The Conscience Of A Liberal Drinker

If you’re a regular reader of the Bulletin, you know I’m a economics junkie and my politics run to the more liberal side. So you probably won’t be surprised to learn I’m a fan of recent Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who also writes a column for the New York Times. I read his last two books (and the re-issue/update of his The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 is on my reading list). Jack Curtin, who appears lately to be hunkered down in his bunker/cabin in the woods doing nothing but blogging, passed along this little gem about Krugman’s vacation in Brugge. According to the Times, Krugman is in Brugge and had a beer dinner yesterday at Den Dyver. Den Dyver has a 3, 4 and 5-course fixed menu available with a beer paired with every course. I love that fac that he opted for the beer, good beer. Hey Draft magazine, I think you just found your next cover celebrity.

Krugman with his dessert beer.


Will Travel For Beer: The Next Session

Vacation season is just around the corner, and Gail and Steve from Beer by BART will be hosting next month’s Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday. Given that their blog focuses on how to safely travel from one beer destination to another, they’ve chosen the appropriate topic “Will Travel For Beer.” Here’s what they’re thinking:

If you just wrote or read about the trek to the furthest brew pub in the last round of the Session, and you immediately thought of other beer destinations near and far, we want to hear all about the good ones that didn’t quite fit the assignment! Tell us about that beer trip.

If you see the words “travel” and “beer” and instead of your best tourist sagas you think of work or logistics, we want to know your tips and strategies on the road. (Perhaps for getting prized bottles home.)

And if you haven’t done much travel for fine beer, either for work or pleasure, but you have a trip you’d love to do, tell us where you’d like to go seeking the experience and the community of beer. Who would you want to meet at your destination, who would your travel-mates be, and what would you most want to taste when you arrived?

Details please, whichever way you take this! You’re welcome to pull out the vacation slide show if you wish. By all means have a beer that reminds you of the trip, and describe it if you wish.

The next Session will take place on Friday, July 3, the day after what should have been America’s birthday and the day before the day we celebrate it. Where will you be traveling for the holiday weekend?


National Action Alert: Proposed Increase Of Federal Beer Tax

Proposed Increase of Federal Excise Tax A Serious Threat to Small Brewers and Your Beer Choice

Contact Your Senators Now

I received the following action alert from Support Your Local Brewery, a national, grassroots partnership of beer enthusiasts, professional trade associations and brewers dedicated to supporting and protecting the legislative and regulatory interests of small, traditional and independent craft breweries. Most action alerts are state by state and this is the first national one I’ve seen. They’re asking for everyone to contact their U.S. Senator, but especially those of you living in the following states:

Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The reason these states are so important is that’s where the Senate Finance Committee members are from, so it’s most important that they hear from constituents in their home states.

Here’s the information from the action alert.

Small brewers are facing an imminent and extremely serious threat to their businesses. The consequences of remaining silent have the very real potential of reducing your choice of beer and dramatically increasing the price of any beer that you purchase.

The Senate Finance Committee in Washington, DC is currently considering a proposal to increase and equalize the excise tax for alcohol beverages as part of healthcare reform deliberations. This proposal would triple the excise tax for 4.5% ABV beer and impose even higher excise tax rates for higher ABV beers.

If such a proposal becomes reality, there is no question that many small brewery businesses will suffer, some will close and consumers will face higher prices and diminished choice in the marketplace.
The Brewers Association brewery members and leadership have been actively engaged in building the case against an excise tax increase, recently submitting a letter to the Committee outlining our opposition.

We need you to speak out now. Today or tomorrow at the latest.

If your Senators are not members of that committee, ask them to contact their Finance Committee colleagues and express their opposition to this proposal moving forward.

Your ask of them is simple:

Oppose the Tax Increase. Let them know that you oppose, in the strongest possible terms, raising the federal excise tax on beer because of the serious consequences it would have on small brewers and the craft beer they brew. Additional talking points appear below.

Once again: If one of your Senators sits on the Senate Finance Committee (roster of and links to members below), urge them to oppose this proposal in committee deliberations.

If your Senators are not members of that committee, ask them to contact their Finance Committee colleagues and express their opposition to this proposal moving forward.

Take Action: Call and/or email your Senators’ Washington or district offices and make your personal case against this massive excise tax increase.






Small brewers are small Main street businesses, typically employing 10 to 50 employees.

Small brewers represent only 4% of the entire U.S. beer market by volume, with 95% of them being very small businesses (producing 15,000 barrels or less per year).

We strongly oppose proposals to increase the excise tax on beer.

  • Proposals to increase and equalize the tax among all types of alcohol will tax small brewers at the highest rates because their specialty, gourmet and innovative beers typically have higher alcohol contents.
  • Brewers already pay a disproportionately higher share of taxes compared with other products – federal, state and local taxes represent over 40% of the retail price for beer while the same taxes equal nearly 24% of the price for all other purchases.

Higher taxes will worsen the economic recession – resulting in less competitive products, reduced sales and revenues, lost jobs and, for some small brewers, business closures.

  • $1 per case excise tax increase will typically cost the consumer at least $1.69 due to successive mark-ups as the case moves from brewer to wholesaler to retailer.
  • Many small brewers are struggling to deal with the consequences of the 2008 spike in ingredient and operational costs.


If you want some background on what’s going on with this, here’s where it started with a Senate Finance Committee roundtable in mid-May which then escalated to a written proposal on May 20. This increase is in addition to state excise taxes that breweries have to pay. There’s also additional information at Don’t Tax Our Beer and the Brewers Association’s Excise Tax Resources page.

If you care about the beer you drink and the many small breweries that make it, please take a few minutes out of your day to help keep it affordable and also keep some of them from possibly going out of business. Please reach out to your elected official in the U.S. Senate. They’re supposed to work for you, after all, let them know how you feel.


Oldest Brewery In Ireland Closes

I’m a little behind on this one, but thought it worth mentioning all the same. Last Friday, a week ago, the oldest brewery in Ireland was shut down. Heineken, who’s owned the Beamish & Crawford Brewery in Cork since last October, decided in December to close the brewery and move production elsewhere to cut costs. The brewery, located on South Main Street, has been making beer since 1690, making it Ireland’s oldest brewery. There had been talk of turning it into a museum, a plan endorsed by Cllr Brian Bermingham, The Lord Mayor of Cork. Its mock-Tudor counting house is already a “protected structure” and, according to The Independent, “the National Conservation and Heritage Group (NCHG) argued that the existing Beamish site offers an opportunity to create a tourism-heritage complex similar to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.” Heineken decided instead to sell it “on the commercial market” since they obviously couldn’t care less about the history of the place. Like any multinational corporation, they only care about short-term profit.

British beer writer Roger Protz has a nice summary of who’s owned Beamish over the past few decades, and how those events led to Heineken acquiring it last year.

While Murphy’s fell into the hands of Heineken, Beamish also had a turbulent life in the 20th century. In 1962 it was bought by the Canadian group Carling O’Keefe, which in turn was bought by the Foster’s lager group of Australia. This allowed Beamish Stout to be sold through Courage pubs in Britain as Courage was owned by Foster’s. Eventually Courage was taken over by S&N, which gave the brand little promotion in Britain but, incongruously, marketed it in France alongside its French subsidiary Kronenbourg.

Abut 120 jobs will be lost and production will be moved across town, to what for most of its existence was known as the Lady’s Well Brewery, also owned by Heineken, where they make Murphy’s Irish Stout.


Cross-Border Beer Buying

While looking through the information at the Tax Foundation today I came across a very interesting article and a study about cross-border sales of beer and tobacco and how it effects tax revenues. It’s not something I thought much about or figured had that much impact but the study, done ten years ago, seems to suggest otherwise. Essentially, what happens is that between state borders, people either living near them or happen to be traveling through them will purchase items in the other state, the one where the taxes are less, making the products themselves less expensive. I hadn’t thought about this phenomenon in a long time, but I recall that as a kid, my stepfather — a heavy cigarette smoker — had people bring him cartons of cigarettes back from southern states where, presumably, the taxes were so much cheaper that the cost of a carton of smokes was worth the effort of buying them in another state and hauling them back to Pennsylvania. And I’ve heard in some states, particularly on the east coast where they’re closer together, people would travel across state lines to buy a car for the same reason though as I understand it most states have enacted laws to make that practice not work anymore.

How this relates to beer is that in states where the excise tax differs greatly from a state bordering it, the price of beer can likewise be pretty dramatically different between those states, primarily because the base tax gets marked up along the distribution chain so the difference in the tax is magnified. That makes it susceptible to cross-border buying resulting in lost sales and tax revenue for the state with the higher tax rate. How much of a problem could this be? I confess I was initially skeptical, but the study, How Excise Tax Differentials Affect the Cross-Border Sales of Beer in the United States, done by the Tax Foundation in 1999 found that nationally it resulted in nearly $35 million in “lost sales & excise tax revenue.” That certainly sounds like enough that it should give any state pause before jacking of their state’s excise tax rate on beer. It’s just one more reason why raising a state’s beer tax might be a losing proposition economically.

Here’s an excerpt from the abstract for the study:

Cross-Border Shopping for Beer

While the study measures cross-border shopping in every state, the results are naturally most dramatic along borders where the tax differential is high. For example, Washington state, which levies a statewide 6.5 percent sales tax, additional local sales taxes and a $7.172 per barrel beer excise tax, shares a border with Oregon, which levies no state or local sales taxes and has a state beer excise of just $2.60 per barrel.

Huge quantities of beer cross the border in these circumstances, but this migration of economic activity affects more than just sales and product-specific excise tax collections. Cross-border shopping affects income and property tax collections, license fees, and a host of other sources of government revenue.

Policymakers are frequently surprised by the magnitude of the revenue effects, and such surprises can be particularly unnerving when the government in question is required to maintain a balanced budget.

According to the study, California alone lost $5,248,466 for the year studied. The conclusion seems fairly unambiguous, here are the last two paragraphs:

The per capita sale of packaged beer varies widely by state. It has long been suspected that these differences are due in part to cross-border shopping. Building on earlier work in this area, this study sought to explain differences in packaged beer sales among the states. A model of demand for beer and its supply by source was constructed. This model was created in a manner that allowed it to capture the effects of both interstate and Canadian cross-border shopping on beer sales in the states.

The model was then tested empirically using data from 1990–1997. Cross-border shopping was found to have significant effects on packaged beer sales in the states. In particular, the study found that in 1997, 18.1 million cases of beer, on net, moved from low- to high-tax states. Such exports accounted for approximately 2.0 percent of sales in net exporting states and allowed them to export $18.8 million in sales and beer excise taxes to their high-tax neighbors. In addition, states along the U.S.-Canadian border were able to export 10.9 million cases of beer and $14.6 million in sales and beer excise taxes to Canada. The study clearly shows that high sales and excise tax differentials lead to significant increases in cross-border beer sales.

The pull-quote that lawmakers should pay attention to is that by being too heavy-handed with imposing higher excise taxes on beer, it just might backfire to the point where it’s actually counter-productive and even reduces the amount of taxes collected. It could, it appears, actually wreck a state’s economy

Policymakers should be aware that the effects of cross-border shopping on income taxes, property taxes, and license fees can match or even exceed the revenue changes in state and local sales and excise taxes measured by the model.

The study is long and complex, but worth your time if you’re in a position to speak with or write to a state lawmaker, or if you’re a geek for this stuff like me. It’s 24 pages and is available as a pdf file.



Sin Tax Tyrannies

There’s an interesting opinion piece at the Christian Science Monitor by Patrick Fleenor, who’s the chief economist for the Tax Foundation. It’s called The Tyranny of Taxing ‘Sin’. There’s some good stuff there, but here’s my favorite part:

Fleecing the minority is made much easier by an army of busybodies who make a comfortable living feeding “studies” to the media, proclaiming that Americans eat the wrong foods, drink the wrong beverages, don’t exercise enough, and are generally sinful. These modern-day Carrie Nations’ denunciations of nearly every commonplace pleasure — from Girl Scout Cookies to movie theater popcorn — are fodder for the nightly news.

To dispel the notion that their sin taxes go too far, the nanny-staters rely on a clever sleight-of-hand: Instead of pitching the tax as a punishment for sin, they claim they’re merely compensating society for costs imposed by bad habits. These claims are often unsupported by science, but many media repeat them without question.

That’s certainly true of the neo-prohibitionists, who keep insisting that vague alcohol-related “stuff” accounts for an enormous cost burden for taxpayers, but the supporting evidence I’ve seen for that is either non-existent or ludicrous at best. Yet the media repeats that endlessly and people comment here trying to asset is as a fact, too.


The Personality Of Pint Glasses

The Walkabout pub chain, consisting of fifty Australian-themed bars in Great Britain, hired psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson to research the drinking habits of their patrons. While I’d never heard of him (hardly a measure of fame), he’s apparently “best known for his work on attitude and personality measurement, sexual attraction, deviation and dysfunction, partner compatibility, and psychology applied to performing arts. In 2001, Wilson was ranked among the 10 most frequently cited British psychologists in scientific journals.”

For the project, Wilson observed 500 people drinking in a pub, and specifically the way they held their glass, and from that “divided them into eight personality types.” Despite his apparent credentials and success in his field, the study hardly seems scientific. It was done at the behest of a pub chain, most likely to create publicity, which it’s no doubt dones as it’s been covered by the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

Dr Wilson said: “The simple act of holding a drink displays a lot more about us than we realise – or might want to divulge.

“When Hillary Clinton was on the campaign trail in the US, commentators picked up on the fact that she used her left hand to raise a pint, even though she’s right-handed.

“She might just have been posing for a shot but some people suggested that it was an insincere gesture.

“The next time you’re in a bar, it might be worth thinking about what you’re saying to the people around you just by the way you’re holding your glass.”

So it’s a little silly, and not exactly well-settled, peer-reviewed, tested science despite being done by a psychologist of good repute. Still, it’s not without interest. Below are the eight personality types and how each are described.

The Pint Glass Personality Types

  1. The Jack the Lad
  2. The Brow Beater
  3. The Ice Queen
  4. The Gossip
  5. The Wallflower
  6. The Flirt
  7. The Fun Lover
  8. The Playboy


1. The Jack the Lad: This “peacock” is conscious of his image and will drink a bottled beer, or cider. Inclined to be confident and arrogant, he can be territorial in his gestures, spreading himself over as much space as possible, for example, pushing the glass well away from himself and leaning back in his chair. If he’s drinking with his mates, he would be unlikely to welcome approaches from outside the group, unless sycophantic and ego-enhancing.

Celebrities: Peter Andre, David Cameron, Jason Statham. The “ladette” (e.g. Lily Allen) is a female approximation to this male archetype.

2. The Browbeater: This rather pugnacious type is again mostly male. He prefers large glasses, or bottles, which he uses as symbolic weapons, firmly grasped, and gesticulating in a threatening, “in the face” kind of way. Something of a know-it-all, he comes across as slightly hostile, even if only through verbal argument, or jokes targeted at others. He should be approached with great care, or not at all.

Celebrities: John Prescott, Russell Crowe (with Naomi Campbell as a female equivalent), Gordon Brown.

3. The Ice Queen: This is a mainly female type whose natural style is cold and defensive. She drinks from a wine glass, or a short glass, which is held firmly in a barrier position across the body so as to deter intimate approaches. It is usually a waste of time approaching this woman; she may be ready with a castrating put-down.

Celebrities: Victoria Beckham, Debra Barr (from The Apprentice)

4. The Gossip: This (mainly female) drinker tends to cluster in all-female groups talking about other people, and can be critical. She holds a wine glass by the bowl and uses it to gesticulate and make points in conversation. She is inclined to lean over her drink, in towards others so as to speak confidentially. This person already has a close-knit social group with little inclination to extend it, therefore advances from outsiders are not usually welcome.

Celebrities: Kate Moss, Sadie Frost.

5. The Wallflower: This is a shy, submissive individual who holds the glass protectively, not letting go, as though afraid somebody will take it away. Palms are kept hidden and the glass is used as a social crutch – the drink is never quite finished, with a mouthful left in case of emergency. The drink is small (maybe half a pint of lager for a man). It may be drunk through a straw, which is fidgeted with, and used to stir the drink between sips. The style and pace of drinking is an echo of those around them (very little is initiated). This individual needs to be approached in a gentle, sensitive way, with perhaps a few understated compliments to build self-confidence, but may eventually warm to overtures.

Celebrities: Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman

6. The Flirt: Usually a woman, who holds her glass with dainty, splayed fingers and uses it in a provocative way. She may position it over her cleavage so as to draw attention to her attributes or peer over the rim to make eye contact when taking a sip. She may “tease” the rim of the glass with her finger, perhaps dipping it into the drink and sucking it dry. Assuming her agenda is appealing, the best way to approach is with reciprocal flirtatious gestures.

Celebrities: Jordan, Paris Hilton, Kate Walsh (from The Apprentice)

7. The Fun Lover: This type of drinker may be a man or a woman, who drinks to be sociable and values togetherness. A convivial individual, he / she enjoys being with their friends, and likes a laugh. Swigs taken from bottled drinks are short, so they don’t miss out on chipping in with the conversation. The bottle is held loosely at its shoulder for ease. This type of person is always happy to extend their social circle. The best way to approach them therefore is to leap directly into light, good-humoured conversation and make them laugh.

Celebrities: Sarah Harding, Helen Chamberlain (from Soccer AM)

8. The Playboy: This man is the active, self-confident, Don Juan-type seducer. He uses his (usually long) glass or bottle as a phallic prop, playing with it suggestively. He is inclined to be possessive, and can be tactile with his female companions.

Celebrities: Russell Brand, David Walliams

Stop The Presses! People In H.S. Drink!

There’s a tempest in a teapot brewing at New Trier Township High School, located a little over 22 miles north of Chicago along Lake Michigan. In the newly published senior yearbook for the class of 2009, apparently somebody slipped in an unauthorized photo of two girls hugging. But look closer and you can just barely see — gasp — a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon held behind the back of one of the girls.

Oh, the humanity. You’d think they just witnessed a murder to see the hue and cry this “incident” has caused. The local news is painting the story as if a serious crime had been committed. Talk about overreacting. Sheesh. There are even discussions in the press about the contrast in photo quality between the offending snapshot and other more professional looking photos found elsewhere in the yearbook. Geez, it’s the smoking photo, the Zapruder picture. “School spokeswoman Laura Blair told the Chicago Tribune that the photo was not in the yearbook when the adviser cleared it for publication, indicating someone sneaked it in afterwards. Blair says ‘it’s clearly defiant and subversive and intentional.'” Really, it’s clearly intentional? I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine focusing on the girls’ faces and not even noticing the can at all.

From an article on the website of Chicago NBC affiliate:

“Clearly, the content of the picture and its inclusion in the yearbook are contrary to our principles and values as a school community. Administrators are investigating how and why the inappropriate picture was included, and we will take appropriate disciplinary action when we find the responsible individuals,” said Supt. Lina Yonke of the New Trier Township High School District. Possible consequences for the students involved could range from a school suspension to charges of underage possession of alcohol.

“Contrary to our principles and values as a school community,” what does that even mean? If teenagers drink — and obviously they do — isn’t that a part of the true values of the school community? In another story, the superintendent told a reporter it essentially ruined the whole yearbook. Really? It’s as if the school officials just discovered that the little angels in their charge might not be exactly as obedient and subservient as they believed, I guess preferring the fantasy that the kids in their school never did anything they weren’t supposed to do. For them, I have tell them that teenagers do drink, sorry to burst your bubble. It’s hardly newsworthy.

At least one Chicago Tribune columnist was able to keep it in perspective. Eric Zorn wrote a short piece, entitled Memo to New Trier High School administrators: Chill, concluding, “I have an idea: How about a wag of the finger and a reproachful shake of the head? They deserve it and so, actually, do you.”

But this story is all over the internet, especially in the local area. It must have been a very slow news day. But this is also a prime example of how the media overplays covering alcohol in society. A non-story is turned into a media circus. There was another photo also “sneaked” into the yearbook of a student shooting the finger, but that barely got a mention in only a fraction of the total stories on this incident.


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Why Alcohol Doesn’t Get A Pass

As many of you probably know, I recently started writing at the Bottoms Up blog, specifically the On Beer portion. You probably also know that I often find myself in the position of defending the moderate use of beer as part of a healthy lifestyle. I don’t know many of my fellow writers there, so when a reader sent me a piece called “Why does alcohol get a pass?” by Oakland Tribune columnist Tammerlin Drummond, I didn’t quite know what to think. I must not have been the only person to react strongly to it, because the next day she changed the title and perhaps made other changes, I can’t be sure. But the gist of it is that she believes that while we tax cigarettes because of, as she states, “the medical research the past four decades that has linked smoking to lung cancer and other deadly illnesses,” alcohol inexplicably gets a “pass.”

Well, not only does alcohol not get a pass from my perspective — even though in some ways it probably ought to — but also Ms. Drummond ignores certain facts about alcohol and essentially considers only one side of the debate raging between people who enjoy to drink in moderation and those would prefer another prohibition. So I’d like to present some information from the other side of the aisle, to hopefully give you a more balanced view of alcohol in society. As I said, I don’t know Tammerlin Drummond personally, though I’m sure she’s a fine lady. I do want to discuss some of her arguments and the information she appears to base them on, but I want to stress she’s as entitled to her opinion as anyone else, and it’s her opinion and ideas that I’m disagreeing with.

She begins by talking about how the perception of smoking as cool has declined as medical research uncovered more and more health risks and how the state has heaped taxes on tobacco as a result. She finds that acceptable given that tobacco appears to provide no real health benefits and that generally “smoking-related illnesses cost all of us, in higher insurance premiums,” etc.

She then takes that argument and applies it to alcohol, and asks why alcohol seemingly gets a pass, since, as she states it, it “contributes directly or indirectly to so many deaths.” She goes on to say that “[a]lcohol overconsumption is, after all, one of the leading lifestyle-related causes of death in this country, according to the CDC.” But “moderate consumption,” which is how the vast majority of Americans enjoy beer, wine or spirits, is not the same as “overconsumption.” Those are two separate arguments. But that even assumes that the figures are correct, which I do not believe for a second. It has been pointed out the way in which “alcohol-related” is defined is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what’s going on. For example, if a passenger in a car has been drinking but the driver was not and there’s an accident, that’s considered an alcohol-related accident.

Ms. Drummond tells us the tales of two unfortunate incidents that took place locally, one, where a high school student died after drinking too much at a friend’s house, and the other where a young woman and her family died after a car accident in which the woman had been “intoxicated.” Those are both terrible incidents to be sure, and there’s obviously no excuse for them and the people who were involved or allowed them to happen. But we could also look at those individually and say that poor judgment was shown and not simply reflexively blame alcohol, as we so often do as a society.

High school students have been drinking unsupervised for as long there have been high schools. While I’m not condoning such behavior, I engaged in it as a teenager and so did millions of other people without any unfortunate consequences. We could go on and on about how the parents should have been there, that they should not have been able to obtain alcohol if they were underage, etc. but this incident should not be used to suggest that if there were no alcohol, that teens would never manage to get into trouble. That’s no comfort to the parents, I realize, and I too would be devastated if it happened to either of my two children, but I’m convinced that we can’t create a functioning society by over-protecting our children to the point where they can’t grow and learn how to function on their own. As it is, we seem to be heading in that direction as we give our children far fewer liberties than in my generation.

In the other incident, the young woman who was driving intoxicated had a suspended license and neither of the 3-year old twin boys she was driving with were in a child seat or had on a seat belt. As the kids’ mother and her brother, also passengers, were killed instantly, it’s likely they didn’t have on their seat belts either. Only the driver survived, and she has a broken neck. I agree with Drummond that it’s a tragic incident, but, and I hope I don’t sound too callous here, there are other non-alcohol-related factors that contributed to the deaths in that car accident. Who let the person with the suspended license drive? Why were there no car seats? Why weren’t the kids at least wearing seat belts? You can’t honestly blame alcohol for those stupid decisions. Most parents, even the ones who drink alcohol, do have car seats, do wear their seat belts, do have a valid license, and know when not to get behind the wheel of an automobile.

But these make effective cautionary tales, and so we hear about them in the news. What we don’t hear about are the thousands of people who had a drink or two and drove home without incident. We don’t hear about the thousands more who had a few too many and knew it was best to call a cab or take the bus home. There’s a saying in the news business that “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that stories of a certain kind will get reported because people are interested in reading them. Stories where nothing happens do not often make the front page. It would be great to see a headline that reads “young man drinks too much and takes bus home safely,” but nobody would buy that newspaper. And so we get a skewed perspective of the problem. And neo-prohibitionist groups use such emotional stories to persuade people that the problem is much worse than it might really be.

As a society, we love our statistics and will lump this accident into every other marginally similar one and say this is just one of many and, therefore, something needs to be done. Studies a few years ago showed that using a mobile phone while driving is the equivalent of driving drunk, but where was the mad rush to ban cellphones in cars. It took a few years before even the bluetooth law could be passed. Every day I see people talking on their mobile phones while driving, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re breaking the law. And far more people talk and drive than drink and drive, so where are the organizations dedicated to making the roads safer from this abuse? Where is MAC, Mothers Against Cellphones?

The seemingly scary statistic from the World Health Organization “that there are 2 million alcohol-related deaths worldwide each year” that is in Ms. Drummond’s editorial only represents just under 0.03% of the world population. Not 3%, but three-hundredth of a percent. By contrast, the number one cause of death worldwide is heart disease, which claims over 11 million lives each year, or 0.16%. That’s 5 1/2 times as many people as alcohol, so where is the hue and cry about all the unhealthy food producers that are getting a pass?

That’s even assuming the alcohol-related percentage is truly an accurate figure, something that many do not. Many of the statistics that say how terrible the alcohol problem is were created and funded by organizations that let’s say charitably are not interested in showing alcohol in the best light. To combat these, groups funded by alcohol companies have begun doing their own research which, to the surprise of no one, finds very different results. Yet the industry results are largely discarded as being biased while the statistics created by neo-prohibitionist groups are not usually given the same scrutiny and are often accepted as free from bias. Why?

Drummond points to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, saying that they’ve “fought to reduce alcohol-related fatalities. The group’s aggressive national campaign has led to stricter DUI laws in many states, with heavy penalties for DUI offenders.” What she doesn’t mention is that MADD founder Candy Lightner left the organization years ago because she believes that she may have been wrong and in any case believes the organization she started has veered far from its original and intended purpose. And it doesn’t even appear to be working as unfortunately drunk-driving fatalities are not going down.

Perhaps we’ve been taking the wrong approach. Maybe investing in public transportation would be a more effective way to combat drunk driving? If our mass transit actually worked the way it does in most European cities, where it’s all linked together and people can actually get where they want to go, perhaps far less people would get in their cars after drinking too much. Building such an infrastructure would stimulate the economy and create jobs. Everybody wins.

Then, of course, we should be educating our kids about the use of alcohol. There’s no reason why sex education couldn’t be expanded to include information about alcohol. Perhaps a better name would be “lifestyle education,” and could include health education of various types, such as alcohol, tobacco, in addition to sex. But even if that was not possible, then why shouldn’t education begin at home? Unfortunately, in many states it’s actually illegal for a parent to teach their own children about alcohol. And many events like beer festivals are “adults only” making it impossible for families to attend and for kids to see what responsible drinking looks like through modeling behavior. The more we separate and divide society into areas with alcohol for adults only and kid-friendly with no alcohol whatsoever, the worse we’re making it for our youth, in effect having the opposite of the intended result. The more we make alcohol a taboo, the more attractive we make it for many teenagers. Neo-prohibitionist groups continue to claim that raising the drinking age to 21 has been a rousing success, but as former college dean John McCardell argues persuasively, it has not stopped underage drinking and in fact has driven it underground, causing more binge drinking and dangerous behavior. His Choose Responsibility organization is trying to encourage a less one-sided debate on this issue and at his Amethyst Initiative, 135 college and university deans have signed on in support of lowering it back to 18.

Perhaps the most important distinction between tobacco and alcohol is that the moderate consumption of alcohol, unlike cigarettes, has many proven health benefits. Study after study around the world has shown that people who abstain, that is never touch alcohol, are usually less healthy than people who drink in moderation. There are now a myriad of well-settled health benefits associated with moderate drinking, which is how the vast majority of American enjoy their drink. So when it’s actually healthier to drink than not, that’s what I mean when I say maybe alcohol should get a pass.

In case you didn’t know, alcohol was among the first things our government ever taxed, way back at the beginning of the Civil War, before there was the I.R.S. or income tax. To pay for the war, Congress levied the first income tax on the remaining Northern states in order to raise money to fight the war with the Southern states. By the end of the year, Congress realized it wasn’t enough and they needed a way to raise more funds for the war. In a special session in December 1861, Congress reviewed a request by the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, to raise the percentage of income tax slightly and levy “excise taxes” on a number of goods, including beer, distilled spirits, cotton, tobacco, carriages (the automobiles of the day), yachts, pool tables and even playing cards, to name a few. After the war ended, most were rescinded, except, of course, for tobacco and alcohol. To this day, cigarettes and booze are the only two goods that have to pay an excise tax in the U.S. That means that alcoholic beverages already pay more taxes than any other consumer good you can buy. And since both the state of California (as does every state) and the federal government both impose an excise tax, that means it’s significantly more already. Currently, the taxes on beer are 68% higher than the average for goods sold in the U.S. Roughly 40.8% of the price of a beer is taxes, whereas it’s 24.2% for all other products sold. In 1992, the federal government doubled the excise tax from $9 to $18 per barrel, which caused the total taxes collected to go down because of reduced sales from higher prices, and it took years before the sales (and tax revenue) rebounded.

That brings us to Drummond’s final argument. “Why aren’t lawmakers — so keen to gouge cigarette smokers — clamoring for a $1.50 tax on shots of Patron?” Simply put, they are. Besides already gouging tobacco as well as alcohol with excises taxes, many states across the country in dire economic straits are looking at raising their state excise taxes, looking to alcohol companies to help foot the bill instead of raising taxes equally, essentially punishing one specific industry. Here in California, a state legislator from San Jose last year proposed raising the taxes on beer 1400%. He tried again last month to impose a 535% increase. The federal Senate Finance Committee just last week proposed nearly tripling the federal excise tax on beer to pay for President Obama’s health care initiative. Beer, and alcohol, is most definitely NOT getting a pass and is in fact under attack all across this land, despite having health benefits and contributing positively to the economy. The beer industry alone (that is, not including the wine and spirits segments) contributes $24,646,539,216 to California’s $1.6 trillion economy, and the beer industry alone represents just over 1.5% of our state economy. California employees of beer businesses pay annually over $3 billion in federal, state and local taxes ($3,408,824,767) and over $240 million ($242,183,691) in Consumption Taxes.

In our recent special election earlier this month, California voters said they want no new taxes. Of course they did. With so many out of work and so many in danger of losing jobs, homes and pensions, it was foolish to expect that people would accept the long term reality that taxes will have to go up. But cuts in services alone will not get us fiscally solvent again. People rarely will choose a path, even if it’s in their best interests, if it means paying more taxes. So lawmakers look for alternatives that their constituency will accept, and often those take the form of taxing luxury goods or excise taxes. And because of the way our media sensationalizes the worst drinking offenders in our society, rarely giving a voice to both sides of the debate, and because of the way in which neo-prohibitionist groups spread propaganda, many people have a skewed opinion about alcohol, formed without knowing all the facts or knowing about all the positive factors that do, I believe, balance much, if not all, of the harm.

I recently participated in a telephone poll, where the pollster asked me the seemingly innocuous question “how much do you think alcohol consumption harms society,” with the only answers available being a range of five from “very little” to “a lot.” But I don’t believe mere consumption causes any societal problems and in fact provides many benefits, both tangible and intangible, from health benefits to an improved quality of life. Overconsumption may cause problems, but that’s very different. The problem as I see it is that the poll presumed that consumption, any consumption, is harmful. And that’s something I think a lot of people do believe, because of how drinking is so often portrayed.

Historically, though, it’s worth reminding people that civilization was likely founded upon early man’s desire to make beer. Originally it was thought bread — the two are quite similar — was the catalyst but more and more scientists are leaning toward beer as the reason hunter-gathers settled down to grow barley and other grains. But whether it was first or second, it was certainly one of the earliest features of our ancestors’ earliest attempts to build civilizations that led all the way up to the present. That you and I are here most likely is a direct result of your ancestors’ genes having a tolerance for alcohol, which not coincidentally is often referred to as “liquid bread.” In a column by political pundit George Will last year, entitled Survival of the Sudsiest, Will passed along a fascinating idea that he learned from a 2006 book by Steven Johnson entitled “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” (a book I’ve since read and heartily recommend). In Johnson’s book, he discusses how at the dawn of civilization, survival often depended on how a person’s body reacted to and could tolerate the beer that was generally safer to drink than water. Over time, only people who were genetically predisposed with the ability to drink large quantities of beer survived, passing that trait down to their children so that perhaps today most of us have such an ancestor as evidenced simply by the fact that we’re here. As Will (and Johnson) explains.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”

So it’s not a stretch to say we owe our very existence to beer. Obviously, society has changed dramatically since then and that life is far more complex than it was at the dawn of civilization. But throughout most of the rest of history, alcohol played a positive role, only becoming a target of scorn in the 19th century when the modern temperance movement began.

Many of the often moral objections to drinking we still hear today owe their existence to the movement that eventually brought upon our national Prohibition from 1920-1933, a failed experiment by any measure. Much of the propaganda against alcohol we hear today is the same as used by those early temperance groups. But today we know better, or should. Research has shown that responsible drinking in moderation has many health benefits and is part of healthy lifestyle far more than abstinence. Yet many people who don’t drink continue to believe there’s no difference between having a drink or two with a meal and guzzling out of a beer bong at a frat party kegger. Some even view all drinking as “a sin,” which I believe is at the heart of why it’s treated differently. There’s a thread of anti-alcohol sentiment running through our history that doesn’t exist in most other countries. Despite the fact that early settlers like the Pilgrims and others were in fact beer drinkers, many Americans tend to view alcohol as inherently bad or even evil, even unconsciously, so that we tend to accept certain arguments against alcohol as fact because of this strange notion underlying any discussion that it’s taken for granted that alcohol is bad, it must be heavily regulated, we must vigorously protect our children from it, and that it’s responsible for every evil unleashed on the world. It’s strange really. I have a drink most days of the week, so do many, if not most, of the people in my circle of friends. We’re probably a lot like you. We hold down jobs, we pay our taxes and we manage to have a positive impact on our community while at the same time drinking responsibly. We’re the majority, really. But you never hear our story.

Most people take the beer they buy for granted. It’s just a part of their overall lifestyle. They don’t have to think about. That’s my job so I tend to see the positive side of alcohol as balancing the negative. Not everybody will agree with that. I’m no stranger to being insulted and even threatened for even suggesting that not all drinking is bad. But most people, I contend, don’t think it is inherently bad, just that a small minority have the potential to abuse it. I hate those people, because they’re ruining it for the rest of us. I grew up with an alcoholic stepfather who made my life miserable. But even as a child I knew it was him, and not the alcohol that was to blame for his behavior. Alcohol has the potential to enhance our lives and make them better, but some people give it the power to do the opposite. Those people should be responsible for their actions. They should be punished appropriately if they break the law. Blaming alcohol for peoples’ actions is wrong. People who use the excuse of being drunk as a justification for their actions are deluded.

If you’ve read this far — and God bless you if you managed it — chances are you already know all that. You probably have a drink from time to time and have managed not to sink into ruin, become an alcoholic or destroy your life. You probably enjoy a glass of beer or wine with your dinner or with friends over a barbecue. Alcohol isn’t all bad. That it can and does effect some people negatively should not be a reason to demonize it for everyone. Let’s drink a toast to that.


B Is For Beer

It isn’t often I have the opportunity to review a novel. Sadly, there are just too few works of fiction whose main plot points involve beer. More’s the pity. But along comes novelist Tom Robbins to add to the sub genre I’m about to invent, which I suppose I’ll call “beer fiction.” Robbins is the author of such popular works as “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Still Life with Woodpecker.”

His newest novel, a novella really at 125 pages, is entitled “B Is for Beer.” Subtitled “A Children’s Book for Grown-Ups” and “A Grown-Up Book for Children,” it’s the story of a 5-year old girl named Gracie Perkel and her quest to find out the meaning of beer. After a dismal 6th birthday party, she downs a can of beer from her parents’ refrigerator, throws up on the pink carpet in her bedroom and is then visited by the “Beer Fairy.” The Beer Fairy takes her through the seam from this world to another to show her how beer is made and reveal its meaning.



For the open-minded, the book is never vulgar and oddly sweet. Uncle Moe means well when he offers to take Gracie on a tour of the Redhook Brewery (they live in Seattle) but he can’t keep his word, nor, in fact, can any of the adults in Gracie’s world. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robbins’ novels. I thought “Still Life with Woodpecker” was alright and never finished “Even Cowboys Get the Blues.” He always reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., but without the profundity. More whimsical than wise. But “B Is for Beer” is a breeze to read (I finished it over the holiday weekend) and is intriguing enough to keep you turning the page.

It’s laced with references for beer people, though I disagree with his assertion that the Egyptians invented beer. He later acknowledges that many people, myself included, believe it was more likely the Sumerians, but he says that while in Sumeria they did “ferment a kind of grain drink, but that it would be stretching the point to actually call the slop beer.” The inference seems to be that in Egypt we’d recognize their fermented grain differently, more modernly as what we think of as beer, yet in my reading it wasn’t much different, if at all, than what the Sumerians made. But that’s a small quibble in a mostly fun read.

“B Is for Beer” is a great book to take to the beach or on your vacation this year. If you read even at a moderate pace you’ll probably be able to finish it on a cross-country flight or shorter. And you’ll discover the meaning of beer for your trouble.

From the publisher’s website:

A Children’s Book About Beer?

Yes, believe it or not—but B Is for Beer is also a book for adults, and bear in mind that it’s the work of maverick bestselling novelist Tom Robbins, inter-nationally known for his ability to both seriously illuminate and comically entertain.

Once upon a time (right about now) there was a planet (how about this one?) whose inhabitants consumed thirty-six billion gallons of beer each year (it’s a fact, you can Google it). Among those affected, each in his or her own way, by all the bubbles, burps, and foam, was a smart, wide-eyed, adventurous kindergartner named Gracie; her distracted mommy; her insensitive dad; her non-conformist uncle; and a magical, butt-kicking intruder from a world within our world.

Populated by the aforementioned characters—and as charming as it may be subversive—B Is for Beer involves readers, young and old, in a surprising, far-reaching investigation into the limits of reality, the transformative powers of children, and, of course, the ultimate meaning of a tall, cold brewski.


Click below for a peek inside the book, the first few chapters, at least.


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