The last time I spent any significant time in Bryan-College Station, good beer meant Shiner. 30 packs of Keystone and kegs of Natty Light were the norm, fueling house parties into the early morning.
While attending university in an out-of-the-way Texas town, beer lubricated belonging.
I’m back celebrating the passing of a friend, and now, 15 years later, Bryan is filled with cool craft beer bars with mustachioed, suspender-clad hipsters, ready to pair your brew with a meal. But it’s a sake bar at the far end of downtown that my friends and I stumble into today.
I head to the bathroom - I’ve been drinking water almost all night - but when I come back my friend has ordered a round of sake bombs, and one’s waiting for me.
It’s been 7 months since I cut out beer. After 90 days, I had a few to test out what it would feel like and then promptly decided to continue.
My initial 90 day challenge has extended into a complete removal of the behavior, and a complete success for my tally clicking method for vice removal. It’s also a method, I might add, that DOES NOT rely on the popular “replacement theory” of breaking habits. Here’s a look at the data:
Along the way I’ve had Lydia push beer on me accidentally. I’ve been able to go to places normally, places like craft beer bars. I’ve had people unknowingly buy me beers or tell me to taste them. I still have stacks of IPA’s leftover from my recent birthday party. I’ve navigated it all with control I never thought possible.
LAYERS OF CHANGE
But other than the external change, it’s the gradual un-matting of subtle, psychological connections that fascinates me most. Before the project, trigger and response were quick. Urge to drink, beer in hand.
As the project continued I soon began to notice the intermediary steps. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes this by interjecting the URGE to do a behavior as a key component in the more traditional Cue-Routine-Reward habit loop (outlined by Charles Duhigg)
But things got even more subtle. I had memories of an urge without actually having the urge in the present. I’d start to notice them in dreams. I was able to appreciate beer without having the cravings come up. In one case I was super curious about a beer Lydia was trying that had a unique ingredient. I asked her and the bartender detailed questions about it, but never had the urge to sip it.
The tally clicker method seems to mechanically cultivate a high level of self-monitoring. Months in and it’s still ridiculously solid, despite not clicking for beer any more. But that begs a very important question - how do you know when you’re done?
WHEN IS QUITTING COMPLETE?
Academically, it turns out that’s a contentious question. In a study on smoking cessation by the Ontario Tobacco Survey, one year was the baseline for a successful quitting process.
27 liver transplant centers stated that 6 months of abstinence from opiates was a requirement. But the survey states that many centers were all over the map, and the line of what constituted abstinence was inconsistent and determined subjectively.
Personally, I feel daily visual mapping gives far more concrete data. As soon as the urges fail to come up regularly, it’s not a habit any more. As I’ll bring up later, that can cause some danger zones. But now at roughly 2 weeks between urges (and with urges being so light), I think I’m doing well.
A final evaluation might also be in order. Looking at pics of beer, or going to a place that triggers all my weak points - socializing, stouts, travel, etc - like a black belt test. Or perhaps an inversion of the Self-Report Habit Index (SRHI) can assess whether an action is NOT a habit.
But my notes say that there was a marked change on day 117. I stopped formal, daily recording, and also stopped carrying my tally counter around. It’s almost like my mind just said - “it’s not a big deal anymore”.
THE FUTURE OF BEER
While metrics may herald the end of this project, it’s the very human contemplation of a future with no beer that also has to be addressed.
To quote Brett Kavanaugh, “I like beer!” Just thinking of not EVER having it again was incredibly daunting. I managed it by first treating it as a 90-day challenge. This extended to a larger experiment - namely “What would it be like to completely quit?” - with the understanding that I could always add it back in should I choose.
But my attitudes have drastically changed. After the urges subsided, I began to realize that without the cravings, there wasn’t really much that I got out of it. Few beers were truly unique anymore, even my beloved porters and stouts. I’ve developed other tools to help me socialize instead of relying on it as a crutch. It left me pretty bloated. And imbibing was more because it was easy and available than anything else.
That doesn’t mean I won’t have it again.
I tend to lean towards Epicureanism in that this project is more about living life fully. The Epicureans believed that the way to do that was through temperance and simplifying things to attain a deeper sense of pleasure. When indulging constantly, indulgence becomes commonplace. After a year of not drinking beer, the beer I try next should be exceptional, and will probably be appreciated more.
Setting protocols for such exceptions are necessary.
While some may say that means I haven’t really quit, I’d disagree. If you don’t brush your teeth one day, it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly not a tooth brusher. In fact, the SRHI describes habits as a combination of identity, time, automaticity, and consistency - it’s not any one thing that makes or breaks a habit.
Particularly rare or exceptional beers can be deliberate outliers. Unique cultural experiences - or scenarios where refusing is insulting to hosts - would also constitute a valid exception. But in my life, it’s surprising just how rare those exceptions can be. And that clarity isn’t something you can readily see amidst the forest of cravings.
Exceptions are not the only addendum in a post-vice world. Urges, even after I had officially declared myself beer free, still come up, but they tend to be spread out at 2 weeks between urges. I’m curious if this is a pattern and if they will continue to spread out as the months march on.
Now that I’m in the midst of a “strict eating” tally clicking project, I get a lot of little blips for for beer. On the chart I can see that this started the very day I began the eating project. It’s as though all craving is somehow connected. Pressures on one side of the system cause disturbances in another - which seems to correlate with my theory of habit harmonics. Dissonance in one habit due to stress (or just establishing a new behavior) tend to effect other attempts at self change before stabilizing across the system.
What’s dangerous about all this is the risk of relapsing. After all, I’m not clicking for beer now, so I’m theoretically more easily taken unawares and unprepared. Lydia, however, thinks this is a non-issue -because what has become habitual is the self-monitoring. And she’s right - I know when the urge is happening, and it’s really easy to spot and be mindful about them as they surge and ebb, even between long bouts without them.
In downtown Bryan my friends and I clink tiny sake cups and yell “kampaii!” dropping them into glasses of pale beer to gulp down. The invisible skeins of obligation, ritual, and community all subtly waft by me as I sip the sake and absentmindedly hand the pint off to someone else. Not only did I not need it, but I believe going without it enhanced my night.
I’m done with beer - and I’m as surprised as anyone else.