Let me say first that I love Salon. My wife and I happily pay to be premium members and have done so for several years to access a wealth of diverse topics tackled by quality writers. The weekly column Ask the Pilot alone is worth the modest annual fee. Written by a working pilot, Patrick Smith, it has given me more insight into the airline industry than any ten other sources. Plus, he’s witty and curmudgeonly in a way that reminds me of a certain beer writer. But I’m getting off topic, as usual. [NOTE: it’s possible that you may have trouble with the links if you’re not a member and/or you may have to watch a commercial first before gaining access for the day.]
Today’s Salon featured in the Eat & Drink section, an article entitled And the next great American beer will be…? with the subtitle Pabst may be worshiped by hipsters, but can it replace Budweiser as the best classic domestic brew? The author is Edward “Ted” McClelland, who also wrote two books about — wait for it — nothing remotely close to beer! He’s written about horse racing and travel and has done articles for a variety of mainstream publications, just the sort of resume that so many mainstream publications will hand out a beer assignment to, because apparently beer requires no special knowledge whatsoever. In fairness, that appears to be slowly changing, but it’s still a disappointment to see, especially when it’s by a publication I have great respect for otherwise.
The gist of the article is that now that Budweiser is about to become a foreign beer, what will be the next great American beer, and more specifically will it be Pabst? While he gets his facts mostly correct and overall it’s not terrible, the main premise that we need to find something similar to replace Budweiser is in my opinion not even the question that we should be addressing.
McClellan does acknowledge that the weakest part of Pabst’s claim to the throne is that they’re not actually brewing their own beer but heaps praise on them for their recent success, saying Pabst “demonstrates both the power of its red-white-and-blue image, and its success at marketing, even when that was achieved by barely marketing at all.” He also reference’s Rob Walker’s new book Buying In, but in a 2003 New York Times column, The Marketing of No Marketing, Walker himself makes clear that Pabst wasn’t “barely marketing at all” but instead was employing a very deliberate strategy of appearing not to be marketing while marketing the hell out of it, just in a different way than traditional marketing. Pabst is currently in the process of trying to repeat that success with other nostalgic brands like Primo and Schlitz.
McClelland goes on to speculate that if not Pabst, who should the crown go to, throwing out such brands as Genesee Cream Ale, Iron City, Narragansett, Shiner Bock and even Yuengling. I suppose what I really don’t understand is why finding a “cheap buzz” is a worthy goal at all. What’s the point of trying to replace one bland macro beer with another one that tastes almost exactly the same? Shouldn’t a lack of bland, interchangeable industrial light lagers owned by American brewers provide an opportunity to spotlight the 1400+ small craft brewers making beer with full flavors? Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to re-educate all those macro drinkers that beer can be so much more that any of the brands McClelland mentions? But not once does he mention Samuel Adams Boston Lager or any of the literally hundreds of wonderful lagers made by craft brewers around the country.
McClelland also interchanges his goal between finding the next great American “beer” and the next great American “lager,” but perhaps he’s confused about the difference. While there is a preponderance of ales among craft-brewed beer, there are still plenty of spectacular lagers to choose. But if it’s all beer, there are also plenty of ales that could fit the bill.
He also never explains why the next great American beer has to be national. Despite not mentioning national brands, he seems to imply that’s a condition, especially with questions like this one. “So can a patriotic American — or an Americana-loving hipster — still get a cheap buzz off a classic, domestic lager? Yes, but only if he lives in the right place.” But Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, Anchor Brewing and several others are all brands available nationally.
Back in what’s considered the Golden Age of American brewing — the late 1800s — the number of breweries topped 4,000, meaning they were all primarily very local breweries. Now that we’re in the Silver Age (IMHO), most Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery. With so much good beer so close, why on Earth should we be wasting time trying to find another national brand to replace Bud? Maybe it’s time to finally stop being duped by propaganda marketing convincing most Americans that beer is something worthy only to swill that must be cheaper than water. Why is that notion so pervasive? The obvious answer is the onslaught of marketing and advertising by the former big three and the similarly tasteless imports like Heineken, Corona and their ilk.
But beer is, as I’ve said so many times, so much more than that. The country has been filled with hundreds, possibly thousands, of ales and lagers worthy of the title “next great American beer” for decades. That so many in the media have on beer blinders and miss that simple fact says a lot about our basic values. Financial success is always more highly valued in our culture than other ways in which success can be measured. So the amazing, high quality craft beers that have been part of the American beer scene for thirty years go largely unnoticed, despite being the next great American beer, right here, right now.