Beer industry 'not discussing' mental health and alcohol link

By James Beeson

- Last updated on GMT

Vicious circle: Shaun Hill called for more discussion around coping with alcohol within the beer community
Vicious circle: Shaun Hill called for more discussion around coping with alcohol within the beer community
The relationship between mental health and alcohol consumption is too often ignored by members of the beer and brewing industry, according to one of its most esteemed brewers.

Shaun Hill, founder of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont, US, criticised the drinking culture encouraged by the beer industry and called for more discussion around coping with alcohol abuse and addiction from within the beer community.

Speaking to The Morning Advertiser ​in Pilsen, Czech Republic, he said: “Mental health and alcoholism never get discussed in the beer industry.

“It would be amazing if, at Craft Brewers Conference (An American beer festival and conference) one year, there was a seminar or a talk on dealing with alcohol. It would probably be the worst attended seminar ever because nobody wants to admit it.

“I don't know anyone in the beer world who isn't struggling with it. Look at every photo from festivals like Mikkeller Beer Celebration; people are just drinking 10 glasses of beer every day and living this wild travelling lifestyle. It really isn't healthy.”

Hill also described how his own mental health suffered after his brewery was awarded the title of best brewery in the world by US website RateBeer for the first time in 2013, and claimed that he thinks about shutting down his brewery “every single day” due to stress.

A vicious circle

“When the first RateBeer (award) came out, we had five employees at the company, and the bathroom and the office were in my house,” he said. “People started coming to visit the brewery and waiting outside in the rain and snow, so we needed to borrow money and construct new buildings.

“I don't really remember much of 2014-2016 – [those years] are complete black holes to me. If I met you during that time, I wouldn't remember. Imagine brewing four to five days a week, managing a 15,000sq ft build out while also trying to keep your girlfriend, staff and customers happy. It was too much.

“My mental health at that time was probably s**t,” he continued. “I was doing 12 to 14-hour days and because I live 15ft away from the brewery, there was very little decompression. I would typically drink too much in order to artificially decompress, and then I wouldn't sleep well. Then when I woke up I would still be tired, so then I would drink as much caffeine as I could, which would then accelerate an overall sense of anxiety. It was a vicious circle.

“I felt like it [shutting down the brewery] every single day. But at the same time you need that darkness to define your success or have something to aspire to. It is only in relation to that time in my life that you then become to understand and put yourself into a better position.”

Hill was in Pilsen to speak at the 2018 Innovation Masterclass, organised by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). Since being founded on Hill’s ancestral home in Greensboro, Vermount, in 2010, Hill Farmstead has gone on to become one of the most recognised craft breweries in the world, winning the prestigious RateBeer best brewery title five times (including the past four years in a row).

Hype dismissed

Despite this, Hill rejected suggestions that his brewery had benefited from hype surrounding his beers, and hit out at the ‘Instagram culture’ surrounding certain beer styles.  

“We at Hill Farmstead are not responsible for hype around our beers,” he said. “We tell people when we are releasing our beers, but there is a difference between that and telling people there is a limited amount and that it is the greatest beer in the world.

“Internet culture is really pushing the scarcity model, pricing and hype to where it is right now. Most breweries are just constantly looking to brew a new beer with new hops every week just to churn it out and so consumers gobble it up.”

On the subject of the trend towards hazy, low bitterness beers, sometimes referred to as New England IPAs (NEIPAs), Hill said: “It's a really difficult thing for me to talk about. In the late '90s and early 2000s, The Alchemist (a US brewery) was using a particular yeast strain that was producing full-bodied, very rounded and soft beers that were highly aromatic and flavourful. That beer was unfiltered and that is why it was hazy and had that gentle glow.

“However, a number of consumers who likely went on to start their own breweries realised that beer that was unfiltered and had turbidity had more aromatics and mouthfeel, and because America is America, that then got taken to the extreme. Now we are seeing brewers trying to make beer that is deliberately ugly but claiming it is the tastiest beer they have ever made.

“To me, that is 100% a result of Instagram culture. Instagram came out in 2010, and that is about when those beers became an entity. If you look through my feed now you will see beers full to the top with no foam, or beer looking as much like juice as possible, which – by the way – it won't taste like. It will taste like rotting melon and overripe cantaloupe. To me, it is sort of sad in a way.”

Switching off

Hill also expressed his concern that the rise of the internet, and subsequent decline of pubs, was changing the way in which drinkers communicate, warning of “psychological, physical and societal consequences” of a lack of interaction with one another.

“If you think about what is responsible for people failing to communicate with each other face to face, it is the internet and the different mode of communication it has given rise to,” he said. “The way in which people interact with each other is drastically changing and even the way in which we interact with beer is changing.

“I know a lot of people who are highly critical of almost every single beer, and never switch off. If you look at apps like Untappd, you have people rating every single beer they drink; just put the f*****g phone down and let's just talk about something that is not in relation to the beer we are drinking.

“There are loads of psychological, physical and societal consequences of this lack of interaction,” he continued. “I worry about the potential impact of the demise of the pub as a social centre, and what that means for communication and societal improvement.

“It is quite worrying to think about people who are highly critical all the time of everything around them, but not communicating with those around them, just living in a plastic device. Where does that lead us? Everyone is just completely buried in their phone and nobody is present.”

The Morning Advertiser attended the 2018 Innovation Masterclass as a guest of The Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). To find out more about the IBD, and the services it provides to industry professionals, visit its website.

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