The Prohibitionist Pot Calling The Brew Kettle Black

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This is almost funny, an amazing press release from Alcohol Justice that is so lacking in self-awareness and irony that it’s hard not to laugh at just how truly absurd it is. Why any media outlet, anyone really, takes them seriously is a head-scratcher, especially with such a remarkable lack of perception displayed in this particular press release. This is perhaps the most remarkable case of the pot calling the kettle black that I have ever seen. According to the latest missive from the Sheriff of Anti-Alcohol, Alcohol Justice, the Century Council is in the “AJ Doghouse” — where I permanently live — and they accuse the group of a host of sins. Since the beginning of April, Alcohol Awareness Month, they’ve been tweeting their displeasure:

In the AJ Doghouse: Century Council Rebrand Rehashes Old Tricks http://bit.ly/1jayaKO Big Al’s smoke & mirrors.

I love that they’re now calling “Big Alcohol” by the shorter nickname “Big Al.” Do you think AJ knows that “Big Al” is the name of the mascot for the University of Alabama? Or that Big Al’s was one of the first strip clubs in San Francisco? There’s even a Big Al brewery in Washington.

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But what’s really amazing about this particular press release is that practically everything that AJ is accusing the Century Council of doing is something that Alcohol Justice has themselves done at some point, and not throughout history, but recently. The “Old Tricks” that AJ claims they’re rehashing are all “tricks” they’ve also done, though when they did them it was perfectly acceptable behavior. Let’s break it down:

Just in time for Alcohol Awareness Month, the Century Council (educational front group arm of spirits producer trade group DISCUS) has announced a major rebrand effort, changing its name to sound more like an official NGO or policy institute: Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR).

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This one is particularly funny. Do they think nobody will remember the Marin Institute? It’s only been three years since Alcohol Justice announced a major rebrand effort, changing its name to sound more official or more like a Wild West vigilante: Alcohol Justice (AJ). But when the Century Council does it, it’s for nefarious purposes, but when AJ did it, the new name supposedly “better reflects its national and global reach, and clarifies its mission.” Uh-huh. Sure. As Professor David J. Hanson wrote around the time of the name change, AJ “finally acknowledged that ‘we aren’t a research organization as institute implies.’ The fact that the Marin Institute wasn’t a research organization has long been noted by observers, although the activist group has often presented itself to the public and media as engaging in research.”

Whatever this industry-funded membership group calls itself, its real mission remains—to absolve its founders and funders from accountability for the staggering harm their products cause, and to raise as much profit and goodwill for their shareholders as possible.

No matter what “Big Al” does, it carries malicious intent. There is literally nothing that the alcohol industry can do that would satisfy AJ. They even found something to complain about when Anheuser-Busch gave water to hurricane victims in Haiti. You’d think that if alcohol was trying to combat the minority of people who abuse it, they’d welcome it, but when we do it, we’re apparently not serious about it. This one serious pisses me off, as if people in the alcohol industry don’t value human life as much as they do. It’s as if they think we’re fine with people dying. I honestly think sometimes, the way they describe us, that they don’t think that we’re human. It’s more than insulting. They claim that it’s just to “raise as much profit and goodwill for their shareholders as possible,” but much of what AJ does is solicit donations with their press releases and repetitive tweeting. In December, they kept asking for donations over and over again. Beyond that, a recent conference of prohibitionist groups revealed that their motives are to punish or profit from alcohol companies. One even said “they simply didn’t care about the public health impacts of taxes. They were in the game solely to get some of the tax revenue steered toward their organization.” Also at that event, AJ’s head sheriff Bruce Lee Livingston, “commented during the question and answer portion that activists are unable to get taxes high enough to actually produce positive public health benefits. Rather, he called for a ‘charge-for-harm’ approach, which is based on the assumption that anyone who drinks deserves to be punished.”

The new name does sound a little more grown up—like a bona fide, credible, research-based organization whose newly revamped mission is to help people drink a little less dangerously. The focus group and stakeholder feedback must have given them the green light — and hey, that’s one of the theme colors, too! (Unfortunately, our invitation to participate in the stakeholder group must have gotten shunted to the Spam folder…)

Snide comments aside, though I can’t help but point out it doesn’t make them sound particularly “more grown up,” here’s what’s insulting about them saying their “invitation to participate in the stakeholder group must have gotten shunted to the Spam folder.” A couple of years ago, at the National Conference of State Liquor Administrators, Alcohol Justice complained about the event in an obnoxious, insulting press release. But it was later revealed, when the NCSLA responded with a press release of their own, that “the now re-branded entity formerly known Marin Institute has repeatedly chosen not to become a member of the NCSLA despite the numerous invitations that have been extended to them and the years of courtesies from the NCSLA they have enjoyed in the form of expense-paid attendance at NCSLA conferences and participation on NCSLA panels. It is equally telling that this statement comes when further special treatment has been denied this re-branded entity while at the same time it was directly invited and encouraged to join the NCSLA, take a seat at the proverbial table, but on the same terms as those long met by other public health and public advocacy groups. It is disheartening when any entity with substantial financial resources, yet without the economic hardships endured for years by state beverage alcohol regulators, appears content to do nothing.” And given that AJ does nothing but insult alcohol companies, why would they even think it reasonable that they be given an “invitation to participate in the stakeholder group.” It’s absurd when you consider the way they treat the alcohol industry. Can they really believe that much in their own self-importance? Do they not realize how the world sees them? But let’s continue. What’s next?

But here is the reality. The corporations that fund these groups:

  • Pay academic researchers to discredit the evidence of alcohol-related harm from their products and marketing tactics, and promote spurious research to support the industry/producer agenda.

This one’s rich considering how much self-serving “research” AJ is involved in. AJ staff has appeared as the authors or co-authors of numerous so-called “studies” and then they promote them as if they’re independent research. They’re constantly exaggerating, mis-leading and making things up, but when they do it it’s to further their holy agenda, if the alcohol industry funds research it has to be spurious. It’s a double-standard at best, at worst, it’s the ultimate hypocrisy. As I’ve frequently wondered, who watches the watchdog? AJ claim their mission is to be an industry watchdog, to keep us honest, but their own track record for veracity is seriously lacking.

  • Hire public relations professionals to connect concern about just 2 of the many types of alcohol-related harm with activities that have no evidence of being effective at decreasing either harm or consumption (and support their marketing efforts and profits).

I confess I have no idea what they’re talking about here. The new Responsibility.org website alone has more than two issues they’re addressing. And certainly AJ has “public relations professionals” on their payroll. But beyond that, AJ has been grossly exaggerating the “many types of alcohol-related harm,” and even has made up many of them. A great example of this is when in 2010, they tried to force a new tax on the City of San Francisco. The city commissioned a Nexus Study (at great cost to taxpayers) to examine the supposed alcohol harms that AJ continues to insist are the fault of alcohol, not the people who drink alcohol, but the expensive study relied heavily on self-serving reports by AJ and throughout relies on all sorts of misleading and questionable data and reasoning.

  • Actively lobby against evidence-based policies that reduce harm, such as increased excise taxes, restrictions on alcohol advertising, state control over alcohol sales, and decreases in outlet density.

No doubt that lobbying does go on, by the alcohol industry, but not by this group, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR). I know this is hard for AJ to understand, but corporations are allowed to lobby, just like every other business in America. I’m not a fan of lobbying in general, but until it’s prohibited for all businesses, Big Al isn’t doing anything wrong. AJ, and other prohibitionist groups, are also actively engaged in lobbying. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, whatever is done in the first person — “our lobbying” — is perfectly respectable but when it’s in the third person — “their lobbying” — then it’s evil and menacing. There’s another name for that way of thinking: hypocritical.

  • Use “Drink Responsibly” as a marketing tactic to build loyalty and sell alcohol while blaming youth, parents, schools, police, and anyone else but the product and their own practices for alcohol-related harm.

This is partly another example of letting no good deed go unpunished, where nothing that Big Al does is free of selfish agenda, unlike AJ and the other prohibitionists. What’s particularly annoying about this tactic is the implication that people who make or sell alcohol are against responsibility, and are for underage drinking, drunk driving and overconsumption. Why? Because all we care about is profit, apparently. But, despite AJ’s assumption, we’re people, too. We have families, and want to keep them just as safe as AJ’s do-gooder teetotalers. Do they really think we want our kids to become alcoholics or die driving drunk? Because that’s the impression one gets when you read prohibitionist literature, that we’re all monsters.

And their notion that it’s “the product” and our “own practices” that cause people harm is so offensive that I don’t even understand how they can really think that. They talk about us blaming everyone, but they don’t seem to accept the concept of responsibility or personal responsibility. That all people, whether they drink are not, should be responsible for their own actions. How can they honestly think that when I take a drink, I can no longer control my actions and that the alcohol takes over me and forces me to commit all manner of horrors? I, and most people I know within the beer industry, hate a bad drunk as much as they do. But we don’t think it was the alcohol that’s to blame so much as the person who acted stupidly. They’re responsible for their own bad behavior, as even a child should be able to figure out. But personal responsibility doesn’t get people donating money, having a bogeyman is far better for soliciting funds.

The Century Council’s announcement was released to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Month so that the industry voice can take over the public health discussions and events during the entire month. Industry leaders such as Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes whine about his “right” to influence public health regulation while Diageo’s (and the other spirits producers’) influence protects profits and continues paving the path to harm.

It would strike any reasonable person that announcing renewed efforts at combating alcohol issues during Alcohol Awareness Month is precisely the right time to do so, when the entire month is set aside for the very purpose of raising awareness of people with alcohol problems. Their statement that the “industry voice can take over the public health discussions and events during the entire month” is completely false, and can be proven by the very simple fact of their own press release, and they have to know how disingenuous they’re being. But more telling is that this is the most typical tactic of the prohibitionists, sending out press releases that are regurgitated by media outlets as news with no dissenting or contrary opinions, thereby allowing AJ, and the others, to frame the discussion about alcohol policy. This is what happens perhaps 95% of the time, or more. I guess AJ doesn’t like it when we do it. Maybe they think they own the idea of trying to control the message.

Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, put it bluntly: “As we learned from experience with the tobacco industry, a powerful corporation can sell the public just about anything…This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business…When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely.”

Puh-leeze. Prohibitionist groups are very well funded. They have no trouble taking on corporations, and have been worming their way into all levels of government since prohibition ended in 1933, when they switched tactics and have been incessantly been working to limit alcohol ever since. The way prohibition ended, and the laws subsequent to it, are in themselves a victory of a sort for the prohibitionist movement. And the David vs. Goliath myth is just that, a well-managed fiction. And as I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been reading a lot of WHO literature lately, and the inescapable conclusion “is that their mission is more about stopping people from drinking because as an organization they’re convinced that alcohol is always bad and has no positive aspects or benefits. When you only look for negative consequences, that’s all you find.” You can really only compare alcohol and tobacco by willfully ignoring the many positive aspects of alcohol.

The Big Alcohol conglomerates and the billionaires that run them can focus group a new name and logo for their group, slap a hashtag in front of the word responsible, go live with a web address they bought in 2001, and splash their rebrand all over the web. As long as these spirits producers’ products dominate the top 10 brands consumed by underage youth (Captain Morgan, Smirnoff (Diageo); Absolut (Pernod Ricard) and Jack Daniels (Brown-Foreman), and continue to be disproportionately consumed by youth (Bacardi; Malibu rum (Pernod Ricard), we’ve got their hashtags right here: #hypocrite #alcoholharm #notresponsible #alcoholindustryisnotpublichealth

Hilarious. Replace Big Al with AJ in that first sentence, and it reads just the same. And the same can be said for those hashtags. What’s funny is they apparently can’t even see that they’re engaged in exactly everything that they’re accusing the alcohol industry of doing. It really is a case of the Prohibitionist Pot Calling The Brew Kettle Black.

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Elderly Imbibing

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The closer I get to old age, seemingly swifter with every passing year, the more I’ve been noticing that serious people younger than me are worried that senior citizens might be drinking a bit too much at the end of their lives. Hmm. A couple of days ago, the personification of the sheriff of the nanny state, Alcohol Justice, tweeted yet another such study, this one about “Binge Drinking US Seniors — http://bit.ly/1fse3ne — New research raises “‘Cause for Alarm.’” The link takes you to an article on Medscape entitled Binge Drinking in US Seniors ‘Cause for Alarm’ about elderly drinking. Here’s what alarmed the researchers.

A national cohort study of more than 4800 adults older than 64 years showed that almost 10% reported binge drinking ― defined as having 5 or more drinks in 1 sitting for men and 4 or more drinks in a single sitting for women ― in the previous 30 days.

They continue: “Alcohol consumption in seniors can be associated with cognitive decline and worsening of comorbidities, including hypertension, stroke, and osteoporosis.” But that’s false. Moderate drinking has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and increases in cognitive functioning, and there are similar benefits for strokes (“Studies now show that drinking up to 2 alcoholic drinks per day can reduce your risk for stroke by about half”) and osteoporosis (“The National Osteoporosis Risk Assessment studied 200,000+ postmenopausal women with no previous diagnosis of osteoporosis. The study found that drinking alcohol significantly reduced the chances of developing osteoporosis”). So that makes me question the validity or motives of the study.

Similarly, the recent Alcohol Research UK 2014 Conference had two presentations on the same subject: “Moderate Alcohol Use in Older Years” and “Alcohol Misuse in Older Adults.” I assume it’s because the largely self-centered baby boomer generation (of which apparently I’m at the tail end of, though I definitely don’t identify myself with) are aging so now research would turn toward the older boomers.

old-people-drinking
This is the image used by AJ with their tweet, but the people in this photo look like they’re having a great time, don’t they? Aren’t old people allowed to celebrate or have a good time? Is that the issue?

Here’s my gut reaction. In ten or fifteen years — assuming I’m still alive and kicking — when my kids have left the house, finished college and started careers and/or families; after I’ve retired and have no more deadlines to file, no more stories to write; maybe I can relax and drink a few beers. Maybe I’ll even drink five beers in a row, making me — gasp — a binge-drinking elderly person. If I decide to do that at the end of my days, choosing in that way to enjoy the remaining time I have with alcohol, I have just one thing to say to the do-gooders who are alarmed by such behavior: “go fuck yourself.” Seriously, do. As long as I’m not hurting you, please don’t presume to tell me how to live out the end of my days, that seriously pisses me off. Please take your “alarm” and shove it where the sun don’t shine. That has to be the most aggressively obnoxious, arrogant position I’ve heard recently. Please stop telling the rest of us how to live.

Besides the fact that defining binge drinking as five consecutive drinks is completely absurd, especially considering the most recent FDA Dietary Guidelines allow four drinks in a row for a man (with no more than 14 per week). So that means the difference between moderate, healthy imbibing and dangerous binge drinking is exactly one drink. Yeah, that seems reasonable.

There’s living and there’s living; just existing and being really alive. I’m planning on trying to enjoy the time I have left. If that means drinking a few beers on occasion, that is, and quite properly ought to be, my own business. If my family has a problem with that, I’m confident they’ll be sure to tell me. Everybody else, keep walking. I plan on being a unrepentant curmudgeon. There’s no reason to change now.

Prohibitionists Insult New Hampshire Senate

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I’m sure like most politicians, the members of the New Hampshire Senate have been called a lot worse, but this morning Alcohol Justice called them “fools” simply for not voting the way they wanted them to, and then somewhat misrepresented the facts. In AJ’s tweet, they claimed “Fools turn blind eye to alcohol-related harm http://bit.ly/1o7BZFN New Hampshire Senate approves booze billboards.”

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If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll no doubt be unsurprised to learn that the state Senate didn’t exactly turn a blind eye to anything, but vigorously debated whether to allow alcohol companies to advertise on billboards. According to the Telegraph newspaper report, they spent hours discussing the bill.

One senator, David Pierce (D-Hanover), said “it’s clear to him this ban is an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech that would not stand up in court.” In an odd show of seemingly not understanding her job, Senator Jeannie Forrester (R-Meredith), said “that wasn’t a good enough reason to lift the ban.” If being unconstitutional isn’t a good enough reason to change a law, please tell me what might be considered “good enough?”

Senator Donna Soucy (D-Manchester), logically said “critics of this should seek to ban alcohol advertising in newspapers and on radio and television airwaves. The restriction should be across the board and not simply on a board. That’s the distinction,” she said. Which makes sense, if something is legal in other media, it makes no sense that it should be illegal in another. Apparently, only five states currently ban alcohol advertising on billboards.

After a long debate, “[u]ltimately, the Senate passed it 13-11 after Senator Sam Cataldo (R-Farmington), changed his mind and decided to support it.” But with the bill’s passage it doesn’t actually “approve booze billboards,” but fixes an unconstitutional law and will now “permit alcohol makers to apply for” one, or more, of the state’s current highway billboards. They still have to compete against every other business or company who might want their message on one of New Hampshire’s billboards.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of AJ’s calling the Senate “fools” for doing their job, was the image they sent out with the tweet.

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With this picture, they come right up to precipice of opening themselves up to a defamation suit from ABI, because they never come out and say this is a real billboard for Budweiser. It is, however, fairly implicit that that’s their intended meaning. At a minimum, I think most people would do a double take, and wonder if it’s a real ad. And you can be excused for thinking that, because AJ doctored the ad, presumably just for that reason. A Google image search brings up numerous comedy websites that include the image, and for reasons unclear claim it to be Canadian, as you can find the satirical billboard among Freeple’s Canadian Billboards, Jokeroo’s Canadian Billboards, and Izismile’s Brazen Billboards From Canada.

But there’s one critical difference between the image that AJ used in their tweet and every other instance of it that I could find on the internet. And that’s a watermark identifying it as having been created by dribbleglass.com, a humor website billing itself as the “internet’s official humor site.” So in the original image, it’s obviously a work of satire and not meant to be taken seriously.

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It’s also clear from the original image that AJ simply removed the watermark identifying where it came from, cropping it, and thereby making it appear more like a genuine billboard. And yet they’re the “watchdogs” who claim to be keeping the evil alcohol industry honest. Who exactly are the fools here?

Is Africa The Next Beer Frontier?

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The Drinks Business has a summary of a new report, Beer on the Frontier: Opportunities for Brewers in the African Continent, in which Rabobank analysts conclude that Africa is poised to be the next big market for beer in the coming years, as populations and, hopefully, standards of living improve.

I was talking with Chris Swersey (competition manager of the judging for GABF and the World Beer Cup) recently about worldwide beer competitions. As far as we could conclude, Africa is the only continent (excluding Antarctica) without a big commercial beer event with judging. With Rabobank predicting that it will “become the world’s next fastest growing market for beer,” perhaps that will change.

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The Shifting Definition Of Sober

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Once upon a time, the word “sober,” meant simply “not intoxicated or drunk,” but over the past few decades, the term has been “hijacked” by AA and the addiction/recovery community to instead refer to “a state of being—one you can only achieve through total, lifelong abstinence if you ever drank alcoholically.” In other words, if you’re an active drinker of alcohol, you’re not sober as far as AA is concerned. Essentially, that’s turning the definition on its head, making it the opposite of its ordinary meaning, twisting it into doublespeak. Orwell would have been proud.

Reason magazine has an interesting article about this phenomenon, The Hijacking of Sobriety by the Recovery Movement, by psychologist, attorney, and psychotherapist Stanton Peele. Peele begins with how one celebrity was referred to by the media after revealing that after years as an alcoholic, she taught herself to have one drink per day without falling into ruin, something the abstinence-based medical community insists is not possible.

According to AA and the recovery movement, no former alcoholic can drink moderately. Any drinking whatsoever, according to these absolutists, and you’re no longer “sober.” One might think that a person who drinks regularly in a controlled, non-intoxicated manner is obviously not an alcoholic. Wrong!

When I suggested to my AA friend Ken (not his real name) that [a famous former alcoholic who's learned to have a drink a day] shows one-time alcoholics can control their drinking, he objected strenuously. For Ken, “the fact that she has to limit herself to one drink a day proves she’s an alcoholic.” That’s right, drinking in a controlled manner proves you’re an uncontrolled drinker.

Not surprisingly, there’s mounting evidence that they’re wrong.

According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) — a massive government study of 43,000 Americans’ lifetime alcohol and drug use — about 75 percent of people who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty rehab programs and Alcoholics Anonymous. And only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment. (Note that 13 percent is the upper figure for 12-step recovery, since ever participating does not mean the person recovered due to AA or rehab.)

The NESARC study also revealed that these recovered alcoholics don’t as a rule abstain. “Twenty years after the onset of alcohol dependence, three-fourths of individuals are in full recovery,” it notes. “More than half of those who have fully recovered drink at low-risk levels without symptoms of alcohol dependence.”

I especially love Peele’s conclusion. “For recovery absolutists, no one recovers from alcoholism without AA, just as no one can recover without giving up drinking forever. What arrogance! Who gave these self-appointed experts the power to tell everyone how they must achieve recovery?” Give the article a read and, more importantly, let’s stop letting AA and the medical community focused on making a buck off of people trying to cope with their own drinking problems frame the terms of the debate. I’m sober as I write these words. Later tonight, with any luck, I may not be. But tomorrow morning when the alarm clock reminds me of my daily obligations, I will be sober again. And that’s how it should be, not some Orwellian world where everyone who ever drinks a drop a beer is forever branded as a drunk, and alcoholic or free from soberness.

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Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer Can Be A Crime?

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There was a news item a few days ago that recently a fifth grade teacher in Michigan offered students non-alcoholic beer — O’Douls — as part of “a lesson on colonial times,” with the intention to “represent ale common in the 1700s and consumed because of the scarcity of clean water.” Sounds harmless enough. No students were forced to try it, but they had the opportunity to sample it if they wished to. What could go wrong?

What the teacher didn’t know is that apparently it’s actually illegal to give a minor in Michigan a non-alcoholic beer. The law was passed back in the 1950s, when people were even nuttier about alcohol than they are today, if that’s possible, but Michigan did pass a law making it illegal for minors to drink non-alcoholic beer. Here’s the entirety of the law:

THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE (EXCERPT)
Act 328 of 1931

750.28 Cereal beverage with alcoholic content; furnishing to minors, penalty.

Sec. 28.

Any person who shall sell, give or furnish to a minor, except upon authority of and pursuant to a prescription of a duly licensed physician, any cereal beverage of any alcoholic content under the name of “near beer”, or “brew”, or “bru”, or any other name which is capable of conveying the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcoholic content, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

History: Add. 1957, Act 283, Eff. Sept. 27, 1957

How Kafkaesque. The state defines what non-alcoholic means then still makes it illegal even if it’s within their own definition, and if it’s 0.5% or below, Michigan state’s Liquor Control Commission doesn’t even regulate it. So alcohol in cough syrup. No problem. Non-alcoholic wine? Go for it. A cereal beverage? Heavens no. That’s going too far.

And perhaps more curious, the law can be read to suggest that what’s at issue is giving the “impression” that the drink has alcohol in it, not that it really does. Because it seems like you could create a non-alcoholic beer within the legal definition but call it something random, like “Barley Pop” or “Brown Cow” and not be in violation of this law if you gave some to your children. The name seems more important than the alcoholic content. Why would that be the case?

When I was a kid, the only reason near beer existed was for kids. No sane adult would drink it. My first taste of beer was from a can of near beer that my parents bought for me when I expressed interest in trying beer, which was the case for some of my friends, too. It was horrible. I think that may have been the point, I don’t know.

The Flint Journal reports that the school sent letters home to parents after they discovered the “incident” but according to school district Superintendent Ed Koledo. “Nobody complained to the teacher, principal or me,” or to the police, and no disciplinary measures were taken against the teacher. Despite nobody being upset in the least, you’d think a nuclear blast had gone off, the way they talk about it.

“We talked to the teacher and said this was an inappropriate choice,” Koledo said. “There were a lot better choices to represent a colonial-era drink than what was chosen here.”

Really, what would have been a better choice to represent what the vast majority of people drank during the colonial era? And he says “a lot of better choices.” A lot? Really? I can’t wait to see the list.

“I know there was no intent to expose anyone to harm, just poor thought in this situation.”

Seriously, “poor thought?” It’s non-alcoholic beer for chrissakes, and a few kids had a sip of it in a controlled environment, not a back alley clutching a paper bag. And it was a sip. What is a sip? A teaspoon? Half an ounce? Oh, the horror.

Linden schools are drug and alcohol-free zones and Koledo said he did not know if O’Doul’s beer would constitute a violation.

Again, are we really going to split hairs because it has 0.5% alcohol (or less) in it? So is cough medicine allowed on campus? I’m pretty sure caffeine can be considered a drug, so I hope they’re going to remove the coffee maker from the teacher’s lounge. Up until the 1970s, schools in Belgium served students table beer every day.

So how exactly did this end up being a news story?

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Stop Defending Cheap American Beer

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Seriously, this is getting out of hand. Awhile back it was low-calorie light diet beer that was being defended, which is a cause célèbre about as legitimate as the war on Christmas. So this latest one comes from the Orlando Weekly, and is entitled Don’t hate cheap American beer – love it for what it is.

I get why it’s from Florida, and why it was published yesterday, four days after chaos ensued. Everyone’s in a tizzy because of the near-riot at Hunahpu Day at Cigar City Brewing. But jeez, one incident, and the advice of this reporter is to give up, and go back to drinking flavorless swill? One catastrophe and she’s suggesting beer drinkers run back to their proverbial mommies? What kind of advice is that? It’s bad advice, is what it is, and it seems to lack any real perspective, instead opting for giving up.

To be fair, I wasn’t at the brewery during the “incident,” but I’m sure it was a bad scene. I was at Russian River the last year they served growlers, and ran out of a 2-week supply of Pliny the Younger in 8 hours. I was there at a SF Beer Week opening gala where the space we were renting changed the deal with had with them on the spot, leaving many people stuck in the line to get in, with many paid ticket-holders never making it inside. And I’ve been at plenty of festivals where the keg of that rare beer kicked long before everyone got a chance to sample it. So I have seen the darker side of humanity; crowds turning ugly, on a dime. You can almost sniff the sense of entitlement in the air, the wounded egos, the practiced outrage.

Cigar-City-Hunahpu-2014

From reading over the manic coverage of Hunahpu Day gone wrong (see, for example, All About Beer or the Tampa Bay Times), it’s apparent that Cigar City was caught in a bad situation, much of it not of their making. As far as I can tell, they handled it as best they could. But for most of the people commenting on their own grief, that was nowhere near good enough. I guess they wanted blood, it’s hard to tell. Many seemed to actually take it personally, as if this is the way Cigar City wanted it to go, and they really were picking on people in the crowd. There was certainly no shortage of people telling the world how they would have done it differently. If there’s anything I’ve learned about people on the internet, it’s that they love to complain: live for it, actually. So it was no surprise that many people are unable, or unwilling, to forgive the brewery. But it’s also quite a shame.

I’ve met Joey Redner a couple of times, and we’ve corresponded a few more. He and the folks at Cigar City unquestionably make great beer. They’ve had a big hand in transforming the state of craft beer in Florida. When I used to visit it regularly over fifteen years ago (when BevMo had a few stores in south Florida) it was primarily a beer wasteland. But by all accounts, that’s no longer the case, and Florida today enjoys two beer weeks and nearly nineties breweries.

In a world where fake and half-hearted apologies have become the norm, his seemed entirely genuine and sincere. He honestly appeared as shaken up by the experience as anyone there. He also took responsibility for what happened, a rarity in today’s damage control savvy media world. Redner admitted mistakes were made, even when several of them were out of his control, and he took a number of steps, almost immediately, to try to make the best of a bad situation. For that he should be applauded, but for some it only seemed to anger them more, which I frankly don’t understand. But then there is just no pleasing some people, I suppose. But it sets up an absurd situation in which the brewery can do almost nothing which won’t cause criticism from certain quarters, so all they can do is try their best to move forward, which by all accounts is exactly what they’re doing.

It’s encouraging that there are at least a minority of people online continuing to show their support for Cigar City, and expressing understanding and even sympathy. Hopefully, they’ll be able to move past this.

But let’s get back to Erin Sullivan’s response in the Orlando Weekly, Where she really loses me, is when she lists her “[f]ive good reasons why it’s perfectly acceptable to drink plain old yellow lager” or “five good reasons you shouldn’t feel bad the next time you sheepishly choose a Stella when your friends are insisting you should drink Swamp Ape.” None of them are actually “good” reasons and a few of them are downright wrong. And the overall idea that this is reasonable at all, especially when she characterizes herself as a “craft-beer drinker,” just doesn’t jibe with me. You hear it from time to time, as if drinking beer with flavor is too much work, and sometimes you want to go back to a time when all beer had no flavor. Who develops a taste for filet mignon, but from time to time craves spam? For most people, I’d say, once they develop a taste for more flavorful beers, it’s downright difficult — if not impossible — to go back and enjoy a flavorless macro beer. Flavor is what people crave, so its opposite — no matter how well it’s technically made — can no longer be satisfying, at least in my experience.

Maybe Sullivan intended it all as a sly joke, a tongue-in-cheek jab at the cognoscenti, many of whom are accused of taking themselves, and craft beer, too seriously. But I’m not seeing any clues to that, no hints peppered through her apologist diatribe celebrating a return to flavorless swill. Of course, much like the war on Christmas, “plain old yellow lager” still holds court in America, in fact continues to dominate the market as it has during all of our lifetimes. People do, of course, freely consume tankers full of mass-produced lager, brewed in tanks the size of Montana. And that’s their right. I disagree with their choices, naturally, and I’ve spent much of my life gently encouraging them to trade up, but in the end, we’re all passionate about different things in our lives. I get that.

But there’s no reason to tell anyone that they should settle for that. I think we can finally lay to rest the long-standing notion that this better beer thing is just a fad, as was so often claimed in the media in the early days. And flavorful food, and other drinks, in countless varieties, have caught up to craft beer so that by now, hopefully, most people understand that there are choices to be made about what to put in your body every time you walk into a grocery store, a bar, a restaurant or even open your refrigerator. Nobody believes that Wonder bread is the best bread available, or that Maxwell House makes the best coffee. The same can be said about “plain old yellow lager,” and it seems like it does no one any favors to convince people it’s not really as bad as they thought, that there’s “no shame in drinking plain old American beer,” even setting aside the argument that a lot of it is brewed by companies who are not, strictly speaking, American (even though they do employ Americans working at breweries located on American soil).

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So let’s look at why Sullivan believes that it’s “perfectly acceptable to drink plain old yellow lager.”

1. “Macrobrewed beer is usually cheap.” This is a terrible reason to base your beer choices on. But you hear it all the time. Are there really people who buy the cheapest possible item no matter what it is? Wonder bread is cheaper than a freshly-baked artisan loaf. Kraft singles are cheaper than Maytag Blue. Two Buck Chuck is cheaper than Chateau Margaux. So what? Who wants to live that way? When you shop by price, you’re commodifying the product, essentially saying it’s all the same. It’s not. Beer has certainly been treated that way in the past, when indeed it was mostly all the same. It was that very situation that led to what was then referred to as the “microbrewery revolution.” It was the sameness that people were rebelling against.

I know people have a limited budget to spend on everything they need to live, but there’s living, and then there’s living. Do you want to eat (or drink) to live, or live to eat (or drink)? I know which way I’d vote, and I do so with my wallet everyday. If I can’t afford the (not very much more) expensive beer, then I’m not going to buy the cheaper one with less flavor that I won’t like. Why would I do that? Who would? As the saying goes, “life’s too short to drink cheap beer.” It really is. I’d rather buy an expensive six-pack of something worthwhile than an entire case that “tastes of nothing,” which is how Michael Jackson used to describe many macro beers.

2. “At the risk of sounding like that commercial, it’s less filling.” Not necessarily. Most of the macro lagers she’s championing are around 5% a.b.v. These days it’s not too hard to find a more flavorful session beer made by a brewery who, for lack of a better term, is considered a craft brewery. Almost any session beer would likely have more flavor than than the average mass-produced macro and also be less filling, too. Even Guinness is only a shade north of 4%.

3. “You’ll probably drink less of it.” This argument only works in opposite world. Because the whole point of craft beer is already to drink less, but drink better. The idea that you’d buy crappy beer because it was cheaper but then stop drinking it because it didn’t taste good is absurd in the extreme, and incredibly wasteful to boot. It seems like if that were true, #3 would negate #1, too.

4. “It pairs well with yard work and wings.” Bullshit. This is another specious argument you hear all the time about “lawnmower beers.” I did an entire newspaper column last year devoted to lawnmower beers, that is beers with a lighter body, that were also still full-flavored. There’s no need to sacrifice taste for a refreshing beer. There are plenty of craft and import beers that will work. And pairing spicy wings with a watery lager does nothing to cut through the spiciness. There are a million better food pairing choices.

5. “Your in-laws (or parents) are coming over.” Really? Show some backbone. If the old farts in your life don’t like the beer you’re giving them for free, let them bring their own damn beer next time. It’s hard to tell if this is a serious one, or she just ran out of already questionable reasons, and needed to pad it out to five. But either way, issues with one’s own parents shouldn’t translate into advice to the population at large, especially when the advice itself is so bad.

Overall, I’d say that if you’re still drinking flavorless beer, it’s going to be hard to convince you at this point. I have a brother-in-law who steadfastly refuses to drink anything with flavor, much to my personal, and professional, shame. I just can’t get through to him, no matter what I try. Sometimes I wonder if he’s so stubborn just because he knows how much it bugs me. But it also shows that the passion that I feel for better beer, along with plenty of others, is not universal. He just doesn’t care that much about his beer. He also wears the ugliest, most garishly colored running shoes, too, so there’s no accounting for taste. Me, I prefer a less stare-inducing pair of plain, comfortable shoes, something like converse all-stars or Adidas tennis sneakers, in black or white.

And that, I think, is what it comes down to, just how much you, or anyone, really cares about beer, or anything. There’s only so much time to think about what to eat, to drink, to wear, what to watch, where to go, what to do, and on and on, and on. Life is a never-ending series of choices. There just isn’t enough time to consider each one with equal weight. So with some decisions we take the easiest path; eat at McDonald’s, watch whatever tops the Nielsens, drink Coke, or Budweiser. Others are more personal, and for whatever complicated reasons deep in our psyche, matter more to us. Mine are numerous, quirky, and even I don’t understand all of them sometimes. But that’s just me, just as you’re just you. Fortune cookie wisdom aside, it really is just how we’re built. I’m passionate about the beer I drink, and I suspect if you’ve read all the way through to here, you are too.

But if you’re one of those people who prefers “plain old yellow lager,” go for it. I may not like it, but I understand it, to some extent. Really, I don’t; but I understand the mechanism that leads to that decision. But having found one of my passions in beer, what I can’t understand, or abide, is trying to talk somebody out of drinking better beer, taking a step backwards, so to speak. Cheap American Beer is still the best-selling kind there is, and nobody really needs to keep defending it. So I’ll keep saying don’t. Make a better choice for yourself. Drink beer with flavor. You’ll be much happier you did.

The Realities Of Opening A Brewery

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Collin McDonnell, the brewmaster of Petaluma’s new HenHouse Brewing has a wake up call for anybody considering becoming a brewer. His piece on Serious Eats, So You Think You Want to Open a Brewery…, is chock full of the unglamorous, ugly realities of daily life in the average brewery.

You can sum up his advice with one word. Imagine you’re Ben Braddock (as played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). Imagine further that you just graduated from college, and are convinced you want to become a brewer. You’re at a cocktail party. You’re chatting with an older, more experienced, seasoned brewer. You let drop that you, too, want to join the glamorous world of brewing. Here’s what he tells you.

A Brewer: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
A Brewer: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
A Brewer: Cleaning.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Cleaning.

That and the soul-crushing act of cold calling on places to sell the beer. I worked retail for years, in a variety of worlds — records (what the kids call music these days), video, comic books and yes, beer — and wouldn’t wish that job on a dog. There are people whose personalities are well-suited to that life, thank goodness, but I am not one of them.

I have the utmost respect for brewers. Having visited more than my fair share of breweries (while I’ve never been a ticker, I can safely guess the number is well north of 1,000), it wasn’t hard to realize it wasn’t for me. I’m lazy, for starters, and have never been overly fastidious in my approach to cleanliness. Plus there’s a lot of backbreaking physical activity, and I’m much more at home being sedentary. Sitting in front of a laptop all day is much more to my liking. Also, most brewers start early, around the time they make the doughnuts. I am not a morning person. In the words of the great Bill Murray, channeling a jazz musician being interviewed by Mr. Rogers, “you should sleep late; it’s much easier on your constitution.” So I greatly admire that there are people enough unlike me that they can get off their ass and actually do what’s necessary to make beer for me to drink (and write about) each and every day.

With every sip of beer I take, I thank people like Collin and the countless other professional brewers working today in a — mostly — thankless job. So give Collin’s article a read, especially if you’re thinking about opening a brewery. I posted the motivational poster below a few years back, but it seems pretty relevant to today’s discussion about the difference between the perception of what a brewer does and the reality of a brewer’s workday.

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Beer In Grocery Stores: Oh, The Horror!

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Here in sunny California, we can stroll down to the local grocery store, or convenience store, and buy a six-pack of beer. It’s not a big deal. It’s been that way since I moved here in 1985, and probably was that way long before I arrived. I pretty much take it for granted, but there are still states where adults still can’t buy a beer without going to a special store, sometimes run by the state itself, to protect its tax revenue, but more importantly to tightly control the distribution of demon alcohol. My home state of Pennsylvania was (and is) one such state. All of the states’ alcohol laws were written in the wake of prohibition’s end, and were designed with that failed legacy in mind. Most of these laws today are antiquated and out-of-date in the face of modern life.

But changing alcohol laws are harder than many other laws, because there’s a special layer of angst that lawmakers must face. Alcohol is still treated as a toxic substance, one that poses a danger, despite it having been around since the dawn of civilization and having been legal for adults for literally the entirety of human history, with the notable exception of thirteen years in the mid-20th century. But prohibitionist strategy since essentially the moment the 21st Amendment was ratified has remained unchanged: to make it as difficult as possible for adults to obtain legal alcohol. And so for the past 80+ years they’ve been tireless in their efforts to make us work for our beer. So now the state of Kansas is seeking to modernize the state and allow beer, wine and spirits to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. The modest bill takes into account liquor stores’ current monopolies and gives “them 10 years to adapt to increased competition in the marketplace. Beer sales would not be legal until 2017, wine in 2020, and spirits in 2024.” But that would mean there would be more places where adults could legally buy something that they’re legally entitled to purchase, and we certainly don’t want to encourage that. Or rather the prohibitionists don’t want people to be able to. Alcohol Justice tweeted out their displeasure with Kansas, chastising lawmakers there with a simple admonishment: “Bad move.”

I’m sure they have an excellent reason why it’s a “bad move” for adults to have more freedom and convenience in purchasing their alcohol, something they’re already allowed to do, but so far A.J. is mum on the whys are wherefores. Although you can be sure it has something to do with protecting children or how much more the state will be harmed if people can increasingly be able to engage in the legally permissible act of enjoying a beer. They’ve never been too strong on logic or rational thought, so maybe it’s best they stick to the sublimely absurd. Because as far as I can tell, Alcohol Justice telling the legislature of the state of Kansas “bad move” is the schoolyard bully equivalent of “because we said so” or “because we don’t like it.”

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America’s Addiction Treatment Goal: Perpetual, Lifelong Abstinence

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On Sunday, in the morning before the Super Bowl was scheduled to be played, the tragic news broke that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead, with a needle stuck in his arm, the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. The following day, on the Psychology Today website, frequent contributor Stanton Peele posted Another One: Why So Many Celebrities Die Following Rehab. Detailing Hoffman’s history, apparently he’d given up drugs and alcohol when he was 22 years old, and had been successfully abstaining for 23 years, when he reportedly “fell off the wagon.” He’d also sought help and had been in rehab over the past six months. Peele wonders why he, and so many other celebrities, overdose and die “after recently having been in treatment? After all, many people have lived long lives while using opiates.”

Interestingly, he says that this is not uncommon and cites our attitudes toward addiction and its “cure” as contributing factors. “What is dysfunctional is our temperance attitudes towards substances, their use, and their misuse. Our attitudes towards drugs are more lethal than the substances themselves,” he writes. While Hoffman was reportedly using heroin, the way we treat addiction for drugs or alcohol is exactly the same, and for purposes of AA and other rehab and treatment facilities, alcohol is considered just another drug on the panoply of addictive substances.

Peele has identified five reasons that he believes “these deaths occur so often following rehab.” Tellingly, he also believes they “stem from one basic fact of American rehab: the one and only goal of treatment is perpetual, lifelong abstinence. No treatment time is devoted to the essential truth that most rehab grads will use again, and to prepare them for this possibility.” This has long been my belief about what’s wrong with AA and other abstinence-based “cures” that don’t cure anything. They merely suppress a person’s impulses without addressing the underlying causes or finding a way to actually cure anyone, which should mean learning how to drink in moderation without returning to bingeing or over-indulging. Peele also believes that “all of these failures to prevent post-rehab deaths are due to the kind of unrealistic, perfectionist, just-say-no approach America takes to drugs, alcohol, and addiction.”

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But here’s an overview of the five reasons he believes people leaving rehab so often get into trouble, sometimes fatally:

1. Combining different drugs and alcohol. Rehab grads are not made aware that the worst usage pattern is to combine alcohol and other drugs, particularly depressants. What is usually mistakenly called “overdose” is in fact the result of such lethal combinations, which depress the nervous system and cause the person’s breathing to fail.

2. Lower tolerance. If rehab grads haven’t been using for some time (which is likely the case when they are fresh out of the rehab facility), their tolerance for their drug of choice has diminished. Rehab residents should be schooled in the basic facts of tolerance and alerted that, if they use, they should lower their accustomed dosage.

3. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Twelve-step programs teach people that any level of use of any drug or alcohol is the equivalent of a full bore relapse, so that addicts and alcoholics give up all efforts at self-restraint once they have consumed any amount of a substance. As a result, they often experience a complete relapse after a slip. The opposite approach is to train addicts in relapse prevention, which teaches methods for “getting off the runaway train” at any point, from exposure to a substance, to initial use, to excessive use — for all of which there are remedies or “off ramps.”

4. Failure to have safeguards in place. Since the only permissible stance post rehab is to vow never to use a substance again, graduates are not “allowed” (or alerted) to take safety precautions.

5. Failure to have available an overdose kit. If you are going to use narcotics, you should have readily accessible an overdose kit, the main ingredient of which is naloxone (brand name, Narcan), a narcotic antagonist. In many states, overdose kits are not even used by emergency workers.

Those seem right, at least to my way of thinking. This is, for me, more evidence that America as a society has an unhealthy relationship with drinking. We seem unable to be reasonable in our approach to so many aspects of alcohol consumption and its consequences. And prohibitionist groups fan the flames of our dysfunction and make unwitting accomplices of the health and medical communities because keeping the status quo also keeps the money flowing to them and rehab centers, treatment facilities, etc. It seems that anyone who challenges the twelves steps or abstinence only approaches is immediately shot down. I can’t help but think that any system should be able to stand up to criticism and scrutiny in order to constantly improve it, but it certainly feels like the idea of powerlessness and abstinence are treated as sacrosanct dogma. And that means we’ll always be a nation of addicts who can never change.

Are addiction treatment providers the new snake oil salesmen? Just takes some pills and never touch another drop for the rest of your life and you’ll be fine. Trust us.

Alcohol-Addiction-Recovery-Kit