Category Archives: Not that anyone asks me

Stay dry

Cross-posted from The Gaping Silence. Long (5000 words).

1. It’s great when you’re straight, yeah

I have a beer most nights – just the one, usually. I have one dry day every week and often two, and tot up my weekly units every so often (the number’s never been at all alarming). But I drink most nights, and certainly most weeks – well, all weeks. I don’t think I’ve gone as long as ten days without a drink since an ill-advised ‘detox’ attempt back in the 90s (three long weeks of muzzy caffeine withdrawal); before that you’d probably have to go back to my teens or early 20s.

I’m not a heavy drinker and never have been; I’ve never worried I was overdoing it, never felt I ought to cut down, never been tempted to go Dry for January or whatever. (I have occasionally worried that I might overdo it; this may be connected to my lack of anxiety about my actual consumption, by a kind of precautionary anxiety principle.) If I did try and abstain for as long as a month, mind you, I think I’d find it tough. Pete has written a couple of times about his own personal ‘dry January’ routine (“I try to go dry for January every year, and have done so for years – since long before it became a piece of nonsense to beat people with”). His account makes it sound – as Guy Debord wrote of his own alcoholism – émouvant mais difficile:

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.

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.

Whether that ‘you’ would include me – whether somebody who averages (say) one and a half beers per day is limescaling his sensorium in this way, such that three weeks’ abstention would give his system a hard reset and make the world turn dayglo – is an interesting question; I tend to think the answer’s No, but I’m not in a hurry to find out. That small point aside, it’s clear from Pete’s post that it was quite a long month. Which is no surprise – alcohol is a normal part of most adults’ lives: in a 2011 government survey, two-thirds of men and 54% of women claimed (admitted?) to have had a drink in the previous week. For anyone other than a very occasional drinker, I think a month would be plenty. Admittedly, alcohol is less normal that it has been – in 1998, a similar survey put the drink-in-previous-week figures at 75% of men and 59% of women; in another recent survey, only 39% of under-16s reported ever having drunk alcohol, the lowest figure this survey has ever recorded. But it’s normal for all that; after all, giving up alcohol for a month wouldn’t be something you do for charity if it were something you’d do anyway.

So how about going cold turkey for four months?

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor if they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme. The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing to see if it contains alcohol. If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine.

It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days, and the tag will test them to see if they flout the ban. Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support. The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnsons, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending, ease pressure on the police and courts, and make streets safer.

A salutary initiative which will help some potentially dangerous problem drinkers clean up their act (the view of Deborah Orr in the Guardian)? Or should we be more sceptical?

2. Your weakness is none of my business

The London pilot was provided for in section 77 of LASPO; on its completion the scheme will either be rolled out nationally or repealed altogether. (Section 77(7) is an interesting bit of drafting; I don’t remember seeing an “if this doesn’t work, let’s just forget about it” clause in an Act of Parliament before.)

There are two ways of reading the pilot: it depends whether you see it as having a good chance of success, or as being highly likely to fail. My initial reaction was the latter. If you put me (or, I venture to suggest, you, dear reader) on a total four-month alcohol ban, the result would be a foregone conclusion; as for inflicting a scheme like this on repeat alcohol offenders, that would just be setting them up to fail sooner rather than later. Repeat offenders are people with problems, if that’s not stating the blindingly obvious – you don’t persist in putting yourself at risk of arrest if you’ve got lots of other, less liberty-threatening options. Repeat alcohol-related offenders, specifically, are more likely than not to be people with a problematic relationship with alcohol – and, since alcohol problems tend to involve compulsive activity and impaired judgment, people with alcohol problems are more likely than not to breach controls imposed on them. (Although if candidates for this scheme do have drink problems, they’ll have to deal with them on their own. A nasty detail here is that the scheme excludes anyone whose problems amount to dependency, hence qualifying them for support as well as for control measures.)

If the scheme works as described – if an alarm goes off every time a tagged offender has a drink, leading automatically to the decision that the offender’s alcohol abstinence order has been breached – the scheme will “reduce alcohol-related reoffending [and] ease pressure on the police and courts” by one means only: by making 150 offenders’ lives a bit less pleasant, subjecting them to stress and anxiety for a while, then recalling them to court and rubber-stamping a prison sentence. (Admittedly, the scheme is not predicated on prison sentences for breach; alternative sentences are available, for example a fine. But the idea that imposing fines on repeat alcohol-related offenders might deter them from reoffending rests on rather unrealistic assumptions about human nature.) Overall, its effect on those 150 people will be to interfere with their lives, imposing technologically-mediated humiliation and harassment, before stigmatising them as failures and disrupting their lives still further. This isn’t rehabilitation, it’s sadism.

If the scheme is intended to work as it is described here, it is being undertaken either naively (in which case it will fail horribly) or cynically. And if it is being undertaken cynically, it represents a peculiarly debased and unlawlike use of the criminal justice system: the imposition of behavioural conditions on an offender, in place of a punitive sentence, in the expectation that the offender will breach them and incur a punitive sentence for the breach. This use of criminal penalties will be familiar to anyone who recalls the history of the ASBO: I remember cases where rowdy youths were barred from particular streets, a graffiti-sprayer from using public transport, a suspected drug-runner from sitting in the front passenger seat of a car – in each case, with the force of a criminal offence. In each case, the offender has (ostensibly) had the option of modifying his behaviour and walking free; in each case, the behaviour prohibited is legal and normal for other citizens; in each case, the behaviour modification requirements are impossible to comply with, or not without intrusions into the offender’s daily life so extensive as to greatly reduce his freedom to lead a normal life. Most importantly, in each case the offender is held responsible for any breach and for the penalty attached to it, thus incurring the stigma of indiscipline and recidivism as well as that of law-breaking. Barring repeat drink offenders from drinking – by law – is only a more direct and straightforward version of the same logic. The inference is that problem drinkers – like anti-social youths – are now seen as a subject population, a minority group needing to be controlled for the sake of the majority, and whose own rights can be disregarded.

3. Computer says No

If the scheme is intended to work as described here… But that may be a big If. The Alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirement was added to LASPO after lobbying from a group of American professionals with experience of a similar scheme in South Dakota; one member is Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor of mental health policy and former White House drug advisor. In the South Dakota scheme, Humphreys writes,

[alcohol-related repeat offenders were sentenced] to mandatory sobriety coupled with daily testing. Those who tested positive were arrested immediately and given a modest sanction, such as a night in jail. In the 24/7 sobriety model, a slow, inconsistent and capricious system of monitoring offenders was transformed into one that provided swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking.

The effects were dramatic. A stunning 99.4 per cent of the over five million breathalyser tests administered to offenders have been negative. Despite the punishment for drinking being modest, its certainty and swiftness motivated many previously recalcitrant offenders to change their ways.

Research by the RAND Corporation – a US-based non-profit global policy think tank – found that 24/7 sobriety dropped repeat drink driving arrests by 12 per cent. The same study also yielded a pleasant surprise: domestic violence arrests dropped by 9 per cent, despite not being a focus of the programme. … This week, under the leadership of Mayor Johnsons and his team, a pilot of the programme will be launched in South London. Leaping the pond will come with some challenges, particularly around delivering sanctions swiftly within the constraints of British law, but local tailoring of innovations is always an essential part of making them spread.

It works, in other words. The figures are in: not only do offenders comply with the stay-straight provisions more than 99% of the time, the effects can be seen in the crime figures.

What should we make of this? I’ve got three comments, of increasing generality; let’s say, one technical, one analytical and one philosophical. The technical comment is this: I can’t believe it. I’ve looked at the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Program Evaluation Report (PDF here; more information and links here); it tells me that, when 4,009 drink driving offenders were ordered to report to a judge twice a day to be breathalysed, for periods averaging three months, 98.1% of those tests were negative and only 0.3% positive (1.3% of tests did not take place because the participant was excused; 0.3% of tests were unauthorised no-shows). Pace Humphreys, this isn’t “a stunning 99.4 per cent of … over five million breathalyser tests”, for two reasons. Firstly, the 4,009 offenders in the sample took 817,926 tests (an average of 204 apiece); I’m not sure where the ‘five million’ figure comes from. Secondly, the figure of 99.4 per cent includes the 1.3 per cent of tests ‘excused’ and excludes the 0.3 per cent of no-shows. The real positive rate is the total of positive tests as a proportion of the tests taken, or 98.1/(98.1+0.3), which works out as a (stunning) 99.7% pass rate. In the course of their participation in the programme, 2,659 of the 4,009 participants – slightly less than two-thirds – had no negative tests at all. (These are convicted drink drivers, remember, being breath-tested twice a day for a period of months.) Of the remaining 1,350, between 584 and 802 (between 14% and 20%) had precisely one negative test; the number who had four or more negative tests is somewhere between 131 (one in 31) and 267 (one in 15). (The published figures lump together unauthorised missed tests and negative tests as ‘Failures’, making it difficult to derive the exact number of participants who had a certain number of negative tests.)

These figures seem to represent a level of behaviour modification which I find, literally, incredible. The programme’s advocates argue that the novelty of this outcome is related to the novelty of its key innovation, the use of those “swift, certain and fair sanctions” – if people know that one drink will infallibly earn them a night in the cells, they’re strongly motivated to stay clean. Maybe so (I’ll say a bit more about this approach further down). Even so, purely based on my knowledge of human nature, I find it very hard to imagine any combination of rewards and incentives having a 99.7% success rate in modifying entrenched behaviour, in any population (imprisoned populations included). Or perhaps I should say, based on my knowledge of British (European?) human nature. I have just as hard a time imagining the participants in such a scheme meekly turning up to be breathalysed 98.4% of the time – again, whatever the incentives and whoever (and wherever) the participants were – but that certainly appears to have happened in South Dakota. It’s a cultural difference, perhaps; when it comes to criminal justice agencies, the British (and British law-breakers in particular) just don’t respect their authority – or not the way that South Dakotans do. (“I thought they were big on liberty over there?” – my wife.)

With regard to the London pilot the point about showing up is moot – the testing is to be carried out by an ankle bracelet, replacing the stigma and inconvenience of twice-daily reporting with the stigma and humiliation of wearing a shackle that spies on you. But the point about the near-as-dammit 100% negative test rate, and the seemingly total behavioural transformation brought about by the programme, is absolutely key – and I think there’s a genuine case for saying that, like a Communist bloc election result, these figures are just too good. A clue of sorts is provided by the RAND research referred to by Humphreys – presented, in the form of a paper by Beau Kilmer, to the ISSDP conference mentioned earlier. In the published version of the paper, Kilmer and his colleagues (Nancy Nicosia, Paul Heaton and Greg Midgette) write:

More than 17,000 individuals participated in the 24/7 Sobriety Project between 2005 and 2010 and their tests indicated that there were approximately 2.25 million days without a detected alcohol violation. This does not mean that there was absolutely no drinking on those days. Rather, it provides support for a reduction in the incidence of heavy drinking among a population with a history of problem drinking.

Emphasis added. Perhaps the South Dakota breathalysers weren’t all that sensitive; perhaps the scheme operated, in practice, like a benign version of the Philadelphia Lie Detector, scaring offenders into cleaning up their act without, for the most part, actually detecting whether they had done or not. The tiny minority of negative tests might be accounted for by the tiny number of occasions when participants turned up with a really substantial amount of alcohol in their system, e.g. still drunk from the night before. The use of breathalysers to carry out the twice-daily test raises the question of what level of blood alcohol concentration constituted a positive result; if the standard DUI level of 0.08% was being used, this would be entirely compatible with participants maintaining a relatively normal level of consumption of alcohol – which in turn would make that 99.7% pass rate considerably less surprising.

This kind of approach is not planned for the London trial, however. The Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement Toolkit produced by the Mayor’s Office (downloadable here) notes:

[LASPO] allows the court to specify that the offender cannot drink more than a specified amount of alcohol (expressed as the proportion of alcohol in any one or more of the offender’s breath, blood, urine, sweat or by some other means); thus allowing for the possibility of minimal drinking rather than abstinence. For the purpose of the pilot, this provision will not be used and complete abstinence will be enforced.

Sure enough, the statement to be signed by participants in the London trial states baldly “I must not drink any alcohol until my requirement ends.” This, however, raises the question of evidence. The most widely-cited figures for the South Dakota scheme appear to be based on a sample of 4,009 participants who submitted to a twice-daily breath test, which (according to Kilmer et al) did not return a positive result for low levels of alcohol. Generalising these results from South Dakota to South London – a vastly different setting both culturally and legally – is problematic enough. Using a ‘low consumption’ success story to justify a ‘total abstinence’ trial – in a different country, with a different legal system – is problematic in a more fundamental sense; it’s not comparing like with like.

4. He’s got ’em on the list

Still, the effectiveness of the South Dakota pilot is proven; there’s that 12% drop in repeat DUI arrests that we heard about, and the 9% drop in domestic violence arrests. (According to Kilmer et al, after being implemented the programme was rapidly extended to cover arrests for offences other than DUI – specifically including domestic violence – so it’s not quite correct for Humphreys to describe the fall in domestic violence arrests as a ‘pleasant surprise’, a side-benefit of a programme focusing on drink driving.) You can’t argue with the numbers.

Well, maybe not. But on reading the Kilmer et al paper it turns out that the ‘12% drop’ isn’t anything like as simple as a comparison between year 1 and year 2 in area A, or for that matter between area A and area B in year 2. Although the initial five-county pilot of the scheme might have lent itself to the second approach, analysis was made more complicated by the rapid and uncontrolled adoption of the scheme in other counties. The writers’ approach was to make a virtue of necessity, taking arrest data from the 66 counties of South Dakota – all of which had adopted the scheme by the end of 2010 – and calculating the overall extent to which the arrest rate was affected by the introduction of the scheme. The scheme was defined as having been introduced at the point where the numbers in the scheme in a given month first equalled 25% of the county’s average DUI arrests. The much quoted 12% drop is actually an incident rate ratio of 0.883 (p < 0.05), derived from a Poisson regression of five parameters. The outcome (arrest rate) for a given county and time period is assumed to be given by the sum of α, the effects of the scheme itself; β, other known factors associated with the county; γ, “unobservable characteristics of each county that are fixed over time”; δ, “fixed effects for each month in the sample”; and ε, an undefined variable associated with both county and time period (and not referred to in the text).

More data is better than less; in principle a 0.883 regression coefficient is actually more reliable, and hence more informative, than an eyeball comparison of two figures showing a 12% drop. (If you find this counter-intuitive, join the club.) The authors’ approach is also an ingenious way to circumvent the muddying of the waters brought about by the wide adoption of the scheme. But concerns remain, particularly given the relative weakness of the results (the coefficients relating to repeat DUI and domestic violence arrests are the only programme-related results to rise to the level of p < 0.05). What difference might alternative estimates for ‘county’ and ‘month’ effects (β and δ) have made? How did the researchers arrive at values for the unobservable γ or the undefined ε – and what difference might they, in turn, have made? There are also some signs of data-mining and cherry-picking, both in the data presented and in its interpretation. The authors report “no statistically or substantively significant effect of [the programme] on first-time DUI arrests” and “suggestive evidence that it may have reduced reported traffic crashes involving men aged 18 to 40 years”. The coefficient for crashes involving 18- to 40-year-old males is 0.956 (95% CI 0.909-1.006); the figure for first-time DUI is 1.062 (0.955-1.181). One may be positive or null but is probably weakly negative; the other may be negative or null but is probably weakly positive; and neither of the two is statistically significant. In other words, the evidence for an effect on first-time DUI is no weaker than the crash-related evidence, but the effect in this case is positive – which is to say, on an uncharitable reading, this is “suggestive evidence” that the programme may have increased first-time DUI arrests. The single strongest result reported has nothing to do with the programme: according to the data, the Sturgis Rally (an annual motorcycle rally held in and around Sturgis SD) has an effect on repeat DUI arrests of 1.477 (1.330-1.641) and on crashes of 1.642 (1.293-2.086), in both cases with p < 0.001.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that the figures are good. Let’s take it as given that Kilmer et al have shown that the effect of introducing twice-daily-breathalyser-monitored sobriety in county X in month m will be that county X‘s repeat DUI arrest figures, averaged over months m+1…m+n, are 12% lower than they were when averaged over months m-1…mn. Now what? Or rather, now why? What’s the mechanism? I ask this not because failure to say how the effect occurred would call the effect into question – it wouldn’t – but because Kilmer et al do seem to have a specific mechanism in mind. Consider the threshold used to define when the programme had been implemented – when the numbers in the scheme in a given month equalled 25% of the county’s average monthly DUI arrests – and the alternative threshold suggested later in the paper, five scheme participants for every 10,000 population. South Dakota has a population of 825,000, of whom 17,000 were on the programme between 2005 and 2010. This is over 2% of the entire population, and a considerably higher proportion of the population typically involved in DUI offences; Kilmer et al note that, in some counties, more than 10% of men aged between 18 and 40 participated in the programme at some point. Lastly, consider the expansion of the programme following the passage in 2007 of South Dakota House Bill 1072:

The unanimous passage of House Bill 1072 dramatically expanded the 24/7 program. The bill went into effect July 1, 2007, and provided funds to counties that wanted to adopt the program. The new law allowed judges to order anyone they believed had an alcohol problem, pre- or post-conviction, to participate in the program. The law also changed rules for those who lost their license for a repeat DUI offense. It had previously been possible for some of these individuals to receive a permit to drive only to and from work, but these permits were now conditional on 24/7 participation.

So participation could be ordered by a judge without the individual involved being convicted of anything. Moreover, continuing participation could be made a condition for holding a (restricted) driving licence, making participation in the programme more or less a life sentence.

On first reading of the Kilmer et al paper I wondered if a measure for long-term rehabilitation and reform was being assumed to be successful on the basis of a confusion between outcome effects and programme effects. In other words, I wondered if the reduction in repeat DUI arrests might not be a sign of problem drinkers taking the (enforced) opportunity to turn their life around – as in Orr‘s optimistic account – but merely of drinking being temporarily suppressed by the imposition of a stressful and demeaning twice-daily reporting requirement. On re-reading it, I’m not convinced that the authors are even thinking in terms of outcome effects. Got an alcohol problem? Right – you’re on the programme; no drinking until I say so. You’ll get off the programme eventually; if you start causing trouble then, guess what – you’re back on the programme. No alcohol problem now!

5. As sloshed as Schlegel

In technical terms, I think the individual test data can’t possibly show what it appears to show, and hence that it doesn’t give reliable guidance for the London pilot. Analytically, I think the programme as described by Kilmer et al is one of mass behaviour modification rather than criminal justice – the idea seems to be, not to use the programme to help former offenders reform, but to put as many people as necessary through the programme for as long as necessary to bring crime down. This leads into my philosophical concerns about the programme – concerns which remain even if we assume the validity of the test data and the crime drop figures.

Humphreys describes the scheme as delivering “swift, certain and fair sanctions for drinking”; Kilmer and colleagues describe the South Dakota programme as combining “frequent monitoring with swift, certain and modest sanctions for violations”. Swift and certain: you test negative, you’re off to the cells, no ifs, no buts, no phone call, no duty solicitor. What’s the problem? Maybe there isn’t a problem at all – maybe the problem’s with our way of thinking, or the presuppositions of our system?

The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice. The pilot’s weakness is that it could take weeks for action to be brought against offenders who drink while tagged. If an offender breaches the sobriety order, they will first have to be returned to court where further sanctions can be imposed. Imprisonment is only likely to result from persistent non-compliance. This isn’t swift and sure justice, but neither is it the Mayor’s fault – it’s a fundamental weakness in our system of probation which needs fixing.

Opinion polling for the GLA in 2011 found that sobriety orders were popular with the public (well over two thirds supported the idea). Doubtless some will disagree. I recall the horror of a prominent politician, partial to a shandy, on being told that an electronic device might be used to monitor someone’s alcohol consumption. And I wonder how long it will be before the civil libertarians complain that sobriety tags are an egregious breach of human rights…

Thus Nick Herbert MP (Con). (It’s interesting, in passing, to see the reference to ensuring an “instant and decisive penalty”, emphasis added; Humphreys and Kilmer et al both stressed that the near-automatic sanctions for non-compliance were modest.) I think this line of argument needs to be resisted. It’s fundamental, not to “our criminal justice system” but to the rule of law, that the law governs us as free individuals. We obey the law because the law is worth obeying, not because we have personally been commanded to do certain things – still less because we have been threatened with adverse consequences if we do not. To break the law is also a free choice, and one which may be justifiable. To be put on trial is thus to enter a field of judgment, to have our actions ‘tried’ (tested) against the standard of the law; the possibility always exists – however remote it may be in the day-to-day operation of the courts – that it will be the law that blinks. However clear and unambiguous the law may appear to be, the outcome of a trial is never certain; a judge’s guidance may be overruled by a jury verdict; the law itself may be amended by an appeal court judgment.

To say that we are governed by law, then, is to say two things. The first is that the law is a system of rules with certain characteristics – universality, comprehensibility, followability – which make it possible for each one of us to arrange our lives so that we obey it: the law respects our freedom. The second is that those who break the law are not only brought to account but allowed to put their case, protected by certain fundamental safeguards – the rules of procedural justice – which exist to ensure that nobody is unjustly criminalised. The law respects us as free and rational citizens, when we break it as well as when we obey it.

The ‘sobriety tag’ scheme is unlawlike twice over. On one hand, the idea of “fair sanctions for drinking” tends to suggest that drinking should be sanctioned; I wouldn’t have thought this was a route the USA wanted to go down, again. At best it suggests that drinking should be banned for certain, arbitrarily chosen people – as unlawlike a proposal as you could wish for, effectively substituting the rule of individual law-enforcers for the rule of law. On the other, contra Herbert, closing the gap between infraction and sanction is not “swift and sure justice”, or not for any meaning of the word ‘justice’ associated with the law. Any kind of automaticity in declaring somebody a law-breaker – including but not limited to the technological automation delivered by alcohol shackles – subjects the law-breaker to the law, without defence or excuse, in a way that is corrosive to respect for the law (which we are presumably asking those law-breakers to carry on obeying in other areas of their life).

Perhaps the most telling part of Herbert’s comment is his sneering reference to a critical politician being “partial to a shandy”. Herbert himself may be a teetotaller, but he must be aware that the great majority of his fellow-citizens are, in fact, “partial to a shandy” – and as such might have well-grounded concerns in response to the development of technology that enforces total abstention. The unstated minor premise, underlying that two-thirds vote as well as Herbert’s complacency, is that alcohol shackles will never be a threat to us. Herbert’s confident that these measures will only be applied to them, that unruly minority whose behaviour needs controlling – and that we can trust law-enforcers to identify the people to control and modify their behaviour in the right way. (Deborah Orr’s message is much the same, dressed in more liberal language.)

But this isn’t the rule of law. It’s using the law, but using it as a means of controlling a deviant minority (problem drinkers). It’s using the law – in Hegel’s image – like a man raising a stick to a dog.

Feuerbach bases his theory of punishment on threat and thinks that if anyone commits a crime despite the threat, punishment must follow because the criminal was aware of it beforehand. But what about the justification of the threat? A threat presupposes that a man is not free, and its aim is to coerce him by the idea of an evil. But right and justice must have their seat in freedom and the will, not in the lack of freedom on which a threat turns. To base a justification of punishment on threat is to liken it to the act of a man who lifts his stick to a dog. It is to treat a man like a dog instead of with the freedom and respect due to him as a man. But a threat, which after all may rouse a man to demonstrate his freedom in spite of it, discards justice altogether.
Hegel‘s Philosophy of Right, thesis 99.

The world is full of women and men

Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
Misogynist…
– Jake Thackray, “On Again”

[With apologies to Dave, who probably wants to forget any of this ever happened. I’ll try to be brief.]

I was surprised by the post by Emma (or Chris) in reaction to Dave’s now-deleted “Beer Drinking Women Are Not Attractive” post. I was surprised, because I expected to agree wholeheartedly & generally feel that I was in the presence of someone who’d got it. Instead of which, I found phrases like “bit of a tangent” and “was it that bad?” bubbling up, followed closely by “well, maybe, but I wish she’d explain…”

If I have to explain why discriminating in this way is a very bad thing I think my head might actually explode. I could say a lot more on this topic. A LOT MORE.

OK, we’ll skip the explanation.

Anyway, I’ve sat with it & come to the conclusion that the person not getting it was probably me. Here’s the offending passage from Dave’s post:

There were several women drinking beer. Mostly, but not all, by the pint. Generally they didn’t actually register in the “drop dead gorgeous” category, more the “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better” category. Indeed, there might be some sort of inferiority complex, perhaps even the fault of my Mum, that causes the “drop dead gorgeous” category to significantly overlap the “She’s a tart, thinks she’s God’s gift, would be hard work even if I did stand a chance, which is unlikely” category anyway.

Chris (or Emma) zeroed in on the third ‘category’, stressing how discriminatory it is to (mentally) affix labels like ‘would be hard work’ – let alone ‘tart’ – on the basis of appearance. Which is true. But I think when I first read it that particular passage didn’t seem too bad, for two reasons: firstly, it’s acknowledged in a hazy way that labelling women in this way is a problem; and secondly, there are plenty of social situations in which it’s normal to informally triage potential partners in this way into “interesting/attractive/out of my league”, and Dave could be describing one of those. (Never mind Dave’s marital status; we could just say that old mental habits die hard.)

What struck me today, reflecting on this, was that the problem of judging women on their appearance goes further than this scenario – or, to put it another way, that thinking in terms of this scenario is the problem. Look at the second category: “she looks interesting, I’d like to get to know her better”. Men: do you ever look around a group of men and think “he looks interesting, I’d like to get to know him better”, about every single one of them? Of course you don’t – even if they were all interesting blokes (and how could you tell?), why would you want all those new people in your life? (How many more friends do you need?) What you do is look around a group of men and think, “here I am in a group of men”; or “isn’t there anyone here I know?”; or “at least I’m not the youngest/oldest/beardiest person here”. You look around at the group, and you take it as a group of people. But for a group of women – even for the women in a mixed group – the paragraph quoted only has three possibilities: “I want to chat you up”, “I want to chat you up (but I’d be scared)” and “I don’t want to chat you up, definitely not, but I would like to get to know you“. (As men so often do, when they meet women who interest them, in a purely platonic way. I’m sure it happens all the time.)

The underlying assumption – and I really don’t think I’m overthinking this – is that a woman in public is always on show. If you’re good-looking and well turned-out you’ll attract attention, although some of it will be negative (“thinks she’s God’s gift” etc); and if you’re not, then… you’ll attract attention (“she looks interesting”, etc). The option of just being somebody in a group of other somebodies isn’t on the table; that is, the option of just going places and doing stuff, like an ordinary person, and minding your own business until you happen to get talking to somebody else.

I feel a bit bad to be banging on about Dave’s post, not only because he’s taken it down but also because it was thoughtfully written and well-meant; it was nothing like as bad as Ding‘s wilfully obtuse sexism, in other words, and by rights deserved to get nothing like as much flak. But there’s a way of stepping back from prejudice which isn’t really stepping back at all. Like the polite racism I remember from the 1970s, dressed up in genteel phrases like “our coloured brethren”, or the courtly sexism mocked by Jake Thackray, Dave’s post didn’t put as much distance between him and the sexist attitudes he was criticising as it may have seemed to. If you say (in so many words) “I don’t judge women by their appearance – I prefer women who look interesting” then you are judging women by their appearance; in effect, you’re only seeing women by their appearance. And I don’t want to worry you, chaps, but there are a lot of women out there; that’s an awful lot of people not to be seeing properly.

Ban this filth

A quick look under my stairs…

Manchester Star, 7.3% Southwold Winter IPA, 6.7%
Duvel, 8.5% Old Tom, 8.5%
Past Masters Double Stout, 7.5% Brakspear Triple, 7.2%

What do all these beers have in common? Five of them are terrific beers (and I’ve got high hopes of the (Adnam’s) M&S Winter IPA, which I haven’t tried yet). The Double Stout is a limited edition and a bit pricy, but none of these is particularly rare, exotic or expensive – every one of them was bought from a supermarket.

Oh, and there’s this:

News from Suffolk: The local Police, fed up with ‘offies’ selling super-strength cider and lager to known nuisance characters, are encouraging the offies to stock nothing above 6.5% ABV. It is a voluntary scheme, with a slow take up, but it is a positive step towards dealing with the products that are associated with most of the problems. Responsible drinkers will be heartened by this news and we look forward to seeing the scheme adopted locally.

This is a quote from the (frankly rather strange) Nottingham CAMRA magazine Nottingham Drinker, which startled me somewhat on a recent visit to the town. When it was discussed here some more information about the Suffolk scheme was forthcoming in comments:

While the Ipswich scheme is “voluntary” the Plod have been dropping hints that those NOT joining in may find a few objections come licence review time. Oh, and the Co-Op has already stated it’s adopting the scheme across ALL Suffolk stores.

Ipswich off-licences, the Co-operative across Suffolk – it sounds like it’s foot-in-the-door time.

Let’s hope this is just a misguided initiative in one corner of the south, and that if it does spread any further it will get a robust response from CAMRA – although if it comes to Nottingham, it sounds as if they’ll be pushing at an open door. Hands off our strong beers!

Thank God you’re here, Captain Pedantic!

Craft beer means beer made for a more discerning audience than the mass-market beers that ubiquitously line bars around the world.
Mark

craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”
Mudge

“craft” means “beer like what hobbyists and homebrewers make, except done more properly”
dsquared

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop
me (18 months ago)

I’ve spent far too much time on this blog going on about the concept of ‘craft beer’, and I don’t want to spend any more time on it than I can help. But here’s a slightly different angle, suggested by some comments over at Tandleman’s. Four points:

  1. ‘Craft beer’ is an imported concept; it originated in the US.
  2. In the US it’s defined primarily in terms of the size and independence of the brewery and the use of traditional ingredients.
  3. This definition doesn’t work in the UK: applied literally it would mean that Holt’s RegalCrystal Lager is ‘craft’ and Worthington White Shield isn’t.
  4. We haven’t imported the concept of ‘craft beer’ at all; all we’ve done is import a two-word phrase.

Step 4 is the lightbulb moment. That’s why it’s so hard to arrive at a definition of ‘craft beer’ in the UK: in the UK, it has no definition. It’s got a hole where a definition ought to be – or rather, where the original definition used to be.

What’s happened as a result is what always happens when a group of people start using a term without any definition: it’s been defined by how it’s used, and especially by the people who use it. ‘Craft beer’ drinkers are the people who see themselves as drinkers of craft beer. ‘Craft beer’ is the kind of beer craft beer drinkers like, and ‘craft brewers’ are the brewers who cater to them.

And, er, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Mine’s a light and bitter!

Zak writes:

There are a lot of naysayers who object purely on principle to paying £10 for a bottle (or a pint) of beer. I’m not exactly sure why that is – it would be easy to say that it’s jealousy, but I think there’s something more fundamental going on. I think it’s the idea that there is something posh, snobby, pretentious – call it what you want – about spending your money on fancy, rare or expensive beer. Just as I’d defend anyone’s right to spend their money on anything that they want (as long as it isn’t criminal, in the legally defined sense), I’d also defend anyone’s right to express their discomfort about it. But that’s just what I think – I’d love to hear your views on that idea.

Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don’t. For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that “only” cost below £3 a pint.

Elitism is a difficult one. If you like good beer, it’s hard to get away from saying that you prefer better beer, which is only a hop and a skip away from saying that you like the best beer. And if you like the best, and if the best happens to be within your price range, what could be wrong with that? Clearly it would be wrong if you looked down on all the people drinking inferior beer, but (Zak argues) this doesn’t actually happen – not in the British blogosphere, anyway – so what’s the problem?

Something’s got lost in this argument, and – ironically – it’s money. I’ve got no objection to the existence of people who are keen to buy beer priced at twice or three times the level I find affordable, although for obvious reasons I prefer not to socialise with them much. I don’t think they’re bad people, or that they hold offensive attitudes; I don’t really care what attitudes they hold. What I object to is seeing beers priced at twice or three times the level I think of as affordable – and being told that those beers are the latest & greatest, where it’s at, just too, too fab and groovy, etc. (NB check current slang before publishing). Down at the Marble Beerhouse, the new Decadence 750ml has gone on sale at £16 and the new barleywine at (no lie) £19. £16, let alone £19, represents a new high for Marble, and although I generally wish them well I would be delighted if they couldn’t sell them at those prices. I should think they will sell, though, which saddens me. I don’t like being priced out of a market, least of all this one. It makes me feel that I’m losing something I’ve always thought of as mine – and mine to share, potentially, with just about anyone (there aren’t many people who can’t afford a pint in a pub).

There are two parts to this. For myself, firstly, I suppose it’s not quite true to say that I can’t afford those beers. I could find the money if I really wanted to, but – as I said over at B&B – that’s a bit of a red herring: I mean, I could find the money to buy a Rolex if I really wanted to. Beer is something I’m used to buying without worrying about what size hole it’s going to leave in my bank account, and I don’t find that frisson of stress and anxiety adds much to the experience. A bottle of beer at £10 isn’t unaffordable, it just comes in on the wrong side of a sharp intake of breath.

That’s the part about me; the other part of it is about everyone else. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the 70s – when the old hippies were settling down and starting businesses – but I’ve always bracketed real ale with real bread and real cheese. I don’t want to live in a world where most people drink Carlsberg and eat processed cheese squares on white sliced, while the cognoscenti compare notes about their muslin-wrapped Stilton, their wood-oven ciabattas and their, well, you fill in the beer. People who say – to quote a commenter at Zak’s – that “brewers have the right to charge as much as they want for the product of their labour” (to whoever wants to pay that much) don’t often acknowledge the other side of the coin: just as there will always be people willing to pay top whack for ultra-premium specialist goods, there will always be people willing to buy substandard goods if it means paying a bit less. Left unregulated, food producers (and large brewers) are quite happy to fill both of those niches – have a look round the supermarket next time you’re there.

So I’m not offended by people buying bottles of beer priced at the level of a bottle of champagne; what I’m offended by is the pricing of the beer. Beer at those prices is effectively out of my reach, and it’s out of reach of all the people with an income like mine or lower – and there are plenty of them. Every time a blogger raves about one of those bottles, it nudges the image of ‘beer’ a little further towards that end of the scale. My ideal world is one where everyone is eating and drinking good wholesome stuff – where cotton-wool bread, ‘cheese food’ and whatever it is they brew in Moss Side aren’t even available. My big problem with the £10 bottle is that it doesn’t bring that world any nearer; it may even push it further back, by turning campaigners for a good honest drink into connoisseurs of the latest, weirdest, rarest… and most expensive.

Mega mega white thing

Boak and Bailey have picked up the “craft beer” banner again, and put up a page explaining what they mean by the term.

When we say craft beer, we mean a group of beers, including many real ales, which, in our view, are a good thing and deserving of respect.

(Emphasis in original.)

That’s the short version; the longer version consists of a list of criteria, mainly applying to the brewery, and headed

Craft breweries and craft beers will have some of the following characteristics.

(Emphasis not in original.)

I have to say, I think this is all a bit of a waste of effort. Unless I’m talking about the American brewing scene – where the term came from, and where it arguably makes some sense – I never use the phrase “craft beer”, for three reasons.

Firstly, it’s divisive. At least, it’s been used – in Britain – in ways that are openly and deliberately divisive, by people who make a point of displaying contempt for large parts of the beer scene, and I think it carries overtones of this kind of usage. B&B write elsewhere:

If people just starting out on beer happen to get all excited about Guinness, or crazily hoppy American IPAs, we should be encouraging them, not sneering.

I agree entirely, but when I hear the words ‘craft beer’ I hear sneering. Specifically, I hear something very like the “what’s the matter, Lagerboy” snobbery of old, only this time it’s aimed at boring brown beer, people who drink boring brown beer, people who like (supposedly boring) brown beer, people who don’t like double IPAs, people who don’t like imperial stouts, people who don’t like ‘craft keg’, Colin Valentine, the CAMRA executive and CAMRA members in general. “Lagerboy” snobbery was crazy because it was alienating the very people who CAMRA needed to win over, but this new brand of snobbery is even worse – it’s alienating the minority of people who are already into good beer.

Secondly, it’s incredibly imprecise. Read literally, B&B’s long definition implies that the only breweries that aren’t ‘craft breweries’ are those that have none of the listed characteristics; and, since one of them is “They brew cask- or bottle-conditioned beer”, this in turn implies that all real ale brewers are ‘craft brewers’ – as well as some that don’t produce real ale. (I know I’m being a pedantic pain in the backside here, but that’s what definitions are for. If you’re defining quality X, you have to be able to say when something is not-X.)

Thirdly, it’s unnecessary. I don’t insist on bottle-conditioning when I’m buying bottled beer, and I can’t really get behind the idea that bottle-conditioned beer is “real ale in a bottle” (brewery-conditioned beer would be “keg in a bottle”, presumably). I’ve been drinking Old Tom on a fairly regular basis since I first discovered it; the cask is better, of course, but the brewery-conditioned bottled version is still one of the greats. So when Bailey comments that “if you don’t think ‘real ale’ captures every beer worth being excited about, ‘craft beer’, however compromised and crap, is the current best alternative”, I can’t agree – not because I’ve got a better solution, but because I don’t believe there’s a problem.

No, ‘real ale’ doesn’t capture every beer worth being excited about; it never did. Not all great beer is real ale; not all real ale is great beer. If you want to talk about a great beer that doesn’t qualify as real ale, I can’t see what’s stopping you.

Careful with the Spoons

So, farewell then, another JDW ‘festival’, or in their own words The World’s Biggest Real Ale and Cider Festival. (Which, considering it featured 50 beers, 8 ciders and 2 (count ’em) perries, might be considered a bit cheeky. On the other hand, the overall total floorspace was massive.)

The last time round I worked my way through about half of the card and kept detailed notes, most of which (as I mentioned earlier) are now obsolete. I didn’t see that much of it this time, for a variety of reasons, and I can’t say my socks were knocked off by much that I did have. Generally the pale beers were more distinctive and more impressive than the dark – Brewster’s American Chopper, for instance, was a nice little hop-monster, and Everard’s Whakatu was worth checking out. I was pleasantly surprised by the draught Ginger Beard, as I said earlier; less so by the American ‘craft ales’ which were prominently featured. Kalamazoo Black Silk struck me as a rather laboured and unsuccessful attempt to do something different with porter, a style which can have tremendous depths of flavour if brewed without any messing about; Odell 90 Shilling was just a bit bland, and not believable for a moment as a “beyond eighty-shilling” dark beer. Bend Eclipse dark IPA (or Cascadian Dark Ale if you prefer) was good – although, again, it was a long way from being the most extreme or emphatic example of the style I’ve had, despite it being an ‘American’ style. (That would be Buxton Black Rocks. Mmm, Buxton.)

So far so lukewarm (figuratively, I hasten to add). But there was one beer I was seriously glad to encounter: Evan-Evans’ 1767. A brown, malty Welsh bitter, and a very fine example of the style* – also, a good example of the depth, richness and complexity that an ordinary brown session bitter can deliver, if done properly. On checking out Evan-Evans I discovered that its Chief Executive is none other than Simon Buckley, whose family produced the first real ale I ever had in a pub – and one of the standards by which I’ve judged beers ever since. Simon left Buckley’s in 1984, the last of the family to be involved in the business; the company was bought out by Brain’s in 1997 and the brewery closed the following year. Evan-Evans has been in business since 2003, but it hasn’t crossed my radar till now (possibly to do with the location of my radar in Saxon territory). Belatedly, welcome back to brewing, Buckley bach.

*Is it a style? Seems pretty distinctive to me – it would probably have its own encyclopedia entry in my ideal world (“historic brewers include Felinfoel, Brains, Buckley’s (until 1997); newcomers to the style include Evan-Evans, Conwy…”).

And speaking of encyclopedias… Actually I’ve got nothing to add to the great Oxford Companion controversy, except to say that Rule 1 of evaluating an encyclopedia (or any other wide-ranging work of reference) is check what you know. It’s not so much that finding errors in the parts you know about introduces the possibility that the rest of it may also contain errors; if there are errors you can identify, the question of whether the rest of it is any good doesn’t even arise, because you can’t afford to trust it. Entries on an area you don’t know may be the kind of Pattinsonian erudition you could stake money on, or they may be as mythical as the old three-threads story: you can’t know. Pace B&B, the errors identified by Martyn, Barm and others aren’t just individual errors in an otherwise trustworthy work – they make the volume as a whole impossible to trust. Which is tragic, and I hope that the reputation of the OCB will be salvaged in a future edition – although it has to be said that the initial reaction of the Companion‘s editor wasn’t particularly hopeful in that respect. Rule 1 of responding to criticism, incidentally, is to de-personalise wherever possible: if they read your book and call you an idiot, go to the bits they’ve quoted and show, politely and patiently, that they don’t support that conclusion. (If they haven’t quoted anything, point that out and let readers draw their own conclusion.) Sadly, Garrett Oliver’s response to Martyn’s criticisms – which focused entirely on the text of the OCB – took precisely the opposite tack: he inferred that only a dishonest idiot would make the kind of mistakes Martyn had pointed out and took umbrage at being called a dishonest idiot, before proceeding to attack Martyn personally. Really not useful.

Doubledoublegood! Doubledoublegood!

Q: What’s a craft beer?
A: Nobody really knows. However, there is a standard definition of a craft brewer, which goes something like this:

Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

So a craft brewer is a brewer that’s smallish, independent and doesn’t use loads of maize and rice and evil stuff like that. Since the point of calling a brewer a ‘craft brewer’ is to give them a seal of approval, we can add a fourth quality: a craft brewer is one of the brewers that produce the good stuff.

Of course, this doesn’t get you very far with identifying whether the beer on the bar in front of you is a Craft Beer or not. But there’s a bigger problem, which is that – as Barm points out – this definition derives directly from the history of brewing in the USA, which is very different from the history of brewing in Britain. To put it another way, rolling size, independence, tradition and quality into one concept works pretty well in the US context, where – for historical reasons – high-quality and traditional beers do tend to come from small and independent brewers. It’s a very poor fit to Britain, where high-quality brewing, traditional brewing, independent brewing and small-scale brewing are four separate things. If you can get all four at once, so much the better, but mass-produced corporate high-quality traditional brews have their place – and for most of us it’s a place some way ahead of low-volume independent horrors.

Further down the same page, the plot thickens.

* The hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.

What’s interesting about this is that there’s no obvious reason for it to be there: there’s no logical connection between independence/tradition/quality/size and feeling the need to dick about adding unique twists to perfectly good styles[1]. If the main definition reflects US beer history, this point reflects US beer culture, and in particular the dominance of extremophilia. (As I wrote a while back, the phrase ‘craft beer’ is “strongly associated with a focus on extremes: strong is good, hoppy is good, weird is good, but stronger, hoppier and weirder are better”.) For whatever reason, this stress on ‘innovation’ (and general dicking-about) is definitely part of the informal meaning of ‘craft beer’; indeed, this is probably the most important part of the definition for the most infuriating brewers in the world[2], among others. People talk a lot about boring bland brown real ales – even to the extent of suggesting that real ale needs as big a kick as CAMRA gave keg beer in the 70s – but the stuff people regard as ‘craft beer’ is never described as boring or bland (and very rarely as brown).

So what have we got? A mess, is what we’ve got. “Craft beer is beer brewed by small independent breweries” – bad luck, Stuart. “Craft beer is beer made using traditional methods” – that’s just about every non-corporate brewery in Britain covered. “Craft beers are beers made with passion, with heart, with commitment” – what does this actually mean, and what does it have to do with whether the beer’s any good? (Can’t a production line operation produce good beer? Can’t a passionate, committed real ale enthusiast produce utter dreck?) Ironically, just about the only part of the definition that does work in the UK is the part about innovation: craft brewers are the brewers who interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent. So that’s, er, BrewDog, and about three other breweries. (A shout out here for Dave, who for my money is doing precisely this and making it work rather better than those pretentious Scots – and with a lot less fanfare.) But even that is problematic, because of the implication that ‘craft beer’ means quality – and anyone who’s not producing ‘craft beer’ (which, on this definition, is about 95% of British breweries) is a lower form of life. It’s as if we were to say that Robinson’s were a boring old family concern churning out the same old real ale, until they started producing Chocolate Tom – and as that put a unique twist on the historic style, they were immediately elevated to the ranks of craft brewers. Clearly, this wouldn’t make much sense.

Two final points, picking up on comments on Mark’s post. One commenter writes: “The problem is that times have changed, and real ale isn’t the only decent beer readily available in the UK anymore.” But it never was! There are – and always have been – a number of non-conditioned bottled beers which any ‘real ale’ fan would be happy to drink; there has had to be. (When I first got into real ale there was only one bottle-conditioned beer on the market – Worthington White Shield – and that was almost impossible to find.) Nobody’s ever felt the need to refer to bottled Old Tom as ‘craft beer’; nobody but a few conditioning bigots has ever thought that it was diminished by not being real ale. Good beer is good beer, and not all of it is real ale; real ale is real ale, and (alas) not all of it is good beer. This is a non-problem.

Relatedly, Barm asks the pertinent question

What is wrong with “good”? It seems a much more useful category to me, in that it actually tells me whether the beer is likely to taste nice.

to which Mark replies: “And who decides to label it good or bad? Can one person speak on behalf of everyone? It’s similar with craft beer as a term but at least that has an overarching meaning, not just a consideration of deliciousness.” To which I can only say, no it doesn’t. It hasn’t got a meaning, it’s got a bundle of connotations – quality of beer, size and independence of brewery, ‘commitment’ from the brewer, use of weird and different recipes – and they aren’t even connotations that fit together well.

In practice the term “craft beer”, in the UK, hardly ever means anything more than “beer I like, made by brewers I like”; on the rare occasions it does mean something more, it seems to mean “beer which is particularly good because it’s ridiculously strong/undrinkably bitter/macerated with raspberries/all of the above”. At best it’s a marketing label which imparts a vague warm glow to the subject of beer; at worst it’s misleading and divisive. I say we drop it. Here’s to good beer, even if it’s made by apathetic brewers working for mega-corporations! Here’s to good beer[1], even if it’s a malty 3.8% bitter made the same way it always has been! Here’s to good beer, even if it’s in a can on a supermarket shelf[3]!

[1] A CAMRA member writes: Make me a good dark mild, O breweries of Britain. Never mind the coffee and the chocolate and the winter spices and the summer fruits and the honey and the ginger and the rosemary and thyme. Just make me a good dark mild, a good 4% bitter, a good pale ale, a good stout and if you’re feeling ambitious a good porter. And in winter, a good old ale. I ask for nothing more – except, of course, the chance to try more than one good 4% bitter, etc, etc; I can arrange this myself, by sampling the products of more than one brewery. PS Don’t forget the dark mild – I haven’t had a good one in ages.
[2] I’d much rather just ignore them, but they make such bloody good beer. (On cask, at least.)
[3] Shurely shome mishtake? – Ed.

Update The Curmudgeon has, I think, nailed the working definition of ‘craft beer’ in comments over at Ed’s:

craft beer is beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to “beer enthusiasts”. What counts is not the size of the brewery, or whether the beer is any good, but the intention of the brewer.

In reply, Ed commented that “craft” means more than those few breweries that “brew with the beer nerd in mind”, which is a fair point. But I think part of what gets people excited about the likes of Marble, Thornbridge, Dark Star and Kernel is the impression (in some cases the certain knowledge) that the brewers are beer nerds: they like the kind of thing beer nerds like, and they brew the kind of thing they like. And, while beer nerds like lots of different beers, craft beer stands for the type[s] and style[s] of beer that nerds are particularly likely to like (in some cases because the rest of the world is conspicuous by its absence).

What’s interesting about this is that, while it fits in well with criticisms of the cliquishness and in-groupery of the ‘craft beer’ scene, it’s also not a million miles away from at least one of the definitions Mark sketched out in his more positive post on the concept:

Craft beer means beer made for a more discerning audience than the mass-market beers that ubiquitously line bars around the world.

Craft beer is beer made for people who like craft beer. That’s not a tautology, it’s a feedback loop: (via): the more tickers rave about a certain approach to beer, the more they’ll get it, and the more they get it, the more they’ll rave about the latest and best examples. And so it will roll on, becoming steadily more distant from the world of real ale, let alone the larger world of beer-drinkers. Me, I’ll be happy with a nice pint.

Avoid the humdrum

Following a fairly unusual session at a highly unusual pub, Zak wrote:

If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

I think this is asking the wrong question, or at least starting the argument too late. Real ale may be a living thing, but it doesn’t have feelings – beer can’t be ‘elitist’ any more than it can be intelligent, left-wing or prone to depression. Obviously what Zak meant by ‘elitist beer’ is ‘beer which is designed for elitists and shows it’, but that begs the question of who these elitists are.

So what is elitism in beer-appreciation? A while ago in a thread from hell on BeerAdvocate, I advanced the argument that the term “real ale” isn’t inherently elitist:

it may be eccentric, it may even be reactionary, but it’s basically just saying “let’s everyone do it the way they used to, because it was better”

This position did not meet with universal approval:

seems like the definition of elitism to label all other beers as “fake, phoney, ersatz, imitation.”

Hmm. So is that the definition of elitism – saying “the thing I like is the real thing”? And if not, what is?

Proposition 1: Saying “this beer is good” is not elitist.
Anyone who doesn’t agree with that one isn’t going to feel very comfortable with the beer blogosphere, or other people. Moving on:

Proposition 2: Saying “this beer is better than that beer” is not elitist.
I suppose there is an argument (at this point you can probably hear me bending over backwards to be fair) that it would be arrogant to say that a beer I happen to like is better than a beer I don’t like. It’s not an argument I share. I don’t think you can like beer (or anything else, really) without at some point thinking “now that’s good!“; it’s even possible to recognise that a beer you don’t particularly like is a good piece of work. (I’m happy to agree with the general opinion that Jaipur is a very fine beer. I’d also be happy never to drink it again.)

Now it starts to get a bit more controversial.

Proposition 3: Saying “this beer which I’ve had and you haven’t is better than that beer which you’ve had” is not elitist.
It can’t be, logically – otherwise it would be an act of elitism to introduce someone to a new beer. I think this gets confused in people’s minds with a slightly different statement:

Proposition 4: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t is better than that beer which you can get“… may or may not be elitist.
This is a difficult one. The key question is, why can’t ‘you’ get it? If the answer is, because you’re not in Huddersfield (or Helston, or St Helier) then I’m with Zak – Huddersfieldism is not elitism. I mean, there is no conceivable elite whose membership is defined by commuting distance from Huddersfield (I’m fairly sure about this one). Going back to BeerAdvocate, banging on about the real-ness of cask ale to a bunch of American beer geeks with no way of experiencing the difference might not have been sensitive or tactful, but it wasn’t elitism; just Huddersfieldism on a larger scale.

If the answer is, because you haven’t got a spare £350 to spend on 24 bottles of beer, the relevant definition of ‘elite’ seems a bit more obvious. I think I disagree with Zak on this point – I think money does make a difference. There is a kind of rough-and-ready elitism which is defined by having cash to burn and moving in circles where everyone else does too. An example would be the slighting reference in the Guardian‘s listings section a while back to “the kind of people who buy their clothes from Next”. (Me, I only go to Next when I’m feeling flush.)

But I’m more interested in a third possible answer, which I think gets us closer to a definition of beer elitism. What if the reason why you’ll never taste Brew X is that it costs a tenner a bottle, and you just wouldn’t dream of blowing that kind of money on a bottle of beer, even if you had the money lying around? Or what if it’s a short-run bottling which was consumed in its entirety at a beer writers’ dinner (invitation only naturellement)? I think I’m on stronger ground here:

Proposition 5: Saying “this beer which I can get and you can’t because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you can get” is elitist.

And the reason it’s elitist is that it’s not about the beer or even the price of the beer: it’s about the people. Elitism is fundamentally about saying “we’re better than you”:

Proposition 6: Saying “this beer which I like because of who I am is better than that beer which people like you like” is elitist.

And this attitude has got nothing to do with price or availability; elitists often find it satisfying to demonstrate that they are different from the rest of us through the amount they spend on their passion, but the elitism comes first. You can have a passion for making good stuff available to everyone who wants it and still end up selling at the high end (or on Guernsey). (I don’t think of Dave as an elitist, for example, despite his keen awareness of who’s got money to spend.) On the other hand, you can be an obnoxiously blatant elitist, broadcasting your contempt for the common herd, and still put affordable beer on supermarket shelves; why you would want to do this I’m not quite sure, but I know that it can be done. Elitism is quite compatible with mass appeal: all you need to do is make everyone feel like they’re better than the common herd. At every university in the country there’s a group of first-year students who are dedicated to experiencing the hottest curry, the best drugs, the most alcohol, and think the rest of their year are wusses – and there are a lot of universities in the country.

So was Zak drinking ‘elitist beer’? I’m not sure. The Mikkeller thing with all the IBUs certainly sounds like something brewed for a very specific market – a kind of wannabe-connoisseur crowd, lacking the palate or experience of genuine connoisseurs but filling the gap with a juvenile passion for extremes (not unlike those first-year curry warriors). So that one sounds a bit on the elitist side; the others don’t, particularly. (I do envy Zak the Celebrator – but that’s Huddersfieldism rather than elitism.)

I intend to drink some good beer on Thursday evening, but it won’t be uniquely good beer – beer like nobody else is drinking for miles around – and I’d be worried if it was. I’m not interested in peak beer experiences nobody can share but equally dedicated geeks. More good ale, everywhere, for everyone!

Down with this sort of thing

One final note about the “craft beer” post, focusing on the reaction it got from US readers. (For anyone who doesn’t recognise it, the title refers here.)

Most posts on this blog seem to get 30-40 views the day they come out and another 60-70 afterwards. I’m happy with that; to the extent that I’ve got an audience in mind it consists mainly of other people who write beer blogs, and there aren’t that many of us, so reaching anything up to 100 people seems pretty good. (Disclaimer: I have not only met but actually drunk beer with 66% of the bloggers linked in the previous sentence. It’s like the Masons, I’m telling you.)

This post got 1,232 views the first day it was up; the total currently stands at 2,463. That’s an awful lot of new visitors – and I think it’s probably fair to say that a lot of them weren’t too keen.

I think this is more about envy of hype. Right now it is the American beers that are getting the hype and some people (especially in Europe) can not abide anything American being considered good.

Just another blogger making sweepy generalizations about something they don’t like or don’t agree with.

This guy’s a bummer. I wouldn’t want to drink a beer with him.

this blogger is a jackass, and i wouldn’t be surprised if they work for Coors.

Some of this negative reaction was entirely predictable – some people reacted badly to my critique of the elitism of the “craft beer” mentality because… well, take this comment:

Craft Beer….is better. Period. That’s why we love the stuff. I’m proud to have some level of literacy,culture,awareness,spirit of adventure. … Am I “Elite” probably not,but I’ve put an effort into being more evolved than the herd.

Moving swiftly along… In other cases there was more of a genuine communication breakdown, due partly to the attention-grabbing title I used. The US beer scene was never my main focus in writing that post. I don’t know a lot about it (although I know a lot more now than I did before I wrote that post) and I’m, frankly, not hugely interested in it: by and large, what happens there doesn’t affect me. After reading the reaction from US beer geeks, I’ve got a bit more of a feel for what “craft brewing” means over there and why, in the US, it might be a standard worth rallying around. (Short answer: it beats the hell out of the alternative.) But I still think that, even in the US context, it’s a rough-and-ready label with no precise definition – or else with a definition that raises more questions than it answers – and I think that’s likely to cause problems further down the road. Ultimately, though, that’s not what I was writing about; it’s not my fight. Here and now I’m certainly not attacking the actual liquids sold in the USA under the name of “craft beer”. (Well, maybe some of them.)

What I wanted to write about was the use of the term “craft beer” in the UK, and the associated growth of a certain kind of mentality, also found in parts of the US craft beer scene. Strictly speaking, my title should really have been “Down with the use of the term ‘craft beer’ by British brewers and beer geeks; also, down with the particular kind of ‘craft beer’ mentality which this is associated with”.

And what mentality is that? Firstly, “craft beer” in the UK is generally promoted as an alternative to “real ale”, the implication being that the insistence on cask ale is a shibboleth or even a bad thing; this is perhaps the main reason why the term sets off alarm bells for me (I dealt with this in this post).

Secondly, “craft beer” in the UK is a cliquey project: what “craft beer” actually is never needs to be defined, because you can read off what it means from the people who use it, and what they use it to refer to. As such, it’s inherently elitist, in a way that’s simply not true of “real ale” – which is, after all, how all beer was brewed and served for most of history. (Campaigning for “real ale” may be reactionary, but it’s not elitist.) As Zak said in comments, the “craft beer” mentality is very much FUBU – “for us, by us”; if the masses don’t Get It, so much the worse for them. (Just go back to drinking your mass marketed, bland, cheaply made watered down lager, and close the door behind you.)

And (thirdly) it’s strongly associated with a focus on extremes: strong is good, hoppy is good, weird is good, but stronger, hoppier and weirder are better. I stand by my comment on the Double IPA festival Mark wrote about – it sounds like hell on earth, and it certainly doesn’t sound like a beer festival (it doesn’t really sound like beer). I would hate to see that kind of event over here, because I think it would represent a real wrong turning for the British beer scene.

Which is still, primarily, a “real ale” scene, focused mainly (not exclusively) on stuff you can drink in pints, defined (mostly) in fairly inclusive technical terms. And long may it remain so.

Update I’d just finished fiddling with this post (apologies to anyone who caught the first published draft) when I read this terrific post from Velky Al, tackling the vexed question

What do craft brewers do that industrial brewers don’t?

Read it and find out. (Sample quote: Sometimes this whole craft vs industrial debate sounds like kids in the playground and when one kids says “my dad is bigger than yours” the craft kid replies “but my dad punches with artisan style”.)