From the Woodshed (In Which I Attempt to Walk It Back)

Well, that was bracing. Yesterday, in response to a Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker, I hypothesized that the arrival of good beer had changed beer drinking habits for the better. A hypothesis rejected, based on my reading of the dozens of comments, by about two to one. The problem with the post--the meta problem which was the source of all the the baby problemettes--was that I bundled a bunch of points together to come up with a final thesis. Let's pull some of them apart and see where we stand.

Let's start with Gladwell's article, which I used as a jumping-off point to make my own argument. In comments, Mark observed:
However, the Gladwell article points out that drunkenness itself is not moderated by culture, but the deleterious affects may be. His citation of the Camba society drinking behavior shows them to typically get quite drunk, pass out and awake to more drinking. It is their rules and cultural practices that seem to prevent some of the problems associated with over imbibing.
Mark's exactly right. Gladwell's article talks a lot about how culture is what dictates drinking habits, not laws. In some cases, these cultures produce drinking habits with substantial downsides, even if alcoholism and revelry are not among them. Point taken.

One of my data points for demonstrating the rise of a "culture of connoisseurship" was to mention that while craft beer consumption is on the rise, per-capita consumption is falling. Hugh Johnson, seeding his impassioned rebuttal with exclamation points, rejects my statistics.
No one could be that inept! The number of servings are down, but the % of alcohol per serving is up! Beer today are routinely 5% and up. Compared to the previous average of 4% or so. Look around any local pub. You won't find people socially drink 1-2 servings of beer. They are drinking 2-3 pints of beer that is 5-7% or higher. That would equal 4-5 regular servings. Less beer in numbers, but more alcohol is being consumed.
Well, Hugh, I got you there: apparently I can be that inept. On the surface, I thought I might be able to find stats to confirm or deny the point, but it's not that easy. And worse, when I started poking around, what I found contradicted the Brewers Guild stats. In the last 15 years, Oregonians increased their consumption by about a gallon per capita, from 22 to 23 gallons a year according to the Brewer's Association. I found no stats on consumption habits, however, so it's harder to resolve the central question.

Since Hugh was so adamant in his point, I'd like to refute some of what is just as anecdotal an argument as mine. Hugh may see a lot of people drinking high-octane beers pint after pint in his local, but many of the state's most popular beers are relatively low-alcohol: Widmer Hef (4.9%), Deschutes Mirror Pond (5.0%) and Black Butte (5.2%), Session (5.1%), BridgePort IPA (5.5%). These are not extravagantly higher in alcohol than tin-can beer.

Next we get to a point made by Mr. Murphy, which starts to get to the heart of the matter:
The only people that are drinking fewer beers are doing it because the beer is stronger now (me included) or they are just getting older. I personally think it is a solid fact that the majority of people drink to get buzzed.
(A minor theme in the comments involved people pointing out that my incipient geezerdom was responsible for me thinking everyone else drinks less--you know, just because oldsters like me drink less. Thank god a few whippersnappers raced to my defense!) Murphy raises the key question: has craft brewing been responsible for creating a competing culture of consumption that is focused on tasting the beer? Or do people really still just drink beer to get drunk--albeit more fashionably and with tastier beverages, thanks to craft beer?

I first want to acknowledge that my thoughts on this matter are not informed by hard data. Reading through the comments, I saw that people's own individual experiences differed, so they had different opinions about patterns of consumption. College town Eugene, in particular, appears to be much more oriented around the buzz--to no great surprise.

That said, I still just can't buy the argument that nothing's changed. It is true that alcohol is always going to be popular because of its effects on human perception. Humans like to alter their consciousness--this appears to be one of the few consistents across the globe. Yet Gladwell's article ably illustrates that "culture determines how we drink" (as Patrick summarized it). What I see when I go to brewpubs or alehouses--and here is my sample bias; I don't spend much time in either upscale or dive bars--is an amazing diversity of people drinking beer together. I see families, seniors, women--I once saw a children's birthday party at the Lucky Lab! A great many of them are not drinking to drunkenness. To me, that represents a massive sea change.

Before craft beer, there really wasn't much point in drinking beer except to get buzzed. Schaefer famously made this truth the center of their ad campaign: "Schaefer, the one beer to have when you're having more than one." Nobody was spending a lot of time writing about, reading about, and rating all the different varieties of tin-can beer. It was all the same; a passably pleasant beverage that got you drunk.

With craft beer, what has emerged in certain parts of the country is a different culture of drinking, where an appreciation of the brewer's craft is front and center. This brings people together in a pleasant, relaxed environment that is far different from the way people drank beer 30 years ago. Whether this has resulted in lower consumption or more healthy patterns of consumption I can't say. But that new culture is in itself to be celebrated. Which is I guess what I should have said in the first place.