When Beer Became Complicatedby brandon / Jun 01, 2012
Editor's Note: This week, our friend and regular contributor Brandon "Old Time" Plyler responds to a recent piece regarding "regular" vs. "complicated" beer. His opinion is solely his own...except for the fact that we totally agree with him. Check out his beer review page on Facebook and his other blog posts, and follow him on Twitter while you're at it! -ETP
A few months back, a local (city) publication compiled a wonderful special issue focusing on beer.
Among the articles that explored not only local producers, notable selections, and even a nice bit on Sour style beers, was a piece on the current complications of the beer world. The author, a lauded and generally wise food contributor, lamented the current state of beer affairs. He seemed concerned about expanded consumer selection, education and demand. He seemed to be worried that “Regular Beer,” the simple, comforting, static bastion of Americana was to be sacrificed on the alter of Hipster Doom. Well, there are a few points at which beer became complicated.
Historical Overview: “Regular Beer.”
Beer has been brewed since man became civilized. Europe was brewing before the Legions marched into Germania and Britannia. Americans were brewing before we were states, or even united for that matter. Many of these old styles of beer are in fact currently being resurrected by your local craft breweries: Oyster Stout, Gratzer, Rauch-Märzen, and Steam Beer, just to name a few! In the 1840s, pilsner was developed, and as a new style set out to conquer the globe. American Light Lager/Pilsner became mainstream sometime shortly after the Second World War. The “Regular Beer,” most Americans know today has only existed for about 60 years regardless of whatever heritage or age statement any domestic brewery claims. Keep that in mind the next time a bar patron provides instruction as to what defines “American Beer.” In that time, the race to become lighter, lower-carb, crisper, cleaner, more drinkable, more refreshing, etc., has created a unicorn-filled dream-world for the Accounting and Marketing arms of breweries. At their behest, cheaper ingredients were used in ever higher proportions and individual character was quietly smothered in effort to produce something universal and non-offensive. When brewers where no longer the major decision makers in production and every beer was a mirror image of its competitor, beer became complicated.
Marketing and Such
Ask anyone what wine is made from and you will find that fermented grape juice is no big secret. Ask anyone what beer is made from and you will be burdened with whatever marketing nonsense a brand fanatic has committed to memory. As the Accounting arm became fascinated with the voodoo of super-cheap sugar additions, the Marketing arm honed their skills in selling the insipid liquid. Wonderfully ambiguous phrases like "Beech-wood Aging," "Triple-hops," "Brewed Longer," "Cold-Filtered," and "Choicest Hops" have become what passes for beer knowledge these days; all minor footnotes of common production methods! No real attempt is made by these concerns to cloak their opinion of the American beer drinker. They know that you are ignorant. They know their fans have not chosen loyalty to aroma or flavor profile. They know you have chosen the marketing scheme and image that appeals to you most. When breweries ceased to educate and stopped respecting their customers, beer became complicated.
Ironically, in the land of the free market and product diversity, where monopolies are more than discouraged and competition is heralded, the idea of one utilitarian beer-style-of-the-people seems to be decidedly patriotic. Suggesting that certain wines be enjoyed with different foods or even different seasons will hardly foster any disagreement from the general public. Suggesting the same of beer might elicit accusations of snobbery, followed by misty-eyed, Proletarian rants that rhapsodize the beer of one’s father. There is a time and place for every beer. Let’s agree that lawn work and night caps are different things and the idea that one beer for everything is probably insane. For some strange reason, the fans of beers that are the most widely distributed (at rock-bottom prices, by the way) are worried about better beers being available. Are they afraid that what their palate has been saying for years might be true? Sounds like a complicated relationship to me.
Consumers should have a choice
And their choices have contributed to the only facet of the beer market that has seen growth in the past few years, including our local economy. To all food writers: consider what a grocery store looked like 30 years ago, remember what the selection of fresh anything looked like, remember what the cheese selection looked like! Locally-sourced products, farmers' markets, and artisanal beer are on their way back. Brewers are using better ingredients and making that an honest selling point to the consumer. People are starting to indulge in the pleasures of everyday life that appeal to them, and become educated at the same time. After this short bump in history, maybe beer will cease to be complicated.