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How much do ‘we’ need to know about beer history?

Last week, Jeff Alworth struck a chord when he posted a list of “five breweries every serious beer fan should visit.” Lots of interest on Twitter and Facebook. No surprise, I agree that, “Even if you’re just into the standard American craft lineup, your appreciation for those beers will deepen if you visit the breweries that inspired them.”

This got a little more complicated for me: “An insularity is settling in among American craft beer fans, and it is cutting them off from the roots of their own tradition.” I agree that appreciating tradition enriches us. But I don’t know that today’s drinkers are any more insular than drinkers have always been.

That’s just an aside. Because the post turned out to be a prelude to a family of questions.

By chance, the next day on the Music Exists podcast Chris Ryan and Chuck Klosterman discussed, “How much do you really need to know about music history?” Not really all that timely because they were talking about the December dustup that began when Jimmy Kimmell asked Billie Eilish to name any member Van Halen.

“Who? No, who is that?” she asked him.

“I’m gonna start crying,” he said.

Rolling Stone reported, “This supposed lack of knowledge kickstarted a stream of invective on the Internet by know-it-alls who did not realize or did not care that the pop star is 17 and was only 10 when Van Halen put out their last album, 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth.”

Give Music Exists a listen or read what Jim Sullivan wrote at the WBRU-FM website.

For decades, there’s been a rock ‘n’ roll tradition of paying homage to forebears, sometimes praising them in interviews, but very often in covering their songs, bringing their music to a new generation. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison all did songs by those who inspired them — the Big Bopper, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe . . .

It’s not that Eilish doesn’t have influences or won’t talk about them. It’s that in her short time on the planet she hasn’t found it imperative to dive into the cock-rock of the ’80s. Her father raised her on rock, from The Beatles to Green Day, but two years ago, she told Interview magazine: “I realized that there was this thing called rap and hip-hop … and that’s where I am now, pretty much all hip-hop mixed with old stuff and really mellow stuff.”

So, to answer the question, does the college of musical knowledge still exist? The answer is: Yes, but the pupils are taking different classes.

This shifts the question a bit. Sullivan is describing creators. Ryan and Klosterman do as well, but also talk about those who consider themselves knowledgeable enough in other topics to express an opinion. “If we had a teenager and a film historian talking about Quentin Tarantino then the film historian would matter more,” Klosterman says. “If we had a rock historian talking about Billy Eilish the teenager’s perspective would matter more. It’s the only thing like that.”

Perhaps it is not the only thing. Perhaps milkshake IPAs and pastry stouts are like that.

I am left with three questions. How much should a brewer know about history to make a particular beer? How much should a drinker know to enjoy it? How much should somebody know before expressing an opinion?

Ryan and Klosterman focus on popular music, but an analogy from classical music seems to work here. Nadia Boulanger, who tutored many of the leading composers of the 20th century, always started them with Bach. When Philip Glass went to study with her in Paris he had to learn a new Bach chorale each week. Once he’d mastered a chorale, a hymn based on four voices, he was instructed to add four new voices to the original four in such a way that no voice repeated another and yet the all meshed seamlessly. That’s immersion.1

A pub brewer in the United States is not going to start malting barley like at Ferdinand or smoke their own malt like at Schlenkerla, but understanding history and process likely will change the beer they make.

My questions obviously overlap. Brewers may be vocal fans. The line between a consumer who is interested in learning a measured amount more and somebody more deeply immersed is not firm. But perhaps something else Klosterman says will help a drinker decide which side of it they would rather be on. “If you (really) want to know about something you have to know about the things that aren’t easy,” he says.

1 Marcus du Sautoy, The Creatvity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI, 174.

2 Responses to How much do ‘we’ need to know about beer history?

  1. Alan March 7, 2020 at 7:26 am #

    First, sorry for not noting your post. It was a hard work week and I didn’t do a proper look around. Second, I think I’ve decided upon a theory that works. Craft is not longer the era many brewers are in now. The glass of handmade was abandoned long ago. We are now post-historical in the sense that Nietzsche wrote about. Sheer capability to do anything is what is being explored. We don’t like that feeling, the abandonment of the system. We all know that milkshake IPA is not an IPA but we despirately hand the three letters as a suffix. We need connection even when the whole point is breaking connection. So too how beer writers comment on White Claw as it it’s something other than another alcopop. Historians and commentators exist to explain context. Context is now irrelevant.

    • Stan Hieronymus March 7, 2020 at 7:57 am #

      You need to expand these sentences into a series of paragraphs, as in a blog post.

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