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Does Beer Really Want To Become Like Wine?

In light of its booming sales and fawning media coverage, it’s hard for beer not to feel like the class clown who has suddenly become the most popular kid in school. With all of the attention, however, those who brew beer and some who drink it have been debating the future prospects of their preferred beverage. How big will beer get, whether the big guys should be worried, and how far new innovations will stretch the definition of beer are all questions being batted around over a few pints.

With beer ascending to new heights, some beer lovers have predictably raised the question of whether beer will ever equal its ultimate adversary, wine, in terms of public opinion. Beer philosophers have long decried beer’s respect gap when compared to its other fermented family member. Wine commands detailed menus in restaurants, special temperature controlled resting places in stores, and fancy, silver plated sipping spoons dangling around the necks of well-dressed sommeliers. While some are asking whether beer can become like wine, we might better ask, should it?

To achieve its goals, the wine industry was willing to walk away from the things that gave the grape drink a bad reputation and move towards the higher ground. American wine makers have come a long way from the days when Thunderbird, Mad Dog, and Cold Duck defined their public face. Following the visionary leadership of a small band of pioneers, including Robert Mondavi and Warren Winarski, the American wine industry methodically retooled its image from producers of sweet, fortified plonk to paragons of sophistication and refinement. Over time, even the largest winemakers, including Gallo, transitioned their focuses from jug wines to high-class varietals. All the while, winemakers walked in lock step to improve the public image of their products. Today, quality is the calling card for American viticulture and wine’s level of respect is unmatched.

While the wine industry once produced an abundance of cheap, boozy products, the public perception of wine never sank to the lows experienced by the American beer trade. To be sure, wine lacked a lot of the baggage that plagues beer’s standing in American society and culture. It did not have to contend with destructive, low-class advertising tactics from its biggest producers, the omnipresent myth of the ‘beer gut,’ or the onset of beer pong (or Beirut, depending upon which side you take in this modern day Lincoln-Douglas debate). Without having to fight the equivalent fronts of wine pong, the American wine community has instead sold itself on offering a premium imbibing experience.

While supporters continue to fight against beer’s more negative associations, we should be careful not to adopt the pretensions and problems which also plague the wine world. When contemplating the question of whether beer should emulate wine, first consider the words you would use to describe wine. The commonly invoked descriptions run the gamut from sophisticated, classy, and refined to snobby, elitist, and unapproachable. While certain segments of the American wine community cultivate the exclusive nature of their product, many winemakers fear alienating consumers. American brewers are only now beginning to understand what their wine brethren have been worried about.

While many crave for beer a certain measure of the respect enjoyed by wine, beer lovers certainly do not want our favored beverage to lose its inherent sense of fun and frivolity. So the question then becomes, how does beer assume wine’s better qualities without radically changing its own personality? We don’t want to see the beer drinking experience transformed into an exercise in pinky extensions, spoon sipping sommeliers, and spitting into buckets. Despite these points of agreement, we are starting to see beer become more like wine in some troubling ways. A small but growing and vocal segment of beer geeks openly judge others for their pedestrian choices and climb over one another in search of the next big thing. Higher prices for beer in stores and bars often do not reflect quality but instead are the result of gouging or scarcity driving hoarding.

Five years ago, a craft beer pioneer told me that “it’s hard to get elitist about beer. People don’t sniff beer.? The times have quickly changed, with the development of several dozen specialty beer bars where it sometimes can sound like flu season from all the quick inhaling. Even Anheuser-Busch has developed an advertising campaign and a multimedia, interactive website dedicated to understanding and appreciating the complex aromas and flavors found in its beers.

In helping to shape the American beer scene, our goals for the future need to be carefully calibrated so as not to lose our sense of identity in the process. While growing up may mean that we stop throwing dirty ping pong balls into pyramid-shaped rows of plastic cups, it doesn’t mean that beer has to lose its light-hearted sense of fun. The progression of the American beer industry from its Animal House days shouldn’t have to result in Frasier-like airs.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue III of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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One thought on “Does Beer Really Want To Become Like Wine?

  1. As italian, I well understand what you mean. Here beer culture is arising just now, and there are several aspects that remember wine. In my opinion beer must be something related to socialization, fun and informality. And this can be achieved even if we drink quality beers. Unfortunately it seems that quality can be connected only to something far from beer identity. In Italy it’s easier to find craft beers in wine cellars than in pubs.

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