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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Politics and Brewing

A little more than twelve hours ago, the US government embarked on a semi-shutdown.  It was purely the result of politics, but that doesn't make the real effects any less real.  Now, despite the fact that I am a known [choose epithet of preference: pinko commie, defeatocrat, liberal], I have attempted to eschew all political discussion at this site.  Politics divide and beer unites, and I don't want the one to sully the other.  Nevertheless, politics does sometimes intrude on the happy world of beer, unavoidably.  Indeed, a fair amount of the beery terrain we now inhabit is a result of politics. 

Source: White Beer Travels
Unlike wine or cider, beer is a constructed potable.  We formulate a recipe and make a product.  There are a lot of ways, both from within the brewhouse and without, to affect the beer that gets made.  I spent two and a half years in Utah, where politics had a decided effect on brewing.  This was the 1980s, as old stalwarts like Wasatch and Squatters were getting their start, and they were prohibited by law from making beer in excess of 4% (or 3.2% by weight).  It forced brewers to learn how to brew things like four percent IPAs and bocks--which they did, admirably.  Now, that law didn't create a national tradition of weirdly low-alcohol beers, but it might have.  Throughout time politics have created weird circumstances that changed the course of beer and beer styles.  I don't expect the current shutdown or even the debt ceiling fight to affect American brewing.  It does give me the opportunity, however, to illustrate how politics have constantly shaped beer.  We may wish to leave politics out of beer, but sometimes politics barges in anyway.

Belgian beer tax.    One of the keys to understanding Belgium’s ales is a bizarre 19th century tax law.  Rather than levy a fee based on the amount of beer produced or the strength of the beer, the government tax was assessed on the size a brewery’s mash tun.  Breweries responded, of course, by using tiny mash tuns--no matter how much beer they were brewing.  To get some kind of efficiency out of their wee tuns, brewers used extremely thick mashes, and after brewers had packed as much grain as they could into the tun, it left little room for water.  As a consequence, breweries had to draw their mash water off and add new water to the grain bed several times for every batch.  When you read 19th century descriptions of the brewing process, it's astonishingly baroque.  The mash regimes took hours.  The legacy of this law is still evident in the turbid mashes lambic makers use.
Flourishing Hoegaarden.  While we're talking Belgium, let's have an example about what happens in the absence of politics.  You may wonder why a town the size of Madras, Oregon is such a famous burg in the annals of brewing.  The reason is this: in the early 16th century, tiny Hoegaarden fell between regions ruled by Liege and Brabant, a tax-free seam that gave it an exporting advantage that lasted through the end of the 18th century.  During that period, beer exports buoyed an energetic collection of hometown breweries—as many as 38 in the mid 1700s. 

Reinheitsgebot.  This most controversial of beer laws has a hugely political backstory.  In the official telling, the Bavarian government enacted it to ensure that beer was free of funky and unhealthful adjuncts.  Less charitably, it can be read as a sop to bread-producers, ensuring bakers had enough tasty wheat to work with.  Because wheat breweries could still get an exemption from the government, there was an element of graft in the whole thing, too, because granting weissebrauerei brewing rights became a form of patronage and a lucrative source of revenue.  "Purity" is probably not the best word to associate with the law.

American Prohibition.  This is a gimme, right?  What was more politicized than a nation banning booze?  It put half the country's breweries out of business and opened the way for the massive consolidation that began in the 1940s.  (There were 684 breweries in 1940 and 229 twenty years later.)

Great British Gravity Drop.  Before the World Wars, Britain was known for strong beer.  (I refer you to the ten million pre-war log books Ron Pattinson has assembled documenting the fact.)  The wars forced the government to ration grain, and beer got weaker.  This was actually much more pronounced in WWI, when average gravities plummeted to just 1.030 (7.5 P).  In WWII, they never dropped below 1.034.  And in between the wars, they rose.  But an interesting thing happened as a result of all those years of low-alcohol beer: drinkers started to like it that way.  It's a legacy that now defines British beer.

The effects of these policies are everywhere evident.  Hoegaarden remains a famous brewing city (though it was touch and go there for a decade).  Germans remain wildly suspicious of adjuncts.  The US developed a monochromatic beer culture based on a single type--which may have actually created the conditions for this crazy brewery revival we now enjoy.  And Brits still think 5% is a strong ale.

We could go on--and perhaps you will, in comments (though I'll watch them closely--go to one of the kajillion politics sites if you have a comment on Obamacare).  The upshot is that beer does not exist in a vacuum from politics.  Today, when we're thinking deeply about what happens when the political system intrudes in our lives, and so it's a nice moment to recognize that legacy in the beer world, too.


  1. Good stuff Jeff. Regarding prohibition, our current (and somewhat arcane) alcohol distribution laws descend from the repeal of prohibition. Politics, votes, and elections have lasting effects.

  2. Let's not forget 3-2 beer, does it still exist I wonder?

    Also, e.g. the rightist views of the Coors family in the 1970's at any rate inclined some away from drinking the beer. Today, brewers are more nuanced on such stuff, they want to make friends so strong views on politics seem rare. Some are professedly green but few will cavil with that.


  3. What will the shutdown mean for new brewery approvals? Is this the solution to the craft beer bubble? ;-)

  4. Good article. However, I think it could be argued that Utah's brewing restrictions are ultimately caused by religious beliefs. I think the same could be said for 3.2% beer being the only choice on Sundays in many states due to blue laws. As long as you're tackling taboo subjects, I think religion and brewing would be a good topic for a future article. Lots of fodder there.

  5. @Timdogg, check out Amy Mittelman's brewing battles if you (or anyone else) is interested in that topic. She writes from a perspective of a professor of history, so it can get a little dense though. Much better (and more accurate) history of american beer than Maureen Ogle's Ambitious Brew, which is less a history and more a fellatio of the 1%

  6. Oh and regarding the reinheitsgebot, it was also used as a bargaining chip when Bismarck wanted Bavaria in the fledgling German empire. Bavaria was a big coup for Germany and mandating a nation-wide RHGB was a big coup for the Bavarian economy. Later, it was repealed for EU, because Bavaria just didn't have the clout it once did to protect it, especially under pressure from economic powerhouses in Belgium and northern Germany.

    There were similar laws in other parts of Germany, laws banning the use of bottom fermenting yeast in Cologne from the late middle ages, for example. There begat Kolsch, long before the beer was ever pale.

  7. Daniel, I almost included the Cologne piece, but as I saw my day being swallowed by documenting the many cases, I decided four examples was adequate. (I would say it didn't exactly beget kolsch so much as kept ale-brewing, and possibly brewing, alive. The reason they banned it was because breweries were making noxious lagers. Kolsch definitely comes as a reaction to pale lagers, not the least of which were the ones brewed in nearby Dortmund. But you see, this stuff can send you into a vortex of hours-long--fun, but time-consuming--digressions and discussion.)

  8. Beer and politics, that is definitely a combination that can spark eternal discussion. I was thinking about the not too long ago dilemma of the "interpretation" of the Oregon legislation about "beer made in the home must be consumed in the home". It sure did not take long for that to be changed! Beer really has changed the world in many ways!