The Sound of History Rhyming

A month or two back, I saw some news about yet another technical innovation involving enzymes use in beer, or another hop product, or something else wizards in a food-science lab whipped up to make a beer taste like key lime pie. These new technologies come fast enough that I lose track. In any case, it crystallized a thought that has been gestating for some time: beer is cyclical, oscillating between periods of technical change and tradition-building.

The change periods are almost always seen as destabilizing, and people living through them are certain they’ll undermine what is good and wholesome in beer. The examples go back at least two millennia, to the commercialization of beer, which home/farm beer-makers mistrusted. Nearly a thousand years ago, hops created a similar disruption. Then again during the industrial revolution, during the rise of lagers, and on and on. There are regional examples and smaller disruptions, and the history of beer is studded with them.

Of course, what was new and scary eventually becomes old and familiar, and tradition reasserts itself. One of my favorite stories is how the Munich brewers guild nearly had a schism after Spaten began making a pale lager in the manner of the upstart Bohemians, in what everyone knew was a dunkel lager town. They considered pale lager not so much an innovation as an abomination, a sop to what all the kids wanted to drink. Get off my lawn. Well, you know how that turned out.

That’s all dusty old history, though, intellectually interesting (to some), but hardly thrilling. What’s fascinating is how this new era of better-brewing-through-science does  have emotional impact and has  been destabilizing the beer world over the course of the past few years, and how it’s accelerating. First came the news IPA-makers were adulterating their beer with corn sugar (alert your local Bud Light salesman), and then last year the Brut IPAs started appearing through the magic of added mash enzymes. We have entered a new technological era, and the number of products brewers can add to their beer will only proliferate more.

This seems like an ideal moment for a chart to illustrate things: 

To add a bit more words to the graph:

1. Highly engineered beer (1960s-70s). As consolidation reduced the number of breweries over the course of the preceding decades, a ton of science was visited upon brewing. But because the type of beer being made hadn’t changed much in a hundred years, all that science was being used to produce products as efficiently and cheaply as possible. Hop research went into creating super high-alpha hops so fewer would be needed. Engineers were figuring out ways to embiggen and streamline vast breweries that routinely used high-gravity brewing, new gizmos like mash filters, and push-button-technology. Enzymes were being used to make the newest innovation, light beer, and hop products like ones that would allow the use of clear bottles without the lightstruck stink. It was a wondrous moment for industrial-scale production.

2. Craft beer revolution (c. 1980). All that inexpensive, mass-produced beer sold really well. Americans were consuming more beer per capita by 1990 than at any time in history. But the increasingly insipid beer had become anathema to a growing movement that wanted to reclaim tradition from the industrial food and beverage producers. As with other parts of the food ecosystem, the craft renaissance was animated by a moralistic zeal to abandon anything smacking of science (TM). Out went jug wine, in came Chardonnay. Out went Velveeta, in came locally-made blue cheese. Instant coffee gave way to Starbucks. And brewers decided they wanted to make beer as close to traditionally as they could with available ingredients and cobbled-together equipment. Looking around, the new brewers found beer styles and traditions that predated post-war industrial brewing, and started embracing British ales and more traditionally-made Bavarian lagers.

3. American evolution (1995-2015). Brewing is never at rest. Americans spent a decade or two learning how to recreate the beers of other countries, but eventually they began to deviate. (This was a process happening worldwide, but it was most pronounced in the US.) Locally-bred hops were far more expressive than European strains, and instead of trying to conceal them (as Europeans have), Americans began to lean into them. In the course of two decades, they developed an unprecedentedly hop-centric approach to brewing, with techniques and ingredients that helped create a new brewing tradition. Nothing about this approach was especially technological, however, but it was a crucial step away from tradition.

4. Novelty wave (2010-present). When Americans started deviating from European traditions, it freed them to consider beer outside the context of traditional styles—which, honestly, had been a straightjacket for decades. This has resulted in some very interesting beer: Florida’s experimentation with fruited Berliner weisses, an explosion in wood-aged beers, on both the wild and whiskey sides of the barrel-house, and an increasingly deft use of non-standard ingredients. It also continued the move away from Europe and came very close to severing the fidelity to tradition that marked the original philosophy of anti-industrial small-scale brewing. “Innovation” for its own sake became a marketable concept. In fact, breweries not seen to be “innovating” worried trends might leave them behind.

5. Highly engineered beer (20??-present). Things have come back around to highly engineered beer—though they look entirely different than those that ended the last era. Now any ingredient that helps create an effect in the beer is not just widely accepted, but on the cutting edge of brewing. Brut IPA is possible by the use of enzymes that were one of the chief offenders of industrial brewers in the 1980s. Flavor additives are totally kosher, and it’s further acceptable to make beer that doesn’t taste like beer at all, but ice cream, cake, children’s cereal, or chocolate milk. Indeed, there are sunstantial incentives in the marketplace to make these kinds of beers, and people who care how they’re made are increasingly rare.

As Mark Twain never said: history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. As products, there is very little in common between mass market lagers and milkshake IPAs. The intention brewers have in creating highly engineered beer in 2019 is flavor, not cost. That’s a huge difference. But what the two eras have in common is a comfort in harnessing science to achieve an end without considering tradition. Once you commit to putting marshmallows in a beer, process and ingredients are beside the point. (“Before adding the marshmallows, we used Weyermann Barke malt and two decoctions” is a sentence said by no one.)

Brewing tends to attract moralist viewpoints, and as this brave new world of synthesized flavor becomes common in brewing, expect blowback. But if there’s irony in craft beer leading the charge back into the highly engineered beer it once sought to eradicate, its not the only one. One of the biggest complaints of the early craft era was its amateurism. Homebrewers played a key role in starting the first new breweries, and they were self-trained. Professional training for brewers is broadly available in US universities now, and the quality and consistency within the industry is far ahead of where it was in the 1980s. But those brewing courses are often housed in ... food science programs, where aspiring brewers learn techniques to engineer flavor in beer. Proof that history has a wry sense of humor. 

If my chart is correct, the next box to the right should be another reset and a return to tradition and rejection of science and change. There are already signs of a counter-revolt starting among brewers who reject trendy beers, but it’s unclear if they’ll constitute a movement anytime soon. Sometimes it takes decades to move from one of the boxes on the chart to the next. For now, have another salted caramel stout (Breakside’s is one of my favorites) and enjoy the moment. After all, there’s not a lot else we can do. 

Jeff Alworth11 Comments