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My Low Risk February

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So, that happened. At the beginning of February I vowed to live an entire month in strict adherence to Health Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Guidelines. I’ve done no-alcohol months in the past so I figured this would be no big deal. I mean, I can still drink right? This should be easy!

Well, let’s just say drinking a tiny, exactly prescribed amount is a lot harder than not drinking at all. It turns out that a blanket decision to avoid liquor is a lot easier to self-enforce than a nuanced “it depends.” As a result, two days into this endeavour I dropped the “strict” from my goal of adherence. From there it became more of a general observance that didn’t quite keep tradition with the intent.

Kind of like when you give up Yoga for Lent.

All told, though, I did okay. As part of this fool exercise I tracked every single drink I consumed during the month. There were 37 of them. Yes, they were mostly beer. Those 37 beers comprised 58 standard units of alcohol. Don’t look at me like that, I bet you did more. For comparison, I had an unnamed friend also track her drinks. She had 94 standard drinks. I think the Betty Ford Client has a wing named after her and a held bed.

The first real casualty of adherence was the stupid “2 drinks in 3 hours” rule. If you don’t recall, the rule basically says that you can’t have more than two standard drinks in a 180 minute period. This seems reasonable on the surface, but in practice it fell apart on February 3rd when I was served a 12 ounce bottle of Rochefort 10 at a restaurant. That one bottle of delicious Belgian Quad is 2.20 standard drinks. Try as I might, I couldn’t nurse it more than 90 minutes. So screw that rule.

Wait… rules are optional now?
This changes EVERYTHING!

I also broke the “4 drinks in a day” rule three times, but never by much. The weekly rule of 15 drinks was more or less in constant violation, but again never by more than a drink or so. I ended the month with a very precisely calculated weekly average of 15.01 standard drinks, and even managed to easily stay in compliance with the “two non-drinking days in the past seven” rule. Heck, that one was easy.

So, what did I learn? Quite a bit, actually. Now that every waking hour was no longer consumed with sourcing then imbibing the nearest, cheapest source of sweet, sweet medicine, I had a bit of time to do some reading. I choose to look into the actual science behind these peculiar guidelines, and what I learnt will come as a shock to you. Unless, you know, you’re a jaded cynic who figures the Powers That Be simply pull numbers out of a hat and call them guidelines. If that’s you, then you won’t be surprised one bit.

Okay, okay, it’s not that bad, but the reality isn’t too far off. You see, there are lots of studies about alcohol and health. Lots. It’s almost as if the world conspires to make recruiting volunteers for these studies at the universities where they’re done cheap and easy. And, in general, the studies tell us that drinking a set amount of alcohol per day improves your health to a certain point, and then slowly begins to make it worse.

Curiously, all these things tend to peak around two drinks a day. So when the government comes along and recommends that we all drink two drinks a day, it’s based on maximizing the health benefits of having a little bit of alcohol in your blood while minimizing the health impact of having lots in your blood. If we were going for truth in advertising, these guidelines wouldn’t be called the “Low Risk” guidelines but rather “Maximum Benefit” or, if they want to maximize website clicks, “Three Secret Drinking Hacks For Longer Life, That The Government Doesn’t Want You To Know” despite them, you know, being the government. It was funny when I thought of it last night, okay?

If we really wanted “low risk” guidelines I think a better approach would be the levels at which the benefit of drinking hasn’t been completely eliminated by volume. At these levels, you’re still better off for throwing back some sauce versus not drinking at all. What are those levels? About 5 drinks a day for men and 3.5 for women, more or less. For some risk factors it’s more and for others it’s less. Coronary heart disease risk, for whatever weird reason, appears to only go further down as you drink more.

Somewhere to the right is immortality.

What about drinking to damage to your health? Well, the science on that side of things is a bit more vague. All we know for certain is that drinking lots generally isn’t great for you, and that conducting studies involving volunteers deliberately inflicting themselves with serious, permanent injury is oddly looked down upon by the medical community.

What science suspects is that regularly soaking all of your organs in a solvent like alcohol is probably bad for you. At low levels of intake, it seems that your liver is up to the job of scrubbing all that nasty booze out of your blood before it can do any damage. This explains the benefits of low level drinking. The damage seems to start when level of alcohol in your blood begins to accumulate faster than your liver can get it out, otherwise known as “being drunk.”

Again there’s not a lot of agreement about “how drunk” is “bad” but researchers tend to put the number around six drinks in a sitting, or what is also referred to as “binge drinking.” Why six? Fuck if I know, and fuck if they know either. Six is, and I’m not kidding here, pulled out of researchers’ collective assholes because “it seems like a lot.” Seriously, everyone admits that Six is just a made up number with no data to back it up but no one can be bothered to do actual research into this to get a better idea, because of that whole “killing the subjects” thing. Wimps.

And yet science claims to know how many lightning strikes are bad for your health.

Okay, I’ll back down a bit. Six really is a lot of liquor, and probably more than you should be eyeing up at the pub. I know it’s only three full pints of Driftwood Fat Tug but we should all be honest about how much alcohol is in 60 ounces of one of the strongest IPAs in town. It’s a lot, folks, and you shouldn’t be drinking it in one go unless the “broken nose capillary” look is in this year.

So, in the end, the takeaways are pretty much what you’d expect: Don’t drink too much, call your mother more, keep track of how much you are intaking, keep a clean house, lay off the liquor once in a while, and lastly: start shotgunning vodka if you have heart disease.

Written by chuck

March 6th, 2015 at 11:10 am

Posted in Beer and You

Beer Standards

with 3 comments

A while back I broached the topic of a Brewers’ Quality Alliance, similar to the existing BC Vinters’ Quality Alliance (VQA), aimed at standardizing beer labeling. A little while later I even took a stab at defining a nascent “BQA” standard. All of this was to allow special treatment for properly labeled BC-sourced beer, especially when it comes to the Province’s hamfisted attempts to get liquor into grocery stores.

The one topic my proposal didn’t tackle was quality of the beer, despite quality being the standard’s middle name which, now that I think of it, makes basically no freaking sense. Quality is a very subjective thing, and very hard to enforce. The definition of “good” beer is almost as contentious as the definition of “craft” beer, so I elected to keep the proposal to a labelling-based initiative.

We honestly need a label standard to stop stuff like this.

It turns out that I shouldn’t have bothered putting out a broad proposal. The BC Craft Brewers’ Guild, never asleep on the job, have elected to tackle this sticky issue and… well… to be honest they’ve completely botched the bloody thing. Now, maybe that’s a bit harsh, considering that this is just a draft, and one that was never intended for public review at that. Yeah, I guess I could have kept all this secret like was no doubt intended, but where’s the fun in that?

The BC CBG’s stream of regulations takes the form of a 10 point list, predictably named the “BC Craft Brewers Quality Alliance” standard. Side note: we should strike a committee tasked with coming up with a better name of these freaking things, like “12 Steps to Awesome” or “Formidable League of Brewers”?

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Rule #1: Majority BC owned (>75%) and/or operated.
No real complaints here, so long as we all agree this certification is intended to support BC producers. Although I’m not sure how this breaks out. The “or” implies that foreign-owned, locally operated businesses would work… so would Big Rock’s new Vancouver outpost qualify?

Rule #2: Brewed in BC, and in compliance with the BC BQA standard (follows):
Again, if we’re solely interested in pumping BC product no issues. Don’t worry folks, it gets good from here on out.

BCBQA Rule 1: <160,000 HL worldwide production, including affiliates.
There’s no rule that says you can’t brew great beer in quantity, and a cap like 160,000 HL means we’ll be running up against that sooner versus later. This is the same game that the US Brewers’ Association played: set it small to keep out the big guys and then be forced to continuously raise the limit as craft beer becomes popular, only they started at 2 MILLION HL. How did that work out for them, exactly?

Full of Deschutes Inversion IPA but you wouldn’t
want it since it’s not “craft.”

BCBQA Rule 2: Small batched brewed in max 150 hL batches.
It’s not enough to limit the absolute production. No siree, we have to put limits on the size of your kettle. Yes, a 150HL brewhouse is crazy-big compared to the 10-30HL brewhouses used in most craft breweries, but who cares how big the kettle is? What if a brewery has two brewhouses? Can they label the stuff brewed in the little one BCBQA while the exact same beer form the big brewhouse isn’t? Who’s checking? And seriously, that 149.99HL kettle puts out golden awesome-juice, but a kettle 0.005% bigger sucks ass?

BCBQA Rule 3: All-grain malt (wheat or barley) for at least 80% of annual production.
This is a terrible rule for a few reasons. First, where’s rye in that mix? Second, does this rule out adjuncts? If so, many local craft breweries would have a serious problem meeting that 80% rule, despite their beer being great. Another downside: this rules out alternative breweries like the ill-fated Maynestream’s all-ginger lineup. I’d like to think that this rule only addresses fermentables, but the very next rule decidedly includes non-fermentables in a list of what’s allowed in the last 20%.

BCBQA Rule 4: Remaining 20% of annual products can include ingredients for recipes that enhance creative craft beer development such as: honey, fruit, herbs, spices, gluten free ingredients.
That’s great. We can still be crazy, creative craft brewers so long as we use ingredients from a specific list. Nothing encourages creativity like a formal list of acceptable actions. Also missing are what happens if a brewer picks something not on this list like, say, boxes of breakfast cereal. Between the 80% all-barley/wheat and the 20% “from this list” rules there’s no leftover room to mess around, so are you out of the BCBQA because you put some Cap’t Crunch in there?

BCBQA Rule 5: Made with a majority of raw materials which are grown in British Columbia; or made with a majority of raw materials which are not grown in British Columbia but are 100% processed and packaged in British Columbia
Does water count? Because if water counts we can just skip this freak rule. If not, we’re forced to deal with the fact that the vast majority of BC Craft Beer is brewed with foreign grown, foreign malted barley and imported hops. If this does pass, Gambrinus Malting must be breaking out the champagne. Also, what does “majority” mean? By ingredient count? Mass in brew? Mass in end product?

BCBQA Rule 6: Cannot use High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as an adjunct to fermentation for production alcohol
Oh thank Gord, no HFCS. That’s the devil sauce, and drinking it will kill you. Okay fine, it’s the product that America actually is slowly killing itself with but why outlaw this one sugar source? I can use raw dextrose extracted from boiled-down baby organs, but not HFCS? What gives?

But sucralose is cool? (not) Sweet!

BCBQA Rule 7: No artificial preservatives or preservation additives
On the surface, I have no beef with this one but again, I wonder about enforcement. Who decides if that water treatment you added constitutes a preservative? What’s artificial vs natural?

BCBQA Rule 8: Posted shelf life of no more than 8 months with the exception of barley and bottle conditioned beers that require a longer cellaring process. Must use standardized date coding.
Now this one is just a mess. Are they saying that cellared beers must be both barley-based and bottle conditioned? Not all barley wines or russian imperial stouts are bottle conditioned, and definitely most sours would fail the #3 rule above. Also, 8 months seems rather arbitrary. Most fresh hopped ales would have degraded significantly by then while stouts wouldn’t be as affected. Maybe, I dunno, let the brewers figure out how long their beers are good for?

BCBQA Rule 9: Annual compliance statement by owner or GM that they are following all of the aforementioned rules.
Right, because no one ever lies. No audits. No independent reviews. Vague, hard to define standards, and self reporting. It’s almost as if this whole standard was written and overseen by a group of brewers instead of consumers. Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened.

This whole thing sounds convoluted and arbitrary because it is. It’s hard to write down “Not Molson, not Labatt, not Kokanee, and definitely not Pacific Western” in a brewing standard. If you do, you wind up with the above list, focused on intractable minutia while ignoring the actual quality of the beer.

By taking an exclusionary approach (“us” but not “them”), the BC Craft Brewers’ Guild has not only repeated the mistake of the US Brewers’ Association, they are singling out the big BC and Canada breweries and discouraging them from coming to the light and producing good beer while blindly promoting smaller brewers as “craft” regardless of actual quality. If Pacific Western were to produce an amazing sour tomorrow, why wouldn’t we want it on the shelf right beside the latest Yellow Dog?

In short, it’s a load of hogwash that benefits basically nobody but the breweries who want to partake. And believe me, that list of participants won’t be the local craft breweries, but rather the big ones interested in broader distribution and grocery store sales. I eagerly await this proposal’s passage and first amendment to bump the 160,000 HL annual limit.

Written by chuck

February 13th, 2015 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Beer and You

Government, Booze and Your Health

with 5 comments

Happy Sportball Day! No doubt everyone within your eyesight is pouring cheap liquor down their throats and enjoying an afternoon full of FOOTBALL! I’m not sure why you have to yell FOOTBALL! every time you say it on Superbowl Sunday, but you just do. FOOTBALL!

In any event, while pretty much everyone out there is getting all liquidated, I’m embarking on an entirely different path. No, no, no. I’m not doing one of those no-beer-month things that everyone tries once or twice before declaring Fuck That Noise and abandoning the concept. Nope, I’m doing something much more… interesting.

Like “Non-Conventional Intoxicants June!”

You see, I’ve vowed to live February in strict adherence to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Guidelines, as established by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. Now, I know what you’re thinking: a government research institute titled the “Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse” must just be a non-stop John Belushi-themed party, right? Well, no. Turns out they’re all a bunch of fucking downers.

Despite my initial beliefs, their guidelines for alcohol consumption are not actually modelled on the average day of Hunter S Thompson but more on the aspirational intentions of Debbie Downer (I say aspirational because, despite outward pretences, Ms Downer is actually hardcore into the horse).

So what are these guidelines? You can look yourself, but why bother going over there and reading some egghead rules on alcohol consumption when you can just trust me to list them out for you. So here goes:

1/ For men, 15 drinks max a week. For women, 10.
2/ Daily limit of 3 drinks for men, 2 for women.
3/ If you’re really tying one on (aka “special occasions”) limit yourself to 4 drinks for men, 3 for women.
4/ When drinking, don’t consume more than 2 drinks in any given three hour period.
5/ Have two non-drinking days per week.
6/ For every alcoholic drink, have a non-alcoholic drink.

These all seem fairly reasonable on the surface. I mean, sure we occasionally just cut loose, but a limit of 4 pints in a day doesn’t seem too conservative. Oh wait. Those are “standard drinks” or, in beer terms, “12 ounces of 5.0%ABV ale.” Yeah, if those pints are Fat Tug you sailed past your daily “special occasion” limit 2/3 of the way through pint number 2.

In fact, at 2.33 standard drinks per pint, even if I really wanted a pint of Fat Tug I’d need to nurse that pint over three whole hours because of rule #4. Rule #4, in fact, means that I will have to consume liquor slower than my body metabolizes it. Yup, for February I’m everyone’s DD, because strict adherence to these rules mean I cannot actually be drunk at any point this month. Yay me.

Or, to put it another way, when Driftwood inevitably drops Singularity on us this month, it will take me over half a week to drink a single bottle.

So yeah, I’m doing this thing. I’ll update throughout February on how well I’m doing (anyone got an over/under on my first violation?), as well as provide some insight into why these rules have been set at the levels they’re at. I get the feeling this will be a rough month.

Written by chuck

February 1st, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Posted in Beer and You