In reasonable amounts, beer brings conviviality, relaxation and good humor. Overindulge, though, and you risk committing a stupid, embarrassing or dangerous act, but you're also tempting that species of minor death, the hangover.
The pounding head, the spins, the sticky mouth, the aching joints, the churning guts—all of it self-inflicted. When you're in the throes of a hangover, self-pity is the only kind of pity you'll get.
A smart drinker knows that pacing is the secret of an evening of alcohol: limiting consumption to about one drink per hour, alternating alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks and keeping hydrated. Drinking on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster, so eat something before you go out and then keep the nachos coming. And be aware that your tolerance to alcohol can change with circumstances: Fatigue, illness or medication can all affect the way alcohol affects you.
What causes a hangover? Alcohol is a diuretic, so dehydration causes much of the discomfort: the squint-inducing headache, wall-to-wall carpet mouth and the trembles. It also costs your system some water-soluble vitamins and minerals.
The fermentation process that converts sugars to ethyl alcohol also spins off congeners—additional byproducts that wreak havoc with your system. Fusel oils are the likely suspects in the just-shoot-me sort of hangover, and their levels vary from one sort of alcoholic beverage to another. If you find that ales leave you feeling rougher than lagers, it's not your imagination: Ale's warmer fermentation temperatures contribute to the production of more nasty spin-offs. The claim of some German brewers that their lagers will leave you "hangover-free" isn't true, but it has some basis.
There is, in fact, no cure for a hangover. You have poisoned yourself—this is the "toxic" part of intoxication—and you just have to live through it. Your body metabolizes alcohol at a rate that can't be hurried. But you can blunt the pain, and you may be able to replenish a few compounds that alcohol depletes.
Hangover cures round the world have common features. For some reason, many administer an insult to the system: raw egg, whole chilis, raw eel, vinegar, salted herring, hot curries, raw onions, garlic. My theory is that these extreme flavors trigger a surge of endorphins, the body's own painkillers—the same goes for remedies that include long runs, hot saunas or cold showers. Or these therapies could all be the inventions of malicious friends who figure the drinker should suffer maximally for his foolishness.
Many cures give a nutritional boost: fruit juices, honey and warm broths can all help replenish substances alcohol has sapped away, and probably aren't a bad idea.
Then there is the "hair of the dog that bit you." The phrase originates from the idea that a dog bite could be treated by applying a few of the dog's hairs to the wound. It is now almost exclusively used to mean fending off a full-blown hangover with a judicious glass of the same beverage the morning after. Sort of a booze-based homeopathy.
More than likely, the hair of the dog does nothing but postpone the inevitable. It just reverts the sufferer to the drunken stage until a later hour of the day when he can decently go to bed and sleep it off.
The traditional pot of hot coffee probably does more harm than good, coffee being a diuretic like alcohol. You'll still be in pain, but you'll be wide awake.
For those occasions when you weren't smart ahead of time, here is sound advice from a friend: When you wake up hurting, drink as much water or juice as you can hold. Take something for the headache, but not aspirin, which is tough on an already-distressed tum. If you're a caffeine addict, have a little tea. You don't want to add a caffeine-withdrawal headache to the one you already have. And swallow some vitamins, particularly B-complex and C.
Now, stay horizontal. Don't make any important decisions, and don't brood on the wreckage that is your life. You're in no fit state.
Instead, think back to the night before the morning after. You drank too much beer. If it was bad beer to boot, you deserve the pain. You ignored your limits, and you're cheap, too. If you were drinking the good stuff, you didn't stay sober enough to give it the respect it deserves. It's time to absorb the most valuable lesson that quality beer has to offer: Drink better and drink less. When you're feeling up for a brew again, go for the best, and learn to savor it.