by Ralph Jones – 4 min read
Beer is a funny thing. To my lips, it tastes how I assume a mug of cat pee tastes. There is an enormous gulf between the golden drink I see in TV adverts, condensation forming on ice-cold glasses, and the absolute horror show I experience whenever I sip a lager.
It is odd being a man who doesn't like beer – or any alcohol at all, for that matter. It is strange being someone who can't contribute to any conversation about booze, other than bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt.
Drinking is so woven into the cultural fabric of life that turning it down feels like letting people down, like being odd, but in an incredibly dull way. The experience is a strange kind of loneliness and, to be honest, is comparable to having farted in the middle of a wedding: no one wants to talk to you, and you're probably invited to fewer weddings.
In most countries beer is synonymous with masculinity, so by the same token, not drinking beer must make you 'less of a man'. The peer pressure to drink, especially in male groups, is overwhelming. Drink Aware research found in 2016 that almost half of men aged 45 and 64 confessed to drinking alcohol some of the time just to be liked.
If you want to read that research for yourself, you can Google 'men drink alcohol to blend in', but the first result you'll see is an article on the '42 Best Manly Drinks to Celebrate Father's Day'. The idea that there is any such thing as a 'manly drink' is part of the problem here.
It's not just laughable, but also downright dangerous when you consider that alcohol-fuelled initiation ceremonies are a time-honoured tradition at colleges and universities and have been responsible for the deaths of multiple people – generally men – in their prime.
Like the many other things I'm not good at, I catch myself thinking that I wish I were built differently: that, when someone offered me a glass of wine, I didn't say, "Have you got any Coke, actually?"; that when everyone else toasted with a glass of champagne, I didn't raise my glass and then...just put it down again. Feeling guilty – but not guilty enough to do anything about it – strands me in a middle ground where I have problems whichever option I choose.
But at the same time, I'm aware that I want to change something about myself that doesn't harm anyone and is out of my control. I can't help that I don't like alcohol any more than someone with a nut allergy can help being allergic to nuts. I'm also proud, maybe even unbearably smug, about only occasionally succumbing to peer pressure.
At this point, people might want to stop me and say, "Oh yeah, I hated it at first. But I just forced myself to like it." There's a lot going on in those two sentences. They reveal a huge amount about our attitude to drinking and how men in particular feel as though it is something they simply have to enjoy. I forced myself to like it.
I'm not against pushing through initial difficulty to achieve something worthwhile. However, I don't think laziness is the problem here. The problem is in the 'worthwhile'. Is it worthwhile to force yourself to like something your body naturally hated, just so that you could spend more money on it with other people who also secretly dislike it? Is there any other part of life in which we do this?
There certainly aren't enough men who stand up and say that they don't actually like alcohol. Drinking should be a choice, but we're conditioned to believe we have to drink. Still, there are signs that at least the quantity that people drink might be falling. In 2016, a study found that alcohol consumption in the UK had dropped to the lowest rate since records began. Initiatives like Dry January – and guys generally being more conscious of their mental and physical health – are largely to thank for this, but I suspect that, as rigid ideas of masculinity begin to look increasingly outdated, this number will continue to fall.
If you're a man who only drinks to blend in with friends or co-workers, remember that there's every chance they're in exactly the same position as you. This makes the whole situation deeply strange when you think about it: a bit like a roomful of spies who each assume that no one but them is a spy.
My advice would be to remember that being a man has nothing to do with drinking alcohol; it is always better to be as honest as possible, even if it means you can't talk about the best beer at this year's Craft Beer Festival. There are more important things in life.