Here’s my entry for the seventy-ninth iteration of “The Session,” this one hosted by Ding of Ding’s Beer Blog. The topic: USA versus Old World Beer Culture -aka- What the hell has America done to beer?
The first noises I ever made echoed down the hallways of the maternity ward in Wythenshawe hospital, just outside of Manchester, England. The stay in my birth country was short though, as my father’s career packed us up and flung us far, like some kind of vocational catapult. We landed first in Dallas, Texas, but after a brief stint with lax open-container laws and seemingly mandatory shotgun purchases, we moved to establish deeper familiar roots on the Maryland side of Washington, DC.
This put me in an odd position as a child. My parents were decidedly from England, accents and charms and all, and I was not.
By day I was exposed to the US via my peers: immersed in boy-band pop-culture, linguistic idioms, and all the ingrained bravado that America seems to unabashedly instill in its youth. I pledged allegiance to flags that were not mine, I wrote essays about fathers who founded a country I was not a citizen of, and listened to teachers disparage the beautiful red coats of my people, all because of some minor disagreement over taxes.
By night I used words like “knackered” to express how trying my day had been, ate digestive biscuits and drank concentrated Ribena, and memorized lines from Faulty Towers and Blackadder, laughing maniacally at jokes that many of my friends claimed “were not funny.” I played football (the kind where you use a round ball and your feet) and my first tastes of brew were Boddingtons and Bass, not Budweiser and Billy Beer.
I became a hybrid. British by nature, American by nurture. I have no accent, but do pronounce things oddly. I appreciate the opportunity that the US represents but also pine for the pomp and erudition that can only come a country who, for a while there, refused to let the sun set. I retained the British sense of humor, but adopted the American “#@%& yea!” approach to taking on the world. It offers me unique perspective. I can experience the best of both cultures by adoring the tradition while embracing the progress.
I’d like to think that the cultural syncretism that made me who I am is reflective of the state of American craft beer (we can all agree to leave the macro mess to the Nascar legions). There is a growing part of the populace who actively wants to enjoy good beer, and they are raging against the longstanding influence of piss-water-pale-lager. Their tongues and hearts are in the right place, and they’re doing things the only way they know how: the way of the USA.
It’s impossible to ignore the much older, much more practiced pedigree of the Brits and the Germans and the Belgians, and their influence on even the basics of our brewing processes. No American brewery would be producing beer as we know it if not for our European buddies. Hell, none of the styles found in the States are unwaveringly “American,” but are instead domestic recreations of beers born oceans and centuries away. People can tack “American” in front of “wheat beer” all they want, but that doesn’t make the origins any less German. We can say that America has adopted the IPA as its craft beer mascot, but its history can never be extricated from English brewing lore.
But that’s not new. America loves to adopt things from other countries, and has never just co-opted an idea and let it be. One need only look at what we’ve done to Italian and Chinese food, or all the crap we add to make “coffee” to see how we arrived at “Imperial” versions of everything.
America always goes big: cars, homes, portions, debt. Why would beer be an exception? The American people don’t just want a pale ale – a nod to the perfunctory perfection of our island-dwelling forefathers – they want a triple-hopped, dry-hopped, back-hopped tongue destroyer, so bitter and spilling with lupulin you can almost see it wafting off the head in cartoon-like waves. Americans don’t want to appreciate a product that was refined over generations of beer-making, they want up-in-your-shit flavor, complexity, and ABV. They want beer drinking to be an exercise in pushing the proverbial envelope. It’s the American dream to live extreme.
And I’ll be the first to say that it isn’t a bad thing. This country was founded on breaking tradition, on escaping overbearing ornately fashioned rules, and that sentiment echoes noisily in almost every corner of the culture, no matter how niche. It is a land where people have the freedom to do what they want, succeed or fail, tradition respectfully acknowledged or wantonly cast aside. If American beer was more English, adhered more to the rules of another country just because, it wouldn’t be American. It doesn’t mean either culture (or product) is better or worse. They are just different, and built on a different set of principles. To try and claim one is superior is to ignore (whether willfully or ignorantly) the social, economic, and artistic minutiae of the other. Preference, even from an established expert, is not enough to prove objective superiority of one style over another.
America has done to beer what America has done to the world: moved it forward, for good and bad. This beer culture evolved from the old world culture, but it’s important to remember that evolution does not always equate with improvement. Evolution is adaptation, changing to best suit the environment, morphing to fit a set of ever-changing subjective rules in order to survive. I was raised on and will always love good English beer (or at least what my dad drank and was imported in the 90s) but I’m also not afraid to say that many American beers are just flat out enjoyable. They both have a place in my fridge, for totally different reasons.
For every Honey Boo Boo, there is a Patrick Stewart. For every Spice Girl, there is a Foo Fighter. For every Bud Light Lime there is a Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. For every Carling lager, there is a Pliny the Younger.
Just be glad we live in a world where we’re drowning in options and can indulge the eccentricities of our palates almost infinitely. It sure as hell beats the opposite, regardless of what country you live in.