Put a beer in a man's hand and install him in a cozy corner table at the pub and his mind starts thinking--usually about beer. What is that man thinking? Read on--
Breweries all have personalities. Like people, they have a particular appearance, a vein running through their interests, a way of doing things or behaving in the world. But here's the thing: very few actually know what it is.
Yesterday marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the Catholic theologian's assault on the church's several abuses of the day. In homage to that event, I turn my own attention to beer and the elements about it requiring their own reform and/or settlement.
It's expensive to enter, winning is a crapshoot, and anyway, there are so many medals that a win is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Most consumers don't track these things, and if they learn a brewery has won an award, probably don't care. All of which raises an interesting question. Why bother?
Here in the awkward moment between seasons, when most of the world has nothing better to do than brace for pumpkin season, there exists a fine moment for think pieces. Into the breach step Boak and Bailey, with one of their typically thought-provoking posts, "Seven Stages of Beer Geek."
We have this very specific number, international bitterness unit, that is invaluable to brewers. It expresses the amount of bittering compounds in a beer. A brewer understands its utility and limitations. All hopped beers have a certain amount of bitterness, and brewers want to be able to measure it. But it has several notable limits.
If you've just recently returned from Botswana, there's a small chance you missed the news that Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band turned fifty last week. I wouldn't be listening seriously to music until the late 1970s. By that time Sgt Pepper's was an oldie, and all the polyphonics the Beatles deployed were familiar and considered normal.
What do all these details tell us? At the best, they provide accurate information to the small minority of people who know what they mean. At the worst, they provide misinformation. Mostly, though, I think people just tune them out. You really have to know a lot about beer to interpret them and, even then, they are for the most part not that revealing.
In the mid-1990s a new generation of brewers introduced a kind of verve and edginess to beer. This new generation were also tiny, but they were brash and had big ambitions. Some, like Dogfish Head, aspired to transform beer. Sam Calagione was miles ahead of his contemporaries in anticipating that experimentation would one day drive sales. Some, like Stone's Greg Koch, promised to crush big beer. Even when Stone was tiny, he brought the attitude: "you're not worthy," he told drinkers of that old, fizzy yellow lager.
The age of consolidation has surfaced one of the more unusual quirks of the American craft beer segment: the strange morality that has come to pervade it. There's really no other word, either. Morality is that agreement among groups about what is acceptable. It is a self-protective urge, a code to minimize harm either through social norms or ones of purity. It enforces loyalty, which further strengthens the group. Although our friends the 18th-century philosophers tried to argue for a natural or universal morality, it's clear that morality is a purely a social construct that varies place to place. And there is a moral code both craft breweries and craft beer drinkers recognize, as this latest blowback demonstrates.
On this 4/20, I thought it might be worth looking at the history of the way beer has borrowed from cannabis in imagery and cultural signaling. (Also note that "cannabis" is actually the neutral, clinical term, not "marijuana," which was a slang term adopted by early anti-weed crusaders to help demonize it.) It has a long history, but one that, like "420" itself, is changing.
A couple years back, John Holl and I were drinking beers at The Commons when the topic of "romantic facts" came up. Romantic facts? You know, those (false) stories that have gotten repeated so often they've come to be accepted as truth. Ben Franklin saying "Beer is proof God loves us," or the one about how a monk smuggled yeast into Bohemia from Bavaria to brew the first pilsner--those kinds of things. In journalism there's a concept about a story that's too good to fact check, and the romantic fact is beer's version of that.
For decades, beer partisans have argued that fermented rather than baked grain led humans to begin sowing the fields, settling down, and abandoning their hunter-gatherer ways. I have found none of their arguments persuasive; there just wasn't a smoking gun to support it one way or another. Food is a more basic need, and in the absence of evidence, bread seemed the more likely spark to a change as revolutionary as domesticating crops.
The United States is almost entirely an immigrant nation. 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. 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."
My grandparents arrived in Eastern Oregon in the 1930s and raised their two daughters in various farming communities. One of them stayed, married, and has been farming around Vale since the 1950s. But one of them--my mom--decided to head off to the big city to seek her fortune. Thus was I born and raised (mostly) in Boise, Idaho. I made my way back to Oregon to attend college here, arriving when I was just a few years younger than my grandparents had been fifty years before me. That was 1986.
A few months ago I was sitting in an Irish pub with The Beer Nut and I did what any American would do: I held my pint glass aloft and said "Sláinte" with gusto. Hey, that's what the Irish do when they offer a toast, right? Fortunately, just as the word was dying in my mouth, shamrocks, leprechauns, and Blarney stones trooped through my mind and I had the good sense to ask John (the Nut's actual name) whether this is something Irish drinkers say.