History, Significance, and Moral Integrity

Like any book, Ambitious Brew has generated a bit of minor controversy. Not everyone is happy with my treatment of microbrewing. Others think I went too easy on "Big Brewing" -- and some of those assume I must be a paid mouthpiece for one or more of the giant brewers. (I'm not.) I've been called a neo-conservative and a femi-Nazi. That's okay. People are free to like or dislike the book, or to disagree with my conclusions. They're free to complain about my writing skills or lack thereof.

But now one of my critics has described me, in print and in public, as "intellectually dishonest." Has attacked my moral integrity and, in effect, called me a liar. Why? Because I opened the beer book in 1844 instead of in 1644.

Let me explain why I made that decision. As a historian, it's my job to read newspapers, letters, diaries, and other documents in order to find out "what happened," a task that requires several years spent sitting in libraries and archives. Once I've figure out "what happened," I turn my attention to every historian's primary job: I weigh the facts and evidence and determine what is "historically significant" and what is not. The concept of "historically significant" is the bedrock of the historian's work. It means that a person or event or series of events affected, changed, or shaped the larger course of history.

During the colonial period in North America, beer possessed no historical significance. Sure, plenty of people drank beer, but its importance and popularity paled in comparison to cider and rum. Most people made some beer at home, but commercial breweries were scattered, small-scale, and, in terms of the economy, statistically immaterial.

Rum production, in contrast, was widespread, lucrative, and shaped not just the colonies' economies, but the texture of people's daily lives. Rum changed the course of colonial history, economically, socially, and politically.

But again, there's not much to say about colonial beer or brewing -- at least nothing of historical significance. Did Ben Franklin concoct recipes for beer? Sure. Did Benjamin Rush try to persuade his fellow colonists to drink beer? Sure, but only because he thought it would be better for them than the rum and whiskey they preferred.

Indeed, the fact that some colonial leaders felt compelled to lobby for more beer drinking and better brewing is itself evidence that beer wasn't important. If colonists had been drinking beer in large quantities; if brewing were central to the colonial economy or in people's diets, those colonial leaders would not have wasted their energy trying to persuade people to switch to beer or to improve brewing practices. During the colonial era, beer was historically insignificant.

That changed when the Germans began arriving in the mid-nineteenth century. They built breweries and beer gardens, raised awareness of the pleasures of moderate drinking, invented a new kind of American lager, and persuaded Americans to give up whiskey in favor of beer. By the 1890s, brewing ranked in the top five of the nation's industries. Put another way, beer became historically significant to the American diet, to the economy, and to our national history only after the Germans arrived.

Were there breweries before the Germans arrived? Yes. As my critic notes, Dale P. Van Wieren and Donald Bull compiled a list of them in a book titled American Breweries II. But Van Wieren and Bull's list is just that: a list. It does not endow those breweries with any kind of historical significance. I could compile a list of, say, lesbian schoolteachers in the 1830s and 1840s. But that's not enough to endow those women with historical significance. I can list the names of men who designed, built, and manufactured steam engines in Philadelphia in the 1720s. But that's not enough to endow their efforts with historical significance. Their inventions did not survive; their work did not shape the history of steam power in either the colonies or, later, the United States.

To repeat: I opened the book in 1844 instead of 1644 because, in my informed opinion, that was when the story of beer's historical significance began. In the colonial period, beer was available but its historical significance was nil. It had no effect on the main currents of colonial history, either as a beverage, an industry, or as a wheel of the larger economy.

How and why do I say that with such certainty? Because I's a careful historian. I spent five years reading thousands of documents. (By the way, I conduct all my own research; I do not rely on hired assistants.) And then, based on what I'd read and learned, based on the evidence I had gathered, I drew conclusions about what mattered and what did not. About where beer's "real" story began and about where it ended. About what was historically significant and what was not.

Readers may not agree with my conclusions, but they have no grounds for claiming that I arrived at them by cheating or lying.

But now one of those readers has denounced me in print and in public as "intellectually dishonest." Should I overlook it? Maybe. After all, most people aren't professional historians and so they don't understand how historians "do" history. They don't understand how many years of research, and how much reading and sifting and assessing, goes into making a book of history. (That's not a criticism, by the way. I have no idea how to do an engineer's job, or a mechanic's or an accountant's.)

But this particular assault is impossible to ignore because my attacker is a journalist. He earns a living putting words together. He understands the power of words; understands, too, the additional impact words gain when they are published. So when he calls me "intellectually dishonest," I know that his assault is intentional. That he is deliberately attacking my professional and personal integrity.

I've met this guy and carried on perhaps fifteen minutes of conversation with him (most of it in the form of an interview). That's the extent of my contact with him. I know virtually nothing about him. Whether he's married or has kids. Where he lives. What religion, if any, he practices. I don't read his work on a regular basis so I can't even speak to its quality. But he's a human being, so I have to wonder how he would feel if, hypothetically, someone were to attack him as morally bankrupt. If someone were to accuse him of ignoring journalistic ethics. If someone were to accuse him of twisting the facts to promote an agenda.

If, in short, someone were to accuse him -- in public -- of being intellectually dishonest and thus lacking in moral integrity. I doubt that he'd be happy about it.

Rest assured: I'm not accusing him of those things because, again, I know nothing about him or his work. I know nothing about his moral values, nor am I qualified to render judgment on his work as a journalist. Indeed, I can't do anything about my critic's attack except let my work and my personal and professional integrity speak for themselves. Because I believe, as Anne Frank said, that "people are truly good at heart" and that they will recognize integrity when they see it.