Whose Culture?

For the most part, modern beer is a European expression. The styles available in nearly every commercial setting issue from a handful of countries in a plot of land that would fit inside California. So any time an American or New Zealand or Japanese company makes a beer, they are (pick one) borrowing from, referring to, or ripping off the culture of Britain, Belgium, Germany, or the Czech Republic. Makers of the most popular beer style in the world originally tried to protect the name of their creation, but courts denied their claim. Nevertheless in a very real sense, every time someone makes a pilsner, they are disrespecting the people of Plzeň and the brewery that made it famous. Yet howls of outrage by defenders of cultural protection do not follow.

All of which I offer as preamble to Ron Pattinson's response to a tweet of mine this morning announcing that Zoiglhaus was bottling their beer:

There followed a spirited debate about whether the people behind this brewery were knowingly offending, inadvertently offending, or somehow vaguely violating some kind of norms that were never exactly identified. (The threads splintered, so I can't provide a single link to them all.)

I've already done my best to clarify where I think it makes sense to be careful about appropriating the names of beer styles (see here and here). Understanding the history of beer, beer styles, and national tradition are generally wise for anyone making beer.

But I'd like to turn the tables on the Europeans and ask them to be a bit more sensitive to our culture.

The United States is almost entirely an immigrant nation (Native Americans now constitute less than a percent of the population). The ancestors of the people who live here now came from other places, and the culture of the country continues to evolve as new groups arrive. I'll skip past the part about how the Irish were once so alien they were not considered "white," but it serves to show that what we are is what we have absorbed. We are a country composed of little bits of culture pieced together by people who bailed on their former countries, adding their cuisines and couture and music and beverages to what it means to be "American."

What we have now is a hodgepodge of different influences (some would call it a pastiche), and over time it mutates. Europeans often see this mutation as a debasement of their culture rather than the expression of our own culture. I am reminded of a story John told me about encountering an American who called himself "Irish." A few of his ancestors had come here generations ago, of course--he was no more Irish than I am. This irritated (mystified?) John, who felt that it disrespected what it means to actually be Irish. But here's the thing: that person wasn't talking about Ireland; he was talking about his own identity as an American. This is what happens when a giant population leaves one place and goes to another--the descendants of the immigrants become something different than their grandparents were. This is not the fault of the descendant.

So when we refer to things European, it is refracted through the lens of our own culture. Zoiglhaus's Alan Taylor is a massive Germanophile. He studied German in college and grad school and moved to Berlin to study a medieval variant of the language. He studied brewing at VLB in Berlin and worked as a brewer in several breweries around Berlin and in Bavaria. He married a German and he and his wife only speak to their children in German at home. He is insufferable about German pronunciation. And so, when he was looking to start his own brewery, it was of course going to be hugely influenced by Germany. He chose the Zoigl tradition because he admired it and felt importing it would enhance Portland's beer culture. He wanted to elevate the coolest thing in German beer culture and so chose the Zoigl tradition as his inspiration.

Alan is on the right. More here.

This kind of thing happens all the time. We are mutts who have to draw on the fractured lineages that go back to Europe or live as orphans with no history at all. I actually don't care if Europeans are gravely offended by these things we do, nor even if they accuse Zoiglhaus--as a couple people did--of behaving offensively. People get offended by a lot of stuff and there's not a lot you can do about that. What I do care about is that Europeans acknowledge that in many cases Americans are neither ignorant or intending to offend--they're just behaving as all people do, by expressing their own culture. It's just that our culture picks up and includes the stuff that happened after our shared ancestors decided to move from there to here. We are allowed to both have our own American culture and to have a culture that draws on a shared history without exactly reproducing the culture as it exists elsewhere.

Americans have plenty to apologize and feel guilty for. Plen-ty. Our own culture is not one of those things.

Update. One other wrinkle in this whole business occurred to me as I scanned the comments this morning. American culture is not just made up of the fragments of culture brought here in the steerage compartments of ships--it is made up of fragments of the culture carried by the people who in large or small ways were rejecting their countries of birth. It is no surprise that the anti-monarchists who bailed out of England in the 17th and 18th century begat a country full of anti-monarchists. Nor is it particularly surprising that Europeans who remained would be stauncher protectors of their own culture. We are a country settled and renewed by expats, and so it's not surprising that we place less value on the fixtures of culture in the places our ancestors quit. I think this is one of those places of friction--our irreverence is seen as more a behavior than a piece of our culture by those outside it.

MeditationJeff Alworth