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Hype and Hops

by Charlotte Allen

Two generations of beer fads

I was a tiny child a decade and a half below legal drinking age when I discovered the most important thing about beer: It is mostly about fads and hype, not what the stuff actually tastes like. Beer is the liquid equivalent of restaurant beef, as in the sentence “We’re not selling the steak; we’re selling the sizzle.” With beer, it’s “We’re not selling the brew; we’re selling the head.” Like in those Stella Artois commercials, where the Old World but youthful-looking barkeep in his Old World but new-looking wood-paneled saloon verry carefully pours just the exact, precise quantity of Stella into the special red-starred Stella glass and then verry carefully levels off the head to the exact, precise rim.

I discovered beer as a near-toddler not because I was exposed to it at home. I wasn’t. My parents, New Yorkers transplanted to Southern California, were quintessential aspiring sophistos 1950s-style. They maintained a capacious liquor cabinet stuffed to the swinging door with every sort of hard stuff and attendant mixer you could imagine, especially gin, because every sophisto household of the 1950s featured a brace of martinis hitting the coffee table between the time Dad got home for dinner (5:30 p.m. — this was the lost era of the 20-minute commute) and dinner itself, served in good time (6 p.m.) for the kids to get their homework done and themselves into bed, followed by Mom and Dad making more Baby Boom babies.

My upper-middle-class parents did not stock beer in their fridge — please! Beer was for Okies and other riffraff. But beer commercials! I loved them. I knew every single one of the jingles by heart, memorized off the radio, my favorite electronic medium. “What’ll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon!” “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” The print-media ads were equally enticing. I relished the annual Miss Rheingold contest, where you could mail in your top choice among five ale-haired, apple-cheeked beauties (on the radio, it was “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer” — whatever a dry beer was). Universal household television brought us the Hamm’s cartoons, with the Hamm’s-beer bear dancing to a now politically incorrect tom-tom beat, “From the land of sky-blue waters . . . Hamm’s, the beer refreshing.”

All of those beers were, as I later found out when I tried them, terrible. This was strange, because all of them were manufactured by German Americans who hailed from a country whose fine brewing traditions dated back to the Middle Ages. Yet when those brewers got to America — maybe it was that vast, diluting ocean — everything they made tasted mostly like sky-blue waters. The very worst was Brew 102, manufactured by a brewmeister family called Maier, whose plant on the Los Angeles River was about ten miles from my childhood home. The idea was that the Maiers had tried 101 times to craft the perfect beer and then hit pay dirt. Their radio jingle touted “Wonderful, wonderful Brew 102.” Brew 102 died ignominious and unlamented in 1972.

My next beer-hype experience was college. Beer then signified a gigantic keg of “suds” positioned next to the hi-fi turntable on the ground floor of a fraternity house or, sometimes, a hip group house off campus. The point was, in terms of social status, not to drink the pallid, urine-like liquid sloshing into paper cups or, more commonly as the evening wore on, onto the floor in slatternly streams. It was to be invited to the frat party in the first place. The same ethos of pure beer symbolism prevailed at off-campus bars, where the aim was to pass fraudulently for age 21 and thus be marked as one of the knowing, not to be obliged actually to consume that frosty mug of tasteless “draft” brought to your table by the bamboozled waiter.

That was Beer Hype 1.0. We now live in the age of Beer Hype 2.0. Beer Hype 2.0 is Beer Hype 1.0 turned upside down. Whereas the beer of Beer Hype 1.0 was mass-produced to appeal to the tastes of the working class (and remains to that class’s taste in the form of Bud, Miller, and their unspeakable “lite” versions), the beer of Beer Hype 2.0 is “microbrewed” in tiny factories to appeal to the Stuff White People Like crowd. While the beer of Beer Hype 1.0 was laughably under-flavored, the beer of Beer Hype 2.0 days is — frighteningly over-flavored. The idea seems to be that powerful “notes” of some eccentric beer ingredient — black malt or hops overload or whatever — will serve to distinguish the discerning palates of the SWPL set from the trailer-trash tastes of Those Other White People from whom SWPLs are obsessed with setting themselves apart. Thus was born — in 1980 or so — the era of beer snobbery.

Like all forms of snobbery, beer snobbery is highly susceptible to another syndrome: The Emperor Has No Clothes. The first microbrew fad was for stout. That fad passed quickly, because it was hard to pass off as a gourmet treat the acrid undertaste, the raw-sewage color resulting from the black-malt infusions, and the creepily viscous texture of the “craft” stouts, porters, and Guinness clones that surged out of the fermenters of the weensy new breweries. After all, the original Guinness is loathsome enough. The rage now is for India pale ales featuring more hops than the Easter Bunny at the White House Easter Egg Roll. News flash for all you who aspire to be the Miles “No Effing Merlot” of microbrews: IPAs were the Brew 102 of their time and place of invention, Victorian England, where resourceful brewers in Old Blighty figured out that their beer would survive the long sea voyage to the yobbos serving as troops and bureaucrats in the Jewel of the Crown as long as they pumped up the hops ratio past all standards that had previously prevailed. The problem: The aftertaste of a typical microbrewed IPA, simultaneously bitter and sour, lingers in your mouth until you get around to brushing your teeth the next morning. Not all microbrews are lousy, but enough of them merely taste . . . strong enough to give the whole genre a bad name.

You might think that my problem is that I detest beer, but I don’t. One summer long ago I worked as a waitress at a now-defunct bratwurst palace. On Saturday night after closing, everyone on the staff got to drink a bottle on the house from the hundreds of different beers from every nation on the planet that the restaurant sold. I used the opportunity to sample a range of brews and discovered that beer could be delicious. They were beers that genuinely preserved their Old World brewing traditions or carried them unaltered to newer worlds. They tasted rich and robust but also rounded and refined. That’s why, whenever I order beer in a bar, I tend to skip the microbrews and stick to familiar names that offer perfectly crafted products: good old Heineken or Beck’s or, yes, Stella. I’ve added some American brews that have grown on their merits from micro- to mass-production levels: Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada. Beer is about tradition, and those who tamper with tradition do so at their peril.

– Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ.

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