I come from the land of light ales. It took me three decades to realize this, and when I say it to some of my fellow Brits, they think I am unpatriotic and are visibly shocked. We shock easily over here, perhaps through being borne of such sober preferences. As a doctor I should approve of the British love for weak beer. Tightly defined over-consumption of alcohol is a popular target for health campaigners in the U.K. right now. Their aim is to persuade our state-funded healthcare system to spend more to reverse the non-existent rise in mortality. In an age when far fewer people of tax-paying age are actually ill, healthcare marketmakers need to encourage a fear that they may become so. This issue is the latest in a long series of conflicts of interest faced by the medical beer writer. Over the past three decades there have been dozens. The hairiest one was a near miss. In 1992, the first edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium & Holland began my long dawdle to beer writing prominence. At the time, I was also becoming established locally as a young consultant psychiatrist set on being a future opinion leader, epitomized by my successful crafting of the politically awkward Suffolk County Strategy Against Alcohol & Drug Misuse. These publications shared three things—lousy titles, the same author and an identical launch date. The contact details directing regional media where to obtain more information or interviews were also remarkably similar. A potentially embarrassing situation was averted by the fact that in those days doctors urging people to drink less was “news,” while beer writers directing them where to drink better was “features.” In most media, this meant two rival teams, who never spoke to each other. I convinced myself that to avoid trouble with doctors’ regulatory bodies, I should “go legit.” So I wrote a piece for the Bulletin of the Royal College of Psychiatrists about the similarities between brewers and mental health professionals. (“Some talk their beers up and most adjust them with chemicals,” and so on.) I thought naively that my dual interests might be of use to some of my employers. At a government-sponsored meeting of public health physicians to discuss the statistical link between the falling price of alcohol relative to wages and the rising tide of alcohol-related illness, I pitched in that the price fall was largely a result of changes to the law that had allowed supermarkets to sell (piss poor) beers and other drinks at rock bottom prices, which was bad not only for health but also for quality producers. The professors and politicos who made up most of the audience looked at each other across the room and I realized I had become completely invisible. Rarely have I been so conscientiously ignored. In the same spirit, I agreed to pen a piece for the national magazine of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) on how to avoid accidentally descending into alcoholism. It was a compilation of the less hysterical, more evidence-based and authoritative advice on how much beer you can drink before it starts to affect your health. That was when I discovered anonymous hate mail and began to understand the concept of “things best left unspoken.” There was an up side, though. As news got round health circles about my night job, I found revered leaders in my profession, acknowledged world authorities on stuff that really matters, seeking me out to ask where to drink in Antwerp or whether Rodenbach Grand Cru might impress a claret drinker. Over a beer or two, I would trade my knowledge for theirs. Being a serious beer lover does not bring the same collection of secret signs and handshakes found in some elitist groups, but it does bring a common bond that leads more easily to mutual trust and a slightly subversive willingness to share secrets. By the time I semi-retired from my day job last year, to devote more time to lambic studies, I was a board-level director of a healthcare organization that employs 2,000 people and spends $150 million of tax payers’ money each year. Right until the end my CEO attributed my uncanny ability to predict the next change in policy to a talent for deduction coupled with exceptional luck. How could I explain to him that it was usually down to a chat with one of my beer buddies? Maybe if he had drunk more he could have understood.
Tim Webb writes Good Beer Guide Belgium and is lead author of Lambicland. He is currently compiling a major book on international craft brewing, for publication in 2012.