by Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint
On the last night of the Great American Beer Fest (GABF) I quite accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of the North American Guild of Beer Writers (who knew there was such a thing). It was a small but impressive gathering of scribes from across the United States, as well as Canada and Great Britain. Needless to say, when beer writers gather, we talk about beer. The room was full of lively and intense conversation, but it was one question – posed by a Brit – that grabbed my imagination. This question didn’t spur debate in the room; it was asked in passing and then ignored. But I couldn’t let it go. It has continued to rattle around in my head since that night. The question was, “What of lasting value has the American craft beer scene really contributed to the world of beer?”
We Americans are well known in the rest of the world for our “American exceptionalism.” We believe ourselves to have and be the best in all things, even when an objective analysis of facts and figures might prove otherwise. Our beer scene is not exempt from this. I’ve often heard, read, and even said that the United States currently has the most vibrant and exciting beer culture in the world. It’s a statement that is seldom backed up at the time it is said. It’s just put out there as a self-evident truth. Is it true? Maybe. Maybe not. But just as a thought exercise let’s put aside our oversized egos and take up the challenge that the Englishman’s question presents.
To provide us with a context we would do well to consider his frame of reference. England is the birthplace of pale ale, porter, and stout – styles that originated there at least two hundred years ago, and that are still enjoyed today all over the world. Judging from the contest entries at the GABF, pale ale and India pale ale are the most popular styles in the US. These can certainly be called contributions of lasting importance. And then there is that most British of beer institutions, cask-conditioned or real ale. Firkins of cask-conditioned beer have certainly become a major trend in the US beer scene.
Germany and the Czech Republic have gifted us with the world’s great lagers and an emphasis on core ingredients and mastery of process. They make only a few styles, but they are all classics and they make them extraordinarily well. It’s impossible to deny the impact of pilsner on the world of beer.
From Belgium come beers with a culinary flare. Belgian brewers have preserved age-old practices including the use of sugars, herbs and spices, and wild fermentation. Belgian beers aren’t exactly experimental, but many do defy easy categorization. And Finland has sahti, a beer that is brewed today much as it was at least 500 years ago. The English and European beer cultures in which my British friend is steeped have undeniably made important and lasting contributions to the beer world.
But what of the United States? What have we brought that is of major and enduring significance? Much of the output of American craft brewers consists of re-creations of the beers of those other countries. Sometimes we do that extraordinarily well – beers like Victory Prima Pils or Schell’s Pils come to mind. Other times we miss the mark – like nearly every American attempt at Belgian-style beers. But hit or miss, copying other cultures doesn’t really count as an original American contribution.
Hops! We do hops! My Englishman conceded this one – although he somewhat pejoratively referred to it as our “obsession with hops.” When it comes to hops, American brewers boldly go where no man has gone before. We push the limits of bitterness, flavor, and aroma sometimes even beyond the bounds of human perception. We seek out new and untested hop varieties in the pursuit of new taste experiences. And others have taken notice. Brewers in Scandinavia, Belgium, and yes even Great Britain have begun brewing American-style pale ales. Surely this is our contribution.
But what of the United States? What have we brought that is of major and enduring significance? Much of the output of American craft brewers consists of re-creations of the beers of those other countries.
But allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. A character that is common to the beers of all of those other cultures is balance. Even the sourest Belgian lambic or strongest English barleywine is exquisitely balanced and drinkable. Our love affair with hops has produced some horrifyingly unbalanced beers – tongue-scraping, ham-fisted, palate-wreckers that appeal only to the narrowest slice of beer-nerddom. That limited audience diminishes the ultimate impact of these bitter brews. And how much acceptance will these out-of-kilter beers find in cultures that have long placed such high value on subtlety and refinement? One has to ask how lasting this hoppy contribution will be. I guess only time will tell.
Perhaps it’s too early to judge what America’s lasting impact will be. Those other cultures are old and settled. They have developed and matured over hundreds or even thousands of years. American beer culture is young. It’s been around at most about 400 years. Given the ravages of prohibition and the consolidations of the mid-20th century it is perhaps more accurate to say that the modern American beer culture is only about 30 years old – a mere babe in the grand scheme of things.
In terms of its product, American beer shows its youth. It’s like a three year old on a playground. Released from parental supervision, it’s running around in ecstatic circles; arms flailing, wild screams emanating from its gaping mouth, pure energy without a focus. Everything is new. Everything is exciting. Everything is a rush. Experimentation is the name of the game. Use these hops. Use more hops. Put it in a barrel. Make it stronger. Make it sour. Add honey. Add wine must. Add any and every fruit, herb, or spice that you can find and add them all at once.
Maybe this attitude of wild experimentation is our lasting contribution. It is a very American approach, and one that is being emulated overseas, particularly by Scandinavian brewers like Mikkeller and Nøgne Ø. But please indulge me once more in my questioning. Can something lacking a center leave an enduring mark? Is innovation of lasting benefit in and of itself if the product of that innovation isn’t always good? Let’s face it; many of these experiments don’t really work. I’m reminded of a comment that Chicago-based beer writer and educator Marty Nachel made about judging barrel-aged beers at the GABF. He said, “Honestly, based on the beers I tasted, the overall quality was mediocre. Very few beers stood out as exemplary. It’s a good reminder that you can’t just throw anything in a barrel and automatically create liquid gold.” Is mediocrity the thing we want to be our lasting legacy?
The Englishman’s question was a good one, one that’s worth considering. But I think it is too early to tell what the lasting contribution of American craft beer will be. We’re still young. We haven’t developed an identity. We’re trying on fashions to see which one fits. It may take a while to settle into the thing that we do best. Until then, I guess we just enjoy the adventure and go on in our belief that we are the best and the brightest.