* * *
Everyone in alcohol research knows the graph. It plots the change in annual consumption of alcohol in the U.K., calculated in liters of pure alcohol per person. (None of us drinks pure alcohol, thankfully; one liter of pure alcohol is equivalent to 35 pints of strong beer.) In 1950, Brits drank an average of 3.9 liters per person. Look to the right and at first the line barely rises. Then, in 1960, it begins to creep upward. The climb becomes more steady during the 1970s. The upward trajectory ends in 1980, but that turns out to be temporary. By the late 1990s consumption is rising rapidly again. Come Peak Booze, in 2004, we were drinking 9.5 liters of alcohol per person—the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine.
It’s impossible to untangle the forces behind the graph’s every rise and fall, but I’ve talked to researchers who have studied Britain’s relationship with alcohol. They told me how everything from recessions to marketing to sexism has shaped the way Brits drink. This is the story of that research, and of what it tells us about the ascent to Peak Booze. In many ways it is not a story about how much we drink, but about who drinks what, and where. It begins well over half a century ago, in the pub.
During the late 1930s, a group of observers set out to record what went on in British pubs. The result was a book called The Pub and the People. The part of the pub where working-class men gathered was known as the vault: “Along the base of the bar counter, whose top is of well worn, well wiped mahogany, runs a line of scattered sawdust, about six inches wide, on to which people spit, throw [cigarette] ends, matches and empty cigarette packets.” The authors list the activities that took place there and elsewhere in the pub: talking, thinking, smoking, spitting, playing games, betting, singing, playing the piano, the buying and selling of goods, including hot pies and bootlaces.
And drinking, of course. In postwar Britain, much of the drinking took place in pubs. It was mainly men that drank there, and they generally drank beer. Relatively little changed in the two decades after The Pub and the People was published. It wasn’t until the 1960s that British drinking culture began to shift in more fundamental ways, and the beginnings of the era of Peak Booze can be seen.
Part of this change was about Brits learning—or being persuaded—to enjoy a drink they had long shunned. Josef Groll made the first batch of Pilsner, the light, golden beer we know as lager, in the Czech town of Pilsen in 1842. Word spread and, thanks to Europe’s developing train network, so did the drink. Soon brewers from Germany started to make their own Pils, and “Pilsner” no longer meant just a beer from Pilsen, but a new type of beer.
Lager spread around the world, but British drinkers of the time stuck to their home-brewed pale ales. These drinks were weaker than the 5 percent alcohol content of many lagers, and suited British drinking habits. “Mild [a type of beer] was about 3 percent,” says the beer writer Pete Brown. “Men who worked in factories and mines would drink pints and pints of it after work, partially to rehydrate without getting hammered.” It also suited the U.K. tax system, under which beer is taxed in proportion to its strength. Even Prince Albert enthusing about lager after a trip to Germany wasn’t enough to get British drinkers to switch.