Meditations on mindful drinking

Matthew Curtis makes a case for why it’s perhaps worth being a little more contemplative about our drinking in relation to our mental and physical health in 2019


A fundamental idea of craft beer is about drinking better. About drinking beer with world class malts, the freshest and most desireable hops—typically in abundance—and fermenting with increasingly diverse cultures of yeast and bacteria. In many cases it’s now also about drinking beer that’s undergone lengthy maturation in wine or spirit barrels, plus that added fifth ingredient of time that can make some beers taste wondrous. We say it loud and often, but yeah, it really is the greatest time to be a beer drinker. 

But does drinking better also mean we should also be drinking less? Or, at the very least, should we be increasingly mindful about not just what we drink but why we drink?

As the craft beer industry continues to thrive on what feels like an endless stream of new releases, specials and ultra-hyped collaborations it continues to feed consumer fervour. In return, that relentless desire to seek the new from beer drinkers pushes breweries to release even more new beers. It’s a feedback loop, and it’s one particular drone that’s beginning to give me a headache. 

It would be wrong of me to say I’m unhappy with the state of beer. The market is exciting and competitive, but most importantly of all it’s healthy. However, if it is to remain this way, then we as beer drinkers must also consider how we too can remain healthy. We cannot continue to plough through a slew of new releases every week, nor can we visit beer festivals every single week for months on end. 

“Well,” you might be thinking. “Actually we can.” And you’d be right of course. But if that cycle of behaviour continued would you be able to do it in 5, 10 or 20 years time? I enjoy beer. It’s one of my favourite things in this life, and I’d like to still be able to enjoy it for many years to come. To achieve this involves being conscious of how we treat both our minds and our bodies and putting in the intention to look after it. 

You are what you drink

I admit it, I just technically did ‘Dry January.’ By the time you read this I’ll be back on the sauce. However as I write this it’s only the 7th of the month and, admittedly, part of me wishes that this late evening cup of tea was actually a fresh, cold pilsner. 

It’s important to point out that I feel there is nothing heroic about taking a month off the booze and that I detest terminology that celebrates temporary abstinence such as Dryathlete. Taking a couple of weeks off beer is not that hard for the majority of folks. It’s important to know your reasons though, and despite having no alcohol related health problems I’m aware of, I did want to lose a little weight. 

Working in the beer industry, I am around beer all of the time. I love beer. So when presented with it, I want to drink it. Thankfully my experience of the industry in my own period of abstention has been a positive one. Me uttering “thank you, no, I’m having a month off” is met with respect. This is likely because the people also working in the industry offering me beer are also aware of the value of time off. 

What has quickly become apparent however, is that what I miss the most about drinking isn’t necessarily the beer itself, but the social interaction that stems from it’s consumption. As beer writer Pete Brown often says, “the reason beer is sticky when it dries is because it’s the social glue that keeps us together.” Never has that been more apparent than in this particular absence.

“Most people are drawn to beer because of how social it is,” Paul Jones, founder of Manchester’s Cloudwater brewery tells me. “There’s a beautiful simplicity in going to the pub and enjoying a beer. It might not even be the best beer in the world, but that’s fine when the main part of your experience is about being together.

A common thread between Jones and I is that we both practise mindful meditation when we can. I’ve been using a popular app called Headspace for over two years, which loosely leans on Buddhist meditation techniques (without ever getting too heavy). Essentially it’s like a little daily workout for your brain, and it helps you notice things. This practise can be easily applied to beer. It can be as simple as letting the liquid in your glass hold your complete attention, from first sip to last. Similarly it can help you manage (but importantly, not cure) things such as social anxiety, possibly even helping to make those moments in the pub all the more meaningful.

"The best thing about it is that it has always helped me achieve a deeper sense of closeness to the people I’m with"

At Cloudwater, Jones likes to play with the idea of mindfulness, even on his unsuspecting customers. If you ever happen to visit Cloudwater’s London taproom and have to use the facilities you may notice the sound of mindfulness exercises being piped into the room. This isn’t designed to be taken seriously of course—but it does perhaps demonstrate in a playful manner that the beer world could always do with a little extra headspace. 

“I’ve always found mindfulness to be a really interesting pursuit,” Jones says. “The best thing about it is that it has always helped me achieve a deeper sense of closeness to the people I’m with.”

While we’re on the subject of thinking about how and why we drink, I feel it’s also important to talk about mental health. This has been a much-discussed topic over the past few years, including in the beer world. And when you consider beer as a social lubricant, it’s vital to recognise the importance of how beer makes us feel, whether that is the deepest of lows or imbuing us with camaraderie and sense of place. 

Perhaps the most important thing when it comes to mental health is that we are continually having discussions about it, and how it affects us. This is especially true when we consider the effect the social aspect of the pub has on our well being. One person who has been leading the conversation through his blog, Beer Compurgation—which included giving detailed insight into his own experiences of mental illness in intense detail—is Mark Johnson. 

“People have been using the pub for social interaction, to combat loneliness and for positive mental health for many years, just with different levels of openness,” Johnson says. “The combination of the pub environment and a couple of pints gives me back self-control at the times things really turn dark.”

Despite this Johnson still feels that some pubs aren’t getting it right. For him, some are not creating spaces that feel welcoming to people visiting them with the hope of improving their mental wellbeing. He notes that the ones that do feel welcoming are usually thriving and key to this are staff that are mindful of their customers requirements without judgement. Proof perhaps that if mindfulness is to have a net-positive effect then it needs to occur from drinker and industry alike.

“Publicans aren’t being asked to be doctors or councillors,” Johnson continues. “But neither are customers going to walk in and say ‘I was close to taking my own life this morning so I’ve come for a pint.’ The sense of welcoming can be enough.”

Ready to start

As well as thinking about why we drink it can pay to be mindful about what beer—and more importantly, alcohol and all those extra carbs—can do to our bodies if left unchecked. Beer as a culture will remain ever-changing and exciting, so I feel that if we look after ourselves then we can take maximum enjoyment from all the beers we are yet to drink in the years to come.  

Some folks even go as far as to bringing the idea of keeping fit into their own beer lifestyle. With its global running club, Danish brewery Mikkeller is an excellent example of this (in fact it has now even gone as far as launching its own lifestyle fitness brand.) There’s even a sport called beer running, which involves drinking beer and distance running simultaneously. As (an admittedly very slow) runner myself the idea of drinking beer while pacing out a few gut-busting kilometres doesn’t really appeal. But I do agree that after a decent bit of exercise that first pint tastes all the sweeter. 

“A glass of cool, fresh beer after the run is almost the most delightful experience on Earth,” Lana Svitankova of Ukraine’s Varvar brewery tells me.

Although Svitankova’s love of running came before her love of beer, this didn’t stop her from integrating it into her lifestyle once she began working for a brewery. She also feels that running, as with beer drinking, is an effective way to fight stereotypes, as she points out that not every runner is a “wellness obsessed teetotaller” and not every beer drinker is an “overweight lazybones.”

“It’s not news that beer—especially paired with nice food and prolonged amicable sessions— won’t get you slimmer and fitter,” she says. “So going for a run is my way to balance everything out.”

Cycling is another sport that’s incredibly popular with beer drinkers. If you’ve been to a brewery taproom with merch for sale then you’ll likely see cycling jerseys among the rest of the t-shirts and hoodies, evidence of how popular the pastime is to those who love beer.

For co-founder of Leeds-based North Brewing and the legendary North Bar Christian Townsley the relationship between his beer and his bicycle is inextricably linked. Although he says that the natural temptation after a stressful day (which often involves tasting a lot of beer) is to veg out, exercise helps him break that temptation. 

“Riding clears my head and alleviates stress, it also offsets some of the calories I’m consuming,” Townsley tells me. “And I’m not great with a hangover, in terms of what it does to me mentally. The shadow of mental doom that hangs over me after a heavy night evaporates after an hour on the bike.”

North works with cycling company Paria to produce its own cycling merchandise. It also hosts an annual 50 mile bike ride that coincides with the launch of a special collaboration beer as well as supporting a pair of local cycling clubs. It’s fair to say that with North, cycling runs as deep in the blood as the beer they make. 

Practise what you preach

I’m acutely aware that writing about mental and physical well-being for a beer magazine is somewhat preachy. It’s not for me or anyone else in the beer world to tell you how to enjoy life. But I am also ever-conscious of the non-stop lifestyles we engage in. I love beer, I want to be out every weekend drinking what is probably too much of it. However I feel it also pays to ask yourself if each beer you take is a worthwhile, enjoyable experience. 

If you’re anything like me, beer isn’t just something you drink, or simply a hobby you enjoy—its a way of life. Visiting the pub is the chance to be with your people, and beer festivals are an even wider coming together of this community. My wish is that this community remains a positive place, and that we’re all still partying together years down the line. And in order to achieve this, we have to think about why we’re drinking, and about how we look after our bodies in the process. We only get one, after all. 

“We’re going through an incredible time in the beer industry, the speed at which it’s changing is unparalleled,” Townsley concludes. “I think it’s good for us to change perceptions and public opinions of beer drinkers and the industry in general, we can all enjoy brilliant beer without it having a really detrimental effect on our health.” 

“And I want to set a good example to my kids! Just because dad works in the beer industry doesn’t mean he’s unhealthy. It’s all about a balanced approach to life.”

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