Still Not Backing Down For Four Hundred Years

What a great ad. It basically sums up everything about American brewing for the last four hundred years. It’s so absorbing you hardly notice how weird the music is. Part movie soundtrack when Gene Hackman smashes the Mopar though downtown. Part Eminem run through the graphic equalizer. It sounds like it starts at a point about a minute, fifteen seconds into the crescendo that started in last fall’s “Choices Have Consequences” ad. And the message builds, too. Poor widdle cwaft thinks that it is all about the big bad brewer running scared but it’s not. It’s gleeful assertion meeting commercial reality. The upstretched middle finger to some. The assertion of tribe to many others. An umbrella for those who buy the 80% or more of beer that is still light, inexpensive and easy to drain. It’s lovely. The greatest part of the loveliness is, however, not just its in the design elements of the presentation but that it addresses the same set of themes which have consistently sprung from or imposed upon brewing on this continent ever since warmed water was poured over cracked grain by our first founders around four hundred years ago.

=> Beer creates aggregation. Obviously the ad is about might. Brewing in North America has always been about the generation of might. A powerful place within the industry. Leveraging the wealth it generates out into society. It took a few generations of the pre-industrial pre-Revolutionary Dutch brewers of New York state to achieve it. It took brewers like John Taylor a lifetime in Albany of the mid-1800s. It took E.P. Taylor about a few decades in the mid-1900s. And it took a decade for microbrewing to spawn millionaire and billionaire big craft from 2005-15. Through co-operation, collusion and control brewing creates the opportunity to generate wealth, independence and even power. This is good as it is success. Sipping is not so good for success.

=> Beer is a means to an end. Not only does brewing aggregate but it does so in a repeated similar pattern. If you follow Michigan brewer Larry Bell on Facebook you will notice he spends a lot of time not brewing in Michigan. He in on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico or some such place. Interestingly, members of the mid-1750s Dutch brewing dynasties did the same thing. Anthony Rutgers IV was a privateer and lived on Curacao tending to the Hudson valley Dutch plantation trade that extended well past the British invasion as well as the American Revolution. Beer actually appears to dislike folk not improving their station in life. It attracts money too readily. Big craft branch plants on the east coast or in Europe are just another form of expansive market control that beer has always undertaken.

=> Beer is cyclical. Just as Mr Bell is retracing the wake in the warm water Mr Rutgers sailed in the 1700s, brewing repeats itself in overlapping cycles. Anything that imposes on the production of grain seems to restart the clock. The Hessian fly causing the deprivations and hardships of 1788-90 are not unlike the relationship between the Civil War and, as with the standard rules of baseball, the development of a homogenized taste for premium lager… not to mention the later dominance of industrial light lager after World War II. It also takes on and defeats – or at least holds down – the challenges of traditional brewsters’ beer houses, self-sufficient estate brewing, temperance drinks, imports, brew-your-own operations, micros, home brewing and now new nanos as they come forward each in their turn. These things come in waves but brewing continues. It knows it needn’t back down.

=> Beer is responsive. It needs to react to external forces. The overlapping cycles are not determined by brewing. It is the natural response of brewing to reassert itself in the face of crisis to maintain production and profit. It also reflects simple cultural change. It’s not by chance that micro brewing takes off in the 1980s concurrent with factors like the variety of cable TV and androgyny in pop music. It’s the decade that the range of choice explodes. Micro brewing follows that greater trend. Had the pioneers of micro not come forward rest assured other pioneers of micro would have come forward in the same cities in pretty much the same way. Beer responds in the late 1700s and early 1800s to scientific advances in agriculture in the same way. The Agricultural societies which arose after the end of the War of 1812 gave stability to the new farming lands and spread the news about scientific brewing just like cable TV informed consumers that they wanted the new beer because they wanted new cheese. Beer is responsive because it is one man – the ancient everyman – now carrying the keg, now armed with stainless steel at scale. He (or she) is fighting ocean going container ships stacked with uniformly Heineken green cargo boxes.

=> Beer is pervasive. Because brewing has transitioned in response to societal change over and over it has earned its place. Unlike, say, the mustards on the grocery shelf the aggregating tendency of beer needs a team. It asks for loyalty and gets it. Why would inexpensive joy juice not? It’s the mild affordable anesthetic that gets you through life. Tribal affinities are natural whether they are constructed of the cult of craft or light lager in the NASCAR stands. It’s heavy metal and new country. Craft and social media. Trains in the late 1800s sent out the message of better cheaper beer than the local brewer was making or charging. Trains from places like St. Louis and London, Ontario carrying casks branded with names like Anheuser-Busch and Carling reaching out from larger and larger breweries placed near those other train tracks which reach out into the grain fields. Beer informs you about both progress and legacy. It’s where you’ve been and where you are going. Get in line.

=> Beer resists. Because beer wants to keeps its rewards it pushes back and fights. If the fluid in the Bud ad up there was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale you would not have to change out many of the other elements. The boosters would just have to swap places. It does not like to hear other points of view. Big craft – including its co-opted communicators – is as much in lock step as the Bud ad as much as the 1600s to 1700s Dutch then 1800s to 1900s German brewing dynasties, each taking care to include all the cousins in the benefits. The business formula is too certain, too successful to do otherwise. No wonder we have identatext book after identatext book. Beer likes puff. We already see discussion in craft like this has fallen away. Disagreement is now disagreeable. It’s all the Borg. Bud is truly not backing down. No beer backs down. Because? America.

I love it. I had a Bud on Thursday night. I have one a couple of times a year. About as often as I have mashed turnip. They are both unpleasantly bitter and they are both cultural touchstones. Neeps are the ultimate statement of Scots cuisine. Bud is America. I get four clear phases: sweet rice, lumber, dirty bitter hop and a stale finish which more of that sweet rice quickly remedies. You are not supposed to like it. Turnip? It’s not yummy either. You are supposed to accept it like the other realities of life and be grateful for the comfort it brings. Bud tells you about North American life, too. It’s not fussy. Lemon flick. It meets you on the level. Given the existing kit that’s long paid off, it’s easy to make following instructions out of readily available resources – even as it tells you it’s difficult to make. You need to rely upon its word on that point even though you can make an acceptable substitute for less in your own kitchen. You can actually make good beer easily in your own home. But you don’t. Because you are part of something bigger. Something that works. The same way. Every. Time.

Divisive “Local” Craft Culture Clash Marketing

My own favorite local.
 

Stan linked to this story a few days ago. It got me thinking… but not fast, “get me to the keyboard” thinking. It was this bit at the beginning that got me mulling:

I was watching a video online when it was interrupted by a commercial for Budweiser. The name of the spot was “Do You Know Where Your Beer Is Brewed?” Soft guitar music played while clips of idyllic landscapes and sunrises peaking over breweries slid across the screen. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The gentle voice of the narrator says, “With 12 breweries spread all across the United States, your next Budweiser is closer than you think.” Budweiser hangs its hat on the fact that it can produce the same beer at 12 facilities and it will always taste exactly the same no matter where you drink it. No small feat, to be sure. But then the voice adds, “You might even say we’re America’s largest local brewer.” My eyes narrowed and my brow furrowed. ‘What in the heck is this?” I exclaimed. “That is our word!”

Our word? There’s a lot of weird words in there. Not the least of which is “our” – whose the hecks is that referring to? Don’t get me wrong. I like the work of the author Jeff Baker just fine. He’s the manager of the Farmhouse Bar and Grill in Vermont. Nice place. Real nice. Just not my local. Because “local” can mean that, too. The distance of the drinker from the drink.

But that’s not his point. It sorta illustrates mine but that’s not really the goal of where I am going. He is asking about local ingredients. If you want that world, go back 200 years and have a look at the Vassar day book with local beer being made of local grain and hops being sold back in small batches to the farmers and tavern keepers of the central Hudson Valley just getting back to some sort of normal after the devastation cause by the Revolution. This is the mid-1830s book but in the 1808-11 book the economies of beer are clearly still defined by the cart horse. That is actual local brewing. Are we willing to go there? Doubt it. You don’t really want local. You want some local. Now and then. But you want the global economy beer made with the best ingredients brewed on the newest, bestest equipment. Right?

Craft beer and macro are not all that far apart in this respect. Brewed on computerized stainless steel to a scale and upon a recipe that meets the needs and budgets of their respective clients. The only actual local thing that is reliably present at the brewery is the staff. Hard to be a brewer who lives over 45 miles from the brewery. There’s a hint by the way. If the person discussing the beer in your glass doesn’t live about that close, not a brewer. Sales guy, likely… owner, sure… but that’s all. Both use good foreign malt and distant, shipped in hops. Both tweek their water and yeast to match those found elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong. I like “local” just fine. It just means, for me, the bok choi and beets I have growing out there in the yard. Not beer.

When anyone in beer – whether Bud or craft – claims a word like “local” or “small” or “real” there is marketing going on – even if only to a small circle. Even if only to the speaker. It’s all unnecessary. When I think of Bud, I think of the brewery at Baldwinsville, New York to my south where local people earn a decent wage. If I have a decent hoppy IPA, I think of the three nations and seven generations needed to make the beer exist. Beer is global and has been since at least the 1400s when the Hanseatic League was beginning to ship Baltic brewed hoppy beer to the Low Countries. Except for odd examples like postwar agricultural collapses like Vassar faced in 1808. Except for that, it’s been beer or large parts of it hauled out from the hold as often as not since the Dark Ages. Good non-local beer.

More Vital Information On Third-Category Beer

I suppose that if I ever tried it or if it had a name that did not sound like something out of Blade Runner I would have less of a fascination with that fluid in Japan that is called “third category beer.” This article in the The The Daily Yomiuri, however, is full of tidbits that make me wonder what this stuff is really like:

“Faced with gasoline and food price hikes, consumers are looking for better deals on some products. Third-category beer, which is often made from soybeans, corn and peas, is priced cheaper than regular beer and happoshu low-malt beer. Beverage makers are fiercely competing to keep prices low, while trying to produce tastes close to that of regular beer. The key to third-category beer’s success is the low price, and shipments surpassed those of happoshu beer in May. A 350-milliliter can of third-category beer sells for about 140 yen at convenience stores, about 20 yen less than happoshu and 75 yen less than regular beer.”

How excellent: “…close to that of regular beer.” Yum. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had similar clarity in our macro-brewing? How many beers would have to call themselves happoshu that now hold themselves out to be beer from barley?

Book Review: Great American Beer. Christopher O’Hara

This is a handy neat smaller format hardcover that the publisher was kind enough to FedEx me this week. And I am glad they did as this is a dandy guide to its exact topic: post WWII, pre-micro revolution pre-branding US beer. The author gladly admits this in the introduction:

The antithesis of the recent microbrewery revolution in America, this was a time when the major beer powerhouses took control of the brewing industry and, in the grand spirit of American industry, relentlessly quashed the small, independent producers that relied upon local support. This story is about the Americanization of beer, where homogenized brands – grown through a mixture of political clout, industrialization, and marketing might – became the best loved, and most heavily consumed beer brands in the world.

This is an unapologetic book in a time of review and perhaps revision. As Ken Wells discussed in Travels With Barley, despite all the efforts and successes in the craft brewing revival, this is a continent of lovers of beer-flavoured water making that still the primary cultural phenonmena to be grappled with when considering beer.

This book tells the story not so much of how that occured as who was involved. And it does so with style and wit. It is a primarily a series of fifty 500 to 200 word essays on the individual brands that made up the wave of oneness that is macrobrewing, from Bud to Blatz to Utica Club. Because this is as much pre-brand as pre-craft, there are no discussions of those “Bud Draft Dry Light Ice” sorts of beers that popped their heads up starting in the late 1970s – the word Light…or rather Lite…does not appear in the table of contents. This is a book that argues for a golden age and makes a pretty good argument for it. Even with the eighteen page history, this is not academic tome or a deep dive into the culture but, as you can expect, that could be an issue which, once raised, might be legitimately greeted with a shout of “academic, schmacademic.”

The book heavily relies upon images of the collection of beer stuff collector Erik Amundson, which you can see at the web site www.taverntrove.com. This is good and well handled as the advertising, packaging and other flotsom and jetsom of the brewers played such a huge role in differentiating a homogenized product. It is presented attractively along with well-written, informative text providing a book for the beer fan not scared to be presented with the phrases like “trendy imports” and “craft snobbery”. I’d say get it.

Beer Science: Pabst Against Pabst

pabst2

Ever since my pal portland came up with the phrase beer-tasting water, I have been a little too obsessed with Pabst Blue Ribbon. But then I realized I had a unique opportunity to perform my sort of science experiment: a side-by-side comparison of a PBR from the US against one brewed under license in Canada by Sleeman of Guelph. Even though any possible outcome of this project will not advance the human condition one bit, I took on the challenge.

pabst1First, I noticed the price. A six of Canadian PBR is $7.50 at the LCBO. The US version was $4.60 at a gas station on 12E, east of Watertown, NY. I knew I was getting ripped off, too, as I had seen $3.29 for the six at another place that was sold out. Then I noticed the cans. There is clearly more blue ribbon on the PBR stateside. Does this matter? I suppose not. Both also have the River Plate red sash which is quite natty.

pabst3To be honest, the beers taste pretty much the same – sort of bland, the pablum of beers yet without off flavours and somehow comforting. Like pablum, no self respecting adult would look forward to the taste but, once presented with it (like a new father feeding pablum to his little baby for the first time and scraping it off his hands knees and forehead), one is less turned off than one might expect. Yet the Canadian version, right in all pictures, is clearly a notch lighter and by the end of the glass as it warms and the bubbles die away it maybe even more watery.

What have we learned? Not much. Except I have ten more in the fridge.