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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Madness of Causation: Why Do We Care?

You may find yourself in a brand new pub, and you may find yourself in a nice part of town. You may find yourself behind a pint of beautiful IPA. And you may ask yourself, how did this IPA get here?

Thus passed a week in Beervana--with theories spun about how American IPAs evolved, counter theories, and counters to the counter theories. Don't worry!--this is not going to be another round in the madness. But it is a consideration of the madness itself: why do we care so much about the causal explanation?

This is not a new debate. Establishing causality is a way of creating meaning now, in this time, and that's what we care about. For decades, Americans have fought bitterly about the American Civil War--was it a dispute over states' rights, or human slavery? The causal argument is critical because if we trace events back to a defense of slavery, those who support symbols like the Confederate flag and policies like voter ID laws are indicted by it. But, if we can trace them back to a more noble defense of state sovereignty, then the politics of today are cast in a similarly more noble light.

Dusseldorf, where the ale is altbier and only altbier.

We fight for the history of beer for the same reason. (Fortunately the stakes are somewhat less dire.) So often, though, we don't realize that's what's happening. We are convinced by our argument without seeing why we are committed to its logic. If we argue that a certain beer style goes back to a particular brewer, we're attempting to both elevate the accomplishment of that brewer and diminish the breakthroughs and innovations of others. (This is the "great man" theory of history.)

It seems fair to mention my logic, and why I find the great man or single-origin theories unpersuasive. Beers and beer styles are the result of a conversation between breweries and beer drinkers, and the whole process is heavily influenced by local culture. Breweries make beers and offer them to the public. They start with beers they like, with a vision for how they should be made. But the drinkers have the final say. Breweries make the beers that people buy. Along the way, they tinker and refine, so that the preferences of the drinkers get fed back into the thinking about how to improve the beer. This is the process that has led to the very different brewing traditions and beers of Europe, and why we in the US are developing our own brewing tradition and beer.

No case is ever airtight. In some cases, certain beers do exert and outsize influence; they're the beers that get the ball rolling style-wise. Josef Groll's pilnser springs to mind. Acknowledged.

I'm committed to the idea of the brewer-drinker feedback loop because it acknowledges the role of society in the process. That's the only secret sauce I've ever encountered that explains why Germans grew to like clean, unadorned lagers while their neighbors in Belgium favored funky, sometimes bizarre ales. When I look at the evolution of American hoppy ales, it seems too vast and too nested to have any single origin. We have been on a road for at least twenty-five years (and possibly forty) that led to this moment. Along the way there have been extremely important contributions, but this invention had many, many fathers. Millions, I'd say.

If you a theory of causation, where's your commitment in all of this?


  1. I wonder if there is a middle ground. I agree with you that the great white man theory is a poor tool as I wrote the other week. Yet it may still be a noteworthy factor - especially in the last ten years of big craft developing into a powerful voice swaying the marketplace. That's sway of Greg Noonan v. Greg Koch question.

    This factor not only overlays the local brewer-drinker loop but does so in a number of ways given the feedback loop cycles in both directions. The feedback to the brewer does help the tweeking of the formula to please the customer. It is, yes, a very significant factor. Yet so too does the tweeking of the formula to please the customer as efficiently as possible. The brewer's interests are also active in the conversation and reducing costs while selling beer is a good thing to a brewer. Brewers are also stuck with and limited by the availability, acceptability and affordability of resources.

    For me, that is the critical factor in creating different regional and national drinking cultures. Americans had access to strong hoppy ales (along with other beers) off and on for roughly three hundred years from the early 1600s to 1910s because strong flavoured hops were here. It went away then but is back again.

    These and other forms of tension-creating factors combat and combine to cause the outcome in the glass. And, if one is interested, they should all be traced and tested, the cloth unwoven, to determine how legitimate and how influential they each are to the outcome. But we all don't need to. We each can just enjoy the beer.