In February of this year I was asked by a person that follows me on Twitter to write a counter-point article for Twisted South magazine. After 0ver 9 months of being told that ‘it will be published soon’, I’ve given up. Here’s what I wrote all that time ago.
‘The South’ and ‘beer culture’ in the same sentence? It’s counter intuitive to me, and I might even say oxymoronic.
I suppose that I should examine what I consider to be ‘beer culture’ before moving on. This isn’t an easy thing to do. Defining ‘culture’ of any description is fraught with subjectivity, so any ‘definitions’ need to be loose, non-specific and flexible enough to be non-prescriptive.
When I think about what makes up beer culture in my home (England), there’s not much point in trying to apply that particular set of criteria to the South of the USA or indeed anywhere else. The same can be said of any attempt to apply the beer culture of Germany or Belgium to the US; hopeless. Each place has its own, unique structure which cannot, and moreover should not, be transferred elsewhere. No beer culture should be one that is based upon an attempt to replicate another one, and one only has to look at ‘Irish’ pubs in the USA to realize the utter folly of that. So what can we take from other beer cultures which will allow us to measure what is happening in the South of the USA?
Let’s start by looking at some generic things. For me, a beer culture only exists when there is a deep, organic, non-forced groundswell of beer appreciation that is natural in the community. Somewhat paradoxically, this is likely to be accompanied by people not even thinking about beer. The fact that articles like this are being written, suggest to me that there is no spontaneous understanding of beer culture in the South. Anyway, why should there be? A stunningly draconian set of blue laws being applied in the Bible belt, where the good ol’ boy network still thrives, is hardly a place where one would expect to find enlightened attitudes toward beer; and we don’t. Throw in a history that includes prohibition, Baptists that think dancing and ‘drink’ were sent directly from Beelzebub himself, and an AB-InBev, Coors and Miller stranglehold, and you’ve created several significant hurdles. Add ‘over 21’ to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a doozy of a combo! As a result beer not being woven into every part of daily life here in the South, there cannot be a ‘culture of beer’.
So what can I point to in order to give credence to my argument? A fair question, and one that I don’t have much trouble answering. There are many telltale signs.
The first thing that I see on a regular basis is the ostentatious flaunting of ‘beer wealth’. There are a lot of folk that are fond of one-upping one another with tales of this rare beer, and that one-day release party, that for me, have no place in a mature beer environment. These noisy, grandiose shows of opulence are juvenile and reflect the relative immaturity of the marketplace. Secondly there are those that point to the enormous amount of beer now available in South. It’s true that in Atlanta, GA there has been colossal (indeed exponential) growth in the amount of beer that is distributed in the city and state, and the selection is now absolutely mind-boggling, but as in many other areas of American society, sheer numbers and quantity are being confused with, and mistaken for, quality; they are two very, very different things. In some quarters there is almost a total lack of discretion surrounding buying beer, and that’s a sign that people don’t get it. Everything that is shiny and new is considered ‘good’, and what’s worse is that everything ‘local’ is also being touted in the same way. The result is a large amount of mediocre beer for sale. Finally, some point to the preponderance of beer ‘events’ in the South as being a barometer on the growth in beer culture here. In actuality, the large number of these events that we see in and around the South, tells me the exact opposite. It seems that nothing can take place naturally here. There has to be a huge fanfare, a lot of fuss, noisy marketing and promotion and no subtle, organic feel about beer and its associated sub-culture. Beer events are ‘necessary’ in the South in a way that they aren’t in other places, and in those other places an everyday, non-forced (real) beer culture exists amongst the folk. They don’t need, or want the fuss.
While I’m on the subject of subtlety, that brings me to the beer! Contemporary, American, craft (whatever that means) beer has gone beyond the initial birth, and has now settled fully into a high ABV, loutish styles and the non-subtle groove is well established. Despite conversations about the market wanting to grow in terms of lower ABV beer, we really have seen almost no significant growth in beers with ABV’s of 4% or lower. Why does that matter? Well, if people can’t sit down for hours on end, consuming beer in large quantities without losing their faculties, then the beer culture can naturally grow. You need people sitting around in public places for long periods of time, drinking beer for that to happen. This is one reason that very few Americans drink beer at lunchtimes during the workweek – it’s a huge gap that makes it difficult to form a beer culture.
Finally, public transport. I don’t believe that a beer culture can possibly grow without that crucial element. A walking culture that exists in a few cities in the USA like New York, Boston, San Francisco, DC, Philadelphia and Chicago, is almost entirely absent in the South. The same is true of good, extensive public transport. This is how neighborhood coffee shops, bookstores, boutique shopping and bars & beer thrive. Decatur, GA is the exception, not the rule.