Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Utopia [MUt1]

Sir Thomas More, who apparently coined the term "Utopia," and apparent "Mr. McGrumpypants."


I've found myself talking a lot about ideas lately, which is often a sign that I need to blog about something, because for some reason I feel better once it's been hammered out and available to the general public.  It's not logical, but it's a reproducible phenomenon so I'll go with it.

I'm sure we've all had ideas we think would change the world, our country or even our city or neighbourhood for the better.  I, too, have these and shall jot down a couple.  I've gone ahead and tagged the title as [MUt1] so that there will be a handy label available should I decide to write down  more ideas for improving things.

The Public House:

I'm certain that many of you have attended a so-called public house, potentially without knowing what it actually is.  This is where the "pub" gets its name.  A public house, as opposed to a private house, is a place in which friends and/or neighbours can come in, eat, drink and generally be merry.  In fact, it can (and in Britain and Ireland has been known to), function as a makeshift community centre where the locals or regulars may gather, celebrate, discuss, or even mourn together as a group.  This could, if executed properly, fix a problem I see with North American society.

The drinking of alcoholic beverages is an ancient tradition, and I'm not being hyperbolic.  It has been widely hypothesized that beer was instrumental in the building of Western society.  In an era where microbial life was ill-understood and water-borne illness was likely rampant, beer offered a safe drinking water source due to the boiling of the brew prior to fermentation.  The irony here is that the microbial life form yeast was used to out-compete and combat other hazardous microorganisms without a solid understanding of either, but I digress.

The practice appears to date back almost 11,000 years, near the beginning of agriculture and civilisation as we know it.  In fact, beer was so ingrained in our society, we depended upon it so heavily that individuals of Western descent have increased alcohol dehydrogenase concentrations in their gut (I'll clarify that this is the more colloquial use of the word "gut" because I don't actually know where it is).  Alcohol dehydrogenase is a catalyst (or "enzyme" because the catalyst is a protein and we CLEARLY need to memorize more science-y words to maintain exclusivity), which breaks down potentially-toxic ethanol into more biologically compatible or innocuous chemical species.  Let me reiterate that a little more simply, over the course of about 11ka, the blink of an eye from an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies changed to handle alcohol (in the West anyway, in the East the boiled beverage of choice was/is tea).  Either that, or those of us with better physiological tolerances were more likely to thrive and reproduce, as per the genetic algorithm that is life.  Either way, beer is so important to us as a species that it changed us at the same time it helped shape our societies.  It's still helping, by the way.  Beer represents 1% of Canada's GDP, and every dollar spent on beer becomes roughly $1.12 for municipal, provincial and federal governments. For a full hour of fascinating, beer-related discussion, this podcast is highly recommended.

My cousin and I once participated together in this millennia-old tradition.  It was delicious.
Now to the problem which I believe the public house could solve.  See that beer pictured above?  It was delicious, it was shared among friends, and it was thoroughly enjoyed.  It wasn't used solely as a means of getting drunk.  It sure could have been, and it would have been cheap, too.  You can brew about three standard drinks for the price of purchasing one at the Beer Store.  In North America, it seems that we view beer this way, however.  I remember seeing a lot of commercials that would have me believe that beer is only brought out at parties, or when large numbers of friends have congregated.  Never is it advertised as an alternative to carbonated soft drinks, despite the fact that it is much healthier.  Molson-Coors won't tell you that a nice, hoppy IPA is a perfect pairing with a strong-flavoured hamburger.  No, beer is marketed as a party beverage.

What is the consequence of this?  Well, oddly, in a university town where one would assume parties are far more pervasive, you will find more people that appreciate beer as an interesting beverage and not as a means of intoxication.  Places like my hometown in the middle of rural Ontario haven't quite figured this out, and their knowledge is based more on marketing.  This is why I will get strange looks if I order a beer to accompany my lunch, or I can expect a strange look from boomers if I sit down to enjoy a beer in the afternoon whereas they wouldn't bat an eye if I had coffee.

This is a problem.

This is a problem because we, generally as a society, approach beer as nothing more than an intoxicant.  Prohibition is the norm when discussing minors.  Taxation is high to discourage drinking as a behaviour (did you know that those who consume a drink or three a day see a variety of health benefits?).  Regulation is heavy.  And all this when moderate consumption (and the key is moderation, binge drinking is defined as the consumption of four or more standard drinks), is a perfectly healthy behaviour.  Now, guess what happens when we approach beer as an intoxicant and nothing more?  Go watch a frosh week and you'll figure it out pretty quickly.  People leave the relatively supervised environment that is home, and they go overboard.  Not only do they go overboard, but they will associate this going overboard with fun and good times and will learn it as a behaviour.  This behaviour will likely last into adulthood, and beer will remain a beverage of intoxication.

Now, what if we had a place to introduce our children to responsible drinking?  I would say that it could happen in the home, but North American society doesn't seem to be working with that approach.  Perhaps we could introduce a venue in which children could witness responsible drinking.  Having a beer or a glass of wine with a meal, and leaving it at that.  Or perhaps having a conversation over a hard beverage rather than a soft, or caffeinated one.  I'll tell you that soft drinks are very sugary, and can ruin your sense of taste between bites of a meal.  A hoppy IPA will hit you with a quick punch of flavour, and then leave your palate cleansed for the next bite of your burger.  An amber ale often has a gentle hop to it, and a mild sweetness that goes extraordinarily well with a plate of fish and chips.  Granted, a nice sweet soft drink will go very well with a heavily salted pizza, but this is a use of extremes to negate one another.  But I digress, a place in which children could see drinking not as a means to excuse oneself from buying crack, but as a compliment to a meal or a delicious beverage on its own, I believe, would produce a tremendous social benefit.

And here, I will compliment a couple true public houses.  During the day, I wouldn't hesitate taking a child or family member to the Beaufort Pub in Belleville.  The d├ęcor is cozy and it is quiet and conducive to conversation.  The food is good and there is a nice selection of beers to accompany a tasty meal.  In fact, when I head down to the Beaufort, I have run into friends, family members, or even people I know through Church and haven't seen in ages.  It's an excellent spot to hang out, and I am genuinely happy to do so.

Then, there is my favourite pub of all, the Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill.  SHLG, or Schlag as I call it (a misspelling originally, but later rationalized and defended), is the finest example of a pub I have come found.  On a Sunday afternoon it is not unusual to see a retired married couple enjoying a meal next to a family and across from some University of Ottawa students and alumni.  All are welcome and it's not weird.  Were I to see a child in a bar (a place that goes to lengths such as increasing music volume to the point where conversation is impossible, causing the patrons to drink more), I might be concerned, but not at Schlag.  The walls are plastered with historical images of Ottawa and the Sandy Hill neighbourhood, the home of University of Ottawa, many embassies, and the historic Laurier House.  They have a wonderful beer selection, and a dedication to pub-style food that is inspiring.  There are the normal daily specials, as well as weekly specials which the chef has concocted.  They go to the point where they offer home-made ketchup to serve alongside the usual Heinz, just in case you prefer one or the other.  It is also the establishment that introduced me to sriracha, and thus I will be eternally grateful to them.  The German expression "mit schlag" means "with whipped cream."  The Sandy Hill Lounge and Grill is the "schlag" of life, it takes whatever it comes with, and makes it just a little bit better.  That is why, after originally misspelling, I will continue to refer to it as Schlag, and wish them many decades of prosperity.

So that was a lot of digression, so I'll briefly outline my point.  We treat beer and wine as a means of intoxication, and it shows in our behaviour.  Alcoholic beverages can play a normal and healthy part in our lives, and it should be treated as such.  I feel the best first step is to lead by example and drink responsibly together, as a community, in front of our children.  I'm sure that many a Maude Flanders is currently shouting in dismay, but to lead by example, one must involve children.  A public house is a perfect venue for this, and I would love to see a better pub culture in Canada.


P.S.  Naturally, drinking and driving is a hazard of increased societal alcohol consumption, but that will actually tie into my next Utopian topic.  At over a thousand words, I'll cut this off here.  And not proofread because, as is apparently the norm, I'm now tired and want to go to bed.


  1. Excellent points. I think the re-examination of beer in our culture could take place with the rise of craft beers. Those beers aren't usually party beers.

  2. Your comments regarding public houses being a place for all to congregate has great merit. I well remember going into a public house in a small town in Scotland, and looking inside, noticed that there were no customers, only the publican keeping bar. When I asked, "May I come in?" (in a clearly Canadian accent), the answer was a broad smile, and the invitation, "Well, of COURSE ye can! Come in, lad, and sit ye doon." I don't remember much of what I drank there, but I do remember the welcome.