All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 5
November 1, 2001 By

There’s a lovely invitation in a recent Schlafly Growler, a monthly newsletter put out by Tom Schlafly, owner of the Saint Louis Brewery and Tap Room. That’s the other St. Louis (MO) Brewery, the second largest brewery in that city. It reads:

“Free Beer on Your Birthday. Certain conditions and restrictions apply. Offer is available only to females born on November 25, 1981. Offer is valid only on November 25, 2002. Only twins are eligible. Offer is limited to individuals who have been charged with one or more liquor violations in the state of Texas. Offer is limited to the immediate family of an incumbent President of the United States. Valid identification required.”

A little late in my view. The invitation should have been made for November 25, 1996. Jenna, and her sister, Barbara, would have been old enough to drink legally that long ago—if only they lived in Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, France, Georgia (the one in Russia), Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand. But, of course, Tom can’t be faulted for that.

We are one of only five countries in the world to hold that adults must reach the advanced age of 21 to indulge in libations of an alcoholic nature. (The other four are Russia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Ukraine). The Bush twins could also have traveled to Canada, without daddy’s permission, where 19-year-olds can and do drink at their will. Iceland and Japan, of course, don’t allow drinking until the adults are 20. Most other civilized nations hold to 18 as a reasonable age to imbibe alcohol beverages (ICAP Report, issue #4, 3/98).

Actually, as I see it, it is very dangerous to make young people wait until they are 21 to consume. They cause us no end of trouble for that reason. Where did the reader go when he or she was 18? Did you abstain? Or did you go out in someone’s car to get totally blotto? Maybe you got someone pregnant, or maybe you got pregnant in that car. And incidentally, how many of us were actually conceived in such a situation?

If a young person is old enough to be convicted of an adult crime, old enough to be drafted (and killed in the defense of our country), how can we then say they are not old enough to drink? If we believe that they are old enough to share in our government by voting, how can we tell them they must abstain from alcohol consumption? Either they is or they ain’t!

How to Resolve the Problem?

I’m certain there are many who will protest the idea of lowering the drinking age to 16 or 18. Well, it is certainly true that some people simply are not ready for alcohol consumption at that, or any, age. And, yes, alcohol misuse is very troublesome in our society.

It is, in fact, one of our society’s greatest problems. One in four US children live in a household where an adult abuses alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has determined that 19 million school children live in such homes. That same government agency tells us that 14 million adults abuse or are dependent on alcohol. One can question the government’s statistics, but we must acknowledge that there is indeed a major problem here. According to Bridget Grant, in a 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey, alcohol abuse and dependence “are the two most prevalent and deleterious psychiatric disorders in the world.”

But are we approaching the problem rationally? In 1997, Scott Krueger, a freshman and Phi Gamma Delta fraternity pledge at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, died of alcohol poisoning (blood alcohol 0.4 percent). He had drunk beer, and then under the tutelage of a fraternity “big brother,” he also drank some 41 ounces of Jack Daniels and spiced rum (according to some reports).

Last fall, we were treated to the spectacle of MIT president Charles Vest groveling at the Kruegers’ door, with a $4.75 million check, and a $1.25 million scholarship in Scott’s name. But his remedy went no further than yet another “Just Say No.” It was them terrible “binge” drinkers! Stop binge drinking, and we cure the system. Duh! And where were Scott’s parents when it was time to teach him how to manage drinking situations? Just say no. (Newsweek 9/25/2000)

Some say that our young people are entirely out of control. We, of course, don’t have to walk in their shoes. We’ve survived our adolescence; let them do the same. But we’ve dumped the whole world in their laps. The average 14-year-old boy is faced with more female upper torso flesh in one day than I got in my whole 14th year. I have seen 13- and 14-year old girls berating a classmate because he didn’t show a satisfactory bulge. And we all know what happens to young girls who fail to exhibit an appropriate bust pattern. The young males in their life can, and will, be quite cruel. Did I mention violence?

Just say no. Ham-fisted government regulations are not the answer.

Educated Drinking

Our Belgian friends may have found an answer. According to the prestigious British newspaper, The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk, June 2001), “…(I)n Belgium where quaffing ale is a national sport, schools are to start supplying pupils with beer at lunchtime believing it to be healthier than fizzy drinks.” It turns out that a Belgian beer club, De Limburgse Biervrienden (Limburg Friends of Beer), approached some 30 schools in that agriculturally dominated Dutch-speaking province at the border of The Netherlands province of the same name, with an offer to provide beer as a substitute to such beverages as Coke and Pepsi. In a pilot project, aimed at 3- to 15-year olds, some 80 percent of the children enjoyed the substitution. Other schools were expected to join the experiment this fall.

They didn’t get barley wine, of course. They barely even got alcohol, because the beer offered was a popular family beer style called tafelbier (table beer), and they had a choice between bitter (an ale) and lager, 2.5 to 4 percent alcohol by volume. The bottles were the 8-ounce or 11-ounce sizes. And most of them had probably drunk that beer at home quite regularly. Belgians consider this low alcohol beer to be far healthier than soft drinks and fruit juice, which a Belgian study (www.guardian.co.uk, June 2001) showed to be a major factor in obesity and cancer in children. Biervrienden chairman Rony Langenaeken told reporters that beer is healthier (for children) because “It’s good for their figure and very healthy as well.” The story was also featured in the Belgian newspaper, Dagblad De Limburger.

Better than Coke

I am also reminded of another recent statistic (documentation forgotten) showing that the average 14-year-old American boy drinks some eight cans of soda pop daily. And I remember that my college swimming coach told us that we’d be a lot better off drinking beer than Coca-Cola, as Coke can rot your teeth; something I preached to my own high school swim teams in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

In any case, it is common knowledge that Europeans (with drinking ages of 16 to 18) have far fewer youth drinking problems than we do, although they are not bereft of that blight.

We need to lower the drinking age, because it is clear that we can’t expect our young people to manage alcohol beverages without learning to do so under some supervision. If we lower the age at which young people can purchase alcohol on premises, they will generate far fewer problems than they cause now, when any purchase is illegal for them. Drinking in public houses and at home does not mean that they should be allowed to purchase alcohol beverages for off-premises consumption.

Most of my friends in the alcohol beverage manufacture and distribution business raise their children to have a keen understanding of the perils involved in consumption. These young people are served beer and other alcohol beverages at home. They learn to monitor their sobriety and drinking behavior in the presence of their parents.

In the old days, before the federal government intervened, most states with under-21 drinking laws allowed consumption only of beer at 4 percent ABV—the notorious “3.2” beer (4/3.2 percent ABV/W). This would have the very beneficial effect of forcing most bars to provide such low alcohol beer for young people and for the rest of us who also need a lower alcohol alternative to the heavy beers becoming so prevalent.

Allowing young people to drink low alcohol beer would have a salutary effect on consumption and deportment as they would drink in the company of their elders in public houses and taverns across the country. And it would certainly lower the so-called “binge drinking” effect. Better to drink in a bar than in a car.


Fred Eckhardt
Fred Eckhardt lives, writes and drinks beer in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Essentials of Beer Style and Saké (USA).