Yesterday I served as the chauffeur for John Holl, editor of All About Beer, and sort of my boss. We began our day at the Cascade barrel-aging and blending facility, which is secreted away in a mostly-undisclosed location off Denny Road in Beaverton. We ended up spending way more time there than we anticipated (the voluble, affable, and wildly entertaining Ron Gansberg gave us a tour and so we lingered). For a nightcap, we dropped by Gigantic and were fortunate enough to encounter Van Havig and Ben Love.
And there I got in an intriguing conversation with Van on the question how national beer preferences emerge. Take any country that makes its own kind of beer (as opposed to making generic lagers) and you can ask the question: why this beer? Why cask ale in Britain? Why dunkel lagers in Bavaria. (Or take the even weirder example of Cologne and Dusseldorf--why a pale ale in one and a dark ale in the other?)
You can do this on down the line. Van and I got in an abstruse conversation about how IPAs developed (we had a heated debate, but by the end I couldn't tell what we were disagreeing about; I suppose that's typical for pubby conversations about beer). We both agree that an American tradition has emerged and that it is characterized by the way Americans use hops. I have harped on this enough I think you all know about it. But Van posed a question that has become my philosophical white whale, the great unanswerable riddle in beer. Was it inevitable that Americans were going to develop in this way?
Remove some important antecedents. Say Fritz Maytag had decided against buying Anchor and Ken Grossman became an aerospace engineer. Imagine that, instead of providing a market for those lovely Cascade hops that Coors didn't want, those brewers never existed and growers pulled the American-bred hops from their fields. Would we still have gotten here?
You can run this mental experiment with any country. What we know is that regional preferences develop, not why. We can trace the history back, we can look at extenuating circumstances (war, famine, tax law), we can consider local ingredients--but like an onion, we can keep peeling and peeling and never get to that answer. You end up with Cologne and Dusseldorf, sister cities making different beer.
It seems inconceivable that America would end up where we are if you changed up some of those early variable, but I can't seem to find the (math-like) proof that would affirm or contradict it one way or another.