What If We Just Stop Drinking?

One of my favorite alcohol books is Daniel Okrent’s Last Call. It captures not just the history and culture of American booze, but the profound way it shaped our politics for half a century. Alcohol has always simultaneously been deeply embedded in culture and daily life and a threat to it. Humans have therefore mediated these poles with norms of “acceptable” consumption. But those norms aren't static. Okrent illustrates how much they have shifted since colonial and early US years. You think Don Draper was a lush? Get a load of this:

In the cities it was widely understood that common workers would fail to come to work on Mondays, staying home to wrestle with the echoes and aftershocks of a weekend binge. By 1830 the tolling of the town bell at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. marked “grog-time.”

By 1810 the number of distilleries in the young nation had increased fivefold, to more than fourteen thousand, in less than two decades. By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year. Staggering is the appropriate word for the consequences of the sort of drinking.

This seems typical for Europe of the time, as well, where people drank continuously throughout the day, putting back prodigious amounts of hooch. Historians have attempted to quantify alcohol consumption through the centuries and have come up with figures that probably understate matters. Writing about an installation in the National Archives in 2015, the BBC summarizes the carnage, repeating Okrent's numbers:

Early Americans even took a healthful dram for breakfast, whiskey was a typical lunchtime tipple, ale accompanied supper and the day ended with a nightcap. Continuous imbibing clearly built up a tolerance as most Americans in 1790 consumed an average 5.8 gallons of pure alcohol a year. In 1830, consumption peaked at 7.1 gallons a year and drinking became a moral issue.

The National Archives noted that the “moral issue” compelled the US Navy to end its practice of providing sailors with a half pint of rum a day. (!) By comparison, people now consume about two gallons of alcohol a year now, and it’s falling. 

In modern terms those 7 gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and they were millions of them) factored in.
— Daniel Okrent, "Last Call"

And that brings me to a point a friend has been trying to make me aware of via links and texts: what if we just keep drinking less and less until we’re consuming it like our old auntie, who only pulls out the sherry for special occasions? This won’t happen immediately, but the trend lines are pretty clear: for decades we’ve been drinking less and the current generation of young people—the ones who usually do the heavy lifting for a population—is following these trends by drinking less than past generations. 

Patterns and Norms

A dirty little secret of the alcohol industrial complex: it relies on very heavy drinkers, many of them alcoholics, for the bulk of sales. Among drinkers, the median consumption is just a couple drinks a week. That's the median--some "drinkers" basically don't drink at all. That means, of course, that someone's doing a lot of drinking:

The top 10 percent of American drinkers--24 million adults over age 18--consume, on average, 74 alcoholic drinks per week. That works out to a little more than four-and-a-half 750 ml bottles of Jack Daniels, 18 bottles of wine, or three 24-can cases of beer. In one week. Or, if you prefer, 10 drinks per day.

Click to enlarge.

The use of italics in that last sentence tells you everything you need to know: this is a shocking, emphasis-deserving level of drinking. It is outside what we now consider acceptable habit, though it compares pretty well to the historical standards mentioned above. In order to drink this much booze, you have to begin early and keep drinking for hours—behavior we don't see much or approve of anymore.

Importantly, these heavy drinkers account for the bulk of all sales. In that article quoted above, the author describes the top ten percent's guzzling as "well over half" of all consumption. But looking at the graph he includes, it's actually three-quarters. If you're the median drinker in America—half drink more, half drink less—you put back a couple of drinks on a Friday night and that’s it. Even a statistically "heavy" drinker consumes just a bit more than a couple drinks a day, which, depending on your gender and which source you consult, is considered a healthful amount.

We don't even have to go back to the 18th or 19th centuries to find a time when much heavier drinking was considered typical. Fifty years ago, in the Mad Men era, it was acceptable to have a drink with lunch. That was as true with working men as it was Don Draper—I recall seeing coworkers of my father’s pull out a beer at lunch at the worksite back in the day (he was a roofer).

Changing Lifestyles

Every time there's a change in the market, people direct their attention to different sets of data. When craft beer was growing, no one really noticed the larger trends. That changed once it began to slow, and people started to look with alarm at how little young people were drinking. A study earlier this year revealed that Gen Z (or whatever we're calling it) are drinking less than Millennials, who in turn drank less than Gen X. I don't have the stats here, but Gen X almost certainly drank less than Boomers, and Boomers were the generation after Don Draper's. In other words, this trend has been on a steady decline for generations. (Beer consumption peaked in 1980 at over 25 gallons a head, and has been drifting lower every years since and is now below 20 gallons per capita.)

There are a number of immediate causes for the decline. Younger drinkers are more concerned with health and are less likely to binge drink than their elders. Legal cannabis is definitely a growing factor, though the level of the disruption is not yet clear. There is an increase in the Muslim population. Prices are going up. Finally, younger drinkers are hypothesized to spend more time alone with their phones and less time in bars drinking with friends, and this is usually characterized as aberrant behavior. Quite the contrary, though, it's an effect we've seen society-wide and one that long predates smart phones. As entertainment options multiply, people spend far less time in the larger group settings that were once a place for drinking. Blame the Millennials all you want, but whatever happened to bowling and nights at the Elks Lodge?

This points to the much more fundamental change happening in society, and Millennials are just the ones taking the heat. We live very different lives than we did even a few decades ago. Fragmentation in society has taken us out of larger group settings in a way that is basically unprecedented. Television moved us away from our communities and into our living rooms. We went from drinking communally to drinking at home. When I was researching The Widmer Way, I discovered that a quarter of the beer was sold on-premise in Oregon in 1980. It would drop to about 10% before rebounding slightly. It's not just drinking, either. Church attendance has plummeted in that same period, and social club membership has almost completely vanished. And all of that happened before cell phones.

Humans love to alter their consciousness, and I comfort myself knowing that's not going to change. But we have many more options now. Legal weed is the most obvious interloper, but the proliferation of legal and illegal drugs would bewilder our 19th-century grog-time swiller. And there's one kind of consciousness-altering that has vastly improved in the 21st century: mental health. Where once people had very few options for treating trauma and mental health issues, now we have ways to alter our brain chemistry in ways that actually treat these problems. Fewer people need alcohol, and that's a very good thing. A lot of those heavy users are self-medicating, and now they have better alternatives.

Alcohol has been a feature of human life since well before we domesticated grains, and it's not going to vanish. But it is possible to imagine the amounts we drink shrinking by 50-75% in a few decades. Our focus on health has made heavy drinking a shameful thing, mirroring our attitudinal shifts on smoking. Given the shrinking number of opportunities for social drinking, an increased focus on health, the stigma against drunkenness, and the availability of other drugs—all trends that started years ago—it's hard to envision how consumption doesn't shrink.

Is it so hard to imagine that beer consumption drops to ten gallons a year? That's a couple bottles a week—a night out with friends every week or two. No, that's not hard to imagine at all. Brewers watch with anxiety as wine or spirits steal a percentage or two from beer, but there's a much bigger change bearing down. We won't actually stop drinking. But if you're a brewer used to a national market of 200 million barrels (a level we've been stuck at for nearly thirty years), seeing that cut in half might feel like it.