January 13, 2016

Annnnnnd back to beer.

Filed under: Alcohol, Historic — acagle @ 1:37 pm

As promised, I’m providing a (temporary) link to the PDF of the paper for us to examine: A taste for temperance: how American beer got to be so bland by Ranjit S. Dighe. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the historical origins of bland American beer. The US was not
strongly associated with a particular beer type until German immigrants popularised
lager beer. Lager, refreshing and mildly intoxicating, met the demands of America’s
growing working class. Over time, American lager became lighter and blander. This
article emphasises America’s uncommonly strong temperance movement, which put
the industry on the defensive. Brewers pushed their product as ‘the beverage of
moderation,’ and consumers sought out light, relatively non-intoxicating beers. The
recent ‘craft beer revolution’ is explained as a backlash aided by a changing consumer
culture and improved information technology.

So, one thing I kind of want to take issue with right off the bat is the premise:

Americans drink bland beer. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is subjective; one person’s ‘insipid’ is another’s ‘refreshing’. But compared with traditional beer-drinking countries like England, Germany, and Belgium, America is notable for the lightness, paleness, and relatively un-hopped character of its beer.

I don’t like the inherent negative connotations of “bland”. He even rather contradicts himself in the very next sentence. It’s probably just shorthand for “Light, pale, and relatively un-hopped”, but it strikes me as similar to bitching about water because it doesn’t taste like cranberry juice. So, having said that, onward.

One thing I particularly like is the history of alcohol in North America, at least during the European period. There doesn’t seem to have been much alcohol among the indigenous populations except in certain areas where maize agriculture was practiced. He notes the apparent primacy of cider early on; I’ve been seeing some commentary on the increasing prevalence of cider on the markets, how cider makers have difficulty with modern apple varieties since they’re mostly made for direct consumption rather than fermenting, etc. It’s what was available in quantity. Cider came to be replaced by beer when German immigrants came over in number and more grain was available.

Also interesting to me was the idea of beer as a “temperance drink”, something that doesn’t get you drunk. Most of us now wouldn’t consider your average 4.5 beer to be “non-alcoholic” but apparently it was. Many have noted, however, that even our relatively recent ancestors used to drink prodigious quantities of alcohol and regularly. I think someone went over the alcohol provisions for a US colonial dinner and it turned to something like 3-4 gallons of alcohol per person. Life was tough and drinking softened the blow somewhat. One wonders how we got anything accomplished when people seem to have been half in the bag all of the time.

Dighe does lay out a lot of potential factors that favored lighter and less alcoholic beers, but the temperance movement seems to be the preferred major factor. And not just the moralizing temperance either; there was also the need for factory workers to be relatively sober to operate machinery both effectively and safely. Nowadays we can’t really imagine a 1-2 beer lunch as not affecting one’s afternoon productivity, but given the context, it probably was.

He does spend an awful lot of time examining the idea that Americans just don’t really like the darker brews of our European counterparts because we don’t have much experience with them, sort of implying that “we just don’t know what good beer is like” (I don’t really know if he thinks that way or is describing what others argue). That also works hand in hand with “tradition” or “cultural preference”: we drink what we have been taught to think is the ‘proper’ thing to drink. I’m sure that does extend to some portion of the population, but not all. Plus, you could probably use the same argument in reverse: Europeans just drink the heavy stuff because that’s what they’ve been taught to think is the correct thing to drink.

One thing that leads me to believe that perhaps it’s not strictly an economic/moral issue that leads to lighter beer preference is the fact that, despite 20 years of microbrews and craft beers, the vast bulk of the market is still in the lighter lagers. That leads me to believe that there may just be some wider ‘natural’ preference for lighter fare. Sure, there’s probably always been a segment of the population that really likes the bocks and stouts and such, but for most the lighter drinks are preferable most of the time. At least recently, this bit stuck out:

Women’s tastes have never favored strongly hopped beers – hence a shift over the past few years to lower hopping rates for milder brands. The trade has learned that men will accept the same product which women prefer much more readily than will women accept the beer which men prefer.

Obviously, some women don’t gravitate towards the lighter beers, but I do wonder if that’s not part of the ‘natural’ preference I’m thinking of? If true, I find the behavior rather fascinating. Perhaps gettin’ some is higher on the list of priorities than serving our beer palate.

The second part that I thought was rather interesting had to do with the modern resurgence of craft beer, in particular this bit:

California homebrewers got their US Senator, Alan Cranston, to insert an amendment that eliminated excise taxes for homebrewers into a 1978 tax bill. Although the taxes and related registration requirements had been largely ignored, the law change was a shot in the arm to homebrewers.

I’d always thought this was a fairly significant aspect of both the home brewing and the microbrewing trends though Dighe treats it as a footnote. I don’t know either way, although someone argued a while back that once the taxes were off the table and people could brew their own, that subset of the population that was into beer variety could take off and experiment all they wanted and thence either seek out establishments that served it or start their own.

FWIW, I don’t have much of a dog in any beer fights. I quite like the lighter lagers (my tastes don’t generally range to heavier stuff anyway), although I seriously don’t mind everything else either (have I mentioned that I really love beer?). I don’t run much to food snobbery anyway. I do, however, find the phenomenon rather fascinating and appreciate the academic treatment it gets here. DEfinitely worth reading in full.

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