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High Functioning: Craft Beer & Alcohol. A Sobering Discussion.

on 12/02/14 at 9:49 am


detail.d13c3d09First off — how many beers did you have today?

Fine. And yesterday?

The day before?

When was the last 36-hour period in which you did not have a beer? Bonus points if your answer is ‘within the last seven days’; double bonus points if that’s your answer and you’re in the beer business.

We don’t talk about alcoholism in connection with craft beer. There’s an implicit assumption that craft beer drinkers’ foremost interest is in quality, taste and craftsmanship, and that developing an appreciation for finer beer signals a progression away from antisocial relationships with alcohol that are characterized by bingeing on swill just to get shithoused. Why would anyone, the thinking seems to go, spend so much time and money on high end speciality beers if all one wanted to do was get drunk?

Why, indeed. It takes somewhat less than superhuman powers of deduction to look around at the current craft beer scene and conclude that there are plenty of people plugging away at chronic substance abuse problems under the ameliorating imprimatur of connoisseurship. Craft beer culture (whatever that is) encourages curiosity and exploration among consumers, but has relatively little to say about healthy drinking habits. By turning beer into a hobby and a lifestyle, craft as a market trend smoothes out a lot of the stigma that would otherwise be attached to, say, drinking an 11% double IPA at lunch. And then having another.

With so many new breweries and so many new beers, there’s always an excuse for a taste; in my job as a wholesaler sales rep, I rely on weekly new/special/limited releases to round out (if not drive) sales, and certainly there’s a sense of professional obligation in sampling new products. Being “in the industry” (that’s how people talk about it, I promise), you’re obliged to drink. A lot. Tap takeovers, bar promos, retail tastings, beer festivals, buyer sampling, supplier demos — there is always a reason to drink. It can be difficult to honestly and accurately evaluate one’s own consumption habits in this environment, but it’s fair to say that by any objective rubric of risk behavior, a week in the life of your average beer rep would set off a few alarm bells with a disinterested observer.

There are those within the craft scene and the larger alcohol industry generally who absolutely should not be there. Wine reps making sales calls with red teeth at 10am; brewery reps falling down drunk in bars where they’re ostensibly trying to promote goodwill toward their brand; glassy-eyed hoarders at bottle shares soused on some of the most coveted beers in the world, so drunk that any pretensions to actually tasting that pour of Cantillon Gueuze are ludicrous. These are people with underlying mental health issues whose position in the industry or participation in the scene is normalizing unhealthy and self-destructive behavior. I’ve known more than my share of high functioning alcoholics; until recently, most of them did not have draft spend accounts.

Physician, you might be saying, heal thyself! Ain’t I a beer rep? Well, yes, and it’s been my recent attempts to reflect on my own drinking habits that precipitated this here article. You see, O my human brothers, in addition to being a beer rep, I’m also a consumer — it’s my operative social identity, after all! Not long after taking my first wholesaler job in New York, I was blessed with an expense account myself, and given the mandate to go out and drink in my accounts. Tracking all of those receipts made me a little more clinical about how I spent money on beer, especially in bars. I became more aware of a certain calculation I was running, often unconsciously, when presented with a draft list: ABV for cost. What beer on the list would provide the most bang for the buck, in other words — if I’m only having two beers at Rattle n Hum before taking the R back to Queens, I guess on balance I’d rather be a little buzzed. So gimme the Lagunitas Gnarleywine. And a Sucaba.