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I first met alcohol in the late 1980s. It was the morning after one of my parents’ parties. My sister and I, aged nine or 10, were up alone. We trawled the lounge for abandoned cans. I remember being methodical: pick one up, give it a shake to see if there’s anything inside and, if there is, drink! I can still taste the stale, metallic tang of Heineken on my tongue. Just mind the ones with cigarette butts in.

But it was at university that booze and I became properly acquainted. My memory of my first week is of social anxiety offset by cheap alcohol – a harbinger of the next four years. At one ball, I drank so much free wine that I vomited the stud out of my nose and down the sink. My diary entry that night consisted of four oversized words scrawled in turquoise pen: “drunk + sick / Freshers’ Ball”. But that was how it was: sometimes you were the one bundling people into a taxi, sometimes you were the one being bundled.

No other generation drank as much in their early 20s in Britain as those born around 1980 (Credit: Maciej Dakowicz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Recently, I started to wonder if my generation’s relationship with alcohol was abnormal. When I looked into the numbers, I realised that it was.

I discovered that 2004 was Peak Booze: the year when Brits drank more than they had done for a century, and more than they have done in the decade since. Leading the way to this alcoholic apogee were those of us born around 1980. No other generation drank so much in their early 20s. Why us?

In 2004, we were drinking 9.5 litres of pure alcohol – the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine – each year

Everyone in alcohol research knows the graph. It plots the change in annual consumption of alcohol in the UK, calculated in litres of pure alcohol per person. (None of us drinks pure alcohol, thankfully; one litre of pure alcohol is equivalent to 35 pints of strong beer.) In 1950, Brits drank an average of 3.9 litres per person. Look to the right and at first the line barely rises. Then, in 1960, it begins to creep upward. The climb becomes steadier 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 litres of alcohol per person – the equivalent of more than 100 bottles of wine – each year.

It’s impossible to untangle the forces behind the graph’s every rise and fall, but I’ve talked to researchers who have studied our relationship with alcohol. They told me how everything from recessions to marketing to sexism has shaped the way the British drink. This is the story of that research, and of what it tells us about the ascent to Peak Booze. It begins more than half a century ago, in the pub.

The postwar 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 fag 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, buying and selling goods, including hot pies and bootlaces.

In this 1985 photograph, customers – mostly men – gather at a pub in Northumberland (Credit: David Davies/Alamy Stock Photo)

And, of course, drinking. In post-war Britain, much of the drinking took place in pubs. It was mainly men that drank there, generally 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.

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% alcohol content of many lagers, and suited British drinking habits. “Mild [a type of beer] was about 3%,” says 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 UK 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.

Lager suddenly exploded, very quickly, after years of unsuccessful marketing – Pete Brown

But you can’t keep the drinks industry down. The brewers promoted lager intensively after World War II. In the generation that came of age in the late 1960s – one thirsty for change – they finally found an audience. “Lager suddenly exploded, very quickly, after years of unsuccessful marketing,” says Brown. “We were still doing most of our drinking in pubs, they were still male-dominated environments, the beers were still the same strength. But [Dutch brewer] Heineken in its advertising used ‘refreshment’ as a key benefit for the very first time in British beer advertising.”

When the ads first aired in 1974, the campaign was doing “okay”, says Brown. But when Britain experienced unusually hot summers in 1975 and 1976, the refreshment angle gelled. Suddenly, lager started selling.

Heineken used the idea of ‘refreshment’ for the very first time in British beer advertising, a game-changer for lager consumption in the UK (Credit: Getty Images)

Heineken’s television ads were game-changers. They promised a lager that “refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”. In one, a man sits in an armchair reading a newspaper, surrounded by furniture covered in sheets. Hearing someone approach, he leaps up and pretends to study the wallpaper. Enter his wife, angry. The decorating must be done by the time she’s back. The man waits until he hears the car door shut, then sits back down and lifts a small dustsheet to reveal a tankard of foaming Heineken. Off to his side, we see his pet dog whistling, roller in paw, painting the wall. A Scandinavian-sounding voiceover says, “So you see, Heineken even refreshes the pets other beers cannot reach.” It’s bizarre but distinctly British: the nagging wife and recalcitrant husband, and the absurd painting pet, which references the “Dulux dog”, an Old English Sheepdog used in the UK to advertise a popular brand of paint.

Lager is firmly lodged in British identity

Decades later, I can recall the slogans from other lager ads of the time: “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label” and “Australians wouldn’t give a Castlemaine XXXX for anything else”. On holiday with my cousins, sometime in the late 1980s, I remember one of the older boys emulating the swaggering walk of the bear used to promote Hofmeister.

English football fans watch a World Cup match, lagers in hand; the drink is closely associated with British identity (Credit: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary/Alamy Stock Photo)

The ads paid off. Between 1971 and 1985, annual sales of ale and stout fell by 10 million barrels, while sales of lager grew by nearly 12 million barrels. Lager now accounts for some three-quarters of total UK beer sales. The drink is firmly lodged in British identity: it’s the pint of choice for banter-loving, football-watching blokes. And that helped the alcohol industry realise the extent to which it could reshape drinking traditions – which it has been doing ever since.

Bottled up

Around the same time, British drinkers were also developing a taste for another foreign import: wine. In 1960, wine accounted for less than one-tenth of British alcohol consumption. But a few years later the government made it easier for British supermarkets to sell wine. The amount drunk nearly quadrupled by 1980, and then nearly doubled again between 1980 and 2000. In a survey of 4,000 UK adults published early this year, 60% said they chose wine over other alcoholic drinks.

One of the biggest effects of wine’s popularity is that it took drinking outside of pubs – and into homes (Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Stock Photo)

This extra drinking helped push us to Peak Booze, but wine is also important because it’s mostly drunk at home. It’s one reason why the pub is no longer the sole focus of British drinking. “The popularisation of wine represents one of the most significant developments in British drinking cultures over the last half-century – and it has been driven primarily by sales in off-licenses and supermarkets,” writes James Nicholls, Director of Research and Policy Development at Alcohol Research UK.

The story of wine in Britain is also the story of female drinkers. Pubs were traditionally not particularly welcoming to women. As the authors of ‘The Pub and the People’ noted, women were excluded from certain rooms: “Vault and taproom are for men only, [taboo] to women, who drink in the parlour. And beer is a penny a pint more in the parlour.” Another custom was that women didn’t stand at the bar. Even the researchers who compiled the report used language we’d now consider sexist. One observer described a pub waitress as “a plump piece well painted”. The book also features a “dossier on some of the pub whores”.

The story of wine in Britain is the story of female drinkers

“Drinking spaces always excluded women, until fairly recently,” Clare Herrick, a geographer at King’s College London, told me. There was also the idea that “women should drink sweet sherry, or have a half-pint, not a pint.” This, she argues, came from the fear of women becoming more masculine than men, competing with men, drinking the same drinks as men. I remember experiencing the tail end of this culture when ordering beers as a student. The barman pulled a pint for my male friend and then reached, without asking, for a half-pint for me.

‘It takes a bold girl to ask for a Guinness’, says this 1970s advertisement (Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Today, it’s taken for granted that a woman can walk into a pub and order whatever she wants. It’s largely the result of the profound change in women’s financial and social status over the past half-century. It’s also a big part of why my generation drank so much. Alcohol consumption by women almost doubled in the three decades leading up to Peak Booze, a change that was one of the “key drivers” of the UK’s increased consumption.

The rave wave

The 1980s were an unusual time for the drinks industry. After 30 years of near-continuous increases, British drinking pretty much levelled out between 1980 and 1995 – the nation’s thirst reined in, perhaps, by the high unemployment that gripped the country. But the alcohol industry had not pressed pause. It was preparing to target a new generation of drinkers, and would go on to transform the places Brits drank in. These changes would set the scene for one of the most rapid increases in alcohol consumption seen in the last century.

One of the industry’s initiatives was the introduction of a new category of drink – a drink with origins in a culture that once posed a threat to alcohol companies.

As clubbing became popular in the 1980s, pub attendance fell and alcohol consumption levelled out (Credit: Maciej Dakowicz/Alamy Stock Photo)

Rave culture was part of my generation’s adolescence, even if the closest some of us got to it was buying glow-in-the-dark bracelets and smiley-face T-shirts. I still remember the Shamen’s number-one hit, with its “Es are good” chorus. My friends and I sang along, even if we didn’t know for ourselves.

But there wouldn’t have been many smileys in alcohol company boardrooms: ravers didn’t want beer when they had ecstasy. That’s probably part of the reason pub attendance fell 11% between 1987 and 1992. The industry’s solution wasn’t long in coming, however. It began when the government used new legislation to force rave entrepreneurs into what alcohol policy consultant Phil Hadfield calls a stark choice: “work within the system… or be closed down”. Some chose the latter option, but the more successful started licensed indoor dance venues, such as the Ministry of Sound in London.

Ravers didn’t want beer when they had ecstasy

The drinks industry wasn’t going to miss an opportunity like that. It saw a chance “to reposition alcohol as a consumer product which could compete in the psychoactive night time drugs economies,” according to alcohol researchers Fiona Measham and Kevin Brain. The industry launched new and stronger drinks, which it targeted at a young and culturally diverse crowd. First were strong bottled lagers, beers and ciders. Then came alcopops, including Hooch, in the mid-1990s. A few years later, drinks containing stimulants such as caffeine and guarana arrived. It was all part of the industry’s desire to recast alcohol from a bloating depressant into a pleasant-tasting, stimulating drink that fitted the youth culture. The dance scene, say Measham and Brain, helped bring about a “revolution in the 1990s alcohol industry”.

Smirnoff Ice and other alcopops became popular with the younger set in the 1990s (Credit: Everynight Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

The industry was also hard at work transforming British pubs. Soon after alcopops were introduced, pub chains such as the Firkin Brewery decided to convert old buildings – banks, theatres, even factories – into new drinking warehouses, often in city centres. Expanses of glass replaced external brick walls. This overhaul, argue Measham and Brain, was designed to attract “a new customer base… whose leisure sites were to be found in dance clubs, gyms, shopping centres”. Not just old men, in other words.

Smaller, higher tables replaced lower ones with seats, because drinkers are thought to consume more when they stand

Shots were popular in these new pubs. Whisky chasers had accompanied beer in Scotland for years, but shots for their own sake were new to the rest of the UK. Also new were members of bar staff coming to tables to sell the shots, sometimes dispensed from guns or holsters.

New pubs were designed with characteristics like few tables and noisy surroundings, which encouraged people to drink more (Credit: David Gee/Alamy Stock Photo)

What the industry calls “vertical drinking” was the norm in these new venues. Smaller, higher tables replaced lower ones surrounded by seats, because drinkers are thought to consume more when they stand rather than sit. The loss of surfaces forced customers to hold onto drinks, making them drink faster. Noisy surroundings made chatting harder, so people drank instead. “Most bars have cleared out their interior walls and furniture to accommodate more of what the industry names ‘mass volume vertical drinkers’ (with the heart-warming humanistic touch for which it is famous),” write Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, a sociologist and a criminologist who have studied Britain’s night-time economy.

Some pub managers were offered £20,000 bonuses if they used sales techniques – like upselling singles to doubles – to exceed revenue targets

Marketing practices in pubs, bars and clubs, including happy hours and other drinks deals, encouraged the British to drink more, too. In 2005, when changes in the law allowed pubs to stay open for longer, managers at some large vertical-drinking pubs were reportedly offered bonuses of up to £20,000 if they used sales techniques – upselling singles to doubles, for instance – to exceed revenue targets. All this was happening as the real cost of purchasing alcohol, allowing for inflation and changes in disposable income, fell every year from 1984 to 2007. As one liver consultant put it to me: “My patient who’s drinking 100–120 units per week can afford to buy three times as much alcohol now as they did in the mid-1980s.”

‘Determined drunkenness’

These changes, from the falling price of alcohol to the marketing of stronger, more easily consumed drinks, are thought to be behind the rise of what researchers call “determined drunkenness”. Forty-somethings might get drunk on a night out, but it wouldn’t be their explicit aim. It increasingly was for those in their 20s. Young people “regard alcohol itself as crucial to a ‘good night’,” write the authors of the book ‘Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness: (Dis)orderly spaces’. They deliberately try to accelerate their drunkenness by ‘preloading’ at home before they go out, playing drinking games and mixing drinks.

Young people party at a university ball; in the 2000s, drinking, and getting drunk, increasingly became the domain of 20-somethings (Credit: CountryCollection - Homer Sykes/Alamy)

As the new century began, alcohol was easier to access, cheaper to buy and more enthusiastically marketed than it had been for decades. By 2004, Brits were drinking well over twice as much as they had been half a century earlier. The nation stood atop Peak Booze, and my generation was drinking the most.

By 2004, Brits were drinking well over twice as much as they had been half a century earlier

More than 500 people were killed by drunk drivers on British roads that year. Young drivers were most likely to have drink-drive accidents, and while a large majority of those drivers were men, women made up nearly a third of the casualties.

Alcohol makes many of us unpleasant; around half of violent offenders are thought by their victims to be under the influence of alcohol. There’s a horrifying scene in the 1996 film Trainspotting where one of the characters attacks a man in a pub by thrusting a full pint glass straight into his face. ‘Glassing’ is a common enough problem that some pubs have started using pint glasses made from plastic or strengthened glass that are very hard to smash. (It says something about British drinking culture that images from Trainspotting were used in the 10th anniversary press campaign for Revolution Vodka bars.)

It’s tempting to link the amount we drink with the frequency of alcohol-related harm, but it’s hard to do so definitively because many factors are involved. Drink-driving casualties have been falling since the 1970s, for example, probably due to media campaigns and better education for offenders. British roads might also be safer because more of our drinking now takes place at home. Still, the steady decline in drink-driving fatalities of the last 40 years was temporarily reversed between 1999 and 2004 – a period that closely matches the rapid rise in alcohol consumption that led to Peak Booze. We just don’t know if this is coincidence or causation.

In any case, the members of generation Peak Booze may well have harmed themselves already. There are no pain fibres in the liver, so we can’t feel damage we may be doing there. But the statistics roughly track consumption: annual alcohol-related liver deaths in England and Wales climbed steadily until around 2008, when the numbers levelled off. Several experts told me that changes – since reversed – in alcohol policy that made booze less affordable were having a positive effect on liver deaths. The incidence of alcohol-related deaths, which includes nervous system degeneration and poisoning as well as liver disease, also began falling a few years after Peak Booze. Again, we don’t know this is correlation or causation.

Young people drink on the street in London (Credit: Bazza/Alamy Stock Photo)

The trend seems different in the generation after mine. Young people are drinking less frequently, and more of them are teetotal. It could be financial hardship, an increase in the proportion that don’t drink for religious reasons, or increased time spent online. We don’t know whether the decline will continue. Still, this generation’s relative reluctance to drink is part of the reason UK alcohol consumption in 2013 was only 7.7 litres per person, the lowest since 1996 and nearly two litres lower than Peak Booze.

Drinking because you’re happy, because you’re sad, because there’s a random beer in the fridge – for many in my generation, all normal

For many in my generation, it’s still normal to go to the bar after work on Friday. Drinking because you’re happy, because you’re sad, because there’s a random beer in the fridge – also normal. Even in our thirties, with partners and babies and jobs and mortgages, we understand when someone loses their purse while drunk, vomits in a taxi or sleeps in their clothes and crawls into work with a hangover. In fact, drinking isn’t just normal to our generation. In some ways, it defines us. It’s hard not to think that this isn’t partly because we grew up watching alcohol adverts on the TV, surrounded by plentiful, cheap booze in the supermarket. Today the drinks commercials are more tightly regulated, but the wine-sponsored TV cookery contest and beer-branded football shirt are here, reminding us that alcohol is a normal part of everyday life.

Beyond the health risks and potential harm, that’s the more insidious aspect of Peak Booze: the mental baggage. A fair few of us are more dependent than we’d like to be on that cold glass of white wine or cheeky gin and tonic at the end of the day. It’s important to me to know that drinking is a choice, not a need. But if I choose not to drink for one night out, I find myself rambling an explanation, assuring people that, no, I’m not pregnant. The fact that staying sober for a month is seen as a feat of willpower and the subject of charity campaigns such as Dry January shows just how embedded alcohol is in our lives. It’s the grease that keeps many of our days moving.

This would be fine if we chose to be part of the drinking culture. Sometimes, it feels like it chose us.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Mosaic, and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

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