The Session #79: What the hell has America done to beer?

The SessionToday being the first Friday of September means it’s time for another round of The Session, that monthly group blogging exercise that unites beer bloggers from around the web to write about a shared theme or topic.

This time around The Session is hosted by Ding of dingsbeerblog, and he asks, 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?‘, AKA, ‘USA versus Old World Beer Culture‘.

Well it’s really very simple: America has done with beer what it always does when measured up against the Old World, or even other countries in the New World—namely, cultural appropriation.

Consider Americanized holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo as examples: two holidays that in their country of origin have a vastly different meaning than the appropriated days of drinking that they have come to be synonymous with in the United States—let’s face it, if you’re a typical American living in the United States you think of “St. Paddy’s Day” in terms of Irish car bombs and Guinness Stout, and Cinco de Mayo brings to mind margaritas, nachos and tequila shots.

Or consider Chinese food in American culture—cuisine developed by Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century that was suited to American palates, styles of which were not found in China proper. This is more an example of indirect cultural appropriation but well illustrates the nature of American society—a “melting pot” of various nationalities, ideologies and cultures, remember—to cherry pick ideas and practices from other cultures to appropriate and adapt to its own.

Cultural appropriation can have negative connotations, and one might think along similar lines with American beer culture: consider “extreme beer” and the Hops Arms Race™ and the crazy proliferation (some might say “resurgence”) of styles and recipes that might as well be called extreme, like beer brewed with roasted ducks or beef hearts or pumpkins. A broad survey of American beers reveals such schizophrenic notions as variant “styles” of the originally-English India Pale Ale (“Black IPA”, “White IPA”, “Rye IPA”, “Double” or “Imperial IPA”, “Belgian IPA”, “Session IPA” or “India Session Ale”, the list goes on), “session” beers that have no place in a proper beer session, and super-limited releases of specialty beers that require days and weeks of preparation and lines of fans willing to stand for hours in long lines and inclement weather for an absurdly-priced bottle of said specialty beer.

Because that’s what we as Americans do, we appropriate ideas from other cultures and subvert them to fit our own lifestyles and lack of history, and we’ve done the same thing with beer. Because of that “lack of history”—we don’t have the hundreds or even thousands of years of history behind us to have developed our own sense of culture and this has spilled over, as it has with many other aspects of our borrowed culture, into beer. It’s no wonder proponents of the Old World beer culture look to America and shake their head sadly and go back to sipping their properly-cellared session Bitter, or their Reinheitsgebot-compliant Helles Bock or Altbier.


And yet.

As one of my favorite bloggers has written:

Q: What’s another word for Cultural Appropriation?
A: Culture.

When you scratch beyond the surface of the layer I laid above you’ll find that in fact America does have a culture, formed like so many other nations by the same cultural appropriation engaged in by almost every other society—the only difference is that the United States is still young enough that time has not yet blurred the acts of appropriation from collective memory.

And in particular, America does have a beer culture. In fact you’ll find that America’s beer culture is informed by—and was seriously marred by—that truly weird and anomalous temperance phenomenon of Prohibition during the 1920s and early 1930s.

That was a weird time in our nation’s history, a time during which the romanticizing of moonshiners, bathtub homebrew, bootlegging, and the vogue glamour of cocktails (really to mask how bad the booze of the era was) clashed with the reality of crime, the division of social classes, toxic alcohol substitutes, and more.

Prohibition effectively killed beer in America, and I believe it also killed the “convention” of beer in the country—and though it took nearly 50 years to properly recover, in many ways it freed the (new) proponents of American beer from the old way of doing things. Yes, there were breweries the survived Prohibition, and it’s not coincidence that those breweries were (and in some cases, still are) producing light lagers that appealed to the masses, in (largely) the original German tradition that was brought to the country in the nineteenth century—with that American twist, of course. However, the new American brewers that started to re-assert themselves in the 1970s and 80s didn’t have this Old World background to fall back on, because Prohibition broke things, so they started to invent and re-invent beer without those ideas and influences.

Well, not entirely: of course Old World beer styles influenced the American brewers, but as with all other things American, those influences were appropriated by the Americans and incorporated into their ideas and turned into something new—and uniquely American. In conjunction with other American brewing influences, such as the development of the New World hops like Cascade, for instance, let’s face it—we went crazy, as we are wont to do.

This was not a bad thing. Nor was this unexpected—though perhaps, without Prohibition the question, “What the hell has America done to beer?” might have a different answer—but I’m quite sure that the question would still have been posed and in the end, and I would probably have a similar answer.

Ding focuses on the differences to illustrate how “wrong” or “bad” or lacking American beer culture is, but honestly—those differences are our beer culture. The truth is there is no unified “Old World” beer culture that stands in opposition to how it’s done in America: England, Germany, Belgium, and so on all have their own cultural differences that stand in stark opposition to each other, much less our own. America has its own styles, traditions, and innovations just as any other beer-saturated country has—the main difference is, it’s simply much younger than others so it stands in starker contrast. Are there extremes? Of course, though our beer culture shouldn’t be judged by those any more than any other country’s (such as 21-year-old cask ale).

In the end—America has turned the world of beer on its ear… just as every other nation and culture to discover beer has done. We’re just one of the newest to do so.

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