Global Craft Beer on a Sea of IPA: Sameness Masquerading as Difference?
American-style IPA, that beloved child of the craft beer renaissance, has left the building. In recent years, IPA has become detached from its local context on the West Coast of the United States to emerge as a globalized signifier of everything exciting and novel about beer and tastes in beer. IPA in all its subsequent iterations has become so dominant that it now does double duty as an agent for craft beer in general, itself a stylized approach to the production and consumption of beer. This free-floating global style has since reterritorialized itself in local contexts the world over, sometimes threatening to displace home-grown local styles that had become mundane and less desirable through their familiarity. Local breweries and taprooms have sprung up on every urban corner and every countryside crossroad serving this global style in a local setting, introducing its enthusiastic patrons to an exciting new taste and powerful elixir.
But what does it mean to be a local brewery or a local taproom when a local brewery or taproom in Tokyo or Prague serves the same kinds of IPAs (or barrel-aged stouts or fruited sours) as a similarly appointed brewery or taproom in Chicago or Portland— in more or less similar settings to boot? I could just have easily called this piece “The IPA in the Age of its Infinite Reproducibility,” a wry twist on one of my favourite essays, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Or I could have called it “The IPA as Infinite Substitutability: A Hall of Mirrors Reflecting Local Phenomena Globally.”
A Penny for a Mild Ale
A friend recently asked me for beer-related tips in England. I’ve been living on and off in Central Europe for the past three years, so I’m always happy to suggest a few of my favourite beer gardens, pubs, and breweries. Except when it comes to England. Even though I’ve had the good fortune of visiting several major beer cities and regions in Europe, I’ve yet to visit England since gaining an appreciation of cask ale.
My inability to answer my friend’s question hit me with the force of an illumination: I need to make it to England before traditional styles like milds and southern brown ales die out like so many Roggenbiers in Regensburg. As if to heighten this sense of urgency, the whole Fuller’s thing went down last week. (But that’s not why I’m writing this particular post. For competing but equally compelling views on the sale of Fuller’s to Asahi, see Jeff Alworth’s article and Martyn Cornell’s article.)
I briefly consoled myself with the thought that the likes of Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Beavertown in its pre-Heineken days, and Meantime before its sale to SABMiller (and subsequent hand-off to Asahi) are propelling the English beer scene in an interesting direction. But here’s the rub: these breweries may well be breathing new life into the local scene. Yet they don’t seem to be nearly as invested in saving from oblivion the home-grown styles that are expiring right under their noses. Even the once-mighty porter, which formerly had no need to deck itself out in coconut or marshmallows to attract attention, is apparently becoming more difficult to find. Rather — (and I’ll be the first to admit that my perspective is very much that of an outsider when it comes to England, Great Britain, and the U.K.) — the craft beer scene in England appears more drawn to the same kind of style-du-jour mentality that afflicts contemporary American craft beer: sub-atomic stouts, decidedly non-British IPAs, and the latest poster children of craft beer archeology, Gose and Berliner Weisse — the more sour the better.
The Unbearable Hipness of New-World Hops
Something similar is afoot in Germany, in Austria, and, to lesser extent, in the Czech Republic. (The newer breweries I have visited in Bohemia still seem to be quite proud of the traditional beers that they brew alongside styles popular internationally, something I find encouraging.) I suspect it has to do with how the idea of “craft beer” can get lost in translation. Craft beer is all too often conflated with American Pale Ales, American-style IPAs, and outsized stouts. Curiously, though, Hefeweizen, Pils, Helles, Altbier, Doppelbock, or Rauchbier rarely come in for consideration as “craft.”
Somehow, many Central European craft beer aficionados enamoured of New World hops have forgotten that the small local breweries of Munich, Upper Bavaria, Franconia, and elsewhere were brewing “craft beer” avant la lettre. Even some of the larger Munich powerhouses brew less beer in a year than stalwarts of the American craft beer scene like Sierra Nevada, to say nothing of the Boston Beer Company.* (See below for a note on production volumes.) Everywhere you turn in Europe — be it Vienna, Berlin, Edinburgh, Prague, Paris, or Leipzig — taprooms and bottle shops are popping up left and right offering a vast selection of fascinating new beer, to be sure, but also walls and walls of … IPA. Case in point: one of my go-to bottle shops in Vienna, Beer Lovers, has an entire back wall fridge full of every conceivable iteration of IPA.
A recent trip to another relatively new bottle shop in Vienna — Biergreissler, also one of my favourites — was revealing. Biergreissler stocks an impressive variety of beers, including several classic Bavarian lagers. But among Biergreissler’s prodigious selection of German and Austrian craft brewers, not a single brewery did not have an American-style IPA among its offerings. Lagers and Pils from these craft brewers? Very few.
Taken more broadly, this recent infatuation with the glamour of American IPA gestures elsewhere: toward a dissatisfaction with the Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law) of 1516 vintage. To many Central European craft beer aficionados, this set of strictures is an outmoded historical relic that represents all that is wrong with German beer. They view the Reinheitsgebot as naught but a marketing ploy, a mythologized “purity” that an increasingly consolidated German beer industry uses to sell sub-par beer to masses of believers conditioned to accept the superiority of German beer. To some extent, these critics of the Reinheitsgebot are on to something. But to my mind, Central European craft beer fans are in search of the wrong villain. Their vilification of the RHGB is often based on a misunderstanding of the historicity of the law and of the ways in which these strictures have fostered and continue to encourage sound brewing practices.
You don’t have to go all-in on the Reinheitsgebot to appreciate its merits, and the law as it applies to Bavaria could certainly stand updating. (Austria’s Codex Alimentarius provides a possible way forward.) Yet those who doubt the efficacy of the discipline imposed by limitations need only look to recent articles critiquing a trend in American craft beer that has emerged as the polar opposite of the time and craftsmanship involved in crafting good beer. Aaron Goldbarb termed this embrace of novelty at all costs “an arms race to pump out ostensibly unique releases every single week” (Vinepair, December 2018). The Burnout Beer Guy put it even more candidly: “There’s simply no time left over these days to refine. It’s corner-cutting, sloppy but inevitable as brewers come under increasing pressure to conjure up something different every week” (The Burnout Beer Guy, January 2019). How did we get from the ubiquity of the American IPA to the app-fueled rush toward special releases? Simple: Many special releases seem to be a variation on a very narrow set of craft beer themes. Let’s hope that the militantly anti-Reinheitsgebot folks ignore this aspect of American craft beer, even as they continue to emulate other aspects.
Celebrating the Local While Globalizing the Local
Let me shift gears for a moment.
Not too long ago I was part of a curatorial team that staged an exhibition at the Wien Museum in Vienna marking the fortieth anniversary of a local newspaper esteemed for its investigative journalism and lifestyle features. As we sifted through photos of the environmental and anti-nuclear movements of the 1980s, and through images of a grandly dilapidated Vienna on the cusp of a re-discovered worldliness during the 1990s, we began to notice a shift — subtle at first, and then striking. As the photos left the analogue world and began to enter the digital sphere, not only did they multiply almost exponentially. They became less personal, less eccentric. They became more anodyne, more staged. As we got closer to 2017, they all began to look uncannily familiar — like all those filtered and overly polished images that populate my Instagram feed.
And then it hit me while I was on an airplane back to the U.S. for a visit: not only did all the photos dating from around 2005 represent an almost mind-numbing repetitive sameness, they looked the same as the photos in the airplane magazine — photos of tourist destinations geared to the globalized traveler moving from locality to locality in a capitalist wonderland of sameness: the same “industrial chic” aesthetic with bright, new wood in Brooklyn, in Bruges, in Berlin. The same artisanal boutiques offering wonderfully local products, but in infinitely substitutable environs — the bright, airy room with pine slats, sometimes at diagonal angles, sometimes installed unevenly to impart a sense of texture, similar lighting fixtures the world over, exposed lightbulbs hanging down from a wire here, brushed stainless steel accents there.
Whether you see these photos in an airplane magazine or in a local Time Out, in the Georgia Straight or in Voir, in Food and Wine or Imbibe, they present the viewer with an almost identical aesthetic. All of these publications are in the business of creating desire for something “local,” yet they all deploy a globalized semiotics in their representation of the local. Isn’t it ironic.
I’ve seen charcuterie places in Vancouver that look like they stepped out of Brooklyn. Same for third-wave coffee. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of third-wave coffee. But the shops that brew it and serve it have the same feel about them, whether in Chicago, San Francisco, or even Munich. Uncanny. Or entirely heimlich. A home for the unmoored cosmopolitan in a globalized world? A contemporary moment in which what it means to be “cosmopolitan” is to inhabit a sameness repeated from Tokyo to Prague?
For the Love of Beer
Which brings me back to “craft beer.” Like the general trend in documentary journalistic photography, like the third-wave coffee shops from Brooklyn to Brussels, like the airy taprooms with towering bars and brushed pine in Bratislava and Bruges, and like the new bottle shops in Vienna that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin or in Boston: like all of these, craft beer — that epitome of local expression — has gone global. And if you’re not an IPA, a barrel-aged imperial stout laden with all the ingredients from the baking cabinet, and or a modish wild/sour, that doesn’t bode well for you as a style.
So as we close out the second decade of the new millennium, we might ask ourselves this: Are we content with a re-homogenization of beer that tends to favour a narrow set of styles at the expense of indigenous styles? Are we content with a variety of beer styles, that, ultimately, amounts to a kind of globalized infinite substitutability, a sameness masquerading as difference?
If not, put down that IPA and try one of the more than hundred styles that make up beer’s rich tapestry. Bonus points if it’s a style you’ve never had before.
Sources and Notes:
*In 2006, the Augustiner Brauerei in Munich brewed 1.13 million hectoliters of beer. That number rose to 1.59 million hectoliters in 2015. (1.59 million hectoliters = just a little over 42 million US gallons of beer, or, in US barrel measures of 31 gallons/barrel, approximately 1,355,000 barrels per year) — in other words, well under the (arbitrary) 6 million barrel limit under which the United States’ Brewers Association defines craft beer. (Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustiner-Br%C3%A4u). By comparison, Sierra Nevada, the third largest craft brewery in the U.S. (according to the BA defininition) brews 1,250,000 barrels of beer per year. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierra_Nevada_Brewing_Company). Ayinger, a smaller brewery in a village near Munich, brewed approximately 100,000 hL in 2010 (roughly 2.64 million gallons, or 85,161 barrels/year).
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