Since high school, I’ve wondered if the USA is just too big to ever make sense. How is it possible to govern a nation that ranges from Bangor to Baton Rouge and from Richmond to Redmond. Finding a political center to such a diverse group of people seems a daunting task.
As our nation grew, so did business, and now we have businesses “too big to fail” because their failure would wreck us. Our capitalistic approach to business seems based on unchecked obsessive growth. Bigger is always better!
The rise (or perhaps return) of local beer brewing offers an interesting lesson in how it’s possible some things should stay small and local.
First, a few words about beer, which is has a number of interesting properties:
¶ Beer is one of human kind’s oldest recipes and oldest forms of alcoholic beverages. Its invention or (more likely) discovery is lost in the time mist.
¶ Beer is relatively easy to make. As such, home brewing and small local breweries go back many centuries of recorded history. (One can be a beer historian.) Prohibition killed the small brewing industry; it has only recovered during the last few decades.
¶ It’s a fermented (but not distilled) grain beverage. The grain is usually barley, because two-row barley is especially high in the starch sugars yeasts love to eat. The grain is germinated (to starches to sugars), dried, ground up, and converted to malt.
[One form of dry malt tastes almost exactly like Grape-Nuts, which contain neither grapes nor nuts, but whole-grain wheat and malted barley. That Grape-Nuts flavor is the flavor of malt.]
¶ The malt is boiled in water, allowed to cool, and then yeast are added. Over a period of days, the yeast feast on the malt (and other) sugars. Their waste product is alcohol. (Alcohol is literally yeast piss.)
¶ Fermented malt is sweet, so brewers for centuries have added bittering agents to balance their beers. A common one, used almost exclusively in modern times, is hops — the dried flower cone of the hops plant.
¶ Brewers also add almost anything they can think of, chocolate, fruit, brown sugar, maple sugar, coffee, or various herbs, to create unique and interesting beers. This is a big part of what craft brewing is all about.
¶ That said, an old German law, Reinheitsgebot, from 1516, says “beer” is made from water, malted barley, and hops. Nothing more; nothing less. You can make any brew you like, but you can only call it “beer” if it’s made from water, barley, and hops. (They didn’t know about yeast in 1516. They thought it was a kind of God’s magic.)
¶ Beer is best fresh. It has three enemies: light, heat, time. In all three cases, the problem is the hops oils break down in very unpleasant ways. First, beer gets stale, then it gets skunky as the breakdown produces thiols.
The point of all that is to help make sense of the following:
Beer is an ancient and hallowed tradition. It’s a complex organic that can be expressed in a vast variety of ways. A big part of enjoying beer involves exploring what beer can be.
If all you care about is catching an alcohol buzz, there are many options, but beer appeals to taste, sight, and scent. One might cite what’s called its “mouth feel” (sense of body) as appealing to touch. (The only sense beer doesn’t really engage is hearing.)
The point is, firstly, given all the ways to make beer, all the things that can be added, all the different proportions one can use, “beer space” is huge.
Secondly, the sub-space of Reinheitsgebot beers, while not as diverse, is still extremely large. I have found that I strongly prefer these beers. I’m just not a fan of beers with fruit or some of the other odd ingredients. (Pumpkin beers are popular in the fall. All I can say is, “Yuck!”)
Chocolate and/or coffee is kind of interesting, and I do enjoy those sometimes. Kind of cracks me up that what was once a gag on The Drew Carey Show — remember Buzz Beer? — is now a legit and not uncommon kind of craft beer.
Getting, at last, back to the point of the post, you can perhaps see why craft beer, which is to say really good beer, benefits from being made by a traditional brewery.
A small-scale operation allows brewers to experiment, and it allows beer drinkers to have fresh interesting beers. Typically a brewery produces a few standard beers, perhaps some established seasonal beers, and then whatever their brewmasters come up with along the way.
Which means fans of craft beers sometimes experience once-in-a-lifetime beers. A recipe created once and never repeated. (Although in some cases fan demand creates a revival, assuming all the ingredients are still available.)
Local breweries can also interact more with their customers, so is more likely to produce beers they will understand and appreciate.
In general, the age and tradition of brewing, the idea that beer is a personal creation, lends itself well to the idea local breweries.
These days, most big cities have dozens of local breweries.
One the flip side, beer as a mass produced commodity with no more personality or flavor than a frozen pizza.
Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. I buy bottled spring water, and I suppose a case of Bud isn’t much different from that.
We ought to be able to live in a world with both, something for everyone. The problem is when Big Beer buys up smaller breweries hoping to make a killing selling superior beer.
Or when local breweries get dollar signs in the eyes and decide to go national hoping to make a killing.
Why do we call making a large amount of money “making a killing”?
Is it that we acknowledge a collateral cost?
The problem with humans is that we’re often victims of our own success. We allow that success to drive us beyond our ability to actually enjoy the fruits of that success.
A couple recent news articles sparked these thoughts, although the general idea has always been there.
I, and many others, see craft brewing as an art form, and Big Beer offends our sense of that. Many of us try to avoid beers made by breweries that have “sold out” to large conglomerates.
So I’m made glad by stories such as this Vinepair article about craft beer in Sacramento:
This quote puts it perfectly:
“As corporate America has grown, you have these strip malls. You can pop into a city and not really know where you’re at, because these developments look so similar. They’re all selling the same things,” Rob Archie, co-founder of Urban Roots Brewery in Sacramento, Calif., says.
“But with beer, it’s different. You can go into a brewery and taste the region,” he adds, and points to Sacramento’s steadfastly local brewery scene as a prime example.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of visiting a new city is checking out the local beers.
It’s been true for a long time that American cities all look the same. Same fast food, same chain stores, pretty much everything looks the same now.
Beer allows a region to distinguish itself.
I was especially delighted by lots of articles about Constellation Brands, a major conglomerate, selling Ballast Point, a well-loved craft brewery they bought, back to local brewing.
I’m hoping a kind of lesson is setting in on the Big Beer guys: Go sell your no-taste beer to those with no taste in beer.
Leave the good stuff to those of us who appreciate it.
Good craft beer is art. Support your local artists!
Stay local, my friends!