Saturday, June 5, 2010

American Beer and Dueling Authenticities

Clay Risen has an article at The Atlantic on the notable decline of beer sales outside the craft-brewed sector, which he describes as a potential watershed in American alcohol consumption. I think he's probably right. Any beer drinker knows that over the last decade or so craft brews have exploded onto the scene. We've had stuff like Sam Adams and Anchor Brewing Company for considerably longer, but the recent proliferation has proven both broad and deep, and it seems to be here to stay.

Risen suggests a few reasons. First, he suggests it's a class thing. Americans are moving away from blue collar work and are no longer the type of people who "drink beer". I put the least stock in this idea, but I do think class consciousness is a component. What's more likely, though, is that people are beginning to feel like you don't have to be a snob to drink craft beer (or non-beer beverages, for that matter). Risen also cites "hipsters" who crave innovation and originality. I'm sure this has something to do with it - but I don't think the "hipster" label is necessarily appropriate for describing new beer preferences. To a large extent, I don't think it's hipsters breaking into beer consumption so much as the expansion of existing understandings of "authentic" beer. The most obvious example of this is the beer drinker known as the "hop-head", who enjoys a heavily hopped, very spicey/floral beer as opposed to a rounder, maltier beer. I enjoy hoppier beers relative to maltier beers myself, but some of these guys strike me as approaching beer drinking like a chili-cook off. It defeats the purpose for me. There are also people who like the extremely heavy, dark beers. While I can understand the hop-sensation, I just don't get this one. On a very cold winter day I can enjoy a heavy stout, but aside from that rare circumstance I'm absolutely not on board. Again, it seems to defeat the purpose for me. I don't drink beer for that chalky, barley-soup experience. The point I'm trying to make is that these aren't really "hipster" tastes or mentalities. These preferences come from people who have the opportunity (which they didn't always have in America) to really enjoy the essence of beer - to appreciate it on its own terms (despite the fact that I think they take it overboard sometimes). To avid drinkers of craft brews, this is authentic beer - it's not just the beer that their hipster bourgeoisie sensibilities can stomach.

What I find interesting about this is the extent to which we really have dueling authenticities in beer. My parents are local, and whenever Kate and I visit for a meal, I get the chance to drink something I never drink: a Budweiser or a Natural Light. That's the stuff my dad grew up with. That and similar brands were all there was for a long time. But the thing is, guys of his generation see that sort of stuff as authentic beer, and the newer stuff as "hipster", imposter beer. And they're aware of the trends too. The old stuff sells in the same aisles as the new stuff, after all. Whenever I come over my dad always has the same joke that is semi-teasing/semi-apologetic - he says "sorry Daniel, you're going to have to drink out of a can tonight - I don't have any bottled beer". A glass bottle is code for him for something "fancier" than what he drinks. I actually don't exclusively drink what you might call "craft beer". I get Yuengling (Risen goes over the Yuengling phenomenon), Coors, and Corona fairly regularly for budget reasons, but also because I genuinely enjoy the taste (of course my dad drinks the two beers that taste like carbonated water to me, and that I definitely don't pick up on my own).

I suppose my point is that trends in preferences are often more complicated than they appear. We usually interpret these changes as fads driven by what Risen calls "hipsters", but I'm not sure that's always the case. In a lot of ways, new preferences reflect a re-evaluation of older preferences and a genuine attempt to return to some sense of authenticity. This can result in older and newer generations critiquing each other and claiming that the other just "doesn't understand what real beer [or any other product] is." The reaction is understandable for both, but I think largely inaccurate.

I think you see this in wine too, which I'll briefly mention because the article does as well. I'm not by any means a wine or a beer connoisseur, but I suppose I'm an amateur connoisseur. One of my favorite movies is Bottle Shock, which tells the story of the 1976 blind tasting between French and California wines, where the upstart Californians demolished the French competition. To the French, the Californians were a joke. To the Californians, the French had lost the real beauty and purpose of wine making. Dueling authenticities. Kate and I mostly drink wine from Virginia wineries (it's not well advertised outside the area, but Virginia is home to about 250 wineries which have a comparative advantage in grapes like the Cabernet Franc and the Viognier, as well as less broadly known grapes like the Norton). We find that we can slip into this sort of us-vs.-them attitude too. California wines just seem so old and tired. Besides, you can't beat the authenticity of drinking a wine that was housed in a cellar we've walked in and made by people we've met and talked to on numerous occasions. I think the excitement for new endeavors is great, but I do regret this impulse sometimes. I really don't know California wines (much less European wines) as well as I should. Someday I tell myself I will - but for the time being I do enjoy my own preferences.

I'm not sure how to sum this up. I guess it's just an appeal to see things from multiple perspectives, particularly when we're talking about something as subjective as personal preferences. Understand the irony of assuming that your own view and your own preference for an item that has been around for millenia is somehow the "authentic" version of the item.

Probably also worth noting what I personally drink. I noted the more standard stuff I drink earlier. My favorite beer, which isn't being produced anymore, is New River Pale Ale. While I'm on discontinued brews, I also like Tupper's Hop Pocket Ale which has only recently been selling again. This is about as hoppy as I usually like it. Both of these are more or less local - I like to pick up local beer just like a I like local wine. In that vein, the brand I probably pick up most often is the Old Dominion Brewing Company, which has several good beers. These aren't as "hipster" as some craft brews come - fairly traditional (dare I say "authentic"?) styles. I also like Starr Hill Brewery, in Charlottesville, although probably not as much as Old Dominion. Clipper City Brewery in Baltimore has some really great stuff too. My favorite is the McHenry Lager, but they're probably best known for their "High Seas" series. Kate and I saw a presentation by the owner at a food and wine expo once, and he walked us through their beers. One of the neat things about Clipper City is that they produce a lot of different beers, and offer a nice progression from heavier to lighter beers and from maltier to hoppier beers, so that you can really figure out what you like. Other than those, I regularly buy Sam Adams (it's hard to beat the Boston Lager - it's a classic), I used to get Red Stripe a lot, Flying Dog, and Killians. Some day perhaps I'll share some of my wine favorites too.

I should note that a week or two ago when we were over at my parents, my dad had started branching out. On the advice of a friend, he had a Blue Moon (a Belgian style brewing company that makes a lot of wheat beers) when they were out to lunch one day and liked it. I occasionally like wheat beers, but not usually. Kind of an odd one to draw my dad's attention away from Budweiser and Natural Light. But that's the great thing about preferences - you don't have to explain or justify them. You just have to have them and act on them. He ended up getting a six pack and I drank Blue Moon that night.


  1. It appears the gentle and cautious "let's-see-this-from-multiple-perspectives" attitude runs in the family.

    I am almost completely there with you. "Hipsters" I've found often purposely drink nastalgic beers in order to be ironic; such as Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boys and (in MN) Premium lager.

    I see this explosion as only a good thing. On a very important level it's a renewal of a serious craft. This might sound over the top but it's sort of like an "Arts and Crafts" kind of thing...quality work and ingredients are becoming a good in themselves.

    Also, it spurs on creativity, which for people like me, tired of the same old IPA's, always makes for enjoyable surprises. This has happened in the MN beer scene where I live in a huge way in just the last 5 years thanks mostly to Surly Brewery.

    But it even raises the "blue collar" game. Summit Extra Pale Ale has been around nearly as long as Sam Adams though they've not really gone much out of the Midwest, but on account of their longevity, availability, local pride and the $13-$15 12-pack price, Summit EPA has established itself as a "workin mans beer" but is itself a pretty good ale.

    So this is where I'd modify you. I would want to locate the "goodness" of beers not on the subjective scale you seem to advocate but on one more objectively based on the quality of ingredients and of work. There are after all well crafted lagers. If it remains only on a sliding scale then I feel we minimize the arts.

  2. A.D. Hunt -
    You're probably right. I believe Tom (a semi-regular commenter here) has made this point to me before in the past when it comes to wine, that it's not all subjective. And hopefully I didn't come across too much as saying there are no standards. I guess my point is simply that quality is necessary but not sufficient. The range of tastes trumps the quality of a beer every time. I could be introduced to the highest quality stout ever brewed but I probably won't enjoy it that much, so it can be competitively priced and widely available and it wouldn't make a bit of difference to me.

    It's kind of an obvious point, I know, but I think these preferences are more important in informing what "quality" means than we often give them credit for. There's a reason why American beer was the way it was for so long: because Americans liked to drink pilsner. Granted, lack of competition and a lack of reflection on the craft of brewing turned that into really bad pilsner for awhile, but the "traditional" American beer from a couple decades ago was what it was precisely because of quite legitimate preferences.

    The same is true of something like a Chardonnay. The heavy oaking of California Chardonnays, when it first broke on the scene, precisely contradicted understandings of "objective quality". It became hugely popular - I personally like the style - until the 1990s or so we were so flooded with oaked Chardonnay that it started seeming like a tacky way to make it. When you peel back the layers a little, these objective standards often have subjective roots. It's a balance of course. I'm not suggesting a purely subjective scale at all. But ultimately, beer and wine are made for the sole purpose of human enjoyment. Whatever objectivity in quality that does exist is necessarily contingent on that fact.

  3. Old Dominion is owned by local, independent breweries!

  4. Corporate ownership isn't a big hangup for me, anonymous. In the limit I imagine it might be, but it's not really an issue. Despite the fact that they're owned by a Belgian corporation, they brew just down the road from me, and they make good beer.


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