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Saturday, August 27, 2011

America the Best, Ctd.

On Thursday, I wrote a post arguing that the US has the world's best beer ("hands down"). It was a post in which I tried to bring together two threads: the lighthearted case made by Chris Bertram against the US, and the arrival of Breakside's Devon White Ale--perhaps the first time that style has been brewed in over a hundred years (or, of course, perhaps not). In the process, I offended people like the estimable Canadian Stephen Beaumont and Czech-residing Argentine PivnĂ­ Filosof--which was not the goal.

I have argued many times against bests on this blog. They're great talking points, but the only way to arrive at them is to either rely wholly on subjectivity or to define terms narrowly. When Chris made his case against the US, he used idiosyncratic definitions--many favorable to the beer-drinking habits of his home country (though, flouting chauvinism, he gives Belgium the nod for overall best beer). To arrive at "best beer country," you have to define your terms. Cases can be made for countries depending on which definitions you emphasize. Britain or Ireland (pub culture), diversity of extant indigenous styles (Belgium), continuity of tradition (Germany), centrality in culture (Czech Republic). I wondered on what basis Canada would stake their claim on Beaumont's blog, but I'm still coming up blank.

America has a right to stake a claim, and one based on more than naive chauvinism. Since 90% of the beer sold here is sold in cans and bottles, it's not based on pub culture. Since our tradition is fractured and mostly recent, it certainly can't be based on continuity. Since we have only a couple indigenous styles (if you're being generous), it's not on native diversity, and since we only drink half as much beer as Czechs--and by some accounts are on target to be come a wine-majority country--we can't claim centrality to culture. And on those dimensions we look up at a not just a few countries who do it better.

But the US does have one thing going for it, a cute little baby I'd prefer not go out with the bathwater. The US, as an immigrant country, cares little about tradition. Because of Prohibition and the consolidation of the 50s-70s, the country lost all memory of beer styles and started over from scratch in 1980. We effectively had no brewing tradition at all then. So when craft brewers came along, they didn't have any tradition to protect. They were happy to steal profligately from Europe--and did. In my Thursday post, I wrote:
Breweries in the United States not only produce every commercial beer style produced everywhere else, but for every commercial beer style produced, a domestic US brewery makes at least a credible example. This includes not just standard British, German, and Belgian styles, but rare specialties like lambics (Allagash). Can any other country make this claim of producing credible examples of all the world's styles? No.
We have breweries like Geary's that have a traditional Yorkshire system, use traditional Yorkshire yeast and ingredients. We have breweries like Victory doing decoction mashing. Rogue has embarked on growing their own barley and floor malting it. Allagash uses a turbid mash and cool ship to produce spontaneously-fermented beer. Sierra Nevada is working with a monastery for the Ovila line. These breweries produce beer that is "credible"--that is, it's as well-made as the European standards. (Let's not get into "best.")

American culture is absorptive and mutable. So far, that defines the expression of American brewing. It means that when a brewery reads about an 18th century style, he's likely to try to make it. It means that somewhere in the country, someone's trying to brew something that's being brewed somewhere else. I readily accept that this may not be purely praiseworthy. But it is distinctive, much in the way beer cultures across the world are distinctive.

My point in overstating the case against Chris was to point out that while America may be very far from being able to claim "best," it doesn't mean the breweries here should be dismissed out of hand. All beer culture--particularly distinctive beer culture--is praiseworthy. And America finally has something distinctive.


  1. I think the northern hemisphere is the greatest beer hemisphere.


  2. The Transcendent9:21 PM, August 27, 2011

    Honestly, it seems unfair to even group America (or any Country for that matter) as a whole. Under country circumstances, some cultures are so historically rooted in beer drinking that is simply is logical to assume that they would be better at making beer than a country who banned it as recently as 80 years ago.

    Though, if the criteria was changed, I would place the North Coast of America on par with any other area of that size. The craft breweries there are so amazing and varied that it is like the rest of America in history, a melting pot of all the best beers around the world with all the weaknesses done away with.

    My local craft store (Kelly's Liquor San Jose) has so many great beers for there that it is hard to ignore the greatness. North Coast Brewery and Russian River to name a couple VERY notable breweries.

  3. Trying to identify a best beer country presents the same problem as trying to name a best beer: the answer is open to personal taste. What tastes great to a German may not taste so great to an Englishman. What tastes good to an American may not suit the taste of a Russian. The important point to make is that the US today makes plenty of good beer. Best beer country? Forget about it. There's no such thing.

  4. Vigorously nodding my head in agreement!

  5. Your world view is rose colored by the [ridiculously rich] Portland beer culture, properly so.

    The USofA is a vast country, west of the 100th meridian largely empty. I notice that craft beer is local and many, many Americans have very limited access to quality beer; albeit, AB-InBev and MolsonCoors are distributing some craft, but, mostly faux-craft, beer to the hinterlands.

    In constrast, most [every] British villages have a public house with at least reasonable beer.

  6. Here's an argument that makes perfect sense to me: The US today produces the greatest variety of beer styles in the world. Even if our beer culture is dominated by macros and our favorite craft style is a pale ale, the amount of experimenting with ingredients and styles has taken off here.

  7. Jeff A., when you go to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this September, I suggest you conduct research assessing the availability of quality beer outside of acknowledged 'beer towns' by
    - traveling by automobile,
    - taking your time,
    - planning your trip for ~300 miles and >03 beer-stops [grocery stores, liquor stores (in Colorado), brewpub] a day.

    Just a thought spawned by recent roadtrips.

  8. hey, not just best beer in the world but best food!

    I mean look at all those famous american foods: Pizza, Hamburgers, Hotdogs...

    oh, wait a minute....


    tongue in cheek from Yorkshire. Home of the Yorkshire pudding, and good old yorkshire bitter!