Standard Units and Why They Need to Cross the Pond

Sometimes, I just need to step up on the soap box and voice my opinion on something. This is one of those times.

***Begin Rant***

Pick up a European beer. Look at the back. What do you see? If you can understand any of the writing, you’re already doing pretty good, but you might notice something else. There might be a number placed in an outline of a bottle or glass.

This is the standard units or drinks of alcohol in that specific package, and with the growth in strong beers, this needs to make its way to bottles in North America. It can vary by region, but figuring it out isn’t too hard. Here in North America it’s usually as simple as taking the number of ounces, multiplying it by the percentage of alcohol, and dividing that number by .60, but who wants to take the time to do that.

There is currently a fight going on to put nutritional information on bottles of beer, something I’m indifferent to, since most people are consuming alcohol not necessarily worrying about their waistline, but everyone should be concerned with how much alcohol they are consuming, especially if they plan on getting behind a wheel, and there needs to be an easier way to figure out how much you’ve actually had.

Why does it matter?

We unfortunately live in a society where “I had a beer with dinner” has historically been an acceptable response to a police officer asking about driving under the influence, but one beer can vary wildly.

A bottle of 5% beer could be one standard unit, but it gets tricky when it’s a pint of IPA. Using a 6.5% beer as an example, you would have (20 ounces x 6.5% / .6) 2.17 standard units of alcohol. With craft beer, a twelve ounce bottle or can isn’t the usual format, as you’re more likely to see 650 ml bombers and 473 ml cans being sold, so even that tall boy at 6.5% works out to (16 ounces x 6.5% / .6) 1.73 standard units, and that same bomber would be 2.47 units.

So What Does That Mean?

I’ve thrown a bunch of numbers on the screen, but it doesn’t really translate until you put it in a context most people understand: Blood Alcohol.

A bottle of 5% beer puts a 180 lb man at approximately a blood alcohol level of .023. Not high, but with a regular metabolism, it will still be in his system two hours later.

That pint of 6.5% in the same man? His peak blood alcohol level is .052, and it will take him over 5 hours to metabolize it all.

A 130 lb woman would have approximately .038 and .083 blood alcohol contents respectively for the same beers.

What’s the approximate difference between those blood alcohol numbers? They’re about 2.17 times as high.

What’s the same? They can all say “I had a beer with dinner”, and, they’re on the same road as you.

A the end of the day, there are a few things that should probably happen.

  • Enforce posting of serving size and ABVs
  • Apply Standard Units to all packaged alcohol
  • Educate the public about how one drink isn’t always one drink

You might disagree with me, and feel free to tell me why below, but in the end, the information has to be understood by the lowest common denominator, and that’s even after he’s had “just one beer”.

***End Rant***


Note: Calculations regarding blood alcohol are approximate, and can vary based on a number of factors, although the multiplier effect is not affected by those calculations.