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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Best Beer? America, Hands Down

Since I'm in a bomb-throwing mood, let's pick up the pace. The political bloggers have enjoyed a strange little explosion of beery blogging lately (I've been meaning to get to it, but...). The thrust had to do with neoliberal economics, which I won't subject you to--at least not yet--though here are a few of the key posts: Yglesias, Philpott, Konczal. I then tuned out and missed the piece at Crooked Timber Stan linked to yesterday. Written by Brit Chris Bertram and titled "Beer Chauvinism," it was a bomb itself:
Some people think that the United States now brews the best beer, but even they are forced to concede that should you wish to actually drink the stuff, you are better placed (for example) in England where a ten-minute stroll from your front door (in any major or minor city) will likely get you to a pub with a decent selection. However, the partisans of nouveau American beer chauvinism have asserted that whilst England may score highly on that dimension, the typical US supermarket has a world-beating selection of brews.
Chris then embarks on a well-written, amusingly chauvinistic post designed to put impertinent Yanks in their place (was it ever not thus?). And indeed, Chris's argument holds sway because he's able to dictate the terms. He is indeed correct that there remain many places in America where you can't find good beer. He is furthermore correct that in most towns, the corner bar doesn't have a best bitter or mild on tap.

Where Chris does not go, where he can't go, is the question of diversity. On this score we crush all comers. Is there a style brewed on the earth that's not brewed in America? Doubtful. Is there a style once brewed in the world that's not brewed in America? Arguable. Chris might toss out a few likelies: gratzer (we brew it), gose (brew it) adambier (yup--sort of). He might dig into his bag of tricks. What about a Devon White Ale, the ghastly-sounding egg-beer once made in the toe of England in the sixteenth century? Sorry, we make that, too.
It’s the fermentation process that makes this beer unique, however. First, the beer was fermented with a portion of unfermented wort reserved from the previous batch called ‘The Ripening.’ The reserve was kept warm until it was time to brew the next batch, when it was added before fermentation. Presumably, this smelled or tasted like modern sour wort. For this part of the brewing, we pulled about two liters of first runnings from an upcoming beer, put it into a conditioning vessel with some ground malt and an ounce of hops.
And I'm willing to bet $100 Chris has never been to Oregon, or he'd be a lot less certain of himself.

Update: In comments, Dan writes: " America probably brews greatest diversity of stuff, but you'd have to make a more sophisticated argument for outright 'best.'"

Fair enough. Here it is. 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.


  1. In most cases we are pretty confident about what we came up with, but in other cases the information might be a few years old, and these things do change.

  2. Breakside has one on right now, and Cascade does seasonal Goses- their summer being the most "traditional."

  3. Upright Gose is lovely. America probably brews greatest diversity of stuff, but you'd have to make a more sophisticated argument for outright "best".

  4. America probably brews greatest diversity of stuff, but you'd have to make a more sophisticated argument for outright "best".

    I will do so in an update to the main post.

  5. Except most of the "styles" produced in america are mockeries of imported styles. How many brewpubs do you know actually use floor-malted spring barley like a british ale? How many brewpubs actually use a real british top fermenting yeast? Virtually every "bitter" or "mild" in the US is made with bottom rung made-for-industrial-lager 2-row and chico.

    How many breweries that make lagers use decoction? How many make unfiltered lagers? How many cask lagers have you seen?

    Americans have a delightful ability to co-opt narratives, and combined with their exceptional persuit of the profit motive, and their general lack of culture, of course they are going to try and co-opt all the world's beer "styles." But they are ignoring the essence of what makes them styles.

    Most American beer, even craft beer, has more in common with Starbucks than it does a hand crafted beer from a local brewery somewhere in Europe. It's the same commercial homogenization at work.

  6. Daniel, are you suggesting bad beer is also made in America? Shocking! Of course, bad beer is made everywhere. I think you have a romanticized vision of European brewing, and I think you fail to give American breweries their due.

    Do some US breweries make the beer you describe: yes. Probably fewer make traditional English cask ale than breweries in England, but we have them around. They use imported floor-malted grain, some use traditional English breweries and far fewer breweries use Chico yeast than you suggest (at least in Oregon).

    Name me another country outside of Britain where any breweries like that exist. You might name a few. Do they also have breweries making lambic with turbid mashes and spontaneous fermentation? And decoction brewhouses (yes, America has some)?

    No country in the world has an intact, 18th century brewing culture. Vestiges survive in some of the best brewing countries. But almost everywhere you go, you'll find large, stainless-steel breweries with pretty standardized practices and ingredients.

  7. We have the most and best homebrewers. Belgium and Germany can't compete on that level and every homebrewer from England that I ever met wants to recreation his Granddad's porter or mild.

    It all begins and ends there.

  8. That's still not particularly convincing. You need to show that you've spent time thinking about what criteria constitutes "best". Simply saying most breweries and good representations of each style is one way of looking at it, but I think there are countless other possible measures of best. I also wonder why it is so important to some people to make such blanket statements, and to naysay the beer culture of others'. Some grist for your mill…

  9. Ha! I have been to Oregon as it happens, to Portland for a conference in 2008. Very nice it was too (actually the US city I've felt most comfortable in). I'll let you off the $100.

  10. Diversity, diversity. What do you mean by that? In styles, those are only labels. Real diversity goes beyond that, far beyond that. Take the Annafest in Franconia, for example. 20 or so brewers and all of them have Festbier, which is, basically a Märzen (but not in the BJCP understanding of it, but in the German understanding of it), you could say that for a beer lover that even would be boring, but if you pay attention to each of those beers, which on paper are all basically the same, you'll notice that each is different. Same here in CZ with světlý ležáky or even desítky, almost all brewers, big or small, make them. You can say (and I used to believe it myself) that there is not diversity, but once again, get past the labels and you will find that there is a huge diversity.

    So, if you are saying that this or that place is the best simply because of your limited understanding of diversity (which all by itself isn't a very strong argument) it means that you haven't travelled enough (nothing wrong with that) or that if you have travelled, then you were not paying enough attention.

  11. Chris, the least you can let me do is buy you a pint the next time you're in town.

    Pivni: ouch. I'm not sure you were listening to my argument, but I'm going to back away slowly now in any case.

    (The post was supposed to be light-hearted fun.)

  12. My bad, then.... Didn't get the tongue in cheek thing. I honestly thought you were one of those who actually believe that thing about diversity...

  13. Which is America's best Dutch-style Oud Bruin?