What the Hell has America Done to Beer?

This month’s Session is hosted by Adrian Dingle of Ding’s Beer Blog and the theme is “USA versus Old World Beer Culture”. Keep an eye on this page for the official announcement of Session #80, hosted by yours truly.

It seems to me that many beer writers go out of their way not to be political. The reason why so many of us try to be, or claim to be, apolitical must have something to do with why we love beer in the first place – culture. The culture of beer is one of equality, honesty and the letting off steam. You go for a beer after a long day of arguing about politics. You don’t have opponents at the pub, you have mates.

But beer is political. I don’t generally want to talk about the politics of beer when I’m having a beer (though it does make me need one) but I think that’s why I write about beer: to explore the cultural and politic context of beer without alienating all of my drinking buddies.

Ding, the host of this month’s Session, is a breath of fresh, judgemental air among the beer community, which has a little too much of an “everybody wins” attitude for my own taste. There’s a tendency among beer folk to pat each other on the back and avoid making strong, concrete judgements about things. I’m all for the unofficial motto of “drink what you like”, but at the end of the day, to quote Douglas Adams, “not all opinions are created equal”.

The Session #79: USA vs. Old World Beer Culture

Beer has been a major player in the history of the world. It is always bound to the political and cultural circumstances of the era. Politics get filtered down into the bars and public houses through the bodies and minds of the clientele as well as through changes in policy, the economy and the conventional wisdom of the time.

Ding goes to great lengths to disparage American beer culture (to the point that he often puts “culture” in quotations when using that phrase), but, though I’ve only read the tip of the iceberg of his lengthy writings on the subject, it does seem to me that he fails to notice the real reason that American beer culture is so radically different from “old world” beer culture, and the reason is this:

Beer Is Evil

I grew up in the southern-most little peninsula of Canada, just across the river from Detroit City. Now I’m living in Melbourne, Australia. I’m a Colonies man. Beer culture in both of these vestiges of the British Empire suffer from the same hang-ups as in the States. Beer was forcibly separated from everyday life in the New World, which has created all sorts of separation anxiety. Beer in the New World is special. It’s put on a pedestal and must be protected.

And why was beer unnaturally removed from its rightful place as a part of life? Because it is evil. Beer, the least alcoholic of the alcoholic beverages, is, in the collective unconscious of the English-speaking world, responsible for all the evils of man. In Belgium and Germany they drink some of the best beer in the world on a daily basis. It’s not hyped or fawned over. It isn’t wrapped up in some special event. It’s just a part of life. In much of North America, to say that beer was a part of your every-day life would get you ostracised from polite society.

This is why beer in the New World is loud, obnoxious and radical. This is why imperial stouts and double IPAs dominate the American craft beer scene, and are beginning to do so in Canada and Australia as well. Beer calls so much more attention to itself because it’s been a victim of oppression, politically and culturally. Now it’s standing up and saying “Show me some respect”.

I don’t condone it. It’s a side-effect of anti-beer Puritanism and it misses the point of beer culture altogether. But at the same time it’s resulted in some amazing drinks. As of recently, America produces much of the best beer in the world, but the drink still stands at a distance from daily life.

While in Belgium, I met a middle-aged, small-town Flemish man who told me about the time he took his family for a vacation to the States. He was going to take them to a bar for dinner, but when he arrived, the staff told him they could not have children in the bar. This was incomprehensible to him.

There is a reason why “pub” is short for “public house” – it’s not about the beer, it’s about having a public living room for the community. That’s what’s missing from American beer culture; in the Old World, you don’t have to say “beer culture” because beer is a part of culture.

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5 thoughts on “What the Hell has America Done to Beer?

  1. I’ve lived in many areas in the US, and most places I remember that if there is food served, then kids are generally allowed in the bar. The one exception might be some places in South Carolina.

    Also, I think beer is a becoming more an accepted part of everyday life. There are beers in several fridges at my office. A beer when going out for lunch during the workday is normal. My wife and I have a beer every night before and during dinner…and often one after the kids are in bed. Many people I know do the same. And with higher quality beers and more emphasis on beer and food together, I think it is becoming more matter of fact and everyday normal, much like wine.

    There is a ways to go, and attitudes will always vary greatly across the vast expanse of the US (so your thoughts are in no way unfounded). But I see the last vestiges of our Puritanical booze roots fading.

    I look forward to #80. Thanks in advance for hosting.

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