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The Session

Session #79 – USA versus Old World Beer Culture

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OK, here we go with the blog post that you’ve read before. Why do I say that? Well essentially this is a post that I’ve written umpteen times over, just in varying guises.

In those past posts I have generally focused on one particular aspect of the cultural divide, and by doing so I have been able to hone in on one facet of US beer ‘culture’ that I find deficient. For example, you may have read such classics as, Americans and Cask AleAmericans and The Beer Middle Class or Americans and Session Beer, where I take Americans to task over their abuse of cask ale, their penchant for hype and extremes, or their ignorance of basic beer nomenclature respectively. (Actually, it’s really important for one to read all of these other posts (and ones highlighted below) if one wants to get a sense of where I’m really coming from here, since taken together, they give a much more complete picture of my thoughts on this particular subject than can be gleaned from this post alone).

OK, so how is this post different to all of those others? I suppose what I am trying to do here is to give a more global, less topic specific view, but even when attempting to do that, there are still some recurring themes and common threads that allow me to illustrate what I believe to be true about American beer ‘culture’ in general. Some of these ideas will not be news to you at all, in fact, they are all almost certainly old hat, but that doesn’t make them less valid, and when you’ve written so much about this in the past as I have, there is inevitably going to be some repetition – I make no apologies for that.

So what makes me qualified, as an Englishman, to comment on such things? Maybe you don’t think that I AM qualified, but I offer these facts in my defense; I’ve traveled in, lived in and worked in America for what adds up to a total of approx. 15 years (over a period of approx. 25 years), I’ve been coast-to-coast (including Hawaii), and I’ve been married to an American (and by extension her family), for almost 19 years. Nearly every single one of those travels have involved beer tourism in one form or another, and yes, that includes back in the early 90′s as well, when half of the people reading this post were probably still in elementary school. In the last fourteen years I think I have been fairly well-immersed in the US beer scene, and anyone who stalks the interwebs will know that I have a SUBSTANTIAL digital beer footprint across the last decade.

Most reading this will be aware of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language“, and it would be difficult to find a better illustration of the huge chasm in cultural norms than that provided by beer. At the heart of British beer culture lies the pub (and yes, the pub is still alive and well in Britain). The ‘pub’, i.e., ‘the public house’, has its origins in precisely that – a house, where people gathered for social interactions, over extended periods of time, drinking relatively large quantities of beer of manageable ABV’s. American bars are NOT pubs. Sure, that sounds like an obvious thing to say, and nor do I want or expect American bars to be pubs (that’s impossible and generally a colossally bad idea – see ‘Irish pubs’ in America), but saying it out loud is important, since it gives context to many of the differences in attitudes that we find on either side of the pond. People in the USA are generally not gathering around beer in the same manner that they are in Britain – period. One of my greatest pet peeves in American beer is the ‘event’. Countless, limited release parties, tap-takeovers, themed nights, special cask tappings, beer ‘personality’ appearances and other forced happenings, replace the organic and everyday nature of beer being interwoven into daily life in the old world. Add the puritanical roots of much of America, the drinking age restrictions, blue laws in the South (including dry counties) and the hopeless, hopeless dearth of public transport in the majority of the country, and one has a cultural norm (bizarre to old world folk) where beer is somehow removed from daily routine and marginalized into special, planned circumstances. I think that these non-organic, event-based happenings and the absence of pubs, are at the center of much of my dissatisfaction.

It's an event!

An American beer geek at an event earlier today

At the heart of all of American culture is, of course, a general irreverence. ‘Pushing the envelope’, ‘ignoring tradition’, ‘doing it because they CAN’, are all hallmarks of the American psyche. It’s what sets America apart form the old world and I fully understand that, but so what? Unfortunately, one of the occupational hazards of such attitudes is that for every one Dogfish Head, 120 minute (an extreme and interesting beer with some merits even if one isn’t especially interested in it), there are one-hundred Southern Tier, Imperial Cherry Saison’s (an utter mess, that should never have been brewed, makes no sense and is a blight on brewing as we know it). If you think flooding the market with one-hundred ill-conceived beers in order to get one good one is a fair price to pay, then I suppose you disagree with me here, but the damage far outweighs the benefits. Why? It means that mediocrity (and worse) rules in the place of quality. Of course, on the whole, this is embraced by the American beer geek. Beer geeks in the US are still driven by parameters that are very different from those in the old world; size (ABV), hype (limited editions and ‘events’) and quantity (often confused with ‘choice’), still hold sway over measured discernment and an eye for quality, and that’s perpetuated by what the market demands. Just take a look at the latest moronic Brewdog publicity stunt as an example for the different drivers. This HAD to be filmed and made in America for a couple of reasons. Firstly because for all intents and purposes Brewdog ARE an ‘American’ brewery (philosophically and culturally) and secondly, because this type of hysterical ridiculous nonsense could only fly and be taken even semi-seriously, in the USA! The second point reinforces my first.

American beer ‘culture’ has also created monsters. I believe that at worst these monsters may eventually consume themselves, and at best that they represent a dangerously non-sustainable entity. One should not be surprised of course since America is the home of rampant, non-reflective consumerism anyway, so why should the beer world here be any different? I wrote about how these phenomena affected me on a personal level here, how I quickly caught myself and how, because of my perspective and experience, I made some immediate corrections. However, generally younger, less experienced beer enthusiasts (read much of the American craft beer demographic) have no such reference points to fall back on, and the vortex of hysteria continues. This is of course, not their ‘fault’, but equally true is that the American way is not conditioned to listen to the traditionalist and as a result they are missing out on a whole swathe of important context and historical markers. This type of ‘culture’ breeds a situation where respect is given to, and knowledge is judged by, the basis of such parameters as, ‘did you go to Dark Lord day?’ or, ‘have you consumed and reviewed Heady Topper?’, or ‘did you trade for that latest Hill Farmstead Saison?’. I’ve done none of those things and know more about beer and beer culture than most of the people that have. The manic scramble toward the next shiny object being held above the next trendy brewers head, has clouded what little judgement and good grace were in place originally.

I am often reminded of an English friend of mine that lives here in the USA and talks about his adventures in cycling, stateside. He tells of wanting to simply buy a $50 old, battered bike to do some cycling around his local neighborhood at the weekends, and how he was interested in meeting some like-minded people to share his interest with. All he could find were folk with $1000 bikes, cycling shorts and those ridiculous shoes that ought to be taken off when they enter a coffee shop. He commented that everything in America has to be so intense that they are missing out on the simplistic pleasure of cycling – nobody is stopping to smell the roses. In beer terms we find that in the USA, Westvleteren 12, The Bruery Black Tuesday and Dogfish Head 120 minute, are sometimes starting points for many beer folk. Without earlier context, one cannot properly grapple with such beers.

So what has the contemporary American brewing scene given us culturally? Well, culturally not much. That isn’t to say that there is no good, American beer – there is, and lots of it –  but that’s an entirely different conversation. My record of praising large quantities of US brewed beer is extensive and something that I am really quite happy about, but the cultural question is unconnected to the product. As such, I think it might be a good idea to try to be a little preemptive here and  to counter some of the arguments in favor of American beer ‘culture’ that I anticipate will come our way during in Session #79. It’s my bet that a lot of the Session #79 posts will focus upon the perceived notion that American beer culture is somehow ‘saving’ old world beer culture by revamping styles, making beer ‘less boring’ and protecting us from restrictive practices such as the Reinheitsgebot and (heaven forbid) brewing beer that tastes like, um, beer! As such, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on some of those old chestnuts in anticipation of them surfacing.

Oft quoted argument #1. The American beer renaissance has saved many styles form going the way of the Dodo. Now, this has some partial truth in as much as the American MARKET has supported some styles that had become much less popular elsewhere, but this is an accident of the historical timeline and NOT as a consequence of any particular foresight, expertise or American brewing skill. For example, the reason that in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s Gose was dying a death in Germany was that essentially there was very limited demand. With the American beer-geek consumer being so incredibly indiscriminate, there will (for a while at least) be room for all kinds of obscure styles and obscure beers. This is less of a style revival and more about the ability to sell just about anything (in many cases regardless of quality) to the US consumer. Jean Van Roy has been quoted (accurately or not I cannot ascertain) as saying that America played an important role in saving Cantillon from becoming dangerously irrelevant, but again, what he refers to here is insatiable consumer rather than the discerning one.

Oft quoted argument #2. American beer is less boring than English/German/Belgian/Czech beer. All this does is serve to show the immaturity of the American beer palate. If it’s not possible for one to understand that there are a myriad of incredible flavors, subtleties and nuances in beers that don’t offer IBU’s over 100, ABV’s in excess of 8% and that are brewed with a minimum of 6 unnecessary adjuncts, then one doesn’t have a sophisticated palate or a wider understanding of global beer.

Oft quoted argument #3. American beer has introduced new styles. Frankly that’s just plainly inaccurate. If one were to take a style that might be considered quintessentially representative of the contemporary, American beer scene, the West Coast Double/Imperial IPA, and then one were to read the prolific Ron Pattinson over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, one would see that it’s all been done before.

Oft quoted argument #4. American brewers are innovative. Firstly almost all of the stuff that goes on in contemporary American brewing has been done before, and as such people seem to be confused over the meaning of word. But that aside, brewing in the old world is a centuries old pursuit. If you’ve arrived in the last five minutes then you’re probably not going to be able to be ‘innovative’ (see #3).

For further notes on my observations about other myths, see this post.

Of course, all of my observations there and above about hysteria, a lack of reverence and wanting to be the loudest teenager in the room are all entirely consistent with much of American culture outside of the realm of beer. As such, none of us should be surprised at its blundering appearance in, and extension to, beer.

In closing I suppose that given that I happily agree that there is some really wonderful American beer being brewed here right now, and that I really enjoy drinking said beer, then some might ask why the hell would I care about the lack of culture in the American beer scene and the divide between the new and old world? My answer is simple; ‘That’s a question that only an American would ask’.

8 Comments

  1. Ding, there’s a contradiction lodged at the heart of your long wheeze. On the one hand, you describe a litany of American crimes against beer–and use them as examples of the ways in which American throwaway culture is deeply flawed. Then you say Americans have no culture. Pointedly:

    Of course, all of my observations there and above about hysteria, a lack of reverence and wanting to be the loudest teenager in the room are all entirely consistent with much of American culture outside of the realm of beer….

    In closing, …some might ask why the hell would I care about the lack of culture in the American beer scene and the divide between the new and old world?

    You can’t have it both ways. I think admitting there is American culture and actually attempting to understand it will help you hone your criticism. Absent that, it comes off as its own form of nativism: essentially, you hate boorish Americans because they don’t behave like proper Brits. (And that’s not a terrible argument!)

  2. Thanks for writing such a provocative piece. I am sure that some in America will be a “little” peeved by it. But it does puncture the balloon of many things that we here hold dear.

    I do have to hold your feet to the flames on two assertions in the post though.

    1) Your 4 Oft Quoted Arguments rely on really strict and narrow definitions. With your line reading of the word innovative then nothing will truly be innovative. Computer that does millions of calculations in a second. Not an innovation. Just a faster abacus. And their can be new styles. Subsets of others but new nonetheless. You cannot tell me that a Citra Pale ale is not new. It is an American single hop pale. To say that nothing from now on can be new is really a way to stunt growth.

    But what really struck a discordant note was the 1st argument where you basically say that all Americans have no discerning palates and would drink anything put in front of us. That is load of oversimplification to swallow. But then you undercut yourself by referencing Cantillon as an example. If us callow ‘Mericans can drink that “swill”, then I think our palates are just fine.

    2) I also disagree with your statement that the US has not given “much” culturally to beer. I completely and fervently believe that without the driving passion and yes, the massive purchasing of beer here, that good beer around the world would not be where it is today. And that is a cultural contribution in my book.

    Our brewers and fans have loudly and brashly and sometimes annoyingly broadcast the message of craft beer to all corners of the globe. Just because we didn’t invent beer doesn’t mean we can’t contribute to it’s role in society at home and abroad. If that were the case then everyone but the Sumerians are just pretenders.

    The U.S. has a lot to learn about beer. Remember that our current beer culture is only 25+ years young (give or take). But you would do well to give us some props.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more… On pretty much every topic here.

    Also I love how Draft Magazine completely and utterly missed the point of this story by posting a huge list of beer hyped events passed off as cultural positives. Reread the article and try again.

    All that said, I’m guilty of living the hype for the last couple years myself. However the last few months sanity has been returning and when step back you really see the lack of quality and the extreme insanity that is pervasive in the US beer scene.

    There is so much to be said for a very well brewed classic or old world style beer that is completely and utterly lost on us.

    Also, how can it be healthy for the scene with so many options? For two years I didn’t drink the same beer twice. (I’ve got over 1100 unique untappd check-ins) This is common practice with basically ever beer nerd I know.

    We have an extremely long way to go and I have little to no faith that our attention spans will last long enough to truly clean up this cultural mess.

    BVH

  4. Ding, you old farty English man- my panties are all bunched up my butt after reading your session post! But I still completely admire your writing (all be it totally vintage) and respect that you know way more then me. You win.

    You talk about American beer culture the way I talk about French beer culture, maybe we both suffer from ‘my homeland is better’ sickness, eh.

    My Session Post is up- MERCI POUR LA BATAILLE SPORTIVE!

    http://tastingnitch.com/2013/09/session-79-old-world-beer-vs-new-world-beer/

  5. Thanks. Nice article by the way. Yours, I mean, not mine. Anyway …

    http://bottledrogersbeers.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/beer-culture-of-the-us/

  6. Howdy,

    Here’s my Session contribution.

    http://heathervandy.com/2013/09/06/session-79-what-the-hell-has-america-done-to-beer/

    Good question, look forward to reading everyone’s posts.

  7. Here’s my take on it.

    Loved the topic, you’ll get many answers more eloquent than mine!

    http://www.beeroclockaustralia.com/2013/09/the-session-79.html?m=0

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