Beer Buzz

A review of
Three Sheets to the Wind, by Pete Brown.

Nowadays, it isn't politically correct to celebrate drinking, let alone intoxication. But in
Three Sheets to the Wind, Pete Brown does just that. He argues that alcohol performs a valuable social function, and insists you can learn more about a country by drinking beer with the locals than by reading guidebooks.

Brown's book, a first-person look at national drinking cultures, didn't start out that way. The author, who once worked on beer advertising "at the agency across the road," had intended to write about how the beverage was marketed. But what started as a beer writers' trip to the Czech Republic to hear Pilsner Urquell's side of the story–the new owners weren't going to dumb the beer down–turned into "a 45,000 mile pub crawl."

A trip to a conference in Barcelona set the tone for this book. There Brown learned of an ancient culture that used communal drinking vessels with spare-no-expenses straws. Those relics sent an unmistakeable message that beer was a social beverage--because of human nature, not economics. Now, as then, the beverage is a social leveler. That is certainly true in Japan, where Brown discovered that once after-hours drinking starts, workplace hierarchy goes out the window. Employees can criticize their bosses, in no uncertain terms, so long as what's said inside the bar stays there.

Brown focused on 13 countries where beer drinking as a way of life. Thus he inevitably wound up at Munich's Oktoberfest, which looks like an orgy of gluttony but, as he points out, fills a basic human need to let loose once in a while. We know Germans drink, but why was China on his itinerary? It turns out that drinking is a vital part of that country's religious and cultural festivals, and many Chinese believe that alcohol inspires creativity. Brown also went to Spain, which isn't considered a beer country. However,
cerveza is the lubricant of choice for tapas bars revelers.

In this country, Brown confronted the "American paradox." Our craft breweries make some of the world's best beers, but they still command only a tiny share of the domestic market. (He was kind enough to spare us a rant about our prohibitionist streak, still reflected in our liquor laws.) The author's American travels provided a notably embarrassing moment. At a microbrewery in Milwaukee, he reached for an IPA, even though there were less-potent beers on the sampler tray. Brown recovered–what you'd expect from Britain's 2009 Beer Writer of the Year--by explaining that his forte was "the social aspects of drinking."

The author idealizes a state of intoxication north of the legal limit for driving but short of drunk and disorderly. It's a mellow, convivial buzz that, he says, is the secret of countries like Spain and the Czech Republic. It's also something he'd like to bring back to his home country. Upon returning to England, he was seriously put off by every aspect of its drinking culture, from early closing times (since rescinded) to the insistence that one who orders less than a pint is "a bit of a girl."

Brown also has a bone to pick with the British media. Thanks to lazy journalists, beer takes the rap for alcohol-fueled hooliganism, even though the real culprit is cheap, potent cocktails. He also calls out the media for overplaying "binge drinking," itself a term with shaky factual support. Spending a night in his hometown of Barnley, Brown discovered much less drunkenness, let alone violence, than lurid news stories had led him to expect.

Three Sheets to the Wind also steps on toes inside the beer community. He chides beer geeks for their insularity, especially their fondness for language the average drinker neither understands nor cares about. And he has no compunction about tweaking the Campaign for Real Ale which, he contends, cares more about how beer is brewed than how it tastes. He finds its leadership "strident, hectoring, and defensive," a criticism that won't earn him the red-carpet treatment at a CAMRA festival.

And don't get Brown started on Anheuser-Busch (now ABInBev). He accuses A-B of attempting to bully all competition off the face of the Earth; to that end, he recounts the company's endless legal battle against the Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar. Brown takes repeated potshots at A-B's business practices, then sarcastically refers to the company's slogan, "We're in the business of making friends."

Should Pete Brown ever show up in your friendly local, he'd be immensely entertaining; and if it were quiz night, he knows enough trivia to put your team over the top. Alas, that probably won't happen. But reading Three Sheets to the Wind is the next best thing to Brown in person. It's funny, intelligently written, and informative