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What do you do when your identity as a craft beer connoisseur is disguising a worrying addiction?

What it's like to have an alcohol addiction in a city with a thriving craft beer scene.

A bottle of beer
Eeshan Garg

For the longest time I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic – I didn’t drink in the morning, I was still mostly coping at work, not everyone hated me at the same time, and I could go a week or two without drinking fairly easily. But now I think that these were convenient little lines I had established that I hadn’t yet crossed. They helped me ignore the reality that I was using alcohol as a way to turn my brain off in an effort to escape the stresses that were present in my life.

I realise now that I also used alcohol as a crutch to help me navigate social situations. I felt like one or two drinks took the edge off and made me feel more able to exist in a crowd and made interacting with people a bit easier. The problem was that I had real trouble stopping at one or two drinks.

My first experiences with alcohol were with workmates from my shelf-stacking job that I had in the village supermarket, on the outskirts of Stockport, at the age of 16. Going to the pub after most evening shifts for a couple of pints and to play some pool. There was a fair bit of throwing up and many spinning ceilings. I think I was sent home from the work Christmas meal for drunkenly throwing chips at my boss.

I quit that job to focus on my A-level exams and I then ended up deferring my place at university for a year to work as my brother's labourer. In the end I didn't go to uni and, partly as a result of the insular nature of my self-employment, partly due to my hobbies being quite solitary (video games/music), and partly due to being (at least) at the introverted end of the spectrum, my social circle collapsed.

Most of my binge drinking for the next 7 years was done at home with cans of Fosters, Carling, Holsten Pils, etc., whatever you could get from Bargain Booze in a slab of 24. My father and I would alternate whose turn it was to buy the slab and then mostly drink our beers apart - me in my bedroom and him on a bench outside, watching the stars.

These last 10 years or so of my drinking were more focused on craft beer. I think the first craft beer bar I went to was on a trip to Edinburgh with a group of people who were already much more aware of craft beer than I was. The bar had a range of stronger beer that I hadn’t really been exposed to before. They even had a 30%+ beer that they would only sell in shot glasses.

No one else would order it so I did. In reality it is weaker than a shot of vodka but it seemed forbidden so I had to have some. It wasn’t very nice. Maybe the other people I was with already knew that.

After I moved to Sheffield in 2014, which seemed to coincide with a rapid expansion of the craft beer scene, going around the bars and pubs - and attempting to be a part of that scene - became one of my main hobbies. I started to obsess about hops, yeasts, and all the different types and styles of beer. I was going on weeknight pub crawls along Ecclesall Road or London Road, heading to whichever new bar or bottle shop had opened recently and trying to establish myself as a regular. Going to local beer festivals. Starting to homebrew with a few friends. Deciding which brewery was my favourite at that point in time and then going to their tap room. Rating all the beers that I'd drank on an app so that my name would pop-up on the TV monitors in the pub. Dabbling with a semi-ironic beer review channel on YouTube.

I recognise now that these were all added-value activities to the central premise of finding a socially acceptable way to drink more alcohol, more often. The 4-5% supermarket lagers gave way to 5-6% IPAs, which gave way to 6-7% stouts and porters, which gave way to 7-8% DIPAs, which gave way to barley wines, TIPAs, and strange vintage recipes that had been rebrewed.

Suddenly I was able to view myself not as a regular pisshead but instead I was some sort of connoisseur, going around expanding my palate with these rare and exotic offerings.

Every couple of months there seems to be a newspaper story about the nationwide average price of a pint that whips people into an uproar, stating that they’ll never pay more than £4 per pint. £4 was nothing. I’ve easily paid £15 for a pint here in Sheffield. Maybe even more for half pints or cans of the heavy, 10%+, beers. This price is easily justified as you’re paying for a niche, exclusive product. They use a lot of hops and a lot of grain to make it. It’s good to support smaller, local, independent breweries and to pay a fair price so they can (hopefully) pay their workers fairly. It’s good to pay that much because it helps to separate you from someone drinking Special Brew or White Lightning – I am a gourmand on the cutting edge of beer instead of a problem drinker ultimately needing help.

I’ve got myself into many bad situations from my drinking, ranging from the mundane (being rude to people, doing ill-advised things, “terrors” the morning after, throwing up in strange places and having to clean it up, carrying a sandbag home from outside the Lyceum) to more serious problems (getting punched in the face in Shalesmoor, nearly getting stabbed on London Road, jumping through a shop window, drinking myself into a coma once, shitting myself) and all of these have happened whilst I have been out of the house drinking in bars and pubs.

I fully accept that ultimately I’m responsible for my own actions, but I have never once, that I can recall, been refused a drink at a bar, despite having been in some terrible states, fumbling to try and enter my pin number and ordering with badly slurred speech.

I feel that asking bartenders to cut people off when they've had enough is a flawed system. It places a huge amount of responsibility on low-paid staff who may not have institutional support. I don't know how you would fix it though.

I went through phases of recognising I was in trouble. I would attempt to moderate my own drinking by only drinking bitters, not drinking in the house, stopping at three pints, or having brief periods of focused sobriety. But each time, as either the general stress of life accumulated or the novelty of attempting to temper my drinking wore off, I would slip back towards my old habits and start racking up the units. The idea of 14 units of alcohol per week was laughable. I could easily do that in an evening without even really feeling it. Instead of thinking that my drinking was way over the limit, it was much easier to think the limit was comically under a regular amount of alcohol for a manual worker.

I am over seven months sober now, and I am committed to making it work this time. This time there was not a clear traumatic event directly before I stopped drinking. I think it was just a cumulative realisation that I couldn't carry on the way I had been doing. I still go to the pub for the quiz most weeks with some friends and will occasionally go there when it’s a nice day. I drink lime and sodas or occasionally an alcohol-free beer, although I don’t really see the point of them – I think I was mostly drinking beer for the drunkenness, although there were occasionally beers that tasted nice. I am trying to break the muscle memory.

Last month a customer offered my workmate a beer after we’d spent a day working in the hot sun. I felt immensely jealous of the instant camaraderie that act generated and how I had to refuse it. I went to the Sharrow festival and the Tramlines fringe and I could feel a strong contextual pull – to me it felt like most of the crowd were drinking cans of beer and in previous years that is what I would have been doing, except on a faster and scarier level. I drive past the pub on my way home on a summer's day and see all the other tradespeople sitting outside having a quick pint before they go home- just like I used to. I have resisted all these temptations so far and want to keep doing so.

by Matt Tate (they/them)
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