Drinking less will let you drink better for longer
We live in an environment where alcohol is under siege.
Every day we are assailed with stories of glassings, drunken and rampaging footballers, binge drinking and all manner of other incidents pointing to an alcohol-fuelled end of civilisation.
Every day our politicians are making new suggestions about how to solve the problem, including today’s suggestion from the Prime Minister: confronting advertising campaigns to warn young Australians about the dangers of excessive drinking.
We are well on the way to the situation foreseen by David Penberthy. Governments, slow to act on the tough issues, become unstoppable once political necessity forces a change to their inertia. The growing hysteria is doing just that.
However, government is trying to change with brute, ill-targeted force a culture that has taken a lifetime to create.
As someone who loves beer and who makes a living writing about it and educating people about the joys of enjoying a beer, I might reasonably be expected to be a militant anti-anti-alcohol campaigner. I’m not.
It is getting harder to dispute the growing evidence that the “safe” level of alcohol consumption is lower than has long been thought (and, perhaps, hoped). As a consequence, Australians do typically drink more than is healthy.
The 2009 Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol recommend:
For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
This recommendation is based on modelling that shows the lifetime risk of death from alcohol-related disease or injury remains below 1 in 100 if no more than two standard drinks are consumed on each drinking occasion, even if the drinking is daily. It also shows that every drink above this level continues to increase the lifetime risk of both disease and injury.
Having three drinks a day isn’t automatically going to see you lining up for a liver transplant, any more than walking to the shops once without a hat and sunscreen is going to guarantee you skin cancer. But your risk increases.
The fairly simple message that comes from these guidelines—guidelines based on research that has been accumulating for a decade or more—is “drink less”.
How has the beer industry responded to what is pretty clear evidence of the need to drink less? Judging by the new beers released by the major breweries over the last few years, they have responded by removing the flavour from beer. In a two-drink-a-day world, they have given us six-pack-an-hour beers.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with these flavourless beers except that they are effectively brewed with one object - to give people the ability to drink as much as they like without flavour getting in the way.
As one well-known brewer has remarked, “you want to create an interesting beer but not one with so much flavour that someone has one or two pints and says ‘that’s enough’.”
And I thought that was exactly what the National Health and Medical Research Council was saying.
Brewery marketing departments have tried to lend dignity to this gradual removal of flavour by appropriating the terms “refreshing”, “sessionable”, “thirst-quenching’, “crisp” and “clean” to make flavourless seem noble.
The term “sessionable” is one that particularly irritates. The word calls to mind a great Australian institution - a beer with mates, possibly in a beer garden, sitting down and enjoying each other’s company over a beer or two. But like “mateship” it’s a word that draws its meaning from the person who hears it. In the context of these beers, targeted primarily at 18-30s, it’s used as a dog whistle call meaning, “you can drink shitloads.”
Of course there is a “guns don’t kill people, people with guns kill people” defence to beers like this. They are what they are and they can, and are, enjoyed by many people responsibly. The breweries would also argue that their businesses demand they have to respond to changing tastes and competition from products like the RTDs and alcopops if they are to maintain their profit growth.
My concern is that these beers will turn out to be like the Commercialised Debt Obligations that played a role in triggering the current economic crisis.
A stockbroker, asked by one interviewer why he kept selling CDOs long after their danger became apparent, explained that there was still a market for them, everyone else was selling them and his firm had to show the same returns as all of the other stockbrokers or lose business.
“You keep dancing so long as the music’s playing,” he explained.
But of course, if the music plays for too long, the party is raided by the police and they confiscate your stereo and send all of your guests home.
And, that’s just what the government is threatening to do with alcohol.
But governments carpet bomb rather than strike with surgical precision. They won’t just be raiding the uni students next door and ending their goon-fuelled orgy, they’ll also be kicking down my door and confiscating my iPod and shandy.
Alcohol is under siege and brewers of flavourless beers aren’t the sole cause. However, these beers do pander to a culture that, by necessity, they can play a role in changing themselves. Slapping a “Drink Responsibly” logo on the side of alcoholic water isn’t enough. If they don’t change, changes will be forced on all beer drinkers.
One for the weekend
Call me old fashioned. Call me a beer snob, but I think that a product that contains malt, water, hops and yeast should have at least some residual flavours from those ingredients in it, otherwise it’s not beer just a drink with alcohol in it. These ingredients barely leave their DNA in most of the beers released by the big brewers this summer.
One recently released beer that shows that it is possible to be both drinkable and satisfying is Matilda Bay’s Big Helga. A ‘dry’ Munich lager, the ‘dry’ in the name comes from the late hopping that gives the beer a drying sensation but still plenty of flavour, rather being the dry beers that are fermented to have no body and less flavour.
It won’t change your world, but it does show that beer can have flavour and be approachable ( we won’t say sessionable) at the same time. Available on tap nationally.
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