August 17, 2011

Binge Drinking: An Explanation

I am no puritan when it comes to alcohol. I consider myself a lover of wine and a connoisseur of beer. Having been born and raised in the brewing capital of Great Britain (and once of the world), I grew up with the smell of beer in my nostrils, and soon developed a keen sense of barrel freshness, correct cellaring, the vagaries of beer that has had to travel, and the signal importance of being given good head by the barmaid.

While a significant minority of my compatriots share my studied enthusiasm for hoppy warm ale, most other Englishmen abuse the most obnoxious weasel urine in the name of simply becoming intoxicated. Anti-social as this is , especially in provincial cities on a Friday and Saturday night, recent rioting tendencies have given the weekly, or nightly, drunken binge a rather more sinister edge. Why then, do the English, more so than any other great drinking nation, consume their alcohol in such a rapid, indiscriminating, and ultimately harmful (to themselves and to those around them) fashion?

Licensing laws have recently been relaxed in Blighty, with certain bars and clubs staying open to all hours. The vast majority, however, still habitually close at 11.10 p.m., and it is to the historical reason for this timing that we must turn.

Before the Great War, the average pint might have cost a penny. You could reckon on it being 8 or 9% vol., and you could buy it in pubs for 17 ½ hours in the day. Men on different shift patterns could have a drink after work whether they finished at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. There was no rush to drink, and indeed, many of them would have been drinking steadily throughout the day at work. The industrial nineteenth century had conquered many things, but the best way to guarantee safe drinking water was still, in many places, to boil it. The cheapest way to do that was to buy boiled water in the form of beer. In hot trades – steel works, for example – a man might consume twelve pints of small beer per shift. The nutritional content often meant that beer served for lunch and dinner. Indeed, in Russia until a couple of weeks ago, beer was classified as food, not as alcohol.

The war changed all of this. Britain was led by the temperance fanatic David Lloyd George, who famously declared that ‘we are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink, and and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’. With raw materials now being diverted for the production of food instead of brewing, the drink trade was instructed to reduce its output and to weaken its beer. The price also rose, through extra taxation for the good of the war effort, and because of the premium on beer’s ingredients. At the same time, the need for ‘national efficiency’ focussed attention on drunkenness as a hindrance to the production of munitions. 17 ½-hour opening was quickly ended, being reduced at a stroke to a mere 5 ½ hours per day.

The anger aroused among the British public was immense, and the Royal Commission of 1917 charged with investigating industrial unrest found that the chief cause of strikes was anger at the scarcity of beer. Nevertheless, the brewers’ profits soared under the new conditions, and drinking habits changed accordingly. The average man continued to spend his spare change on beer, but now he consumed as much as he could in the time available. The habit had to be served as quickly as possible. Moreover, the weakness of the beer now incentivised drinking even more of the stuff, but again, for only five hours per day. Binge drinking had been invented by a government determined to eliminate drunkenness.

The obvious choice, one might think, would have been to return, post-war, to the way things had been. But actually, the brewers’ new business model served them rather well. They could now charge more money for a weaker product in a streamlined business. Temperance activists were also happy, having not fully put two and two together about the consequences of reduced opening times. So, the licensing restrictions remained.

Until a couple of years ago, these restrictions were basically still in place. They had been steadily relaxed to allow afternoon opening and Sunday opening, but the last call at 10.50 p.m. (10.30 p.m. on Sundays) is a sort of national institution. The high price and weak beer still tend to result in people drinking a relatively large quantity in a short time, in order to maximise the effect of the alcohol.

Perhaps in time the relaxation of the licensing laws will reduce the lager loutish behaviour on the streets of England.  Until then, I’m rather fond of laying the blame at the feet of Lloyd George, the Welshman who brought binge drinking to the streets of Britain.


  1. Professor,
    There are two factors here that are often overlooked. People tend to get themselves into trouble by consuming drinks that don't taste heavily of booze. Even heavily chilled liquor drinks allow increased and dangerous consumption. Great Uncle always told me "If you drink it neat, you'll remain on your feet".
    Fruit juice mixes and other masking agents are conducive to gulping, not sipping.

    The second factor is that many simply cannot hold their liquor. Genetics, personality, and setting are all factors in this, but the end result is the same. Someone is either a good drunk or a bad drunk.

  2. Very interesting. I wonder whether at least some of the issues we have with alcohol here in the States mightn't be linked in some way to the Temperance movement as well.

    As an interesting anecdote related to the point about brewer's profits: in the State in which I reside, there has been a push to legalize Sunday sales of alcohol. Apparently, many of the liquor stores are opposing the initiative because it will cut into their profits to be open on Sunday.

  3. Oh, you can absolutely feel the presence of the prohibition years in certain parts of the US. The establishment is really puritanical about alcohol, and I'm sure it has exactly the wrong effect. I drew the line in Cambridge, MA, when I was carded in a Chinese restaurant ordering a beer with my meal. I was 33 at the time. I told the waiter he was being ridiculous, and he said I could have 'just one beer', since I might be under 21 for all he knew. Crazy days.

    It seems just patently obvious to me that the taboo surrounding alcohol, and its limitation to those over the age of 21, only serves to fascinate the young. Hence they binge. I'm pretty sure that the moonshine boys did some good business in the prohibition years.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Oh, and to YWP: those alcopops are an abomination. I was weaned on beer, aged 3.

  4. Great read. Thank you VB. Taxation and profit destroyed real beer, so I used to make my own. Much better, and cask conditioned. Nothing beats a fresh loaf of beer!

  5. We take great delight in educating our sons with tastes of wine at dinner in the hopes that education will reign any sort of desire to binge without any sort of taste or decorum.

  6. I grew up in a place where the prevailing culture teaches that consumption of alcohol is not just unwise but wrong...period. The laws are rather draconian and consequentially the drinking culture in that place is absurdly rebellious. There is a large and deep subculture that binge drinks just to show how "bad" they are or to rebel against the system.
    Now while I have actualy never even tasted alcohol (cue joke here), I have never expected anyone who does not subscribe to my philosophy to abide by my personal standards, and having left my native locale, I find it much more pleasant to be around those who enjoy a drink responsibly for its own "merits" rather than some other social agenda.
    Prohabition in that instance has bred a special brand of rebellion.


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