Pondering the Fear of Beer

I've been mulling Garrett Oliver's op-ed piece "Don't Fear Big Beer. It appeared in the New York Times on October 19. Something about it bugged me, but it took me awhile to figure out what it was.

Don't get me wrong. It's a fine piece, full of nice sentiments about the joys and wonders of American craft beer. But I think Oliver veered down the wrong road when he asserted that "there is no future" in what he calls "industrial beer" (by which I assume he means anything made by Anheuser-Busch or Miller Brewing).

He argues that just as Americans are drinking better coffee than they did ten years ago, so, too, they're discovering fine craft beer.

Maybe. Maybe not. Here's another take on it: Something like 95% of the beer consumed in the U.S. is "industrial." Only about 5% comes from "craft" brewers. Moreover, that proportion -- 95% versus 5% -- has remained fairly constant for the past fifteen or so years.

So it seems to me that the more interesting question is: Why? We're twenty-five years into the "real" beer revolution. Why haven't craft beermakers grabbed more of the market? Why do the vast majority of Americans prefer "industrial" beer?

I think it's because we don't take beer seriously. And we don't take beer seriously because we don't respect alcohol. Instead, we Americans demonize alcohol. We teach children that it's bad and evil, and so of course as teenagers, they want to be naughty. They learn to drink in their cars at midnight, rather than at home with their families. And when we're not demonizing it, we're infantilizing the act of drinking (slugging down shots, giggling at the notion of having a beer with lunch, cackling at our friends when they can't stand upright). Then they grow up and either stop drinking completely or save drinking for "special" occasions. And then they pass on the lessons learned to their kids, and the process starts all over again.

Lesson being: beer is something to slug down randomly rather than a fine beverage to consume with fine food. Another lesson learned: beer's not worth much money, certainly not worth as much as, say, good mayonnaise or a pair of shoes. Craft beer is more expensive than its "industrial" counterpart; typically quite a bit more expensive. When Susan and Joe Consumer shop for beer, they're shopping by price. Given the choice between splurging on beer or shoes, they're gonna choose shoes.

Our only "grown-up" beverage is wine. We think of it as a fitting companion for fine dining. I think that's because, prior to about 1960, American wine production was about zilch and wine consumption was even lower. But then people began investing in vineyards and grapes in California and elsewhere. When it came time to marketing their wares, they were starting from scratch. Americans didn't know much about wine.Vintners were smart: they promoted wine as a sophisticated beverage best consumed with food, rather than as an alternative to canned beer or martinis.

Post-Prohibition brewers and distillers, in contrast, rebuilt old industries. But they had to market their wares to an audience that had been taught to disrespect and fear both. Indeed, if there's a single long-term impact of Prohibition (other than the "three-tier system" of distribution), it is that the Prohibitionists endowed alcohol with shame, and Americans have not been able to shake that inheritance.

Garrett Oliver asserts there's no future in industrial beer. I say there's not much future in craft beer until and unless we learn to respect alcohol in general and beer in particular. Only then will it seem normal to serve a fine stout with a fine roast beef. If craft brewers want to own the future, then they need to address the deeper issue of Americans's mistrust and misuse of alcohol. Until then, BUD is likely to remain a good investment in "the future."