Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Stigma of Beer

By Kate Hopkins


I believe it's safe to say that beer doesn't get as good as press as say, whiskey, and certainly no where near as positive spin that the wine industry enjoys. This is a damn shame, to be sure, but the question that begs to be asked is "Why?"

The natural inclination is take a stare with disapproving eyes at the folks at Anheuser-Busch, MillersCoors, and Madison Avenue. With ad campaigns that highlight what one might consider the less-than-cultured aspects of the beer world, spots that inexplicably contain animals, and ads that contain overt sexual messages, it would be easy to say that this stigma is their fault.

While these folks certainly haven't helped promote the quality of beers, deciding instead to focus more on the more base and puerile aspects of the alcoholic beverage, the lower class nature of beer has been around, not just for generations, but for millenniums.

There has always been a divide between beer and wine drinkers. In the British Isles, while the upper classes drank wine and cognac, the lower classes drank ale. (Whiskey, as a side note, transitioned from a drink of the poor farmers to the a drink of the upper class in the mid-to-late 1800's.)

This divide goes as back as far as the Greeks, who were tremendous wine drinkers. Nearly as a culture they looked down upon those societies and tribes who drank beer. To them, beer was an effeminate and uncultured drink, one in which most of the city-states were above consuming.

So how should beer companies, micro-brew or otherwise, seek to change this? For one, the should either stop, or never plan on treating their product as an economic commodity. What I mean is that the personal aspect of brewing should be highlighted, and the skill of the brewmaster should be celebrated. Whiskey does this with Master Distillers, and this could easily be transferred to brewery cultured. (To some extent, this already occurs, but there is always room for improvements).

My second point here is more wishful thinking on my part, and it is more of a romantic notion than a practical one. But I think that breweries should have types of beer available that differ in taste from year to year. Barleywine is already doing this to some extent, but any cask-aged beer should taste different from year to year. And having a beer brand or two that can last aging in a bottle or cask anywhere between one to a dozen years will allow for the desire of exclusivity for both taste and collection freaks out there to be encouraged. Of course you can't do this for every beer, but for those that this can be done for, it should be at least considered.

The goal here isn't to compete with wine, or even whiskey, because rather to celebrate all that beer can be. There are some amazing beers out there, and some amazing beer production techniques that bring out flavors that many people do not know exist. To move beyond the stereotypes surrounding the brews, some innovations or return to traditions may need to take place.

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