Recently, I’ve been making an excellent job of putting my degree in immediate jeopardy by watching lots and lots of brewing videos, instead of even loosely trying to adhere to any of those silly deadlines.
Of the plethora of vids that I watched, it was an interview with San Francisco’s venerated Anchor Brewery (re)founder Fritz Maytag that left me irked within seconds of watching. I quote:
The best beer is made in America? There’s no question about it. There’s more creativity, more integrity and more variety in America than the rest of the world combined.
No doubt, it’s a bold opening statement, and forgive me for unboxing a tired stereotype, but it’s a statement unmistakably hyperbolic, and thus American in character.
When you consider that there are European yeast strains older than most American breweries, you might begin to understand why I actually find Maytag’s insinuation a bit disrespectful. It reeks of a total lack of perspective.
I can probably guess what you’re thinking, “This is all sounding a bit vitriolic, Sam. Are you sure you aren’t just the tiniest bit jealous?”. Let me put it this way, the US has probably the most evangelistic craft and homebrewing scene in the entire world. They have a pioneering beer certification panel, the Cicerone ‘beer sommelier’ qualification, exceptional strains of fresh, citrussy, punchy hops grown in the North-West, and some American beers are utterly incredible. So yes… I am a little jealous…
But I’m comfortable with my envious leanings, and with the enthusiasm of the US craft brewing scene, right up to the point where the claim is made that the US beer and brewing is the best in the world. Simply because, when it comes to beer, the US lacks two very important things. Heritage and Provenance.
Ooh, big words. Get me. But without them, US craft beer will be forever relegated as a niche interest, an inflated hobby.
Let’s talk about provenance. What’s the most widely brewed style of beer in the world? Pilsner. Where does it come from? Pilsen. The reason that this golden lager retained its namesake with the Czech town in which it was brewed is because every part of the beer was an expression of the region. Noble-variety Saaz hops, aromatic malt kilned to produce unprecedented lightness in appearance and richness of character, and the softest brewing water available to the world. Even if you aren’t privy to the technicalities of Pilsner as a style, there is one far more resounding sign of the importance of beer to people of the Czech Republic; at a mean of 160 litres per capita per year, they are the world’s number one beer drinkers.
Germany has Kölsch (Cologne), Dortmunder (Dortmund) and Berliner Weisse (Berlin), Belgium has Lambic (Wambeek), even the UK has (or at least had) Burton Ale. In Europe, beer preference is a matter of regional identity, of local pride. Bitter in the North, Mild in the Midlands, Lager in the South (okay, that’s a rather shaky example).
In The States, you either have a special interest or you drink Bud, and with craft beer accounting for only 5.7% by volume of all US beer sold in 2011, chances are high that the special interest group isn’t as potent as some outspoken voices would like to decry.
The fact is, the American craft brewing revolution was borne out of the endeavours of homebrewers at a time when there was a total dearth of choice available in the States, and a huge wealth of styles in the rest of the world. Fellow bitter drinker and personal man-crush David Mitchell made a number of very pertinent remarks about the nature of enterprise when it’s driven by men with hobbies, specifically the ‘food revolution’ happening in Britain. Replace ‘British’ with ‘American’ and ‘Food’ with ‘Beer’ and you’ll get some idea of where I’m at:
So no, we haven’t embraced continental good sense about food, we’ve merely added cuisine to the list of fads that British men get disproportionately obsessed by. It’s no more a seachange than if we all vaguely knew about train numbers.
In the case of the US, what this leaves us with is a nation of brewing geeks who have no innate relationship to the craft beyond owning a homebrew manual.
But really, I’m being rather harsh. American craft brewing is gaining market share, and its fruits are plentiful. Maytag’s proclamation about creativity and variety does hold water to some extent, with the US brewers always trying to push the boundaries with the processes and ingredients at their disposal, there are new hybrids emerging all the time.
Regional US breweries are also becoming more visible, and with luck, they will lay their roots in US culture and inform both the way the Yanks enjoy their beer, and the way the rest of the world perceives American brewing. Until then, it would serve certain agents well to hold back on the grandstanding, and gain a bit of a sense of proportion.