Tuesday, January 26, 2010

America, Beer, and Food

America has long had a love affair with beer.

It's been prescribed by doctors and banned by the government and fought over tooth and nail by the common population over the centuries.

We are in fact a people who's country was founded in some part on beer. How big that part is, is up to the individual to debate. Afterall, our landmass was "discovered" partially by mistake, and partially because those darn hard-headed folk on the Mayflower were out of beer, an essential part of survival in a time when clean water was unheard of let alone at sea!

In the following couple centuries, the number of breweries in our young, fledgling land exploded. The beer of choice was Ale, a top-fermenting beer from the English and Dutch that first settled the Eastern seaboard. However, when the Germans arrived, they brought with them a new style of beer; Lager. This beer, besides being a bottom-fermenting beer, was much lighter in it's body than the ales everyone in the new land was used to. It's the introduction of this beer that would forever change the landscape of alcoholic beverages in this country.

Just before the start of the 20th century at the back-half of the industrial revolution, there were around 2,000 individual breweries in the United States. Throughout the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century a few of those breweries began a growth that was unseen in the history of man. Brewers like Anheiser-Busch, Miller, Stroh's, Pabst and the Eli-Brothers of Schlitz used every advantage the modern age gave them to become justifyably world-famous and unimaginably wealthy. They used new refrigeration and rail technology to ship their beer across the country. They used new mechanized breweries (for their time) to produce as much beer in as little time as possible - over and over.

Slowly, the smaller brewries begain to get pushed out of the market. The new mega-brewers also began to use advertising to sell their products. This was a new industrial weapon not seen before in the world of beer.

When America entered WWI, things began to change for brewers big and small, fast.
Our war was with Germany. All one has to do is look at the names of the big breweries to see the ethnic connection. Those who opposed alcohol quickly jumped on brewers and made them scapegoats. They were "serving the Kaiser!" In fact they were simply hard-working Americans who's family roots were from Germany, but it didn't matter, America had found their scapegoat. After the war, the prohibition movement used all that momentum and carried it forward.

It all came to a seething head and on January 16, 1920 the United States went dry. When the ban on the "Noble Experiment" was lifted finally on Dec. 5th, 1933, it was too late. Thousands of small breweries in the United States were gone. Centuries of tradition and family craft were gone, only a handful of the small outfits would re-open. The bog-boys found ways to survive, their pocketbooks and resources deep enough to hold some assemblance of a company together in the dry-years. However, the country's new drink of choice was spirits, not beer.

In the coming years, more and more of those small breweries who had returned found themselves unable to compete, and the giant, ugly wheel of monopoly was in motion.

Now I wasn't alive at the time, but it is said that there was a bland-era. A dark time in culinary and brewing existance in the country. The only choice of beer was really the bland, mechanized product from the monoliths. If you wanted bread, it was white Wonderbread. Real wheat bread was hard to come by, and forget about any true ethnic breads! People ate cheese-food that came in individually wrapped slices, and ketchup was the condiment of choice. There were fewer than 40 breweries nation-wide, all brewing essentially watered-down lagers. In the 1980's we slowly began to pull ourselves out of the culinary and brewing nose-dive we put ourself in. We began to truly rediscover the neighborhood deli, if we even had one at that point!

We now have more kinds of bread than anyone can imagine. Salsa has topped the ketchup as the condiment of choice and I can go to my local store and find 5-dozen different kinds of olive oil, cheese, and deli-meat. Life is good again. Now what about that beer?

Since the early 1980's, there has been a serious craft and microbrewing revolution in this country. There are now over 1,200 breweries in the United States, with more than 500,000 homebrewers. These numbers grow every year as more and more Americans rediscover what had been missing for nearly a century in this country; real ales and flavorful lagers that taste as far opposite from their Bud, Miller and Coors counterparts as possible. The only reason people might not like flavorfull beer is because it has been denied them for so many decades they forgot what it was!

We now have the widest variety of English, Belgian, German and Czech beers available, as well as the thousands of varieties of very own beer, made right here in America by hard working Americans with a dream and a passion to stand up and say "NO!" No, I will not be forced to follow a single religous idealogy! No, I will not be forced to think the same way you do! No, I will not drink the single, bland, watered-down style of beer you want to shove down my throat. The revolution is so strong that the monolithic brewers have had to begin to counter the craft segment. They can no longer ignore us, and our momentum can no longer be stopped.

The craft-beer revolution really gets back to heart of the passions and ideals of what this nation were founded upon. Deep beliefs in independance, adventure and boldly going your own way even if it may be against the grain. So support your country and the next time you get beer, pick up something local.

Vive 'la Revolution!

By the way, tonight's MSU-UofM basketball game was one for the ages!


1 comment:

  1. Many thanks, Pete, for the great summation and lively analysis of a topic also close to my heart. It's occured to me that beer is intrinsically both a proletarian beverage because of its price and ethnic roots -- and a luxury beverage since it involves shipping huge quantities of H2O all over the continent and globe. With cheaper transport and more advertising many of the Wisconsin beers I came to love have been bought up and marketed by the Miller-Coors-Bud Axis, who even push some products of the their megafactories as "craft" beers. Among my tactics is getting hops extract more or less straight. Kudos to Pete for highlighting and detailing this fascinating social, economic and gustatory aspect of our country and planet yesterday and today. What's comes tomorrow, Pete?