Serial Drinking: The Journey, or the Destination?

The Untappd platform connects beer aficionados on a network and allows them to see what others are drinking. In so doing it sets up a de facto competitive environment. For some it’s a “grass is always greener” situation, in which whatever their friends are drinking is better than what is in their own glass. For others it triggers a “bragging rights” mentality of boasting about the unobtainable beer that they are currently enjoying. It creates another self-perpetuating, closed loop, this time of jealousy and taunting.

Rewards for achievement within the app also encourage serial drinking. There is status to be gained by simply checking in a high number of unique beers. My friend’s sense of accomplishment at having passed 1,000 was real. Badges are another form of reward that drives serial drinking. Checking in unique beers of certain styles or from particular regions earns users a Hop 2 It, I’ll be Bock, or any number of other badges. More than one person has admitted to me that their purchasing choices are sometimes driven by their desire to earn a badge.

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Persuasive though they are, ticking apps alone don’t explain the serial drinking phenomenon. To dig a little deeper I asked a number of dedicated serialists what it is that drives them to constantly seek out what’s new. For many the answer goes back to that impulse that drove the early microbrewers—the desire for new experiences. It’s a desire that carries over into other parts of their lives, be it food, hobbies, or leisure activities. They are constantly asking themselves the question, “What else?” This adventurous attitude was eloquently captured in this response to my query.

“What’s to be gained,” you ask? Why everything, my friend! Why climb that mountain? Why cross that street? Why listen to a new musician or see a new film? It’s all about new experiences and discovering what beers there are to enjoy, rather than cutting yourself off from them in favor of the tried and true. It may be ‘What’s next?’ or it may be ‘What else is great?’”

That last sentence expresses another attitude that drives the serial drinker, that of the gambler. The gambler is betting that the next beer might be the best one ever. If not that one, then the one after that. Her choices are based in a kind of faith that a big payoff awaits with the next pull of the handle.
For those new to better beer, serial drinking serves the practical purpose of education. If you have only tried a small number of styles, it’s impossible to know what you like. Serial drinking is a path to broadening knowledge, helping to define and refine preferences.

Is anything lost in this constant questing for the new? For most the answer is nothing except the money spent and perhaps stomaching a few bad beers. Me, I wonder about a loss of center. Is our determined focus on what is next leading some drinkers to come untethered from a grounding in the basics? How can we properly evaluate and appreciate the new without an understanding of the old?

Summit Brewing Company founder Mark Stutrud differentiates between serial drinkers and what he calls “promiscuous” drinkers. A true serial drinker he says is one that has benchmarks. They have a set of go-to beers, to which they frequently return. Familiarity with the classic beers of a style keeps their dabbling grounded. Like lovers in an open relationship, they dally with others but have the core bond to remind them what real intimacy is.

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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. There is an ego boost with every consummation. Once a beer has been tried, they are unlikely to return.

While I certainly don’t fit the profile of promiscuous, I do feel that I sometimes lose my center. In my frenzy to discover what’s out there I lose sight of my benchmarks. I sacrifice the simple joy of savoring a pleasurable pint. I forget to slow down and just appreciate what’s good.

One of my respondents summed up my dilemma with a single, simple question. “Are you in it for the journey or the destination?” Is drinking beer about constant motion toward something unknown or is it about finding a comfortable place to hang your hat? As my own experience with beer progresses I think I want to find a middle ground. I’ll worry less about having to try it all. I’ll fret less about beers that I missed. I’ll keep my passport and continue travelling to foreign ports, but I’ll always maintain a place where I can sleep in my own bed.
What about you? Are you in it for the journey or the destination?

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint 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.

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