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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Was it Inevitable?

Yesterday I served as the chauffeur for John Holl, editor of All About Beer, and sort of my boss. We began our day at the Cascade barrel-aging and blending facility, which is secreted away in a mostly-undisclosed location off Denny Road in Beaverton. We ended up spending way more time there than we anticipated (the voluble, affable, and wildly entertaining Ron Gansberg gave us a tour and so we lingered). For a nightcap, we dropped by Gigantic and were fortunate enough to encounter Van Havig and Ben Love.

And there I got in an intriguing conversation with Van on the question how national beer preferences emerge. Take any country that makes its own kind of beer (as opposed to making generic lagers) and you can ask the question: why this beer? Why cask ale in Britain? Why dunkel lagers in Bavaria. (Or take the even weirder example of Cologne and Dusseldorf--why a pale ale in one and a dark ale in the other?)

You can do this on down the line. Van and I got in an abstruse conversation about how IPAs developed (we had a heated debate, but by the end I couldn't tell what we were disagreeing about; I suppose that's typical for pubby conversations about beer). We both agree that an American tradition has emerged and that it is characterized by the way Americans use hops. I have harped on this enough I think you all know about it. But Van posed a question that has become my philosophical white whale, the great unanswerable riddle in beer. Was it inevitable that Americans were going to develop in this way?

Remove some important antecedents. Say Fritz Maytag had decided against buying Anchor and Ken Grossman became an aerospace engineer. Imagine that, instead of providing a market for those lovely Cascade hops that Coors didn't want, those brewers never existed and growers pulled the American-bred hops from their fields. Would we still have gotten here?

You can run this mental experiment with any country. What we know is that regional preferences develop, not why. We can trace the history back, we can look at extenuating circumstances (war, famine, tax law), we can consider local ingredients--but like an onion, we can keep peeling and peeling and never get to that answer. You end up with Cologne and Dusseldorf, sister cities making different beer.

It seems inconceivable that America would end up where we are if you changed up some of those early variable, but I can't seem to find the (math-like) proof that would affirm or contradict it one way or another. 


  1. It's almost like the butterfly effect, without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale we might possibly all be drinking American made milds that differ only very slightly from British.

  2. Nothing inevitable about it. Our beer trajectory was shaped by a few early visions of how flavor and aroma could be shaped. I suppose you could argue that hoppy was somewhat logical if you see the Northwest and California as the center of the craft movement in America. What do we have that most places don't? Hops. Lots of hops. But even that view traverses a slippery slope.

  3. "Cologne and Dusseldorf" I always thought that was a lot to do with water chemistry. Cologne - soft, Dusseldorf - carbonate, like London?

  4. While fun thought excercises, this sort of thing never ends well with philosophical folks... but, IMHO:
    It may not have happened the same way, but I feel we'd have ended up with super-hoppy beers eventually, even with all the 'meh' hop varieties before 30ish years ago. Talk to all the service guys who enjoyed regional beers while deployed overseas; many of them were early adopters of craft brews because they knew the domestics were, frankly, bland and watered-down compared to the beers available in, say, Germany.
    In your question, you allude to another factor that absolutely comes into play: in the rest of the world, there is local/regional beer production as well as large imports and domestic brands (thanks SAB-AB-INBEV or whatever!). It's a natural conclusion of human endeavor that local beer would have emerged eventually, especially given the disposable incomes of the types of people who would have traveled and experienced other styles of beer.

    the factors are all there, so my conclusion is we would have ended up with something apart from the big domestics. Would it have been super hoppy, or similar to varieties we see today? Following my previous points...throw in a little 'American Rebel', hating the corporate, cardboard, bland commercial beers...the logical extension of that is indeed hop bombs. Arrogant Bastard played off this exceptionally well, saying outright "If you don't like this beer it's because you're a *****, and you don't deserve good beer". The human condition is generally predictable, in broad strokes...