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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Eleven things I learned this Dry January


I can have a drink again the day after tomorrow. I might do, I might not. OK, I probably will. The lure of the hop, the anticipation of the crisp smack of the bittersweet apple, have been mostly dormant for the past four weeks, but now I'm so close to the finishing line, I'm getting thirsty again. I probably won't drink the day after. Because whatever I do, and whenever I have my first drink, I won't be going back to my old habits - not completely. Here are eleven things about drinking that I've learned over the last month and want to remember for the rest of the year.

1. Not drinking is amazing
In the first few days, you notice the better sleep, the higher energy, the greater clarity of thought. My blood pressure, which landed me in hospital in October, is now verging on normal. After a couple of weeks, you realise you're thinking differently. You're more in the moment, more thoughtful, more connected. This is not always pleasant. But like the physical benefits, it does feel like it's doing you some good. My old mate, star of Three Sheets and Australian beer legend David Downie likes this side of things even more than he liked beer. This short account of his own experiment parts company with my own but has much in common, and is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a drink, whether you ultimately share his path or not.


2. I’m not an alcoholic
No physical withdrawal symptoms, no cravings, no obsessive dreaming of drink, no problems being around people who are drinking. I drink for many reasons: because I'm stressed, because I'm relaxed, because I'm happy, because I'm sad, because I'm with people, because I'm alone. The times I've missed drinking the most are times relaxing with friends who are drinking, and that's good because that's when I should be drinking - something I can't say so easily about some of the other times. I stumbled once, at a drinks industry event where the invitation clearly specified there were soft drinks available, and was wrong. Not even being able to get a glass of water, I cracked. But I drank less than I normally would. I didn't feel compelled to carry on afterwards. I simply got back to not drinking the next day.

3. Many people are defensive around their own drinking
If you're angry or annoyed with someone who is taking time off drinking, maybe you need to ask yourself why.

4. Each to their own
I take a month off every year because I drink heavily over the other eleven months. If you only drink a couple of days a week, or you stop after one glass, or any other permutation which means you are genuinely pretty sure you're not overdoing it, you probably don't need to do a #Dryathlon, whatever misinformation bodies like Alcohol Concern might spread. Your relationship with your alcohol consumption is your own business alone (unless it reaches a stage where your actions harm other people).

5. The eternal party you think you're missing out on is not really happening
The social media networks we create for ourselves mean that every few minutes someone is telling us about the awesome beer they are currently enjoying. If we're not drinking an awesome beer, we can feel like we're the only ones missing out. But it's just an illusion created by lots of people all drinking at different times and in different places. Not a single one of them is partying as hard as the aggregation of them makes it seem.

6. It’s an age thing
Lots of people drink heavily in their late teen and twenties. It's a cultural norm, and it's good for you. Lots of people then drastically reduce their drinking when they have kids and settle down and need to be sober enough to drive everywhere, or simply feel that propping up the bar every night is not a good look for someone with a family waiting at home. At some point, the childless among us need to stop drinking like 24 year-olds and recognise that, like fashion and hair styles, there's a different way of doing it when you're older.

7. It is possible to socialise without drink
It just takes some getting used to. Alcohol is a welcome social lubricant in many situations. Some of those can be almost as good without that lubricant. A scattered few might even be better.

8. Elderflower cordial is the hophead's methadone
Nice and strong, with sparkling water, it seems I'm still a five-pints-a-night man. See also: spicy Virgin Mary, various proper loose leaf herbal teas.

9. The anti-drink lobby is in complete disarray
There's nothing like a heavy drinker taking a break and being fine with it to illustrate the utter confusion among the anti-drink lobby. Parts of this lobby have mounted a massive campaign to persuade everyone to give up in January. Others say that if you feel the need to do this, it proves you have a problem. Other still say it might be bad for you because it encourages you to drink like a bastard for the rest of the year. I even read one article which tried to argue that an increasing number of people giving up alcohol in January was solid proof of more people drinking to greater excess - yep, that's right - a rise in the number of people not drinking is proof that those people are drinking more. Some people simply drink a lot because they enjoy it, and are not alcoholics, and can stop as and when they need to. The more militant neo-prohibitionists hate this, because it disproves so much of their bullshit about the perils of booze. And that alone is reason enough to go dry for a month.

10. The pro-drink lobby is in complete disarray
As I wrote in a recent Publican's Morning Advertiser piece, pubs don't always cover themselves in glory in January. Heavy drinkers provide pubs with most of their profits over the year as a whole. Many of them go further than that by blogging, tweeting and otherwise spreading the word about how great their locals are. Often, these same people then get abuse when they decide to put their health before the pub's profit for just a few weeks. That's just plain nasty. Pubs are very quick to say they offer so much more than beer, and rightly so. If that's true though, it shouldn't be the end of the world if some of your regulars decide to temporarily abstain from alcohol. Maybe if pubs offered a decent range of soft drinks at sensible prices Dry January wouldn't be such a financial problem. We Dryathletes still want to go out and see our friends in the convivial environment we love. 

11. Drinking is amazing
By the second week you start to feel like a cultist praising the virtues of abstention. By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Perhaps a little TOO bright. It's natural and healthy to sometimes want to fuzz the edges and turn the lights down to mood. I've missed that. But I've missed the sensory experience of drinking - the aromas and tastes of good beer, cider, wine, sherry and the occasional malt whisky, and the stories that go with them, the associations they have, the connections they make, the contemplations and flights of fancy they inspire - a whole lot more. Drink is special. It should feel like a treat, not something that's so much a part of your routine that you hardly notice it, let alone appreciate it. 
The end of my Dry January neatly coincides with a trip to Chicago next week for the American national cider conference. While I'm there, I'll be taking in a new Lagunitas brewery opening, visiting Goose Island, and cramming in as many craft beer bars as I possibly can among the many wonderful US craft ciders. When I get back, I'm straight into looking at the drinks finalists for the Food and Farming Awards, then visiting Brew Dog in Aberdeen... and so it goes on. A rich and varied drinking life, and one that I want to be able to enjoy for many years to come.

18 comments:

Peter Brissenden said...

Interesting you mention the elderflower cordial and fizzy water. I have tried to drink a bit less of late for two reasons mainly. Firstly I'm skint, secondly I'm getting fat.

Part of my evening ritual was when I got home, I'd open a beer and stick some music on and cook dinner. I'd have been on the train for an hour and a half and due to my job I'd have probably spent at least 2 hours on the tube. I was stressed and tired. It was a relaxant, a thirst quencher, the ritual of it was comforting.

I switched the beer to fizzy water with a dash of fresh lemon or lime juice a while back and realised something. It wasn't the alcohol I wanted, I was thirsty and something cold, fresh and fizzy was what I wanted. My default setting was beer.

The ritual of getting home and having a drink rather than a beer was enough to collect my thoughts, stop thinking about work and get on with the evening.


Anonymous said...

Good post Pete.

Does alcohol free beer feature in your Dry January? Thoughts on these?

Pete Brown said...

Purely personal opinion? Alcohol free beers just remind me of what I'm missing. It's similar to the relationship between masturbation and sex. I'd rather have a cup of tea.

Glyn Roberts said...

Elderflower cordial is vile but as you say, each to their own, my own being Sainsburys mixed fruit cordial (very low-brow and uncraft, I know), I find myself drinking gallons of the stuff when i'm at home.
Uninterestingly, I've found myself drinking less of late without really thinking about it, must be an age thing.

Alan said...

I am way down in my intake due to a lot of factors including disinterest in the sameness, health and finding more interest in writing about beer. Hard to wade through 1920 booze regulations even a little hungover. Clear headed weekends are way more fun. Yet... perry.

Velky Al said...

I am looking forward to my first pint of the year sometime on Saturday night.

Perhaps I am being perverse but I don't want it to be anything other than the best bitter I brewed with Three Notch'd Brewing here in Charlottesville, even though I have a shift at Starr Hill Brewing's tasting room all day as well!

This is the 7th year I have done a dry January, and it has got to the point where I actively look forward to month of better sleep, waking up without a minging hangover (not helped by American brewing's aversion to session beer), and generally feeling healther (the lost stone helps that as well!).

The one big thing that I take from Dry January is that when the beer isn't there I don't miss it, or really even think about it much, beyond brewing projects. I like to think that means my relationship with booze is healthy and like you, I am not an alcoholic, which is a wonderful thing having grown up in the Highlands.

Phil said...

Personally, I'm defensive about my drinking because I'm a puritan, & not really at ease with pleasure or doing things to please myself. (Is it cold in here? Naah, I'll be fine. Shall I tell my son his music's too loud? Naah, I'll get used to it. And so on.) So it's taken a certain amount of effort for me to reach the stage of casually, un-selfconsciously enjoying a drink most nights of the week - and it's still not entirely un-selfconscious; at the back of my mind there's always the fear that I'll go too far and become an alcoholic. I still do a quick weekly-units tally every so often. (Most weeks it comes out somewhere between 15 and 25. Over the last seven days... 30ish, I think, but that's including a beer festival. I'm really not a big drinker.) Intellectually I'm "genuinely pretty sure [I'm] not overdoing it"; emotionally, anything more than a small sherry before Sunday lunch seems like reckless indulgence.

So when people start talking about how great it is to cut down, I shudder and think There but for the grace of God... I could so easily cut down on the beer, or even cut it out (I gave up coffee for a month once, and cut cheese out for about a year); I'd feel virtuous, and there'd be one less pleasure in my life. (Never giving up coffee again, though, I'll tell you that.)

Another thing that might make people feel defensive - and it's really a stylistic point - is the way you generalise the experience: After a couple of weeks, you realise you're thinking differently ... By the third week, you start to notice that everything is bright and shiny and hard. Would anyone get those benefits? (Would I?) I admit, I'd be glad to get the good night's sleep which I miss on the two or three nights a month when I drink more than a couple of pints, but otherwise I really don't think alcohol's having that much effect on me - and the thought that it might be (and that I could only really find out by giving up for weeks on end) sets the siren call of virtuous self-denial going again.

In short, I'm glad it worked for you, but I'm looking forward to getting into February and talking about beer again.

Pete Brown said...

Hi Phil,

Me too!

Re generalising? Fair point, I can't speak for everyone. But I have spoken to various people who have had very similar experiences, and haven't spoken to anyone who has said, "Huh? It was nothing like that for me."

Alan said...

No generalizing about it. Even the twisty tuvry world of beer discussion has to acknowledge medical science, Phil. If you have not come to a point that the beer affects you medically, that is great but, like Pete, as a beer writer I can confirm that the blood test don't lie and steps like I have taken for a few years do lead to the benefits Pete describes. When I read Pete put himself in the hospital
I was not surprised given the regular face of craft brewers, sales reps, writers and customers including many which are not as healthy as they might be. Hints of jaundice, bad complexion, fatigue, etc. Like drunk driving, this is a topic craft beer avoids uncomfortably.

Gary Gillman said...

All well put. Really when you think of it, a case can be made strongly for the abstention life: probably more strongly than for the bibulous one. Alcohol is one of those inherited (in Western and some other mores) things, not inevitable, not eternal, not anyone's friend really given the risks it entails. Still, many will choose to use it because it assists sociability; takes the edge of things sometimes; has an interesting history; and/or affords intellectual stimulation through reading and writing about it. Everything comes down to how much, one has to watch the amount and the frequency, always…

Gary

Thurston McCrew said...

I generally go Monday-Friday without a drink or a three-skinner.
It's a bollocks,of course,but something which eventually becomes necessary with age.
That first pint on a Friday night is heaven.
Likewise the first doobie which I normally roll on a Wednesday and stare at longingly for two days.
In a peverse way I gain pleasure from abstinence.

winepredator said...

You make a number of interesting points; thanks. For a number of years, I went dry in August before going to Burning Man. I also cut out sugar, flour, meat, and caffeine so it was more of a cleanse. An amazing experience. But since I started wine blogging (in 2008), I have upped my consumption of wine all year! I may try #dryjanuary next year, but I am definitely going to try the elderflower cordial and sparkling water for that time when it is too late for coffee and too early for wine-thirty.

Curmudgeon said...

There's an overwhelming amount of evidence that moderate drinking actually produces better health outcomes than total abstention.

Surely in the long term the way to have a healthy relationship with alcohol is to drink in moderation and have a couple of days off each week rather than alternating overdoing it and then avoiding it entirely in a fit of guilt.

What individuals choose to do themselves is entirely their own business. But turning "Dry January" into a public campaign is bad news both for the pub trade and for a sensible approach to alcohol.

David Nicholls said...

It does in the end become a ritual, especially if you have a stressy job and commut, and I agree %100 with Curmudgeon.

I do though like Pete enjoy the tastes and aroma's of beer, but too much of a good thing can become just routine.

Pete Brown said...

Don't think I've said anything here that disagrees with what Mudge says. In fact I've made the same points myself either in this piece or a previous one.

The Beer Wrangler said...

Couldn't agree more about elderflower cordial. When I was in my latter-mid 20s my girlfriend had had enough of my drinking, and rightly so, I was on a path to possible alcoholism. Elderflower cordial and sparkling water saved me! Delicious too! Now where's my bottle of St Germain elderflower liqueur?

Birkonian said...

The IOS are at it again today quoting the £3.5 billion 'cost' of alchohol abuse.

Birkonian said...

Sorry, my comment should have been left in the thread about biased anti-alcohol reporting. My brain has obviously been affected by an excess of alcohol.