“Are you going to Beerfest?” queried a frat-tastic friend of mine when referring to an event in Nashville, Tenn. actually titled The Science of Beer. His pop-culture moniker for the event brings to mind Germans guzzling from Das Boot and slobbering on the bare chests of lederhosen-clad vixens. Not quite what the brain trust behind The Science of Beer had in mind I’m sure. Still, the learning event didn’t exactly aspire to the level of quantum physics. This is the paradox of beer festivals. They are one of the only opportunities for the masses to be exposed to the glorious variety of beer beyond triple-hopped brewed, drinkability (insert BS mass advertising here) and for that I am grateful. However, they rarely resemble anything more than a high school kegger with tastier beer (… at least in the South, where I live).
If I sound like a judgmental bastard it’s because I am. I happen to be next of kin to a world class brewer and am in the beer business myself. I’ve dug my nose into books on the history and stories of beer and recently paid $70 to take an exam to become the 1,066th person to get a certificate proclaiming my expertise on the subject (god that sounded cool). I am going to get it framed soon and plan on having business cards made as well; I expect a serious boost in sexual activity directly after. So at least I have a solid foundation to be an a-hole right?
Now that you know I am legit, allow me to begin beating the dead horse. We must start with a history of beer and specifically our country’s. Beer is thought to be mistakenly (divinely?) discovered in the fertile crescent, possibly by Egyptians, who left some bread or grain out in the rain. This produced a stanky water full of fermentable sugars created by a halted germination from the grains that were then consumed by wild yeasts turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide producing an au naturale beer. It would not be malty/sweet and probably tasted like garbage, but got you messed up. When a lucky fellow was bold enough to drink this concoction after a dare, he got a wicked buzz and told the Pharaoh’s wife he wanted to see her naked and woke up with cottonmouth (in the desert!) on top of the Sphinx.
I am sure it happened something like that. Or maybe the Aliens made it for us while they were building the pyramids and we only have until 2012 to enjoy it. Either way, ancient middle-Eastern culture is full of references to beer in art and literature so beer’s invention is credited to a similar happening. As time passed and the experiments went right and wrong, beer development reached its height during the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Various regions produced rich ales and lagers using indigenous materials producing regionally specialized brews. Chemical differences in water, varieties of barley, French microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s scientific breakthroughs with yeast, a fuller understanding of fermentation, and lots of late night text-messaging all helped the advancement of our beloved beverage.
Fast forward to prohibition in 1920s United States. Up to this time, brewing mirrored the great traditions of Europe, and towns dotting our countryside were full of artisan breweries. Prohibition brought an end to the livelihood of these small businesses, and destroyed our country’s beer culture. When it all became legal again, brewing and the beer business were determined by supply and demand — and frugality. Economies of scale began running their course, and breweries that made cheaper beer (and made more of it) put the artsier guys under.
Before long ad-campaigns were launched, additives such as rice and corn were thrown in — laughing in the face of the Reinheitsgebot (the German Beer purity decree) — and light beer was born (cut to Macaulay Culkin putting aftershave on his face in Home Alone: AAAAHHHH!!!!!!). Generations in the United Stated were raised without knowing the history of beer or experiencing the great culture surrounding it. Mass consumption took precedence over quality consumption; beer culture became drink ‘til ya puke and funny commercials. Too many people complain that “all this new beer out here doesn’t taste like beer is supposed to” and “I can only drink like 2 and a half of those and I am full.” Guess what sucker: Lite beer is actually the new style (if you can call it that), your stomach is weaker than a baby’s headbutt, and you get what you pay for — and you pay for what you get! These days, most people couldn’t tell the difference in a good beer and a pimple on a monkey’s butt. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know we have a lot of work to do.
The problem exists in information. The only exposure most people ever get to beer education is three frogs burping out a brand name in a commercial during the Super Bowl. A small percentage of people want to spend half a Saturday home-brewing or take the time to read books about beer. Not unlike the natives of Papua New Guinea who think the world is flat and the gods are urinating on them when it rains for not cannibalizing their rival tribe, how can you blame the people for what they do not know? So when the average man shows up at a beer festival he only does what he knows how to do: Drink as much crappy beer as possible, scream at all of his friends on his cell phone that he is “at beerfest while they are at home whacking it,” and post pictures on Bookface as soon as possible. This is of course preceded by some taste testing in which he proclaims his great knowledge of beer by stating that every single beer he tries “is OK but has too much bite” regardless of the IBUs (International Bittering Units — snort, snort).
These beer festival goers dub themselves “beer experts” within their social groups and, with nobody to check them, perpetuate the cycle of beer dumbassedry. In an attitude of defeat and sarcasm, I usually ask everybody “Where the BudLight Golden Wheat at?” and repeatedly ask brewery reps over and over which beer is the most alcoholic. While joining the masses in idiocy, I am simultaneously plotting to start the entire event on fire while playing War Pigs with a band made up of fellow beer nerds while the infidels stop, drop and roll with Ed Hardy shirts and hair gel ablaze.
The Science of Beer featured an old bag lady with some yeast in a plastic cup, and a stoned farmer with examples of barley and hops to sniff and chew. In all fairness, most people there had some desire to learn and the event did offer a nudge in the right direction, but the gap between the average consumer and true understanding of beer is ocean-wide with nobody in sight to part the sea and carry them into the promised land of milk and honey and beer and stuff. Small breweries don’t have the money to compete on a national or even local scale with the tomfoolery of the riches of the big beer world. And, unfortunately most people don’t have the inclination to learn on their own. So I propose that you and I must be the Moseses our country’s beer culture needs. Not the kind of jerks who write anonymous, jerkfaced articles poking fun at the have-nots of the beer world, but leaders by example ready to put our staff in the water and guide the clueless masses through the BS. We must be ready to march to St.Louis and Milwaukee and demand that the big breweries “Let my people go!” Maybe that was a stretch, but if you’re with me, quiz your friends and neighbors about what they like and encourage them to take some steps away from light beer towards some gateway beers (e.g. Shiner). If they enjoy a nice gateway beer, steer them towards similar styles, give them words to describe what they enjoy and engage them in a lil’ history lesson. And if they are beer snobs incapable of interacting with commoners in this game of life, try to get them to shotgun a PBR and take themselves less seriously.
I would like to close with the memorable words of the great Dr. Leo Marvin who reminded us all that it is “baby steps” that we must take for real progress. Baby steps through the cobwebs of beer advertising … baby steps towards trying new styles of beer … baby steps to retrain our minds … baby steps towards realizing beer is full of more complexities and food pairings than wine … and then … I SAIL!! I’M SAILING!! I SAIL!!” We sail into the vast ocean of beer together. And if you read this whole rant, consider yourself a beer Moses in training.
Kellan Bartosch is an optimist in pessimist’s clothes and is in beer sales in Nashville, Tenn.
Photo by Václav Mach/www.fotolia.com