Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beer is Going Highbrow?


In Food & Wine's October issue, there is a column on beer that made me slam down the magazine and tweet. Given that I tweet a lot, that is unsurprising. This time, it is different. I respect the magazine and expect it to have authority. It does get a little dicey when it moves from its core strengths but they try.

The article in question, 'Beer Is Going Highbrow (and Why That's a Good Thing)', by its very title is already creating a dissonance. There is a dominant idea that beer is lowbrow or common. I thought that this was an attempt at getting a headline. I read the article once, then twice, to make sure I understood what just happened. There were a couple of tired tropes such as the vinification of beer, and a surprise of the breadth of beer's taste but there was something a little more unsettling to me.

In this article on beer, wine is mentioned twelve times with two of those instances being in the compound word wine-ification.  Beer is mentioned 36 times. I have not looked closely at all the other articles in this months issue but I believe it is safe to say that most articles on wine don't mention beer at all. This 1:3 ratio is a little high for a non wine article. This issue of mentioning beer's rise needs to stop being compared to wine. In fact, the whole article is a series of missed story lines. The real interesting bits are not followed due to the self described 'proud connoisseur of Miller High Life' not getting the parts that are unique to beer.

For an analogy, it would be like taking a veteran tea drinker who, when they drink coffee, drinks Tim Horton's (Dunkin' Donuts for our American friends) and bringing them into coffee culture to describe it. They will have to fall back on what they know (tea houses, tea brewing and preparation) against coffee. There is always the possibility that curiosity will move them beyond this position but it would require a lot of effort.

Some of the missed opportunities include describing the evolution of watering holes with no mention of the history of breweries and pubs being the first places often built when towns began in North American. Little heed is given to the evolution from sports bars to gastropubs to the brasseries. Brasseries may be new to America but they had a long history in Belgium and France.

There are some words spilled over the complex delivery system in the Torst bar where they have a custom-built system to control carbonation and temperature of each beer. That is where it stops. A description of the look of the system with no pressing of the bartender on why this is. I am genuinely interested, as a reader, on what adjustments to a pedestrian beer could make it better. If you pulled a Bud through that system, how far could you pull the flavour in different directions? This is something that is distinct to beer.

There is talk about how a new beer glass has been designed to enjoy IPAs. What is left out, is why was a new glass required. North America has become so innovative in brewing that there are a number of new and emerging styles of beer. Some are an historical recreation of brews where others are something new. American style IPAs are one of these new styles. There is a quote from the producer of the glass that this IPA glass outsells their wineglasses. Is there something about beer that makes more than two or three styles of glasses mandatory?

The roots of these more interesting conversations are there and the author knows it. In the last third of the article, a beer sommelier states that the current beer culture is probably close to pre-Prohibition era. The author goes on to discuss the sommelier as being one of the earliest pioneers in pairing beer with food totally ignoring the Belgians and the Germans. The sommelier in question is Greg Engert, who Food & Wine chosen as one of ten sommeliers of the year in 2010, the first beer person to be chosen as such. The author could've followed up on these comments and left over dangling questions.

The coffin nailing comment of ' "beer" soon began to feel like an inadequate term to describe what I was drinking." made me think of two things. Food & Wine would not send someone who only drank Baby Duck wine to a winery and accept the same statement above with the word wine in it. It would be disrespectful.

The other thought was about the beerification of wine. Wine is now being put on tap, the places it is being served are more democratic, and vintners are becoming more like rock stars and less like old money, old vines. There is experimentation with adding flavours to wine and in general, the process of wine making is simpler and has not evolved as much as beer has in the past 10 years. Barrel aging, wild yeast strains, new strains of hops, revival of hopless beers, and grain experimentation are just a small smattering of exciting and innovative events in brewing. That is the real story, not how beer culture is the new wine culture. Beer culture described in this manner reminds me of the snobbery against California wine in the past.

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