Serial Drinking: The Journey, or the Destination?

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By Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

“I just reached an important milestone!” exclaimed my friend as I entered the room. Her enthusiasm made me ask the question.

“Wow. What milestone?”

“I just passed 1,000 unique beers on Untappd.”

Really? I thought, as I offered my congratulations. Getting married, graduating college, a major career advancement, having children—these are important milestones. But ticking off 1,000 sampled beers? Granted that’s a lot of beers, but is this the thing by which we measure the progress of our lives?

To each their own, I guess. But the exchange did start my mental wheels whirring. Craft beer drinkers are notoriously fickle. Brand loyalty is not a part of our vocabulary. We blithely skip from beer to beer, always seeking out the next thing, the uncut gem. Lately I’ve begun to ask myself the question, “What is gained or lost by always searching for what’s next instead of sticking with what’s good?”

Before I engage in this thought exercise, allow me to come clean. My name is Michael Agnew and I am a serial drinker. The beer shelf in my fridge is full of single bottles of assorted styles from different brewers. The boxes in my basement are similarly stocked. I scan beer menus first for things I’ve never tried. At times I’ve had to consciously remind myself that it’s okay to drink a pint of something that I already know I like.

In part, I do this for my job. I write about beer. I teach classes and lead events about beer. I recommend to people things that they should drink or pair with particular foods. For better or worse I’m regularly asked for my opinions on what is good and what should rather be avoided. I’m expected to have at least a passing knowledge of what’s available. I have to try new things. But lately I’ve been wondering if I would personally be better served by stepping off this train.

Serial drinking isn’t really the norm. In Germany for instance, where every town and village has a brewery at least nearby, people tend to drink what’s local. If you live in Schwelm, you drink the beer from Privatbrauerei Schwelm. In Issum it’s the Diebels Brewery. In this country drinkers of macro lagers are known for their intense brand loyalty, even though in blind taste tests many are unable to distinguish between their favorite brew and its competitors.

So what is it about American craft beer that drives this behavior? I think in part it’s rooted in the ethos of the movement itself. Immersed in a monoculture of relatively bland beer, early microbrewers were looking for a flavorful escape. Theirs was a quest for something new. They began with mostly English styles, leading to the invention of unique, Americanized versions that explored the aromatic possibilities of hop varieties the big boys didn’t want. From there they turned to Belgians, barrels, and funky sours. They put this, that, and the other thing into their beer to coax out ever more variety. For American craft brewers the question has always been, “What else can we do?”

 

“Promiscuous drinkers, on the other hand, lack that grounding knowledge. Lotharios of beer, they philander pointlessly from one conquest to the next with no basis for comparing each to the other.”

 

If this is the mindset of the creators, how can it not be imbued into the attitudes and actions of consumers? But in a way it is like an Ouroboros—the mythical snake that eats its own tail. Producers push boundaries. Consumers internalize this adventurous sensibility and demand more. Brewers in turn are compelled to continuously innovate simply to maintain their place at the forefront of consumer’s minds.

This isn’t always in their best interest. It is neither efficient nor cost-effective to make small-batch brews. They mess with production schedules and tie up tank space that could be used for business-sustaining flagship brands. Many require special strains of yeast, which adds expense, not to mention time and energy needed for propagation. Unique ingredients such as malts and hops have to be ordered in small quantities, usually at a higher price. They also necessitate costly, small runs of labels and packaging. So while our serious, serial drinking cohort may be a small percentage of the craft beer audience, we have an effect on the brewers’ bottom lines.
So why do we do it?

Ticking apps like Untappd certainly encourage the practice. They apply the strategies of “gamification” to influence drinking behavior. Gamification is well-known in the realms of marketing and user interface design. It is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to enhance user engagement. Gamification techniques manipulate behavior by leveraging people’s natural desires for socializing, competition, achievement, status, and self-expression through systems of reward for players who accomplish desired tasks.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.