Will Corona Suffer Because Of A New Nativism?

I am seldom happier to not be an American as I am today. Don’t get me wrong. I love the USA and live in a border town. Friends and family abound below the line. But that was a tough thing to watch yesterday. A birth of something? Maybe an end to more than is immediately obvious. Maybe something like this:

Rob Sands, CEO of alcoholic beverage giant Constellation Brands, came to New York City on Wednesday to talk about Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wine. And before he even took the stage, the company’s stock took an 8% nosedive. That’s because investors are worried about what Donald Trump’s victory could mean for Constellation Brands stz-b , owner of a Mexican brewer that targets an American customer base that could potentially face deportation.

Nativism has a long track record in the arc of American history and has crossed paths with the brewing industry. In the early 1840s, new German immigration to New York City led to tavern brawls and court cases. Interestingly, earlier German brewers seemed to have an easier go.  Likely due to the lack of greater contextual pressures like the disappearance of clean water in Lower Manhattan. Plus the intervening Jacksonian worldview.

Corona is certainly the leading Mexican brand facing the US consumer in the grocery and convenience stores.  Is it prone to neo-nativist slur? Would another beer be more patriotic in the new Trumpian society? Could be. Just a thought – but could be.

Session 117: I Predict More Predictions Ahead

sessionlogosmThis month’s edition of The Session finds us being asked by Beer Means Business to think to the future:

Over the last 10 years, numerous topics have been presented and the bloggers who discussed them expressed a rich diversity of perspectives or specific areas of interest. Therefore, I refrain from giving you further ideas or examples. There are no limits in time, space or nature either. I would like you to let your imagination free, and capture ONE thing you think we will see MORE of with an explanation of the idea.

Forecasting is a pretty tedious affair. What we will “see more of” is all a lot of folk are writing about these days. The last year has seen the rise self-appointed seers unaccountably yapping about fascinating topics like “a bubble is coming” to “there is no bubble coming.” Oh… and the brewery who brought me, fed me and watered me is going to be important to you. Personally. Soon. Count on it. You know, this sort of forecasting appears to be largely a matter of explaining how what ever is happening today will continue. My favourite one is how ABInBev is, again, in peril of imminent collapse. As it dismantles big craft. Wow. We need a word for that. Beforecasting? Borecasting?

None of this sort of writing matters – but I expect to see more of it.  It’s the packing styrofoam of beer writing. The filler between the interesting bits. I wish it weren’t so. I wish folk would be a bit braver in putting their own ideas into the discussion. I wish publications were a bit more risk taking and independent. I wish the actual business of beer were explored like any other industry of comparable impact. There are a lot of big brains out there. Good brains. And not just moaning negs like me. Folk who can create the better next thing.

I am not holding my breath. Because I need to breathe. But I have hope. I am a hopeful person. As I move blog posts from the old blog system to this one I am reminded how much richer the discussion was from, say 2007 to 2013. So I know it can be done.

The Fluidity Of Good Beer’s Paradigm Shift

Two bits of related US big craft beer industry news this week. First, Japan’s Kirin has acquired about 24.9999% of Brooklyn Brewery for an undisclosed sum on largely undisclosed terms. Second, Stone Brewery is laying off 5-6% of their workforce. How about we look at the latter first. Part of the news release states in part:

…the onset of greater pressures from Big Beer as a result of their acquisition strategies, and the further proliferation of small, hyper-local breweries has slowed growth. With business and the market now less predictable, we must restructure to preserve a healthy future for our company…

This is interesting. For some time I have been going on about the schism in craft beer. So long I bored myself with the obviousness of it. This statement confirms it. There are three sorts of craft: macro craft, big craft and micro craft. The one in the middle has the shortest shelf life. Boosters will deny it, but the sales slump for big craft has been a thing for a while. So steps have had to be taken and this is what it looks like after things change at the heart of a business. They are not alone. Remember, just last April, Stone tried to suggest that the outside investment funds they took on were “craft” investments. Silly PR committee. No one believed it. The immediate response today from Jason Alstrom reflected what might be going on: “Typical corporate response … Does not sound like Stone at all. They are having a tough time wearing those bigboy pants.” The CEO is blamed but the Board and ownership set out the tasks for the CEO to complete. Likely for very good reasons given the tired brand and founders.

In the other notable story, Brooklyn has taken Kirin’s cash. The transaction’s obvious and awkward effort to avoid hitting the 25% share level led me to review the Brewers Association’s definition of craft. An American craft brewer must be independent and to be independent…

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Notice that careful placement of “or” in that definition. Clearly, it is possible to control more of a craft brewery than owning the same relative measure in shares. How does that occur? By the transaction for the sale of shares including a shareholders’ agreement that effectively bars the corporation from doing many things without consent of the otherwise minority shareholder. As a result, the BA’s 25% ownership rule is meaningless in the world of creative financing and investment. Strings shall be both pulled and used to tie things down. Jason Notte commented on Twitter on the distinction between ownership and control as a factor in establishing the independence of a brewery:

I often wonder how deeply @BrewersAssoc dives into the details. They have a lot on the plate without auditing every deal.

The Devil is in the details, they say. If the Brewers Association is not able to keep up with the implications of the realities of business like investment terms why bother having the definition at all. Maybe that is the plan for 2017. These are, after all, the days and months of change. The big names of big craft are mostly moving out as the money moves in. It seems that only the man of yogurt is sticking around to bask in the twilight of these dusky days for big craft even after cashing out in his own way. He must be holding out for something more – but what?

Hopefully Just An Intermediate Stage

One unfortunate consequence has arisen, as far as I see, from the relatively (or perhaps just otherwise) good thing that is the swapping out of amateur beer blogging for fewer paying opportunities for the writing. I wonder whether its only me but over the last year or so I have seen more and more comments like a topic being too nuanced for open discussion or, worse perhaps, the idea that one’s research is too personally important set out in a blog post. Concurrently, I have seen a lot of interesting voices drop away from the discussion even as, yes, some other interesting ones show up. Makes me wonder.

A few unfortunate things seem to have resulted. The research never ends up getting presented – or perhaps even finished – which makes us all the worse off simply through lack of information sharing. Publishers don’t turn out to be that interested, I guess. Then, because it is already labeled as important, when it is published there is an implication that it is not open to scrutiny. The good beer discourse seems especially immune to the normal sort of semi-academic rigor that other topics normally attract. Third, there seems to be a resulting shift such that the cleverness now sits in the person rather than on the page. It never does.

This is not an accusation. Just an observation. It may just be something driven by a tinge of regret that the golden age of beer blogging – and the inherently zesty dynamics – are more than a few years past us. It may be the bleat of the buggy whip salesman seeing his first automobile. Pity me. Yet, there is a more recent combination of homogenized perspective and disengagement that saddens a bit.These things do not seem to be happening in other areas of pop culture like baseball or music. I can openly proclaim that I think the Blue Jays suck but who speaks against the new hops?

Perhaps it’s just an intermediate stage. We may be at a point at which risks are too great so things naturally get clenched. Maybe its just part of a greater thing. While I was talking about the sorts of stories that appear in an daily Google news search for “beer” when I rushed off the footnote the other day, I wonder if I might have as easily created a similar list for beer writing. I hope that isn’t the case.

Happy to hear other views, by the way. If anyone is left who does that sorta thing. And links to interesting new writing most welcome.

Not So Much A Bursting As A Great Dissipation

monkey4Ah, Mr. Chimphead. A serious point must be about to be made. But being August, there is not much out there to read, not much worth writing about. People rightly have other things to do. But Bryan Roth has posted a useful examination of the use of the word “bubble” that gets the juices flowing. He did so hard upon Stan posting a piece pleading (maybe rhetorically) for the cause of “craft” based on its persistent use. And he did so perhaps not coincidentally after Lew was quoted extensively on the need to kill off the word. For Stan, the mere fact of use conveys a certainty of some meaning. For Lew, there is simply no need for the word: “I’m holding a smart phone in my hand. If I want to know, I just thumb it in.” To be honest, I find these sorts of conversations appear amongst the All About Beer set rather regularly and I usually assume they are fillers until a real topic comes along. Quantity sometimes is a quality. What we have at this moment, however, is an opportunity to discuss how words are used to see if we can see what might actually be going on. So… let’s do just that.

I have looked back into this blog’s archives and those of others to see what can be found of assistance – not to mention making sure I did not write something entirely contrary to what I am suggesting here. It is easy to trace to way that “craft” was thrown away. It’s illustrated in one sentence from 2012 that I discussed here:

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.

“Craft” was botched by the Brewers Association in two main ways. First, it was made mutable. It could be uniquely redefined by their sole higher authority – and then was redefined regularly. Second, as we see above, like the man who lends his rake to the new neighbour never to see it again the BA extended “craft” to big beer by attaching a mere “y” to it. And the BA did not just give large multinational brewers the gift of “crafty” but they reinforced the point by creating the concept of “craft-like” too. Prior to that point no legitimate voice on the small brewer side was admitting that big beer was making a product similar to the beers of BA members. Then their very voice of authority confirmed that some of the Evil Empire’s beers were like craft. No one remembered the underlying intention of drawing a line. As Jordan wrote two years ago there is no such thing as an evil milkshake. All that the BA achieved with “crafty” was bringing macro into the club. Way to go.

Since then, we have seen “craft” not only extend to include these beers of big brewers but also things which were not considered well-crafted beer just a few years ago. Beers with facile fruit flavours to attracts folk who have no interest in beer. Beers made so poorly that the question is now legitimately discussed as to whether “murk” is now a style. The concept of “craft” takes in such a wide range of beverages now – even casually invading the distinct realms of cider and sake by times – that its meaning has been diluted and dissipated. It now includes so much meaning – so many meanings – that it no longer has little specific meaning. If you doubt that such a thing is possible, look up the word “jack” in the dictionary.

“Bubble” is starting to reach “craft”-like meaninglessness. Look again at Bryan’s post. In it he discusses, quite acceptably, that the measure against which the posited “craft beer bubble” is to be judged is the growth in the number of craft breweries in the United States and their ability to sell expensive beer. He does not mention the ability of most of those brewers to sell and actually rely upon revenues from relatively inexpensively priced good beer. He also quotes from the BA’s Tweeter-in-Chief, Bart, for whom I have a growing fondness largely based on his intelligent responsiveness to inquiries. When he was discussing bubbles last week, I asked a few questions to narrow exactly what he meant when he used the word “bubble” in this context. His answer was that “most common usage in econ is an asset price bubble” in relation to “collective brewery equipment” as it covers both number of breweries, their capacity and level of investment. He indicated his understanding was that lots of breweries [were] using equipment as collateral for loans.

We can see that “bubble” is being used in two very different ways by Bryan and Bart. And they are not mutually incompatible. The increase in the number of small entrants to the good beer market should be expected to be a pre-condition to a later “asset price bubble” in relation to “collective brewery equipment.” There may be other meanings. Retail price collapse is one. We have seen a form of that with the slowing or even halting of inflation. Craft beer prices hikes five to eight years ago would not be accepted today. But that was a time when people could suggest with a straight face that value was not to be a consumer’s consideration when approaching craft beer. “Bubble” can also mean a conceptual collapse. Craft’s bubble could burst were the sector to splinter along the faults seen now: macro crafty, big, craft, actual local micro continue to have less and less in common. The word would burst in the sense that it no longer had a center upon which the all these different forms could latch onto and hold.

For me, “craft” has suffered a conceptual dilution in the same way that “IPA” has. I wrote about this three years ago. The success of the word as a word is in large part due to its failure in maintaining precision. Has the same thing happened to “bubble”? In the rush to set up straw man arguments “bubble” gets trotted out, defined to the proponent’s convenience and then knocked down in yet another moment of triumph for craft… whatever that is… too? Think about it. Isn’t discussing the bubbles in the craft beer market about as precise as a discussion of positives in politics? How useful is that? You know, in many contexts and for a number of purposes – very.

The Dreary Reality Of Those Disclosures

Even starting to type this post initially weighs upon me in my pre-coffee haze.* Really? Has it come to this? Thinking about beer writing again? I suppose I am somewhat insulated from the quandary by being well past it. Few people consider the comfy role of the post-popular writer. Sure, it is as much a self-imposed circumstance as one caused by market forces but I am decidedly not as interested or interesting as I once thought. Yet… does this not also free me up? I mean, I actually like to think about ethics, having written codes of conduct and advised regularly on how to keep on the right side of many lines. Actually, you know, working with the stuff. Still, I’ve liked to keep away of such things around here… at least since around 2008. Haven’t I? But, then, Jessica and Ray today sent out a newsletter this morning which contains this:

A couple of newsletters ago we wrote about disclosure, advertorials and so on, suggesting among other things that beer writers and bloggers ought to make a statement of ethics on their websites so that readers know where they stand. We’re pleased to say (though we take no credit for it) that a few such pieces have shown up since… You might not personally agree with the positions those writers or organisations take in each case but setting out a position is in itself an ethical act. Good stuff.

First ethical question. I am under the simmering impression that what happens in a newsletter is supposed to stay in a newsletter. While publicly shared with subscribers, it’s not pasted on the front page of a blog. But their newsletter isn’t like.. those other newsletters. It’s actually interesting. And anyway I take comfort in Canadian law that lets me post the content of others for matter of review and, especially, given I am citing and quoting for purposes of exploring an idea I am also comfortable that I could not be giving offense. But I did not ask permission. Out of a principle founded on the marketplace of ideas.

Which is an interesting turn of phrase. The marketplace of ideas. There has always been a sort of an Edwardian Olympics aspect to writing about beer – particularly since the advent of blogging over a decade ago. It has gurgled beneath this topic without the manhole covers ever being lifted. Because good beer is an accessible joy juice topic it invites amateur hobby writing interest. Because it is pleasant and compelling it drives the dreams of frustrated careerists. And because beer generates great gobs of money, it’s as ripe for allegation that the left pocket has been as directly sewn up next to the right pocket as any topic this side of knitting blogs – those hellholes of graft and corruption. Which is the core of the second ethical challenge: great opportunity lays all about us. And – given great names in beer writing have accepted exclusive sponsorship and content creation contacts from large breweries – not a hypothetical.

So, they often write disclosure statements as Ray and J’ rightly encourage. Great. If you had subscribed to the B+B newsletter you’d even know which great examples of these statements they linked to. I pass on spilling the beans on that. Not because they are not good examples but because they are just the start of your job as reader. What is great about these disclosures is they are big red flags with the words “Start a’Judging NOW!!!” pasted upon them. See, once you know who took the Carlsberg money or the flight to an personal attendance with Jim Koch then you know why the articles that follow are so often plump, dull and somewhat smarmy. Honestly, nothing is as bad as the post-disclosure post. As enthused as the plagiarist who lifted his text from Peter just back from Damascus. Laced with horrible conceits like “the colors in the morning were orange and magenta like a sherbet” – all combined with an earnest hope that somehow transparency creates nobility. It doesn’t really, does it. Just a bit more honesty. Like that honest dot of marmalade on the tie of the man who was just at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. The mark is upon it.

Me? I think of reading this sort of writing like I think of drinking a brewer’s beer. I don’t need to know the samey opinions and self-reverences of the brewery owner. Some see it as wizardry to cut and paste what’s offered but the fact is their either beer sucks or it doesn’t. It speaks for itself. Same with writing. I’ve seen economic development webinars which include Asheville consulto panelists so, having heard them, I now assume every story pitch on that town’s beer scene comes with a flight and a hotel booking. Similarly, once these disclosures are made – once the ever thin argument that “journalism has changed” is trotted out – from there on out the presumption that each post offers invention gets replaced with the expectation that somewhere a PR strategist munching on his morning’s toast is pleased. Another job well done.

Remember: there is nothing wrong with this. These days dabbling in boosterism for one sort of benefit or another is pretty much within the range called norm. Until this era too has passed** I say “Viva the Freelance PR Apprentice!” Welcome to the marketplace of ideas. Somebody has to do it, its a reasonable step to something else and not everyone can actually be original. Has my understanding of good beer ever been increased by a post-junket essay? Can’t think of when or how. But thanks to the disclosure statement I can place my expectations in the appropriate context as I start my reading. And it is all about me – we the readers get to judge, not the writer. Gotta be careful. Think of this, too. Will the opposite lift its head one day soon, a bit of benefit flowing to slag a competitor? Does it happen now? Bet the knitting bloggers do it.*** Now, that would be interesting. And to much the same effect. Just directed messaging.

*I picked this up, half written up after work. Edited it for niceness.

**Please let it pass so that the promised silver age of beer writing may begin.

***Knitting bastards.

From “Beer Nerds” – Of All People

Shocking news from the front lines:

He also reveals that the angriest mail he gets is from “beer nerds,” of all people. It happens whenever he drinks a big-brand beer on his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” “The angriest mail I get is from beer nerds — people who are craft beer enthusiasts and see me drinking a cold, available beer from a mass production and they get really cranky with me, and they assume that I’m plugging it or something,” Bourdain told AdWeek’s Lisa Granatstein. “In fact, I just like cold beer, and my standards rise and fall depending on access to cold beer.”

I like cold beer, too, but not with this sort of firm sense of distinction. The header up there is a tiny paraphrase from an Australian ditto tale of the AdWeek interview. But the story actually has a quite detailed explanation of the way Bourdain approaches being Bourdain and, oddly, beer seems to play a role. In another response he states: “I have final approval on all this, so nobody is going to come in and say ‘Oh, by the way, you’ll be drinking a Tsingtao in every scene‘.” In fact, he seems to give beer nerds equally short attention as those who offer the opportunity to be “a spokesperson for every variety of gastrointestinal problem.” Yet not as bad Guy Fieri. Or Kobe meatballs. Which is somewhat comforting. Maybe.

How did good beer people get so… labelled? Such easy targets? I know – well all know thatthey did… but when did it happen? Is there a way to go back and fix it? Implicitly, Bourdain has lumped at least a significant part of beer fandom in a class with those who “bore people to death with something like your month-long program of drinking kale juice.” Or do you take comfort that he has a deep love for “processed or not particularly good, easily meltable cheddar-like stuff that I can make macaroni and cheese with“? Is the point, he is he and you are you and you don’t care?

If so… what’s been the point of all the craft beer PR spin over the last decade? Don’tcha care? I mean sure he can be dismissed as a strong personality but, given his obsession with quality and flavour and disdain for the phony, doesn’t Bourdain serve as at least some sort of barometer of good beer’s broader success? I mean if you can’t prove good beer is any good to such a beer drinking good food fan – what has the point been?

Is 2016 The Year That Craft Beer Became Boring?

It’s a concern if this recent report is anything to go by:

In the last four weeks, he added, the largest four BA-defined craft suppliers — Yuengling, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium — were down a combined 4 percent. “I don’t think IRI has Yuengling in their craft, but the other three are 33.9 percent of IRI’s craft cases right now,” he wrote in an email. “Add in Blue Moon and Shock Top and you’re looking at 48 percent of IRI ‘craft,’ which is down 8 percent in the last four weeks. That’s going to pull hard on any number.” Indeed, volume sales of mainstream craft flagships like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Boston Lager, and New Belgium Fat Tire were down 5.9 percent, 13.8 percent and 5 percent through May 15, respectively.

Not to come off as being all neg on craft beer, it’s good to note that cider is bottoming out, too. I was thinking about that while I was reading Bryan Roth’s bit about selling to Millennials, aka thems who everyone else used to call Gen Y. The Roth report warns that craft brewers fail to focus on this era’s set of young, fun, unburdened, disposing of disposable income cohort at their peril. Yet half way down the argument there is one of the scariest statements I have seen embedded in an info-thingy from the BA: half of craft beer purchases by Millennial males are brands the buyer never heard of before. Holy frig.

I am told the Cedar Waxwing is a bit of a rarity among bird. They lack a strong sense of territory. “Nomadic, moving about irregularly; both breeding and wintering areas may change from year to year, depending on food supplies.” Drifty drifters, they can take off in a flock heading in one direction and, if there is enough food on the path, keep on for miles. Then they shift aimlessly off onto another path, happy as long as there is something new to chew. Were they the cider drinkers? The buyers of big craft flagships? Are they now making 2016 the summer of hard soda?

If I am honest, I am one of them. Gen Y yoof is just Gen X yoof with more money. Hard to shake the drift habit. Other than a modest if constant Dewar’s habit, I hardly ever get only the same strong stuff on my weekly trip to the power house. I’ll buy anything in a pretty wrapper from any brewer with a reasonable reputation – except if it’s fruit flavoured, of course. No one needs that. Being an early Gen Xer, I have shared with my Gen Z teens a sense of disorder and unreliability. Both Ramones and tweed. The garden remains half planted. I root for whoever’s doing well in the NBA.

Does the wise business person chase that market or aim for something a little duller and more reliable? You know, soon Millennials won’t be the new market entrants. My kids will. Millennials? They’ll start having kids and paying the bills. Settling and settling down. Maybe by then they’ll need a flagship of their own. Something to remind them of when they were young. Or maybe sherry. Maybe the 2010s are the decade of fino sherries. Maybe.

Avoiding The Call Of The Content Control Clique

This is one of the sadder passages I have read about exploring brewing history in a long time. It’s in an excellent article by Joe Stange in which he is kind enough to have mentioned me:

At the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia, there was an unusual morning roundtable totally devoted to historical beer styles. New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert moderated the panel, which included Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian, Colonial Williamsburg brewmaster Frank Clark, and Brasserie de la Senne brewer-historian Yvan de Baets. Audience members participated in the conversation, including several brewers and author Randy Mosher. Suggestions ranged from an open yeast bank devoted to ancient strains to an online depository for primary documents, including guidance on things like obsolete weights and measures, heirloom ingredients and historical method. “Make sure that everyone knows what the standards are for what qualifies as history,” Mosher said, “because we’re all just sort of winging it. … Some of it’s real history. And some of it’s just stories.”

The passage is not sad because of who was there or who said what. It’s because of the word “we” sitting there in the last bit there. The gathered folk – as I had feared and when voicing that fear was told by an eminent beer writer to “GFY” in an utter lapse of self control – had adopted a conversation control standard. People of standing were placed in a room with a topic that needed to be addressed but in a way that didn’t let the content get out of control. Can’t have that.

In his article Joe deftly compares the phenomenon with organic historical research: “just think of the many people willing to research and write about niche historical topics, often on their own blogs, for little or no money.” Who does that remind you of? How about all the new small brewers who don’t need to look to big craft for the authority to do what they want, to succeed as they want. Read Michael Kiser’s second last paragraph in his submission for this month’s version of The Session again:

If you think, even secretly, that your success in craft beer had anything to do with how wide open the shelf was at the time you started, I sincerely hope you’re listening for a ticking clock. The people coming up behind you are entering the most diverse and competitive beer market in the history of beer in this country. And they’re not complaining about it. They’re shaping their ideas into sharper, more precise weapons. They’re finding smarter financial models they can sustain. They’re brewing for audiences that are perpetually turning 21 even as we get older and older. And when they look across the tap lineup at their neighborhood bar, they don’t see AB or MillerCoors. They see you.

Let’s be honest. Beer writing is a small field packed with plenty of jostling. The pie is only so big but people have appetites. Folk of little imagination but plenty of ambition will gladly let you know their opinion about who should be writing about beer. And folk will gladly step in front of you in the buffet line up. Take your work, drop it in their book and not cite you. And brewers will lift research and brew with it without so much as a mention let alone a proper payment. My second or third question to Ron is always “and did they pay you for that?” So, be alert. When someone who is not particularly involved with researching beer history suggests “we” need to make sure that everyone knows what the standards are for what qualifies as history ask yourself whether or not it’s the same thing as the newbie nano not much interested in what the old farts of big craft think.

“We”? Hardly. “Them” and “they” more like it. The people doing the work who don’t bother with the keynote speech or junket. The people with better things to do, too busy down at the library with their nose in the books.

According To Me: How Brewing Cultures Develop

This is the third in a series of occasional posts in which I try to figure out what I really think about things like measuring how much one drinks or what taste looks like. This one, disconcertingly, it looks like a unified theory – something I have mocked for years. But a few weeks ago, Jeff and I shared some useful – perhaps spicy – comments by email back and forth about each other’s prose which triggered some reflection. Explaining myself, I put it this way:

I do not write for the reader. The entire thing, my entire hobby is an exercise in testing my own assumptions. I am trying to solve a very large puzzle. And then I apply the things I come up with – structures of argument in some cases but in other just very big thinking – back into my work life as well as my relationship with life generally. I appreciate that this is all sounding odd – a bit hypomanic – but it is very hard to explain. Last year I even wondered what it would be like to be a beer writer who never drinks beer at all. So it is not so much about being in or out of the bubble but seeing it as a bubble within bubbles next to bubbles and trying to get it all ordered.

I see bubbles. I guess. The other night I woke up at 4 am after a pre-post-apocalyptic dream* and, mulling bubbles for a while afterwards to change the story in my head, thought about what I had been seeing with all this research over the last year, the diving back and forth over centuries. What has struck me even more than ever is how pervasive beer is in our English-speaking culture’s history. There is an obvious reason for that. Alcohol arises naturally, spontaneously. I remember in high school watching out my front window at starlings gorging on the rowan berries in the front yard bush. They were getting quite drunk off the fermented juice. Having a hard time landing or staying on a branch. One bird holding tight to the telephone wire side by side with his or her fellow lost toe grip and swung right round 360 degrees. The berries were loaded with rough country wine. And so became the birds.

This is good. It is a thing of nature. Beer is too. When we say “I would like to shake the hand of the man who invented beer” we tell a fib. Someone somewhere some long time ago came across a puddle. It had formed twice. Once briefly to get the ripe grain laying on the ground damp enough to sprout. And then again later for the now-altered malt to ferment. Someone drank from the puddle and figured out what had happened. All the brewing in all the history of humanity is a repeated effort to replicate the moment. To recreate what that puddle spawned. I see three core tendencies or aspects of those efforts, those replications: vernacular beer, scientific beer, mass market beer. Each is normal… whatever normal is. Better to say they reliably reoccur. Each tendency generates pleasure and profit reliably, too. And breweries – and brewing cultures – over time reflect more than one tendency or aspect. Just the few city blocks of Golden Lane in London, England display all three facets over the centuries. And each tendency generates associated sorts of beer. In a fairly regular pattern.

I prefer the idea of vernacular brewing over words like traditional or indigenous. Brewing can speak of a place. Stan will be pleased. Look at that video up there. It’s was shared by** the ever excellent Lars Garshol of Larsblog. Look at what is going on there. It’s likely very similar to how ale was brewed by an early micro. Or by William Mead in 1790s Stillwater, NY. Or at Hoegaarden in the 1400s for that matter. Vernacular brewing depends on a measure of geographical, jurisdictional or economic isolation. Look at the thumbnail. That is a page of Lord Selkirk’s diary from 1803 in which he describes a 12 barrel brewery on the frontier in NNY. Barley is little grown. So the beer is made of a blend of wheat, what barley that can be found and chopped straw. Tidy and efficient. Local resources making local beer for the local population. Unger indicates that how the semi-autonomous jurisdiction of Hoegaarden exported its singular sort of beer throughout the Low Countries of the Renaissance. Understanding local can be very important. Many years ago my part-time farmer father-in-law’s veterinarian traveled to the Ukraine as part of a Canada-USSR project to assist in improving farming practices. He entered a barn where he found the cattle eating fresh cut corn – the whole plant, unripened corn and all. The advice he gave? Kill half the cows. Not enough food to feed all of them from the crops they had on hand. Gotta know what’s possible. Locally.

Scientific brewing represents a refusal. A refusal to accept what vernacular brewing teaches us. It is geared for efficiency or as E.P. Taylor might put it as in the 1942 letter beneath that thumbnail, the avoidance of waste. Coppinger in 1815 wrote of the need for cleanliness and an “economical mode” of building a brewery if the new American Republic was to meet the standards of old world brewing. Efficiency is not code for skill. Coppinger knew it was possible to make “clean bright malt” in a rustic setting. Unlike what some will tell you, pale ale spared from smoke was well known long before the scientific revolution. In addition to the race for efficiency, brewing changes to react to scarcity. Coke was introduced to malting as a replacement for charcoal long before that, as well. It was not so much because it was better as it was due to fact that England’s forests had been drastically thinned out by the late 1500s. The new fuel provided a new way to continue on with brewing. It is related to better husbandy. The late Georgian and early Victorian reports of the recently invented Agricultural Societies on both sides of the Atlantic described the advances in brewing from an economic point of view. Beer is persistent.

The scale of the mass market has also been an abiding theme with brewing. Taylor of Albany had a pontoon room in the mid-1800s which echoes the royal breweries of ancient Egypt. The Hanseatic trade routes of the 14th and 15th century that allow Hamburg to have a massive brewing industry mirror how the coming of the railway to southwestern Ontario unleashed the carbohydrate laden grain fields out to the British Empire though the previously local brands Labatt and Carling. It took the improvement of the River Trent in 1712 to get the sulfurous local brewer out into the wider world. The English hops trade was subject to scale in the mid-1700s with one merchant London-based James Hunter being “one of the one of the most considerable dealers in hops in England” controlling a huge portion of the marketplace. Beer has a habit to expanding and adapting to meet the possibilities.

If that is so, if brewing has a number of constant attributes like vernacular expression, scientific efficiencies and the opportunism of scale – not to mention the relative certainty of wealth creation – how extraordinary is any era? Is this era? In a way its consistency over time could one of its weirdest characteristics. But then couldn’t the same be said of other persistent commonplace things like shoes, cheese or rope? Something about the pattern make me wonder if it is all a symbiotic relationship held with yeast. Maybe even a wildly successful outcome of an experiment undertaken millennia ago by the Central Yeast Planning Council. It would at least make sense of the formula beer > drinking culture > brewery. Or at least that’s what I think.

*Lots of daytime grey clouds to the horizon views with commentary like “oh, this doesn’t look good.” At one point from an apartment I saw a darker swirling column of grey far off, another moment I was on a path among dunes watching meteor-like flashes in all directions overhead. I never have dreams like this. More Torchwood than Doctor Who.

**Lars commented that he was not the source of the video. I think I saw him link to it now that I think of it.