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Session #79: In which I struggle with the meaning of ‘beer culture’

The SessionSo much for planning ahead. The topic for The Session this month is “What the hell has America done to beer?” or “USA versus Old World Beer Culture.”

I’m not sure if that is one discussion or two, but without any thought toward today just Monday, responding to Boak and Bailey’s request to go long, I posted enough about “what the hell America is doing to beer?” to tide us over for a while.

But I struggle mightily with the notion there are only two beer culture tents: “USA” and “Old World.”

Is there a single American beer culture? So that we put the people drinking retro tall boys at a Chris Knight concert here, people paying $9 a pint in a Manhattan bar here, everybody in Portland (Maine or Oregon, take your pick) over there, tourists at the new Anheuser-Busch biergarten in St. Louis together with regulars at the Urban Chesnut Brewing beer garden four miles away . . . no, wait, those last two don’t belong together.

Pub contemplationAre beer drinkers in Berlin (HT to Evan Rail) and Bamberg part of the same beer culture? At a London “craft beer” bar and in a country pub? How about La Cave à Bulles in Paris and Omerta in Krakow (HT to “The Pocket Beer Guide: The Essential Handbook to the Very Best Beers in the World”)?

Are we talking beer cultures and beer subcultures? Should we be talking about beer culture as a subculture of a nation’s culture (or perhaps a region’s)?1 These strike me as more interesting questions. Ones that should be asked over beer — OK, over beer in a romantic Old World setting — rather than at 10:30 in the morning. That way you don’t feel as bad when you fail to come up with an answer.

Adrian Dingle volunteered to host The Session because he has an agenda, which he lays out in 2,000-plus words. There are things there to agree with. I’m no more thrilled about “best of” lists in wich 28 of the 25 beers contain 12% alcohol or more than when I railed against them in the past, but I’d be repeating myself. As well as reading Ding’s full post be sure to use the links in the comments following his original post. Unlike here, you’ll find actual answers to the question he posed.

When The Session began six-and-a-half years ago the idea was contributors would write to the same topic, maybe even a style, and also about a specific beer they were tasting. I’m not sure what this says about American beer culture, but last Sunday at Second City in Chicago I had a glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that was as good as a glass of beer can be. Full of flavor, crisp, refreshing, and — yes — bitter. So I had another. Just as good. Full of flavor, crisp, refreshing, and — yes — bitter. End of tasting notes.


1 My answer would be whatever a beer culture is it is a subculture of a region’s culture. Try drinking two Double IPAs and saying that fast.

9 Responses to Session #79: In which I struggle with the meaning of ‘beer culture’

  1. Pivní Filosof September 6, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    I asked a similar question some time ago, and I came to the conclusion that there is something that we could call beer culture. Is you say, it’s part of region’s or a country’s culture, it’s determined by the way in which most people relate to beer, how they picture the act of drinking beer, needless to say, this culture is more or less heavily influenced by marketing, traditions, etc.

    There’s also another side of beer culture, one that happens “backstage” and that, in my opinion is more important. It’s determined by how well the people who live out of selling beer (producers, retailers, pubs) know the product they are selling, how much they care about it and how much they know about it and about the people that buy it.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      I particularly like the “backstage” theory, and “how much they know about the people who buy it.” There’s still a good portion of consumers that the larger breweries in the United States just plain don’t understand.

      • Pivní Filosof September 6, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

        I don’t know about the situation here, but it seems to me that in countries like Spain or Argentina, the larger brewers understand the consumers much better than many of the smaller ones

        • Stan Hieronymus September 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

          To be clear, MilleCoors understands Blue Moon/Leinenkugel drinkers and A-B Shocktop drinkers (as well as the light beer drinkers, of course).

  2. Aleksei Saunders September 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Hello Stan,

    I believe we share very similar views in this matter. I was hoping that Ding would have expounded on the effect American car culture has had on drinking/beer culture in broad areas of America.

    Sorry to see it was the same old drum.

    If you’ve time, here’s mine:


  3. Gary Gillman September 7, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    Well, you’ve raised some good points, Stan, but the core of the question was clear enough I thought. He is asking, does the group of beers produced to date by the American craft renaissance, which is now making inroads in U.K. and elsewhere, complement or improve on the English tradition the session-hoster is familiar with, or does it take us in a negative direction? He seems to think the latter from what I can see.

    However, I don’t agree, for a number of reasons. First, the U.S. clearly has rescued a number of historical styles, porter, Imperial stout, red ale (the so-called Irish style), are just some. It may be true that most of these or even all (except as you said steam beer) have antecedents in Europe. But, they would have surely died out and some did for a time (Imperial stout) but for American revivalist interest.

    Also, an important point: the Americans invented the C-hop, which is the keynote of much of the new palette of flavours they created, so that is truly new and has found interest around the world.

    The strong beer thing harks back to English traditions of the 1800’s, but again, the Americans brought it back and showed how a strong beer can (often) help make a good beer. Session drinking isn’t the be-all and end-all. English mild ales of the 1800’s were 7-8% ABV so I don’t know how subtle the tastes were after a few days conditioning in the pub. Post WW II English bitter is just a phase in its development.

    The Yanks gave a much-needed shot in the arm to international brewing. Some of it has led to permanent improvements, e.g. the addition of APA to the world’s lexicon of beer styles. Some of it will be ephemeral (bacon beer anyone?). Michael Jackson early on recognized American genius and enterprise in this respect.

    What is the “best beer in the world”? I think it is one of a clutch of English bitters, not exceeding 5% ABV, made with all-English hops, that are still made, probably by an old-established brewer. Maybe Old Hooky qualifies. Even Sierra Nevada ain’t as good, IMO.

    Does this negate the enormous contributions of America to modern brewing culture? Not at all. And hey, it’s not over ’til it’s over. The whole point of what the Yanks did was to challenge the idea that you can’t make it better – that is what animated Fritz Maytag, and he came pretty close by the way and added much colour to the brewing scene via especially Liberty Ale, whose predecessors (the late 70’s Anchor Xmas ales) seem to be the real progenitor of the APA style.


  4. beerbecue September 8, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    I like your point. I think many of us just assumed that “US beer culture” was code for that about which the host regularly complains and “Old World beer culture” was code for what the host prefers. But the speciousness of the dichotomy (and even of each side of the versus fitting neatly within a box) is an important point. I live in the DC suburbs. I use public transportation daily and am within walking distance of at least 4 bars with good beer. Gasp. I don’t really attend any of these beer events, and I don’t feel like I am missing out on US beer. Double gasp.

    I, like you, look forward to Session #80.

  5. David September 11, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Stan – a nice post and beautifully balanced, just as the best beers often are (and I’m with you on Sierra Nevada Pale Ale). For me, The Session is about the overall theme, not a slavish response to a certain perspective – and what I find so damn beguiling about beer at the moment is the interplay. Between countries; people; brewers; barstaff; rivalries, arguments, debate. I don’t know if that’s ‘culture’. But I do know it signifies a healthiness I’ve not seen in beer all my adult life – and I don’t care if that comes from the ‘Old’ world or the ‘New’ world.

  6. SteveH September 13, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    “Full of flavor, crisp, refreshing, and — yes — bitter. So I had another. Just as good. Full of flavor, crisp, refreshing, and — yes — bitter.”

    The sad thing is, there are so many “newcomers” to the “craft” beer world who would be quick to tell you (or anyone) that SNPA is far from bitter or hoppy. The new norm is that alpha acid must be so high that it takes a coat of skin from your tongue.

    I pine (no pun) for those early days of micro-brewing. Life was so much more simple then.

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