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Friday, March 04, 2011

A Wish For Irregular Beer

It will come as no great shock that the beer at my wedding was homebrew. Three varieties, all selected to be palatable to a broad group (a wit, a porter, and a pale, I think). Still, they were not pale lagers. A friend later relayed a conversation he overheard between members of Sally's family. After offering tepid praise for the idea of the homebrew, the person in question said, "Don't they have any regular beer?"

Regular beer is, of course, a pale, fizzy lager. There is no place on the planet where this style doesn't outsell all others. Not in Belgium, not in Britain--certainly not in the US. (Although, now that I think about it, maybe Ireland is an exception--perhaps the Beer Nut will weigh in.) I can't find any statistics, but the international dominance of pale lager is staggering--surely well more than 90% of all beer sold.

This is a remarkable historical anomaly. Humans have been brewing beer for at least 6,500 years--and almost certainly far longer. So in the entire history of human civilization, a single, broad category of beer has captured the world market for less than 1% of the time. The triumph of pale lager says a great deal about the movement of populations, the industrial revolution, and globalization. Looked at through the lens of history, you could find a lot worse metaphors than pale lager in describing the modern age.

Since humans don't have the capacity to experience eons in their ordinary lives, this anomaly looks more like a permanent state of affairs, and so the dominance of pale lagers is a self-perpetuating cycle.

But does it have to be? Will pale lagers always be "regular," or will our consciousnesses expand such that some future generation has a broader definition? We are at the moment when it's not entirely preposterous to suggest the answer may be yes. If so, we're doing God's work today, brewing and praising this beer that is still irregular to the vast majority of the world.

This post is my contribution to "the Session," an ongoing monthly project wherein beer bloggers all comment on a common theme. For more, see Stan, who is curating this month's installment.


  1. We hear that term over the bar periodically. "Don't you have any regular beer?"

    My other favorite is "domestic". I think by definition that means anything produced in house, doesn't it?

  2. It's all about perspective. I consider a great many varieties "regular". Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, learning to drink on Rogue, Deschutes, Weinhard's and a great many more, may have a great deal to do with such tastes. When I hear "irregular beer" my mind immediately starts wandering through lambics, sours, and other funky beers, of which I hope some people think of when they hear "regular".

  3. I'd never really given the term "domestic" much thought, but it is interesting when local craft brews aren't on that list, but are served at the establishment.

  4. You are right Jeff. Keep doing what you are doing and putting the good word out on the irregular beer. One day, you never know, maybe we'll actually get a majority. I doubt I will ever see it, but it is a worthy cause in my book.

  5. Always happy to weigh in
    *hefts gut onto pub table*
    While Ireland's single most popular beer is a (shit) stout, two pints out of every three sold is a yellow fizzy lager: Heineken, Carlsberg, Bud and Coors Light divide the spoils.

  6. Beer Nut--thanks. Sometimes I have the presence of mind to stop and appreciate this internet thing. To be able to lob out a question and have it answered from Ireland--what a cool thing.

  7. I am not sure why the large percentage of beer drinkers go for the pale fizzy lager. Possibly it is they have no refined taste buds.

    Enjoyed your post!


  8. It is a decade old, but, in my experience, the 'regular' beers in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Germany were not of the fizzy, industrial variant of pale lager.

    Further, there are a dozen craft lager brewers in the Pacific NW who purvey no yellow, fizzy, industrial beer.

  9. They certainly are now: brands like Ottakringer, Gösser, Gambrinus, Carlsberg, Tuborg, Bitburger and Beck's -- all fizzy factory-brewed lager. I think the jury's still out on Pilsner Urquell. Despite slashing the lagering time and adding maize to the recipe, SABMiller have so far failed to kill it dead. But give them another ten years, they'll manage.

  10. Jeff have you read Maureen Ogle's book "Ambitious Brew?" She relates that in the post-WWII 50s and 60s those that tried to continue to brew anything but pale fizzy lager went out of business as "factory food" (cans and packaged) was all the rage.

  11. Jim, indeed I have. It's one of the best books ever written on the history of beer.

    I'm actually just old enough to remember that phase in American culture (which extended into the 70s). I remember the instant coffee craze, which people embraced because it was somehow easier (!). Bizarre times. May they be buried forever.