropriately and collect those profits themselves while at the same time making arbitrage a less tempting proposition.

I actually wrote that post Wednesday and had it publish around 9-ish yesterday morning. I re-read the post when it showed up in my RSS feed this morning and I though to myself…wow these are really unrelated points. I guess I just needed to get that off my chest.

But it turns out, the authorities were tipped off by… The Alchemist! I guess they, like Greg Koch, think that people who make money off their beer are the bad guys and that they have no obligation as business people or moral agents to….price their beers correctly.

They said they “feel really bad about it,” and “there were a lot worse things she could have done.” Well…that’s great.

The appropriate price for a beer is the highest price that still allows you to sell all of your product. Ideally, you want one more person to ask to buy a beer than the number of beers you have to sell. If that price is so high it makes you uncomfortable, then maybe you can withhold being the rat that calls the cops on the person doing the work you were too uncomfortable to do. At the very least you can be the person that doesn’t call the cops.

To be clear, selling alcohol without a license is an illegal activity and The Alchemist did not make her go onto Craigslist and try to make the profits that they refused to. I’m not blaming them for that. Their poor pricing practices do not force people into illegal activities. But they do make them virtually inevitable. It’s not like this is the first of these cases having arisen from an inadequately priced, highly sought after beer. What I am saying is that at the very least, if you don’t want to take the responsibility to price appropriately, have the decency to look the other way when someone else does. If Johnny Law wants to arrest people for selling beer over Craigslist, without a license, they don’t need our help.

Or to be clearer, lest I be accused of supporting law breaking of any sort–I think that liquor licenses are an important regulatory control. I think there’s a public health concern if people are just out, willy-nilly, getting people trashed. And I don’t think its fair for someone to enter the package trade without obtaining the license and bond that package retailers do. That’s unfair competition.

However, neither of these are really the case here.

(And I think that The Alchemist is correct to worry that people other than them might be more prone to store and ship the beer without the appropriate protections and thus give consumers a subpar product. Of course, I also believe that The Alchemist has the power to rectify this problem by (1) pricing their beers correctly and (2) shipping their product themselves (where legal)).

I am not suggesting that people should try to get away with selling liquor without a license. Nor am I suggesting that, in general, we don’t have a responsibility to report wrongdoing. I think we definitely do if we suspect the act in question presents a case of clear and present harm to oneself, the wrongdoer, or anybody else affected by the act in question. But I also think that in many respects liquor sales are overly and inappropriately regulated and if the police want to enforce those laws then the obligation is on them to do the legwork and not turn citizens against one another. We don’t have to give in to what Hunter Thompson called “snitch culture.”

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


P2P Online Beer Sales Can Land you in Hot Water

I’m sort of hijacking the p-2-p nomenclature for tech-related funtimes! but what I mean to say is that if you are not licensed to (re-)sell alcoholic beverages then you probably shouldn’t do it.

A lot my co-writers here in the beer community will probably be saying something more like “Good! She shouldn’t have bought so much beer with the intention of reselling it anyway!!! She’s ruining the feel-good, craft brew spirit! She’s just a ruthless money maker, she’s greedy and I’m GLAD the long arm of the law caught up with her. /frownyface!”

I, on the other hand, take a more market-centric brew. The Alchemist produces a limited quantity of Heady Topper, a highly sought after beer. A disproportionate share of this beer will be bought by people who live near the Waterbury, VT brewery. Many people would buy a plane ticket and go to the brewery themselves if they were guaranteed a bottle. Many more people would drive. Basically, the beer is worth more than they’re selling it for. This difference between the price being offered and the price people would pay is essentially an invitation for people make the profit that The Alchemist refuses to.

The argument back from this is that raising the price so that the market “clears” would unfairly discriminate against craft beer lovers with lower incomes. And that’s true. But with their current system, it unfairly discriminates against people who live far from Waterbury on the one hand and still manages to discriminate against lower income beer lovers. The lady in the story linked above was selling 10 cases for $825. Those aren’t Pliny numbers, but it’s still decent money–about $6.88 a bottle, $41.25 for a six pack.

There’s no guarantee that this sting operation represents a real price since the VT Liquor Control Board was operating as an artificial extra bidder, but it’s probably pretty close. If The Alchemist sold their highly sought beer at a rate closer to this figure, it would have diminished the potential profit that Stephanie Hoffman might have earned. The lower amount might not have been worth the risk of arrest (if she even knew that such a thing was possible).

 

 

 

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


Is Alcohol Really Good For You?

There are several studies, just dozens upon dozens that associate moderate drinking (you have to emphasize the “moderate” part every time you talk about whether alcohol might have beneficial effects of any kind) can help reduce blood pressure, prevent the onset of heart disease, delay or prevent Alzheimer’s, increase longevity and on and on. This wide range of diseases led researcher Hans Olav Fekjær to peer a little closer at these studies (45 in all) to see what was to be seen. Fekjær noted the biological diversity of the diseases that alcohol seems to effect and doubts that ethanol alone could have a beneficial effect on all of them.

He also noted that there seems no dose response related to the supposed benefits. This is a red flag in the epidemiological literature.  That is, if you drink nothing or you drink too much you will have bad effects and if you drink “moderately” you will benefit, but outside of these wide parameters, 1 drink is just as good as 2 drinks which is, if you are a man, as good as 3 drinks. What you would expect to find is that 1/2 a drink would be different than 1, 2, or 3 drinks with supposedly increased benefits until you reach some toxicity level where harms outweigh the good.

He also noticed that when you account for “sick quitters” the supposed benefits of alcohol disappear. A “sick quitter” is a Teetotaler that Teetotals because he has developed a condition that was caused by or is exacerbated by drinking. In other words, in many studies, abstinent participants had worse health outcomes, but many of them were already sick (and some of them sick because of alcohol).

He also found that in cultures where even moderate drinking was a marginalized activity (Hindu-dominant India) the supposed health benefits don’t show up among moderate drinkers, they show up in the abstinent population, In other words, and this is the big takeaway: moderate alcohol use isn’t a cause of good health outcomes, it is an indicator of a balanced and generally healthier life. In a society like America where alcohol abstinence is a marginalized/deviant behavior, it is an indicator that they are participants in other marginalized/deviant behaviors. In cultures where drinking even a little is deviant,  it is an indicator of participation in other deviant behaviors.

This is by no means definitive. I, to name one objection, see no logical reason why alcohol could not have a beneficial effect on even more diseases than what we’ve already seen. There’s more than just ethanol in a glass of beer, after all. However, it should be enough to persuade drinkers (myself included) who loooooooove to site every “drinking is healthy article” they come across to question the scientific validity of what they’re reading. Observational studies are good, but they are a second or third best option after a randomized controlled trial.

The paper is here. [h/t: RBC]

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


Some Brewers Got a Cease and Desist Letter! Oh Noes!!!

Craft beer evangelicals tend to gloss over certain harsh realities of the beer business. Among them is the fact that, at their heart, breweries of all sorts, including craft breweries are businesses. They market their products in ways designed to appeal to and persuade craft beer drinkers. They hire graphic designers and interior decorators to help them create an image. They trademark, copyright, and/or register their various pieces of intellectual property. And they sue one another. The faux outrage from the craft beer community every time some favorite small time brewery receives a cease-and-desist letter, the giggling glee every time a brewery renames the beer with some irreverent reference to the legal dispute, it’s all so much…ugh…the most tedious aspect of following beer news as closely as I do. There is nothing new under the sun here. I’m reminded of a friend’s (no longer updated) Tumblr.

Each of his posts follows this pattern: “I can’t believe that [sports figure][committed some outrage]. So much for trusting sports figures. Won’t fall for that again.” Like this:

I can’t believe double-amputee Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend. So much for trusting sports figures. Won’t fall for that again.

Or this:
I can’t believe Dan Marino (pictured at left) had an affair with a CBS employee (not pictured) and fathered a love child, despite being married with six children at the time. So much for trusting sports figures. Won’t fall for that again.

I no longer remember the inciting incident, but I still share his exasperation. It’s like as soon as we hear about the latest new controversy we’re supposed to forget that these sorts of controversies are regular events and they all point to certain deficiencies in the substructure that governs modern athletics. Underneath the publicity machine designed to convince us otherwise, athletes are just overly rich, entitled young men who play games for money. We shouldn’t be surprised when they act out. And the fact that they act out like this all the time should further inure us to these stories. And yet, the hand wringing continues.
And so goes it in the craft beer world where every time a stamp gets licked on a cease-and-desist letter we all have to throw our hands up that the little guys are starting to act like the big boys. The honeymoon is over. Isn’t So-and-So just a petty little miscreant poisoning the well, sullying the sense of camaraderie that unites all craft brewers together? Oh noes!!!

The only reason these things get reported and sometimes picked up by the mainstream media is because of this myth that all brewers are really, really, really nice guys; that they aren’t running businesses. They don’t care about all those silly things that overwhelm the big boys like branding, marketing, and advertising channels. They only care about making good beer. To see an example of this take this recent Forbes’ account of the tiny kerfuffle between Dogfish Head and the incipient Namaste Brewing (now renamed to Kamala Brewing).

These men, all prodigiously bearded, take genuine pride in the artisanal nature of their work. Dipak Topiwala, Whip In’s owner and the event’s host, surveyed his colleagues and assessed the collective brewer vibe thusly: “We’re all making a product that makes people happy. Why wouldn’t we be happy?” It’s a refreshing perspective.

Dogfish Head sent Namaste Brewing an email asking that the brewery rename itself (because of their beer Namaste), pay a licensing fee (which would have been weird, I think) or agree to only sell their beer on site.
Then the writer says this:

But even the mellowest of microbrewers is starting to experience the buzz kill of trademark infringement.

“Starting to”? “Starting to”?!? Gah. I don’t have the time to research when the first craft brewer sent a cease-and-desist letter to another but I distinctly remember drinking beers that had been renamed because of them…and that was at least ten years ago. I was blogging about the David vs David nature of the craft beer world two years ago myself. Trademark infringement and trademark protection are de rigeur in business. It happens every day, all the time. Sometimes you see some really ridiculous cases and those cases make interesting stories. Like when T-Mobile tried to trademark the hot pink color they use on all their signage. But the mere idea of a trademark infringement/protection battle is not itself a story. The only reason to pretend like it is, is because of this naïve myth of the brewer who has no interest in making money at brewing beer…which is, of course, nonsense.

I do agree with the writer that this kind of stuff will happen  more frequently as the craft beer world gets more crowded. But isn’t new. It isn’t interesting. And it is certainly not unexpected.

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I’m Going to Have to Say, Nuh-Uh

I work in public health which means I have certain sympathies regarding the importance of agencies like the US Food and Drug Agency that make sure our foods are not poison and that our medicines have at least a modicum of a chance to heal us. And the FDA owes a historical debt to the Reinheitsgebot one of the earliest food safety laws in the world. Probably not the oldest one in the world, I think I remember reading something about drowning bad brewers in ancient Babylon if they ruined the beer, but certainly among the oldest, and definitely one of the oldest in Europe which is important for Dead White European Male reasons. I think claiming World Heritage status for it is quite a reach.

And as a fan of beer…no…the Reinheitsgebot is not necessarily a good thing. It may have been a good thing. I don’t really know. I know that when I was first venturing into craft beer and home brewing it seemed like a good thing. Just like everyone else I was all “Budweiser uses rice! Blech! and Miller uses corn! Double Blech! The Reinheitsgebot is the way! No adulterated beer! Power to the people! etc etc” and then immediately sought out the first bottle of King Midas I could get my hands on because…hypocrisy! and ignorance!

I won’t get into all the reasons that the Reinheitsgebot is and has been for awhile essentially nonsense, suffice it to say that very many horrible beers are brewed according to its strict(-ish) guidelines and nearly all my favorite beers are not. I do think its restrictions made German Bavarian brewers more creative and more technically skilled, but other than that, I don’ t have much positive to say.

And finally, this quote cannot go uncommented.

If Germany is still regarded as the undisputed beer nation, that is due to the Reinheitsgebot,” said Hans-Georg Eils, president of the German Brewers’ Federation.

In what world is this guy living? The order is either America then Belgium or Belgium then America THEN Germany…probably. You can’t deny the guy his nationalist pride, but it’s pretty galling to claim Germany is the “undisputed beer nation.” It’s basically disputed every day, by everyone but Germans.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.


Are All Temperance Policies Doomed to Fail?

Jay Brooks always has his eyes on the modern day prohibitionists. And thank goodness. The real prohibitionists of the late-19th/early-20th centuries were powerfully organized and they are the textbook example of a transnational activist movement ultimately successful at passing some form of national alcohol prohibition legislation not just in the United States but around the world. Back then, like many of the capital-P Progressive groups of the era their central arguments were framed around ideas of religious (mostly Protestant) and personal morality.

Modern prohibitionists—consistent with contemporary trends in other fields—tend to frame their arguments in terms of statistics, “markets,” science, and public health. This often makes it more difficult to criticize them because arguments based on science and statistics arrive with an often false sense of certainty and finality. Only people sensitive to the ways that science can mask subjectivity are capable of pointing out the truth behind the “truth.” Jay Brooks is one of those.

On the other hand, there is a tendency to respond to the artificial black-and-whiteness of a scientific (or “scientific”) piece with an equally artificial white-and-blackness. In this post from over the weekend, Brooks points out that a recent study concluded that a ban on quantity purchases and “buy one get on free” marketing tactics did not reduce overall consumption in Scotland. Brooks comments:

The main findings were that they didn’t work — shock, surprise.

And

You’d think at this point that policymakers would realize that trying to stop people from buying as much alcohol at one time as they want would do nothing except inconvenience adult purchasers of products they’re legally entitled to buy and consume.

And

Didn’t thirteen years of Prohibition make that abundantly clear? Yet all this type of regulation accomplishes is to punish the law-abiding, responsible adults who want to enjoy a legal adult beverage.

Whenever anybody starts to say that the results of a study are “obvious,” I get suspicious. Most people, myself included, tend to put more faith in studies that prove what we already believe and to overly scrutinize (or most often, simply ignore and forget) studies that prove the opposite. When studies confirm our presumptions, we are more prone to generalize their findings, to ignore fallacious reasoning,  to overlook small sample sizes, and to under scrutinize base rates and effect sizes because if it was “obviously” true before and is confirmed in Scotland, there is no harm at all in assuming that it naturally must hold true everywhere and at all times.

There are two conflicting assumptions at work when talking about “average alcohol consumption.” One is that at any given moment, the desired amount of human consumption is a static determinable number (normally captured by some proxy, liquor sales, for example). The other is that humans are rational actors that change their behavior to fit social, environmental, and legal (among other) contexts. The first assumption allows us to generate maps like this one from The Economist that determine the average consumption of entire nations.

20110219_WOM582

More or less, all thing being equal (or as we like to say in the biz “ceteris paribus”) human consumption just doesn’t change all that much. If I prefer to drink 4 nights a week and consume between 3 and 4 drinks each time I drink, then that’s my preference. And if Colorado passed a law tomorrow that made drinking more than 2 drinks at any given time more inconvenient (by passing a law that forbade pub owners from serving more than 2 drinks in a 24-hour span to the same person, for example) I would still have those preferences. So I would look for ways to achieve my preferred level of drunkenness (by attending two bars near each other so that I could have two drinks at one and then go across the street for my next two.)

But in the real world, things are not all ceterisy paribusy. Look back up at that average consumption map. The most striking thing on the map is that it is not all one color. “Average consumption” differs by region. Why do Americans drink more than Saudis? Why do Russians drink more than…everybody? Let’s drill down to just one country. This site lists the prevalence of people who self-identify as casual drinkers. You will see it ranges from a high of 67.8% in Wisconsin to a low of 28.7% in Utah (average: 53.6%, roughly what they’re drinking in Virginia, 54%). The map below shows the amount of “binge drinkers” by state. Here we can see that from state to state alcohol consumption rates vary within a country. Why do Illini drink more than Hoosiers? Why do Utah…er…ites? drink less than everybody?

binge_drink_prev10

And here is a chart of median consumption numbers in Britain going back to 1992.

_51154299_alcohol464x355

Although the numbers don’t change much, they do change. And that’s the point. There is nothing predetermined about the level at which humans want to, can, or will drink. Some drink nothing at all and some people drink so much they die from it. Anything in between is subject to a variety of pressures. Some of these pressures are very personal, but for most of us, social factors will play a major role. Some of these social factors are legal in nature. Look at that map of binge drinking averages and compare it to this Wikipedia map of where “dry” and “moist” counties are located. It is interesting that a prevalence of “dry” counties seems to correlate with less binge drinking, but a prevalence of “moist” counties seems to correlate with more binge drinking.

555px-Alcohol_control_in_the_United_States.svg

I wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that living in a dry county makes people not binge drink, but that the two are unrelated is not “abundantly clear.” The picture is extremely muddy. What is apparent is that rates of alcohol consumption are variable and something must account for those differences. I would suggest that policy is at least one factor.

My point is not that the Scotland study is erroneous. Only that it’s finding were not ex ante obvious and that policymakers are under no pressure to simply admit that temperance measures of any sort are universally condemned to failure (even if outright prohibition certainly is). These maps make it clear (at least to me) that policies do (or at least can) influence the choices that people make. We may not be able to measure these differences over just a few short months—it takes a while to develop new habits. And the Scotland policy was probably designed poorly. In general it’s more effective to just tax “undesirable” activities than to attempt to submerge the tax as in the Scotland case. However, I don’t think it was at all obvious that it was doomed to fail.

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Posted in The Drinking Class.