New Study Reveals We Can Identify One Trillion Distinct Smells

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A new story in the Washington Post’s Health, Science & Environment section, entitled Human nose can detect at least 1 trillion odors — far more than thought, says study of smell, appears to upend conventional wisdom about the number of smells that humans can identify. The general number has been around 10,000 as long as I can remember. By contrast, we can see “a few million different colors” and our ears can take in around 340,000 different tones. So while smell used to be a lot farther down on the sensory spectrum, this study would appear to rocket our sense of smell to the front of the line. For beer lovers, that can’t be a surprise, because our nose conveys so much more about a beer than seeing or hearing it can, and not even tasting it comes close, as any person who’s had a head cold can tell you, after trying to taste a beer without a working sense of smell.

The study itself, Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli, will be published in the journal Science. Here’s the abstract:

Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated. We determined the resolution of the human sense of smell by testing the capacity of humans to discriminate odor mixtures with varying numbers of shared components. On the basis of the results of psychophysical testing, we calculated that humans can discriminate at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. This is far more than previous estimates of distinguishable olfactory stimuli. It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.

It will be very interesting to see if further studies corroborate this finding, but frankly it makes a lot of sense (no pun intended).

Science also has a short interview with Andreas Keller, one of the scientists who worked on the study, where he explains some of the reasons his team thinks that their study has shown we’re capable of so many more aromas than previously thought.

Craft Beer Growth Continues Rapid Acceleration In 2013

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The Brewers Association today released the preliminary numbers for beer sales last year. I thought last years numbers were great, but the 2013 numbers look unbelievable, and accelerate the momentum for craft beer. The preliminary numbers indicate that “craft brewers saw an 18 percent rise in volume, representing a total of 15.6 million barrels, and a 20 percent increase in retail dollar value.”

Here’s more on the news, from the press release:

In 2013, craft brewers reached 7.8 percent volume of the total U.S. beer market, up from 6.5 percent the previous year. Additionally, craft dollar share of the total U.S. beer market reached 14.3 percent in 2013, as retail dollar value from craft brewers was estimated at $14.3 billion, up from $11.9 billion in 2012.

As for the runaway brewery count, the number of breweries races closer to 3,000.

The number of operating breweries in the U.S. in 2013 totaled 2,822, with 2,768 of those considered craft, demonstrating that craft breweries make up 98 percent of all U.S. operating breweries. This count includes 413 new brewery openings and 44 closings. Combined with already existing and established breweries and brewpubs, craft brewers provided 110,273 jobs, an increase of almost 2,000 from the previous year.

And here’s all of that good news, fermented into a colorful infographic.

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Offline Sales Traffic Drivers

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Earlier today there was an interesting infographic tweeted by the Wall Street Journal, by their WSJ Graphics division, entitled Offline Sales, showing how “retailers rely heavily on consumer products to drive store traffic.” In the top spot was “food and alcohol,” with 99% of $884 billion in sale made in stores, and only 1% online. That’s not too much of a surprise, as it’s somewhat a pain in the neck to order food or alcohol online, and in some states it’s even illegal (for the alcohol, at least). Even where it is, it’s prohibitively expensive for most beers. The majority of beers bought online, I’d guess, are of the rarer, hard-to-find variety. But the chart also suggests that beer is therefore very important to retailers trying to persuade customers to get off their laptops and drive down to their brick and mortar stores.

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Beer Excise Tax Rates by State, 2014

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The last time I saw the Tax Foundation look at beer excise taxes was in 2009, but recently they updated their map of Beer Excise Tax Rates by State, for 2014, taking into account several states who changed their rates over that time.

Tax treatment of beer varies widely across the U.S., ranging from a low of $0.02 per gallon in Wyoming to a high of $1.17 per gallon in Tennessee. Check out today’s map below to see where your state lies on the beer tax spectrum.

A few state rates changed since we released last year’s data. Namely, North Carolina’s tax per gallon increased by nine cents, and there were slight increases in Arkansas (+2 cents), Kentucky (+2 cents), and Washington, D.C. (+2 cents). Washington’s tax decreased by 50 cents, and Minnesota’s number was one cent lower than last year. (See the 2013 edition of our Facts & Figures booklet for last year’s numbers.)

There isn’t much consistency on how state and local governments tax beer. This rate can include fixed-rate per volume taxes; wholesale taxes that are usually a percentage of the value of the product; distributor taxes (usually structured as license fees but are usually a percentage of revenues); retail taxes, in which retailers owe an extra percentage of revenues; case or bottle fees (which can vary based on size of container); and additional sales taxes (note that this measure does not include general sales tax, only those in excess of the general rate).

The Beer Institute points out that “taxes are the single most expensive ingredient in beer, costing more than labor and raw materials combined.” They cite an economic analysis that found “if all the taxes levied on the production, distribution, and retailing of beer are added up, they amount to more than 40% of the retail price” (note that this may include general sales tax and federal beer taxes, which are not included in the estimates displayed on the map). Last year, we did a podcast with Lester Jones, Chief Economist at the Beer Institute on tax treatment of beer, which is worth a listen.

Beer-Excise-Tax-Rates-2014

Top Beers In The US By State 2008-2013

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Here’s an interesting piece of data. There’s not a lot of background for it, but from what I can tell it’s an interactive map showing the “Top Beers In The US By State 2008-2013,” by Perlinnoise. Since it was tweeted by RateBeer, I can only assume it’s based on their ratings over that six year period of time, from their top 100 list. Only 18 states had beers that made the list, and from the interactive map, holding your cursor over a colored state brings up a list of the beers that made their list. It also includes the number from each state. California has the most, by a wide margin, at 128. Second is Michigan, with 46, followed by Indiana (24), Florida (19), Colorado (18) and Oregon (17). Unfortunately, one glitch with the interactive map is that you can actually scroll down and see the whole list of beers from California.

perlinnoise

Beer Institute Counts 3,699 American Breweries

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The Beer Institute recently announced a new, much higher, total number of breweries operating in the U.S. using a different method of calculation. While the Brewers Association looks at each company to count the number of breweries, the Beer Institute took a different approach. They instead looked at each individual working brewery, so while before a company with two separate breweries would be counted as one brewery, the new total sees two working breweries and counts each one. Using that method, there are nearly 3,700 licensed brewers making beer for thirsty Americans. In 2013, 948 new permits were issued to companies opening breweries, increasing the total number by nearly one-quarter. The majority of the new breweries opened last year were brewpubs.

The breakdown by state reveals that, no surprise, California has more breweries than any other state, by a wide margin. The next closest state, Washington, has half as many breweries. In fact, just four states — California, Washington, Colorado and Oregon — accounts for one-third of all breweries in the United States.”

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According to the Beer Institute:

“We have tracked the industry since our preceding trade association was first founded in 1862, and there’s a story in these numbers. Beer is constantly evolving in the U.S., with more small brewers than ever before, more brands being introduced by national brewers and growing interest in imports,” said Chris Thorne, vice president of communications at the Beer Institute.

“There was a long period of consolidation in the industry, but during that same period, beer became the most popular drink in America. Today we’re seeing more small brewers than ever before. But consumers are also increasingly less loyal to beer, and that is a challenge for every brewer of any size,” Thorne added.

bi-active-breweries-2014

Why Some Drunks Fight

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You’ve undoubtedly seen a belligerent drunk at some point in your life. Perhaps you’ve even been one. There are some people who seemingly turn angry when they drink. Some of them get into fights, maybe start one in a bar, the classic mythical bar fight where chairs start flying and everybody joins in because everyone who drinks is looking for a fight, right? Watch almost any western movie to see this in action. It’s so taken for granted, it’s a cliche. I’m sure bar fights occur, but honestly I’ve never seen a full on fight like you see in the movies. And I’ve been to more bars in my lifetime than the average person, I’d warrant. There are apparently people who become angry after a few too many drinks. And some of them probably do start a fight. There are certainly people like this, and I’ve always thought of them simply as “bad drunks.”

Thomas-after-the-poker-game

My stepfather was one. He turned mean on a bender, and he was violent and very, very scary, especially to a young sheltered suburban punk like me, ages 5 to 15 or so. But I quickly figured out all on my own that it wasn’t the alcohol that made him so belligerent. He was already that way, thanks to his own trials and tribulations growing up. Not to mention he was raised in a place/culture/family/time when/where not only weren’t men supposed to show their feelings, they weren’t supposed to actually have any. That’s not an excuse, just a fact. He walked around seething, all bottled up, and used alcohol to release his demons. It seemed to help him, of course, but it was devastating to anyone around him, especially me and my mother, who was too co-dependent to do anything about it. But the next morning, the relief he’d felt was all too brief, and the pressure would start building again to its next inevitable violent conclusion; a day, a week or even a month later.

You’d think after such unpleasant experiences that I might have sworn off alcohol entirely. But as I said, I knew it wasn’t the alcohol that made him that way. It was people and society who were convinced and believed that alcohol made him angry that allowed him to continue to be a nasty drunk, and not have to take any responsibility for his actions. It was just the alcohol, they’d say. Prohibitionists today continue this lie, and it’s one of things I so hate about them, by claiming it’s the alcohol that causes harm. But it’s not. And every time they spout that meme I wonder how many more kids are made to suffer by spouses and family and a community who listen to them, and do honestly believe that were it not for the drinking, Dad would be fine, a model citizen.

But look around you. Not everybody who drinks turns angry. In fact, most don’t. That’s how I know it’s not the alcohol. Because I can get rip-roaring drunk, and never become angry. Believe me I’ve tried, but it never happens. I get more talkative, if that’s possible, and more philosophical and sleepy. And most people I know react similarly, at least insofar as they don’t start a bar fight every time they take a drink. That’s also my biggest problem with AA and similar programs that preach that people are powerless, in effect not responsible. They often claim otherwise, but turning the superhero credo on its head; with great powerless comes a great ability to shirk responsibility for one’s actions. And so it’s the alcohol that ends up with the blame, not the person who abused it. Why society allows that is apparently complicated and is something I frankly don’t completely understand.

A German study published late last year in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, entitled Alcohol-Related Aggression — Social and Neurobiological Factors sought to examine “Alcohol-related aggression and violence” and begins by noting that “nearly one in three violent acts in Germany was committed under the influence of alcohol (31.8%).” But that also means that over two-thirds of violent acts are committed by people who were not drinking or drunk. Maybe there are other factors we should be looking at as to why people are violent? And it also doesn’t answer the question of how many violent acts were prevented because someone had a drink after a tough day and that relaxed and calmed them.

Curiously, when reported on here in the U.S., the reference to this being a German statistic was removed, making it a much broader, universal statement. For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, Science Daily and Medical News Today (MNT) all begin their coverage with the same sentence. “One-third of all acts of violence are perpetrated under the influence of alcohol.” So first of all, it was actually less than one-third and secondly, that statistic was confined to Germany. Not exactly an auspicious beginning for there to be two errors in the very first sentence. The MNT headline itself is misleading, stating that “Social and neurobiological factors linked to alcohol-related aggression,” while the study didn’t confirm a link so much as examine the “causes of alcohol-related aggression.” But by using that headline, it changes the tone of how you read the entire article.

Emily-Smith-vertigo-bar-fight

But that just seems like prohibitionist interests bending it to their purposes, because the study itself is interesting, and worth a read. The whole article is online, and there’s also a pdf you can download. It’s not so much a scientific study but a survey, or review, of all of the previous studies and literature about alcohol-induced aggression. In the abstract, they describe their process as follows.

In this review, based on a selective search for pertinent literature in PubMed, we analyze and summarize information from original articles, reviews, and book chapters about alcohol and aggression and discuss the neurobiological basis of aggressive behavior.

What they found was that “[o]nly a minority of persons who drink alcohol become aggressive,” which is what we all know. There appears to be evidence that “neurobiological factors” can account for the aggression, but that possibly more importantly, so can “personal expectations of the effects of alcohol, on prior experience of violent conflicts, and on the environmental conditions of early childhood, especially social exclusion and discrimination.”

They cite the World Health Organization and several other studies, and meta-studies, that indicate how many crimes, many of them violent, are committed by drunk people. But for many, if not most, of these, they specifically cite “acute alcohol intoxication” which is not the same thing as having a few beers, drinking responsibly in moderation. In addition, it’s also worse for people with “chronic alcohol consumption and alcohol dependence” issues. So again, this is a subset of all drinkers. But most American prohibitionist groups lump everybody who drinks together into one group, insisting all drinking is bad and leads to all sorts of trouble and mischief, taking a simplistic approach that treats all drinkers the same. But the Germans found things aren’t so simple.

Both clinical observations and scientific data have shown that the manifestation of alcohol-related aggression is by no means uniform. Rather, it is becoming clear that individual differences play a key role. In addition, more recent models are moving away from single-factor causes and towards multifactorial sets of conditions.

So what are the various factors that contribute to someone drinking and turning violent? They identify four.

  • Executive functions such as the control and inhibition of ongoing behavior
  • Information processing
  • Attentional control
  • Individual differences in expectation of the effect of alcohol consumption (e.g. “Alcohol makes me aggressive.”)

They also add to that list, Social learning, described as “experiences with friends or relatives who exhibit aggressive behavior under the influence of alcohol, [and] play a key role in the onset of alcohol-related aggression.”

But looking through the entire survey, what seems clear is that it’s the “expectations of effect” that has the most influence. And that brings us back to everyday experience. People believe that they can act differently under the influence of alcohol, and so they do. Society also expects that people will act differently under the influence of alcohol and so they don’t impose social penalties or ostracize that behavior. In many cases, it’s not just tolerated and excused but forgiven, and therefore enabled. By letting drunks essentially get away with bad behavior, it leads to a society that creates incentives for acting badly. That’s why I hate bad drunks so much. They ruin it for the rest of us. Bad drunks are what prohibitionists believe we all become when we have a beer, any amount of beer, despite the massive evidence to the contrary.

Other “individual factors” they identified “with an increased probability of alcohol-induced aggression” include:

  • Sex (men have a higher risk of reacting aggressively following acute alcohol consumption)
  • Personality traits such as sensation-seeking
  • High underlying irritability
  • Lack of empathy

They add. “Maladaptive reasons for drinking, such as drinking as a coping mechanism, and the assumption that aggression is an acceptable form of social interaction, also play a major role.”

So essentially, they’re saying it’s personality-driven, which has been my experience, as well. If you have a propensity to act aggressively toward women, alcohol will give you the excuse to act that out. If you’re seeking sensational experiences, alcohol will give you the excuse to act that out. If you’re already irritable or angry, alcohol will give you the excuse to act more violently and aggressive. If you already lack empathy, alcohol will give you the excuse to care about other people even less than you normally do. And as long as that’s “an acceptable form of social interaction,” then people will continue to do so because they can use getting drunk as an excuse to be a douchebag.

bar_fight_by_thanostsilis

In the conclusion they sum this up. “Individuals who find it difficult to inhibit their behavior and delay gratification and who have problems enduring unpleasant feelings seem to become aggressive more frequently after consuming alcohol.” And this happens even more often to people who are “alcohol-dependent” but curiously is “not associated with alcohol dependence, including chronic alcohol dependence, per se.” I can’t help but think that’s because in such cases being drunk is used as the excuse to act badly, knowing that society — friends, family, etc. — will let them get away with it because they too have the expectation that the alcohol is causing them to behave badly, and that they shouldn’t, or can’t, be held responsible for their actions.

As this article makes clear, while there are genetic and neurobiological factors that in some people can lead to abusing alcohol, the majority of the problem stems from social conventions. Because the neurobiological causes can be identified, dealt with and treated. The social structures that allow people to use getting drunk as an excuse for bad behavior is a lot harder to change, because it’s so well-rooted in how our society functions. And it doesn’t help that addiction organizations and medical groups that treat this problem also enable this behavior by accepting it as dogma. And it doesn’t help that prohibitionist groups believe it, too, insisting that it’s the alcohol that’s causing the harm, not the individuals using, or abusing, it. By targeting the product that some people are abusing, instead of those people, they’re essentially allowing and even making the conditions more attractive to anyone using alcohol to continue using that as their excuse. After all, they must think, “I can’t be responsible for acting like an asshole, I was drunk. The booze made me do it, I couldn’t help myself.” And that, I think, is why some drunks fight. Because we as a society let them.

We don’t need tougher laws, or more police, or roadside checkpoints, or more prohibitionist propaganda. If everybody with a friend or family member who’s a bad drunk stopped letting them get away with it, this problem would be substantially reduced, whittled down to the people physically unable to control themselves. And we could then get those people the help they need. I say don’t tolerate bad drunks, let them know you don’t accept alcohol as an excuse for their bad behavior. They’ll either stop, or they’ll figure out they really do have a health problem that needs addressing. Social pressure and the threat of ostracization are usually a much more effective method of changing behaviors.

Drinking should be about the enjoyment of life, and responsible, moderate consumption should enhance what’s good in our lives already. Whether it’s improving a meal, conversation with friends at a pub, or celebrating a holiday or personal achievement, beer can heighten and complement those experiences, from the ordinary to the very special. That’s the goal of beer with flavor, that people drink less, but better. Who could fight with that?