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Session #79: USA Vs. The World

Our 79th Session is hosted by Adrian Dingle, better known online simply as Ding through his Dings Beer Blog. He’s created a curmudgeonly reputation for himself as a British expat critic of American beer culture and has a few hot button issues that particularly rankle, especially when it comes to our laissez-faire attitude toward session beer, our beer culture (or lack of it) and that dirtiest of words (whisper it when you say it like it was cancer): cask. So no one should be shocked that he’s chosen as his topic for this session USA versus Old World Beer Culture, or more tellingly, “What the hell has America done to beer?”

Anyone with any inkling of my online, in-person and blogging presence in the American beer world since 2000, will know that the whole of my beer experience in that time has been colored by, sits against the backdrop of, and forms the awkward juxtaposition to, my English beer heritage and what has been happening the USA in the last few years. Everyone knows that I have been very vocal about this for a very long time, so when it came to thinking about what would be a great “Session” topic, outside of session beer, it seemed like that there could be only one topic; “What the hell has America done to beer?,” a.k.a., “USA versus Old World Beer Culture.”

This probably won’t be pretty, and you’re probably not gonna like it much, but hey, what’s new?

Having never met Ding in person, I can only glean his motives, personality and agenda from his writing. Of course, as an ugly American, I can just make stuff up, too. In a sense, whenever I read Ding’s missives, I get the feeling that’s he’s talking down to me, giving me a pat on the head. “Silly Americans” seems to linger in between each word he writes. I often feel I’m being lectured to as opposed to the give and take of actual argument. Because from what I’ve read, Ding doesn’t so much have a set of evolving opinions that’s he’s arrived at through life experience, but rather he rigidly knows what’s correct, and the rest of us are simply wrong. There’s often not really an argument that’s being made, more a position that’s being laid out. That’s he’s taking the time to patiently tell us all how we’re wrong is something we should all be grateful for, I suppose. And really, I would be, were it not for the fact that it’s just no fun to argue with such certainty. And so I confess over the years, I haven’t actually jumped into any of the frays over session beer or other Ding-worthy topics. I’ve peeked in from time to time, but that’s about it. So my sense of things is obviously limited, is not backed up by the entirety of his body of writing, and is probably wrong all over the place. But the fact that I can admit that I may be wrong about something is, it appears, one of our many differences.

My friend Lew Bryson tells me he shared a very pleasant pint with Ding once, and enjoyed himself quite a bit. So I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice person. And I’d happily share a pint with Ding in person should the occasion arise, though obviously not a session beer, in the highly unlikely event that we could find one, and not American cask ale, either. Until then, “[t]his probably won’t be pretty, and you’re probably not gonna like it much, but hey, what’s new?” I also want to stress that this is not meant to be a personal attack on Ding, but as that last quote indicates, I think he was asking for it, so to speak. I know he can dish it out, and I’m quite confident he can take it (probably much better than I could, I’m pretty thin-skinned) but my personality still demands that I make sure I make it clear that I mean all of this in a spirit of a good-natured ribbing and do not intend it be taken as mean-spirited. This is actually the first time I’ve read some of his opinions, so this is simply a seat-of-the-pants reply to some of them.

I can’t help but think that Ding’s expat status has something to do with all this. Living among us savages has colored the way he views the world. When I was growing up (a debatable premise, I assure you) near Philadelphia, in the summer I rooted for the Baltimore Orioles (my favorite player was Brooks Robinson) and in the winter it was Vince Lombardi’s Packers all the way. The point is, I never went for the hometown favorite. Having lived in the Bay Area California since 1985, I’ve become a San Francisco Giants fan, but am still a diehard Green Bay supporter (and team owner). But now that I’m no longer a resident of the Commonwealth (Pennsylvania), I find myself rooting for the Phillies and Eagles (when they’re not playing the Giants or Packers) more than ever before. And I suspect it’s a kind of nostalgia and a way to connect with my old roots, or at least the people, friends and family, that are still there. So with no evidence whatsoever, I wonder if the separation of Ding from his Mother England, has made him so supportive of his British heritage in a way that’s made him dismissive of everything else. Think Mike Myers saying “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.” It seems like there has to be a least a little element of “if it’s not English beer, it’s crap” to Ding’s way of thinking. At least, that’s how it comes across.

So with that being said, perhaps the funniest thing is, I don’t disagree with everything Ding says, and in fact think he’s correct in a lot of overall impressions of American beer culture. I may disagree with some (many) of his conclusions, but not his observations about our differences. I may disagree with what I perceive as an inflexibility in many of his points of view, but that’s just me, perhaps. So let’s look at a few cherry-picked arguments he’s made.

Oft quoted argument #1. The American beer renaissance has saved many styles form going the way of the Dodo. Now, this has some partial truth in as much as the American MARKET has supported some styles that had become much less popular elsewhere, but this is an accident of the historical timeline and NOT as a consequence of any particular foresight, expertise or American brewing skill. For example, the reason that in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s Gose was dying a death in Germany was that essentially there was very limited demand. With the American beer-geek consumer being so incredibly indiscriminate, there will (for a while at least) be room for all kinds of obscure styles and obscure beers. This is less of a style revival and more about the ability to sell just about anything (in many cases regardless of quality) to the US consumer. Jean Van Roy has been quoted (accurately or not I cannot ascertain) as saying that America played an important role in saving Cantillon from becoming dangerously irrelevant, but again, what he refers to here is insatiable consumer rather than the discerning one.

Okay, here’s what bothers me about this one. When visiting Cantillon, Jean mentioned that about 60% of their business is in America. That’s suggests that we’re a fairly important market for them, larger even than their own home country. But according to Ding, that’s not enough, because apparently it isn’t being bought by the right kind of customer. It’s somehow important that only “discerning” customers buy Cantillon, the “insatiable” ones (whatever that even means, people who will buy anything one supposes) don’t actually count, apparently. I find that odd, to say the least. And by admitting that there’s some “partial truth” to the argument, isn’t he really admitting that it’s not actually false then? I’m fairly certain that Porter was on death’s door in the UK when Anchor released their bottled Porter in 1974. And he mentions Gose, and I’m certain there are others. But none of that matters because we’ll buy anything? These beers are either saved or not, why are the perceived “motives” what makes it true or not?

Oft quoted argument #3. American beer has introduced new styles. Frankly that’s just plainly inaccurate. If one were to take a style that might be considered quintessentially representative of the contemporary, American beer scene, the West Coast Double/Imperial IPA, and then one were to read the prolific Ron Pattinson over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, one would see that it’s all been done before.

Two words: steam beer. A lot of this argument is necessarily wrapped up in what you mean by, or how you define, “beer styles.” Is there another nation making more different types of beers? Is there another country whose beer culture (oh wait, we’re uncultured) includes the availability of more everyday kinds of beer? If something existed once, ever, somewhere in the dark mists of history, and an American brewer makes it again, why should that not be celebrated? Encouraged? Enjoyed (assuming it tastes good)? Even if it’s true that (yawn with me here) “it’s all been done before,” if I’ve never had it, then it’s new to me. If no one’s had it a century, it’s new to a lot of people, isn’t it? But I guess enjoying anything new or novel, that’s just us Americans being boorish again. Well I’m only going to be alive the one time, so I’m going to enjoy it. If we have to argue over “introduced” or “reintroduced,” who cares?

It’s wonderful to have more beer in cans. Mmmmm, well I suppose it’s nice to have the flexibility that cans can offer, but far too many people are sacrificing the quality of the beer for the convenience of the container. I’d rather have inconvenience and better beer if the other choice is more convenience with an inferior beer. In short, the container should not overrule the contents – it seems as though too often recently that’s exactly what happens, as people settle for lesser beer simply because it’s canned.

I’ve done numerous side-by-side taste tests of beer in a can alongside the same beer in either a bottle or on draft. And in each instance, there was little discernible difference between the two. The “metal turbidity” problem of leeching metal flavor into the beer was largely solved a number of years ago so the idea that “people are sacrificing the quality of the beer for the convenience of the container” is what is false here. Ding’s right that the “container should not overrule the contents.” The thing is, it doesn’t.

More is always better (number of breweries and number of beers). The level of growth in the craft industry in the US is simply unsustainable. It’s flooding the market with mediocre and poor beer and shelf space is at a premium more than ever. It also has the effect of leaving old beer on shelves for extended periods of time. A popular fallacy in the US is that this will be a good thing because ‘the market will decide’, and the poorer breweries will be driven out, making the landscape stronger. In reality, good beer is actually losing shelf space to ‘trendy’ beer, and brewers that are making ‘better’ beer are suffering. With close to 900 breweries in planning stages in the US, there’s a really precarious situation brewing, and a bubble about to burst. I think we’re already in a saturated market for GOOD beer.

Good beer currently represents about 6.5% of the total U.S. Beer market. It could be a little more or less, depending on who you include as “good” or how you define that, but even if we generously placed it at 10%, that still puts good beer as a pretty small part of the whole. And yet many business analysts continue to shake their fists about this supposed bubble that’s about to burst. Ding appears to agree with them. To him, the market’s already saturated. I think he’s wrong about that. Talk to me when we’re closer to the situation being reversed and we’re closer to 90%. Then the balloon may actually be full enough to do some bursting. Ever try to puncture a balloon that’s barely full? It doesn’t work. Air just seeps out, there’s no explosion. So yeah, there’s lots and lots of new breweries, and plenty of them will make beer that’s not as good as some others. Plenty of them will not be savvy businesspeople and won’t get their beer to market as well as others. So yes, some (or even many) will go out of business, leaving room for the next dreamer to give it a go. Maybe the next one’ll make it; maybe not. But there’s still plenty of room for managed growth. There’s still plenty of opportunities for good beer to flourish. There’s still plenty of opportunities for beer to become more of an everyday part of more people’s lives, at which point we’d actually have ourselves some “beer culture,” at least as Ding defines it.

This is one of Ding’s Top 10′ myths that the US craft beer fad has perpetuated amongst the newbs, and (most disappointingly), even amongst those that should know better, but fully eight of them (all but #1 and #3) are straw men that I’ve never heard any serious person make as an actual argument or defense of good beer. I’m sure people have said such things, and I’m sure we can find people who even believe them — but people say and believe all kinds of stupid things — and that certainly doesn’t make them valid arguments in need of knocking down. But even the other two seem to be problematic.

British beer is undergoing a massive revolution inspired by American brewers. This is an interesting one, that, if you live in the USA and know little about the British beer scene, or if you are under 25 and live the UK, there would appear to be some truth to. Amongst those groups, brewers like Thornbridge, BrewDog and Kernel are ‘all the rage’, and of course in the case of BrewDog they are the ones that make all the (literal) noise. The reality is quite different and remains that the overwhelming majority of magnificent beer drunk in the UK is traditional in its style, ABV and brewed by low-key brewers that still put substance over style. Don’t be fooled by the juvenile posturing and adolescent attention seeking.

I’ve visited the UK several times, beginning around 1982, and without question the British beer scene has changed dramatically in that time, at least. In my own experience, many traditional British brewers are indeed resistant to change, and why not, traditional British beer can be wonderful. I was in Burton a few years ago for a collaboration brew that Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker’s award-winning brewer, was doing at Marston’s. The brewmaster there refused — yes, refused — to use the amount of hops called for by Matt’s recipe. Before arriving, they exchanged e-mails several times until when Matt kept insisting, she simply stopped replying to him. When we arrived, she was perfectly nice, and the beer turned out fine, even in its modified form. But like many brewers I spoke to, she was convinced that British drinkers would not drink such a hoppy beer. The reality seems to be, at least for a growing minority, that many consumers will in fact drink such American-inspired beers. At the beer festival where Matt’s collaboration beer debuted, it was the most popular beer there, as voted on by the attendees and the sales data. Likewise, at the Great British Beer Festival, the stand with foreign beers from the U.S. was consistently one of the most popular places at the festival and there were long lines every time we looked. That doesn’t mean that traditional English ale is going away anytime soon, but it does certainly suggest that attitudes there are indeed changing and that a certain (and growing) percentage of British consumers are interested in American, and American-influenced, beer. Could a bar like London’s The Rake even have existed ten or twenty years ago? To say things haven’t changed, or aren’t changing as we speak, is to put your head in the sand.

You can put ANY beer in a cask and get a good result. No, no, no, no. NO! The whole POINT of cask presentation is to accentuate the subtle, gentle nuances that occur over a 1, 2 or 3 day period. This relies upon beers being low-hopped, malt forward and relatively low ABV. If you put a 10% Imperial IPA in a cask, you’re missing the WHOLE point. Now, it is true that virtually ALL beer tastes better in a cask then a keg, but that’s a different argument and not one I’m making here, rather a huge amount of beer that is being presented in casks in the USA is simply not beer that will showcase the presentation at all well – the vast majority of people in the US are missing the point of cask beer. My (current) #1 pet peeve about the beer scene in the USA.

Okay, I agree with Ding that not all cask beer is great, and I agree that not everything should be in a cask to begin with. What I disagree with is that “the vast majority of people in the US are missing the point of cask beer.” We may be missing what Ding’s point of cask beer is, but whatever he thinks cask beer is or should be isn’t necessarily the definition that everybody else has, or indeed should have. Like most things in the beer world, there are very few empirical truths that everyone agrees upon. Cask is not one thing. British cask is not one thing. If we do things differently, that does not negate anything. It just makes American cask different. He’s free not to like it, and he’s free to not order it. He’s even free to criticize it, just as I’m free to disagree with him. But if enough people are enjoying much of what American brewers are doing with cask beer, why shouldn’t they keep on doing it? Fact is, they should, and they undoubtedly will. I for one, will keep drinking it, and probably will even enjoy much of it. Deal with it.

And that brings us to the 1,000-lb. elephant in the room: Session Beer. Nothing typifies the Ding mindset better than his inflexible position that in order to be a session beer anywhere in the world, the beer must hue to his definition and, accordingly, has to be below 4% a.b.v. That’s because once upon a time, that’s the beer people drank in English pubs. That’s based on age-old traditions. But I confess I didn’t realize Ding has actually softened his position.

IF you are an educated, discerning beer drinker, with a sense of history and a solid knowledge base (even though I still think it is technically 100% INcorrect to refer to a 4+% beer as a ‘session beer’). If you do fall into the beer-educated group, then I suppose that you can use the term in a more liberal manner but at the same time have an appreciation of the REAL definition and its relevance.

Well, thanks. That’s a load off. Glad to know that through education and having the proper appreciation, I will be permitted to use a word with a meaning that has never been static and has long varied from its original meaning (if indeed it even ever had one). The problem with all of this dogma is that the idea that words are static and never change or alter their meaning is ludicrous. And the idea that that something as vague as the idea of a session beer has to mean the same thing everywhere in the world, at all times through history, is equally absurd. Ding cites my friend Martyn Cornell as evidence of his 4% or below definition, but Cornell’s actual analysis in How old is the term ‘session beer’? reveals that the question is not as settled as Ding would have us believe. The term itself is fairly modern, and the concept, though somewhat older, has itself changed a bit over time. For all the stamping of feet and wringing of the “traditional” hands, the idea of a “session beer” is, like all words in the English language, subject to time and place. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we’ve all wasted a lot of time haggling over this. It’s the idea that’s important. It’s the concept that has drawn both Lew Bryson and myself to it. Getting caught up in this narrow definition does nothing to advance either the idea or concept of session beers, all it really does it hold it back; back in time, and back in place. I’m willing to concede that there was indeed a time when session beer was thought to be 4% a.b.v. or below and that such thoughts took place in Great Britain as early as the First World War. But we’re not in merry olde England, and it’s the 21st century.

Martyn Cornell himself concludes that while he prefers the 4% concept (and would even be willing to go down to 3.8%), he also admits that “there’s no cast-in-concrete rule about what strength a session beer should be – it’s much more about common sense.” And it’s that “common sense” that I feel has been lacking in Ding’s insistence that his definition is the only definition of session beer. Though I’m pleased to see even he’s been somewhat convinced, albeit reluctantly in a very qualified fashion, that change is possible. Perhaps we can one day actually share a session beer.

So one final question to answer. “What the hell has America done to beer?” The simple answer is “nothing … and everything.” Beer, in my mind, is reflected by where it’s brewed. It reflects the broader culture. Beer in England was made by Englishmen and developed in essentially a single, straight line, over time. America, on the other hand, has always been a melting-pot of different cultures coming together and trying to make the best of those differences. The earliest brewing influences came from England, the Netherlands and the local indigenous people. Later, German and other European brewers greatly changed the direction of beer in America. Lacking a long tradition is, I believe, more of a freedom than a limitation. Saying you can’t do something different, new or again, and claiming it’s “tradition” that keeps you from changing is, I believe, a terrible tragedy. While every new thing isn’t always good just because of its newness, I can guarantee that not being able to even consider doing anything your own way, or differently from “tradition,” can be dreadful. That’s possibly a uniquely American way of thinking, but then we’re talking about America. It’s a perfectly ordinary or common notion to most of us. It’s one of our strengths, I’d argue. Tradition is fine, important even, in certain contexts. But tradition for tradition’s sake never is. Traditions should be examined, probably by every generation, and we should keep the ones that make sense and replace the ones that no longer advance society. That’s how change occurs. That’s why there’s no more slavery. It’s why we got rid of child labor. It’s why women can vote and make their own decisions regarding their own bodies. Before those rights became as obvious as they appear today, all of them were once cherished traditions, peculiar institutions.

I was in Japan last week, judging their International Beer Competition. Over the last few years, I’ve judged similar competitions or visited beer cultures in Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Italy. What do brewers in all of those budding beer countries want to talk about? Not English Beer. Not German Beer. Not “traditional” beer. They want to know about American beer. They want hear about West Coast Eepas (IPAs). I bring bottles of Pliny the Elder with me as gifts. It’s fun to see their eyes pop out, like I was giving them a pair of blue jeans in post-World War 2-Europe. They’re genuinely excited to try it, to share it with their friends and colleagues. These countries, and I’d guess many others, look to us in building their own beer cultures, as we looked to Europe and England for our inspiration. So I find it humorous to discover that we actually have no beer culture, or that it’s lacking, again, the proper sort of something. Really, it comes down once again to definitions. What is “culture?” Look it up. See if you can find one everybody agrees with. So it may be provocative to declare that America has no beer culture, then back it up by narrowly defining it. Or maybe I’m just proving Ding’s point by being irreverent? That’s apparently at the heart of all of our culture, by which I can only assume he means we’re disrespectful of everyone and everything and take nothing seriously, since that’s the definition of being irreverent. I’m completely serious when I say I hope Ding has enough old world culture to forgive me for being such an asshole.

As for our beer culture, I think it’s alive and well, and will trundle on with or without Ding’s acceptance of it, or my half-hearted defense of it. I believe our beer culture has become the envy of many parts of the world, both new and even some old. It’s true it often gets little respect from people both here at home and abroad, but it’s more popular now than at any time during my lifetime. Is it different from other beer cultures? Decidedly so, but I don’t think most of us would have it any other way. Vive la différence. Let’s drink a beer. An American beer.

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