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‘I dream of opening a brewery, but is promoting alcohol wrong?’

Agony uncle
Illustration: Emma Peer

Q: I love the odd beer and in recent years have become a bit of a connoisseur, as well as starting to brew my own. Those who have tried it have been very complimentary about my beer. I’m really fed up in my current line of work and this could become a vocation for me as well as providing an eco-friendly alternative to corporate breweries. I was excited about my plan until a conversation with a friend who let slip that he really disapproved of it as a business venture. My friend enjoys the odd half pint but is of the strong opinion that any promotion of alcohol is bad. Globally, millions of deaths each year are attributable to alcohol consumption and my friend has a family history of alcohol abuse so has seen first-hand the devastation it can cause. Is there such thing as responsible drinking or drink promotion?

A: As I write this, England is in a national lockdown to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. I’m not a fan of lockdowns: they are a sign of public-health policy failure and have deleterious social consequences, like the rise in domestic violence we have been seeing. But one small silver lining of the enforced restrictions on our movement has been the turn towards local and small businesses in our consumption patterns. Just down the road from me is a locally owned brewery, and a few young cyclists can now regularly be seen delivering cartons of freshly brewed ales around the neighbourhood. For this brewery, the pandemic has been a boon and receiving its drinks has added some variation to otherwise monotonous evenings.

An eco-friendly small business that sells something that local people want is obviously a good thing. From a labour perspective, one that pays its employees well above a living wage, encourages trade union membership and has democratic internal structures is even better. And that’s before you consider the way a small brewery acts as a necessary corrective for the wider industry. This is a sector dominated by a handful of huge transnationals; after a $100-billion merger in 2016 with SABMiller, the Belgian company AB InBev was said to produce a third of the world’s beer. And the investigative journalist Olivier van Beemen’s work into the activities of Heineken in Africa has revealed the textbook way in which large corporations with addictive products can play a nefarious role in the Global South.

My contention is that since people are always going to enjoy alcohol and have done since time immemorial, you’re doing a good thing by setting up an ethical alternative. But this is unlikely to convince your friend. To have had a personal relationship with alcoholism must surely change one’s perspective: from losing friends to suffering at the hands of abusive family members, it is not hard to see how someone might associate the sight of moderate drinking with the worst of human behaviour. The socio-economic angle here cannot be ignored either: a 2017 study in The Lancet found that ‘heavy drinkers from deprived areas are at a greater risk of dying or becoming ill’ than others.

This is where your friendship comes into play. The implication of your friend’s criticism is that their experience outweighs yours. But what about your life, and the fact that this enterprise would offer a way out of a job you’re fed up with? Friendship requires negotiation and I can’t see any evidence of this. Perhaps your job, therefore, is to convince them that what you’re setting up isn’t a drinking hole that will abet alcoholism, but a gastronomic and social endeavour. You could commit to setting up a physical space where locals can try freshly brewed drinks, as do many small breweries, and put the emphasis on the conviviality, the pub quizzes, the food – even let community groups use the space. This wouldn’t be a den of iniquity but a hub of socially distanced social life, at a time when we have never needed such spaces more.

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