There is no such thing as the ‘perfect pint of Guinness’, lime wedges have no business in the neck of a beer bottle, and Stella Artois is a Belgian beer by the thinnest of margins. For many drinkers around the world, these beer fictions left unexposed make up the whole of their understanding of global beer culture. It’s a marketing truth that drinking imported beers makes consumers feel more worldly, like we’re engaging in some exotic, alcohol-fueled version of a Ricola ad. While choosing a St. Pauli Girl may briefly ignite your inner Dieter, the romance quickly wears off in the buzz of American Idol night at your local.
More than simply annoying hardened beer geeks, the widespread marketing canards that beer drinkers experience every day are a symptom of a larger problem. Beer culture is one of those things that can’t be faked or recreated. It’s organic and fragile, a thing that lives, breathes, and without support, can die just the same. Much like polar ice caps, the ozone, and Paris Hilton’s self-respect, beer global culture is in jeopardy and need of saving.
Full of character, tradition, and historic charm, Americans have always looked to our European brewing elders to teach us about beer and to inspire our efforts. Long considered to be the pinnacle of world brewing, there remain some rays of truth in the shining accolades we shower upon European beer. But in the dizzying world of brewery conglomerations, mergers and acquisitions, these once bright spots now appear dimmer and more transparent, like quick moving mirages on our beer landscape. Few mainstream foreign brands remain in the hands of their original owners. InBev alone controls hundreds of beer brands, including Stella Artois, Beck’s, Boddingtons, Franziskaner, Hoegaarden, Labatt, Lowenbrau, and Spaten. Enjoy Red Stripe? Well then ‘Hooray Diageo,’ which owns a majority stake in the former Jamaican brewery, as well as controlling the Guinness, Harp, and Smithwick’s brands.
Call it the Starbuckization of global beer culture, the ability to experience once local brands anywhere in the world. The darker side of global branding is the damage it leaves in its wake, including shuttered breweries and tainted legacies. In the last two years alone, the brewing community has lost the famed Hoegaarden brewery, Boddingtons brewery, and Tyne brewery in Newcastle, among others.
This column isn’t meant to simply sniffle over lost comrades or join the paper-mache puppet waving throngs of unshowered world trade propagandists. Global beer culture is something that every beer lover has a duty to maintain. I want future generations of beer lovers to learn about the beauty of beer and its history first-hand and not through tales of woe told by sobbing, elderly beer lovers.
The dictionary defines culture as a set of values or social conventions associated with a particular field, activity, or group characteristic. The global beer culture I’m seeking to preserve is not only brewery history and tradition, but also the practice of integrating beer into every day life. I’m not talking about sneaking sips during sermons, but about respecting beer and giving it a spot at the table, be it lunch, dinner, or just a mid-day break with friends. Beer culture is the experience of sitting at a shared community table, with an earthen mug, enjoying kellerbier in a small Bamberg pub with a group of strangers.
To truly experience beer, you must enjoy beer beyond the four corners of your living room or favorite pub. I agree that the selection of foreign beers available in most major cities is an amazing feat of distribution. But the experience of traveling to the great beer cities of the world, from Antwerp to Dusseldorf to Prague, and the perspective that it gives you cannot be replicated by armchair advocates. To sit in the Kulminator and sip a 20-year old beer, to watch a fresh wooden keg of Uerige Altbier tapped in front of you, or to witness the unwavering dedication of the Kobe waiters of Cologne is to see beer achieve its greatest potential. These encounters are defined by deep pride, respect, and care, absent any chest-thumping self-promotion or hint of self-awareness. The message is clear: beer deserves our respect.
We shouldn’t take these experiences for granted to too long delay indulging in them. As the business of beer changes, so will its culture. We as beer lovers need to strive to maintain and preserve our traditions and heritage in the face of the dangers posed by those who would treat beer as simply another widget to be sold at bulk. A Harp sign over the bar doesn’t make your dive a quaint Irish pub and it’s a poor replacement for the real thing.
–Article appeared in March 2007 issue of Beer Advocate Magazine.