|Source: White Beer Travels|
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.