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Never the Twain Shall Meet? Thoughts on The Great Beer Culture Debate of 2013

The early days of September 2013 are days that will not go down in infamy in many places. But in a small corner of the interwebs, the September installment of “The Session: Beer Blogging Friday” generated no small quantum of sound and fury. These sessions have become somewhat of an institution among people who appreciate and write about beer, with topics that typically provide plenty of grist for those inclined to ruminations over fine beverages. Each month, a prominent beer scribe is called upon to frame an issue for debate. Recent topics range from the economics of the beer industry (a craft beer bubble?) to the issue of gender in a male-dominated beer world (beer feminism).

September’s Session Friday was nothing short of a provocation. Indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch to christen the event in retrospect “The Great Beer Culture Debate of 2013.” Adrian Dingle, a self-described Englishman “marooned in the beer culture desert that is The South of the USA” (his emphasis) and amusingly irascible creator of dingsbeerblog, detonated the following incendiary device:

“What the hell has America done to beer?, AKA, USA versus Old World Beer Culture.”

Unsurprisingly, Ding’s formulation – a stark binary opposition if ever there were one – set off a tidy little tempest. Responses ran the gamut from reasoned engagements with, to outright rejections of, Ding’s question and subsequent position statement.

Nothing like a good dust-up, Trainspotting style. – And a more than apt point of departure for this, my first A Tempest in a Tankard musing on beer and culture.

On several points I would agree with Ding – often wholeheartedly. But other aspects of the argument are less carefully wrought, as many critical interlocutors have been quick to point out. Here’s where I think Ding’s polemic misses the target.

Near the outset of his position piece, Ding references George Bernard Shaw’s likening of England and America to two countries separated by a common language. Ding then proceeds to use beer culture in the two places to illustrate the proposition, with England working overtime for the entirety of the Old World. To invoke yet another British author, one might be tempted to ask: And never the twain shall meet?

Culture is not a static entity. Nor is it a monolith. Dominant cultures may leave their mark on certain regions – but each regional culture is made up of a tapestry of subcultures. And so it goes with those enthusiastic about their choice of beverage. To suggest that each and every American craft beer enthusiast is an unsophisticated and unreconstructed hophead – or worse, a dupe of rampant American consumerism – is to paint with brush strokes far too broad.

In choosing to shine a light on drinking culture – more precisely, a nostalgic longing for the pub culture of old Albion – Ding is careful to decouple his argument about the United States’ ostensibly negligible contribution to drinking culture from his endorsement of American beer. But is it so easy to disassociate the product from the cultural moment and context that gives rise to a particular beer? Even if one were to argue that the U.S. lacks a distinctive “drinking culture” beyond beer pong and keg stands, the U.S. still has plenty to offer in terms of its cheerful embrace of all sorts of different traditions and styles, be it wine or beer or other spirits.

Here’s a brief personal anecdote. When I lived in Paris, the ubiquitous wine shops carried the best and the worst of French wines, but I was hard-pressed to find a bottle of claret that bespoke a different land. A mere handful of Italian wines had managed to slip past customs and into Italian delis in the Montmartre district. German wines? Not a chance. That was 1994-1995, so maybe things are different now. Living in Berlin during 2008 and 2009, I was able to find some stellar German beers. Who can beat Aventinus for about $1.10 per bottle? Aside from a decent selection of Eastern European beers and some Belgians for good measure, though, it was as if the U.S. did not exist as a beer-producing country. Perhaps things have changed during the intervening five years in Berlin too. (I’ve been hearing some promising rumours). The broader point, however, is this: unencumbered by a long and complex set of historical associations that link parts of France with particular grape varietals and Germany with certain kinds of beer, the U.S. has been free to experiment. Sangiovese in California? No problem. Turns out Riesling does well in the Finger Lakes, so how about Rkatsiteli too? Bourbon barrel-aged stout? Excellent results. Imperial Pale Lager? Well, the jury’s still out on that particular experiment.

In the end, reductive as many of Ding’s rhetorical moves may be, his sustained tirade does us a useful service by forcing us to reflect on how cultural contexts encode canons of taste. Rather than following Draft Magazine’s example and enumerating a mere list of events as a rebuttal to Ding’s position, we would do well to engage with some of these provocations, if for no other reason than to develop a deeper appreciation of the contexts that influence how we perceive and taste what’s in the glass.

Stay tuned for further engagements with the issue of culture and taste.

Till then, Prost!


© 2013 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.