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Monday, November 29, 2010

Great Moments in Beer

Always late to the party--that's my trademark. I had meant to throw in my contribution in Zak Avery's amazingly generous competition to win a pre-WWII bottle of Greene King. Alas, the competition expired three days ago. That's no reason not to take Zak up on his challenge, however:
To enter the competition, all you have to do is write something about beer and time, up to a maximum of 500 words.
Here goes.

Let us imagine Berlin in the the 1800s. Lots of horses and men with exotic facial hair. Poorly lit. Fragrant. And then there's this: 700 breweries producing Berliner Weisse. Seven hundred. In England at the same time the popularity of porters was such that it rebounded south, provoking the development of schwarzbier (that's one origin story, anyway, and we'll rely on it for the sake of this post) and west, where the Irish took it in a different direction. Goses, newly popular in America, were once wildly popular in Leipzig where they were considered the hometown style.

And so on. Porters yet thrive, but Berliner Weisse is on life support and goses have already died out once. Examine the history of brewing styles and you see the steady march of cultures. Weather, agriculture, laws, wars, technology, commerce, and taste trends all shape the types of beer that have been brewed and the reasons those types appeared.

What interests me in all of this is not just history, but the current moment. Something like three pubs close each day in Britain, while a new brewery opens perhaps once a week in the US. Portland, Oregon boasts 36 breweries, tops in the world, and this may represent either a high-water mark, or the midway point in a 50-year trend. (Thirty-six is fewer than 700.)

Or take gose, the dead style that was revived with a couple recent German examples. American breweries have taken up the gauntlet, and now the style is common enough that I discovered yet another example by chance in Portsmouth, NH. BeerAdvocate lists 24, 19 from the US. Will this style find commercial success and, if so, where?

I have a strong sense that the US is experiencing a rare flourishing in brewing history, when things are unsettled. Rare is the moment when gose could credibly become a mainstream beer, but now is such a moment. Perhaps the moment will last a century, perhaps just another few years. That bottle Zak offered is 73 years old. Let's imagine the world in another 73 years, as our descendants regard a bottle of beer from this era. What will that world look like? What will the popular styles be? Will there be more or fewer breweries in the US?

Who knows--maybe beer will be extinct, another luxury sacrificed so people can still grow precious food grains in a globally-warmed world. I can't really imagine what it means that there were 700 Berliner Weisse-producing breweries, and maybe this time will be just as inconceivable. In any case, it's a safe bet that nowhere on earth have so many styles been brewed at one time in one country. A 73-year-old bottle of American beer from 2010 could contain nearly any style of beer known, and that is perhaps the strongest comment on our current era. Enjoy it--

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations are in order, it would seem. Kudos, and enjoy the fine old age.