10 Sep 2012

Both for the everyman and for the selected few


After he heard a couple of wine posers say that they couldn't take beer seriously until it became "more like wine", Velký Al issued another rant against the "winification" of beer. I agree with him, I also find the "beer is the new wine" bollocks a bit irritating and very stupid. However, there's something that Al doesn't quite take into account when he complains about those who want to gentrify beer, history.

If you've read what Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson have written about beer in the 19th century and beyond, you'll have noticed that beer has not always been only the "everyman's drink". The higher classes used their beers, the most famous of them, perhaps, were the Pale Ales (India or otherwise), to which we could add the Porters/Stouts brewed for the Russian ruling class, among others (even lagers, in the early days, were quite a posh drink in Britain). In the continent, the Reinheitsgebot was amended in the 17th century to allow aristocrats to brew wheat beer in summer and let's not forget that pretty much every castle and palace worth its salt would house a brewery, or that commercial brewing was only a privilege of the bourgeois (every time I read about brewing history in this neck of the woods, I'm left with the impression that everyone drank the same stuff, and I don't think that's quite correct).

What happened with wine is the opposite. It has always been an everyman's drink, specially in the producing countries. Until not long ago, at the neighbourhood restaurants in Argentina people ordered either the house white, or the house red. At home they drank table wine and 5l demijohns would be passed around at a barbecue. In some places, this hasn't changed. When we were in Greece a few years back, at the taverna we ordered "house wine" pretty much in the same way I order a desítka at a traditional pub here. In Prague there are loads of neighbourhood vinárny that I wouldn't describe as dens of sophistication and burčák, as delicious as it can be, is not what I would call a refined beverage. While the people in Moravia don't tend to intellectualise their wines very much, specially those who are home producers.

The beer paradigm started to change with the industrialisation of the second part of the 19th century (though both world wars and, in the North American case, prohibition, also played an important role). Craft brewers might not like hearing it, but beer has always been very much an industrial product. The production of almost all beers follows basically the same steps: mash, sparge, boil, cool, ferment, mature/condtion; the only difference is scale. As with every industrial product, it also applies to beer the rule "the bigger the volume, the lower the relative costs" (and the more efficient the process gets). Making beers only for a niche, therefore, stopped making commercial and economical sense.

Wine doesn't have the advantages of beer, it can only be made once a year and its production is a lot more labour intensive because of the harvest.

The wine revolution in Argentina started when businesses realised that they could earn more money with a certain level of quality than with sheer volume. The harvest is by far the costliest part of winemaking, and picking a ton of grapes will cost the same regardless of the quality of the wine they'll end up producing. Lower production volume makes it easier to manage quality and the resulting product can be sold with a much higher profit margin.

This revolution, at least in Argentina, happened at the right time. After more than half a century of political and economical uncertainty, the 1990's brought a sense of prosperity. The middle class finally had money, or at least credit, in their pockets and they wanted to enjoy it. This was also the time when cable TV stopped being a luxury and became a common feature in many homes. This provided the ideal platform to promote the new wines. People stopped drinking red or white wine, now they were drinking Malbec or Chardonnay. Table wines almost vanished from the advertising landscape and they were replaced by beer, the new casual beverage of the masses.

In addition to the posh image some brands already had, wine marketing used the geographical and seasonal limitation of the product to their advantage, and invested it with a mystique that beer will never be able to acquire: nature, the passing of the seasons, the ancestral traditions, the harvest, terroir. A geographical denomination hardly needs to be explained, it's clear. Everybody knows what a Rioja 2010 is, but how local an Italian craft beer really is when it's brewed with German malts, American hops and Belgian yeasts? It was easy, then, to make people feel sophisticated, refined and, to a certain extent, knowledgeable because they were consuming a product made in a very specific place and time.

While all this was happening, and specially during the last 5-15 years, in some countries the number of micro breweries grew at a breakneck speed. As I've said before, this wasn't something casual, but another symptom of a broader shift in the mentality of a growing number of consumers. Due their structures and sizes, these factories couldn't reach the economies of scale or the efficiency of the larger ones. So it was natural that they adopted and adapted some of the marketing speech of wine in order to convince the public to pay a higher price for "beer". Now aromas, flavours and mouthfeel started to be discussed, as well as authenticity, styles and even vintages, and the lack of a proper terroir was compensated with a globalised localism and the figure of the Brew Master as a marketing tool.

It is true that often the attempts to posh-up beer leave a lot to be desired. Some of them make little sense (including 0.1l samples of session beer in a guided tasting), while others are downright ridiculous ("gastronomic" or "boutique" beer). But all that aside, what some people are doing, or at least trying to do, is to return beer to a place where it used to belong.

Personally, I don't care, nor worry in the least about the profusion of expensive beer or the alleged bubble around them. On the one hand, because I don't have to buy them, and on the other, because I don't think that with the beer discourse will happen the same thing as with the wine discourse, which hardly ever mentions the cheaper end of the market, it treats it like some relative that is the shame of an aristocratic family.

Those who understand beer, who are interested in this beverage beyond the fashion and the boom and who are able to appreciate its infinite diversity, know very well that "cheap" doesn't mean "crap" (perhaps someone should explain that to the person who chose to close the video "I'm a craft beer drinker" with the phrase "Life is too short to drink cheap beer"). And as for the rest, i.e., the normal people, as long as there are companies for whom making large volumes of just a few products per facility is more profitable than the other way round, they will never let us forget that beer is a beverage that is consumed without thinking too much about it while you are having a good time.

There are people out there who drink certain beers because they are trendy, because they make them feel a superior beings or whatever, it's their thing (and in the long run, perhaps a problem for those companies that mainly cater to the whims of that niche). I, along with many others, will keep on drinking beer mostly because we like drinking beer, without feeling that we need to intellectualise it in order to enjoy it.

Na Zdraví!

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8 comments:

  1. Funny thing is, though, that in Britain cask-conditioned beer is cheaper than industrial Lager. That's one of the reasons I've little time for "craft keg": it's not as good as cask and costs 50% more. Only a twat or a poser would drink it regularly.

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  2. Some of the cheapest beer is the best. As Ron points out in the UK cask is cheaper than keg lager etc. I have just come back from Franconia were we were buying kellerbier at €2.00 for 500ml. Certainly cheap but also magnificent. Life is certainly long enough to drink plenty of that.

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    1. Living in the Czech Republic, I should know that better than anyone. €2.00 for a pint is considered rather pricey here :)

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  3. Can I just point out that I use the term "Everyman" very deliberately rather than "working man" precisely because beer transcends class and social status. As I wrote in a post called "Of Pigs and Beer" a couple of weeks ago:

    "Traditionally there is nothing aspirational about beer, it has been drunk by peasants and workers, industrialists, nobles and monarchs since time immemorial. To try and seek an "elevated" status for it is in fact to relegate it as something not fit for everyone, and is that not on the of the joys of beer, it is inclusive?"

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    1. But couldn't exactly the same be said about wine? After all, wine has also been tradionally dunk by "peasants and workers, industrialists, nobles and monarchs since time immemorial". And still is...

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    2. Definitely, depending on context of course, French peasants being more likely to drink wine than beer - though even that depends on locale.

      I think though within the context from which I am writing, wine has perhaps lost some of its natural constituency and become an aspirational drink, something that I would abhor if it happened to beer.

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    3. In both cases is a somewhat artificial, marketing-driven thing, but as I say at the end, it'll never happen the same with beer, at least not as long as mass producers are still around.

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  4. i drink beer, and i tend to focus on the beer when i do so. unless i'm on a barbecue celebration or a bar... when i started getting really into beer i was all about reaching higher levels, on complexity, abv rates and power. and i really like the concept of drinking 2 or 3 long necks, slowly (drinking less, drinking it like wine..) but then i realised i was becoming a snobish beer drinker, realising at the same time that the expensive beers i was having wasnt all that good (sometimes because of importantion issues, freshness, sometimes because i was paying for the brand...). for that reason i started brewing my own, i couldnt be happier, now it makes sense to me, i'm on a quest! my type of beer, my hoppy character, my imperial stouts crude oil- likewhise. then i started to realise the singnificance of easy beers, the importance of unpretensious beer, but yet fresh and welcoming. i kinda crossed the globe to take a nap on my own bed.
    how senseless is that? and my statement.
    cheers and loving your blog!
    cigano

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