How We Drink

In the current issue of the New Yorker (Feb 15 & 22, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell turns his attention to drinking habits. As is usual with Gladwell, the upshot is somewhat obvious, but it's padded with such nice stories that you don't mind. (As a serial padder of often trivial observations, I am in no position to judge.) Drawing on the research of Bolivian-traveling ethnographers from the 1950s, Yale alcohol researchers, and assorted other anthropologists working in Mexico and Kenya, Gladwell comes to this (sorry, it's not available online):
"There is something about the cultural dimension of social problesm that eludes us. When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable, because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.... Nowhere in the multitude of messages and signals sent by popular culture and socail institutions about drinking is there any consensu about what drinking is supposed to mean."
Gladwell could have saved himself some trouble by turning to Oregon, where we've known about this phenomenon for years. The Oregon Brewers Guild proudly touts the fact that while consumption of Oregon-brewed beer is up, way up, over the past decade, the total consumption of beer is down. This paradox is solved by recognizing that what the craft brewing renaissance has provided Oregon (and probably many other less-statistically-oriented states) is a culture shift.

The act of drinking has changed. Formerly, the buzz was the point. At the dawn of my drinking life (for legal purposes, we'll say that was 1989), brewpubs and alehouses were not yet well-established. Instead, the standard place to drink was a box with no windows, a pool table, and a haze of smoke. Women were a distinct (if highly visible) minority. Outside pubs, we took home "suitcases" of Hamms (18 or 24 beers--the details elude me), purchased and drunk in bulk. Part of this was my age, but a big part of it was that that's the only beer culture that existed.

Now we drink less, but we drink because the beer is tasty. As a result, we drink it together, as whole families, in pubs and in our homes. One of my neighbors, a minister, and I share a relationship based on the appreciation of craft beer. He has a lovely family who presumably do not regard this as a transgressive act. The smoky bars are not all gone (though they're not smoky anymore!), but they are now the niche. Mostly we drink our beer in well-lighted places where we can see and smell and enjoy it--and each other.

The result is that we are abandoning the larger quantities of cheap beer for the smaller quantities of good beer. While getting drunk will always be a motivation of some folks, we have a competing cultural model for alcohol consumption that encourages healthy behavior.

So the answer to the problem of alcohol, obviously, is more breweries.