One of the funny things about beer is the very real limit to how many you can drink. If you want to drink water, you can pretty much drink as much as you want before any terrible side effects start to occur. Same goes for coffee, tea, soda, La Croix Pamplemousse (it’s so good), and pretty much all non-alcoholic beverages. With light American lagers, you can drink a lot of them, but eventually you will start getting drunk. Drink a craft beer with an alcohol content over 5 percent and you’ll start feeling it in the first hour (depending on your size and tolerance, of course). As the percentage goes up, your body’s ability to metabolize the alcohol goes down. Craft beer has definitely seen the ABV (alcohol by volume) start to creep up. It’s not uncommon to see an 8 percent IPA or a 10 percent double IPA in a 16-ounce can, which obviously suggests that is the single serving size for a beer.
Surprise! It’s not! The serving size for beer is 12 ounces for 5 percent ABV. Even a 16-ounce, 7.5 percent beer is double the single serving size. A 16-ounce, 10 percent beer is almost three times the single serving size for an alcoholic beverage. Drinking a 16-ounce, 11.5 percent beer is the equivalent of drinking three shots of 80 proof hard liquor. It’s really a matter of larger format (more ounces) and higher alcohol content.
My first experience with a really big beer was Chicken Killer Barley Wine, a 10 percent ABV barley-wine-style ale from Sante Fe Brewing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was at a bottle share that mostly featured wine-wine, like from grapes. At the fancy wine party, I was the lone heathen to bring the brew of the barbarian hordes of the north, and deigned to call it “wine.” Because it was a bottle share, and because we were in wine drinking mode (smaller pours, slower drinking), intoxication was minimal. Even though my first really big beer experience went well, I have had times where the total volume of alcohol has caught up to me.
In grad school, there was a sports bar that had drink specials on Tuesdays, and I went with colleagues for just a few beers. I had three. I think they were Alien Amber Ale, a 5.2 percent amber ale from Sierra Blanca Brewing Co. in Moriarty, New Mexico. We ate food and drank water, and I was probably there for a couple hours. Should have been fine, right? I probably would have been, but the beers on special were 25-ounce pours, more than double the recommended serving size for a beer of that ABV. Even though I only had three beers, I drank the equivalent of a six pack of beer. I ended up walking around the campus for almost an hour, just to feel sober enough to drive home.
I’m not writing this to be a teetotaler or shame everyone who drinks to excess. On the contrary, I love drinking to excess. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. There’s nothing better than drinking four or five really delicious beers while sitting with really good friends and strangers. I like to do it so much that I intentionally live within walking distance of a good bar so I don’t have to drive to the bar ever. I’m writing this as a small critique of the bar industry (it’s messed up to serve beers in that size of a vessel on a casual night), a small critique of the beer industry (quit putting big beers in packages that encourage overconsumption), and as a critique for ourselves: Let’s pay attention to how much we drink and be safe when we drink too much. Consuming alcohol is a great hobby, but it’s definitely the most dangerous hobby a person can have.
Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.