17 Nov 2012

Extinction? Yeah, right.


The other day I came across an article (in SP) about a very interesting beer project called Cluster Cervecero. Basically, two brewers, Alex Padró, from Llúpols i Llevats, and Gabriel Fort, of the namesake brand, are working in the same building, each with their kit. They are joined by Steve Huxley, the head of Steve's Beer Academy, and also a brewer himself. Besides making each their own beers and give courses, these three people work in common projects. All very interesting and nice, until I read this:
"Good beer almost went extinct in the middle of last century. The years of thirst.
What? I'd never heard about that one! Fortunately, Huxley is here to shed some light (well, sort of):
"The 13 years of Prohibition in the US had, in the end, worldwide repercussions. After it finished in 1933, the big companies took over the market with beers of low quality, completely unfaithful to the original recipe, and that practice extended, unfortunately, to the other side of the Atlantic. 'In Scotland, for 10 years, there wasn't a single decent beer. Likewise in Wales. Ireland resisted, but worse, rather than better". Extinction, in the end, was avoided because in 1963 the law that banned home brewing in the United Kingdom was repealed"
Well, where to start? By Huxley's omission of Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovaquia? No. Let's stay with the prohibition.

In 1934, a year after the Volstead act was repealed, 756 breweries were operating in the US, while there were 1092 in 1918, a year before the law. But watch out, Stan Hieronymus told me in an email, the number of breweries had been shrinking significantly. For example, in 1901 there were 1771. This was the result, mostly, of consolidations, that, just like the use of adjuncts, was a trend that had started the previous century (in 1876, the number of breweries was 3293).

Anheuser-Busch started using maize and then rice in their beers not to cut down costs, but to give the beers the right profile, the profile the market demanded, a profile that they were not able to get with the sort of malt that was grown there. In his e-mail, Stan refers me to a book called "Ambitious Brew", by Maureen Ogle, that "ties the rise of "white bread" beer to all other "white bread" tastes that became prominent in the United States".

And the phenomenon of consolidation and lighter beer wasn't exclusive to the US. You can see it in many other countries. For example the origin of Pilsner Urquell (who in 1932 took over Gambrinus) was, in some way, the result of a consolidation, as was Braník's. Both cases were about people joining forces in order to compete with a new breed of beer that would otherwise have ruined their businesses. And it's no surprise! If my recent experience gave me, in some way, a window to the past, then it's clear why lighter beers were, and still are, so successful.

Industrialization, together with the adoption of more scientific methods for brewing, resulted in more efficiency, improvements in the technical quality of the products, higher production volumes, cost reduction and, therefore, lower prices. Beer was finally able to show its true nature, that of an essentially industrial product.

This would in the end mean that attending the needs of niches wasn't profitable anymore, it was necessary to cater to the broadest possible market, and this market, once again, wanted beers that were lighter, easier to drink and cheaper. It happened in the US, it happened in Bohemia, in Germany, in Belgium. I would happen in Canada, when, according to Brew North, sales departments started to decide on what would be brewed, in response to what the clients demanded; and in the UK it would be the result of, among other things, a demographic process.

So, it wasn't Prohibition the culprit of the alleged drop in quality of beer, which, it could be said, is quite a relative thing (if what this article says is true, then the production of beers like Bud Light is overall much more careful than that of not few craft beers). It wasn't the fault of capitalism, either (you should see what the Communists did to he local brewing industry), it was just the result of companies doing what is most natural for them, seeking profit by satisfying the needs of the market, a market that still today wants their beer to be light (or bland, if you want), refreshing and cheap.

What is more surprising, however, is how awfully wrong Huxley, a Briton, is on what he says about the UK.

I wrote to Boak&Bailey (I strongly recommend you read the series they are writing on the British beer landscape in the second half of last century), Martyn Cornell y a Ron Pattinson (both of the same age as Huxley) to confirm my suspicions. They all agreed that home brewing in the UK was never banned. What happened in 1963 is that from then on, home brewers wouldn't need a license in order to practice their hobby.

Legislative details aside, the truth is that home brewers never had any impact whatsoever in the British beer Renaissance (for lack of a better term). According to Ron, people made beer at home mostly to get pissed cheaper.

CAMRA's, that in only five years after being established had almost 30,000 members (though the number would decrease later) had much more significant impact when it comes to commercial brewing. Actually, I'd dare say that the imported beers that Boak (or was it Baily? I can never remember) told me were showing up at festivals in the mid seventies, and the first edition of Michael Jackson's "World Guide to Beer" in 1977, had a much bigger impact than homebrewers.

(About the thing of not being decent beers in Scotland or Wales, I won't comment. Ron and Martyn would disagree, but the very concept of "decent beer" is a very subjective one, so let's live it there).

All this reminds me of, whether out of conviction or posing, I've seen many other craft brewers, from many different countries, spread about (including Huxley elsewhere). That myth that has absolutely no foundation in any reality, often told with delusions of greatness, that artisan brewers have saved good beer for the world, that they are the champions of the true beer culture, that without them we would be condemned to drink the crap industrial breweries make.

Pffff!

Alternative brewers have not saved anything or anyone. Whether they acknowledge it or not, they aren't artists or activists, they are just business people who, at best, have been able to capitalise on a wider shift in the habits of a certain part of the population. The consumers don't owe them anything.

Yes, it's true that they have brought to the market a much welcome dose of variety and colour, but that results from a business model (whether premeditated or not) that (maybe not all that sensibly in the long term) aims to satisfy the needs of a niche within a niche in the market. If there wasn't anyone interested in, often overrated, beers with an imbalance tilting to the hops, nobody would be making any hop bombs, at least not commercially.

So the passion, vision, spirit, ideals that they claim to have, the sacrifice and efforts that they very likely have made are not even close to being enough to earn our respect, recognition, admiration, not to mention our money. That is only earned by those who are able to make beer of consistent quality, or rather, those whose goal is the continuous improvement of their beers, for which they will take all the necessary measures; those who have left the homebrewer behind and have decided to become professional brewers; those who respect our intelligence, who see the consumer as someone who knows what they want and wants to be informed and not filled with bollocks.

If that is the ultimate goal of Cluster Cervecero, I wish them nothing but the greatest success (lucky are those who don't know what they are doing) and I hope not only that they'll be able to bring more people to their initiative, but also that they will inspire others. In the meantime, less bollocks and more brewing, please.

Na Zdraví!

PS: Steve Huxley was a contributor to the Oxford Beer Companion, I wonder what he wrote about there.

4 comments:

  1. Why wonder when some poor saps including me spent far too much time indexing the OCB posts by author: http://ocbeercommentary.wikispaces.com/Authors+-+Glass+to+Jakob

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    1. One can't be grateful enough to those poor saps, including you...

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  2. It's always fun to read a post that is an eloquent smash in the face of all those self-important crafts beer 'messiahs'. This should be like a needle that pierces through their inflated egoes.

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