Friday, July 31, 2009

A Teachable Moment Missed

Yesterday was the ballyhooed "Beer Summit" between President Obama, Professor Gates, and Officer Crowley. Vice President Joe Biden also joined the party to presumably balance the Biertisch, 2v2, between elite Black men on one side and "working class" white men on the other, but also to add a lifelong teetotaler who reportedly drank a non-alcoholic brew. Whatever the event did or did not mean to the United States' national discussion of race relations, I'll leave to others to discuss. Instead, I'm more concerned about the gentlemen's rather uninspired choices of beer, beginning with the President's own selection of Bud Light.

I was pleased to see the question of their beer selection make the front page of the Wall Street Journal on the morning of the big event. Unfortunately, the article had two significant flaws. First, it concluded with an entirely unnecessary nod to neo-Prohibitionists, quoting the head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union--which few knew still existed--as well as Maureen Ogle. Ogle is the author of a popular recent history of brewing in the United States, and the book has made her a frequent source of sound-bites on American brewing. She's a talented writer and a competent researcher, but she frankly still doesn't know a heck of a whole lot about beer. Her book is little more than a hagiography of the Busch family and other "beer barons" from the German-American Midwest, completely ignoring the centuries of Anglo-Dutch brewing history that preceded the lager revolution of the 1800s. That said, Ogle has at least been a consistent and vocal public friend of U.S. brewers and beer culture--including the recent generations of independent craft brewers--and it probably wasn't her intention when interviewed to raise the Prohibitionist angle. Nonetheless, that's exactly what she did.

A beer writer who really does know his stuff, Jay Brooks, has already provided an excellent response to the WCTU and other Prohibitionists. My biggest gripe with the WSJ piece, then, is its out-of-date angle of economic nationalism. I am a globalist, and most expressions of nationalism make me uncomfortable, if not disturbed. I was thus disappointed (but not surprised) to see the article's coverage of beer selection focus on the brands' national provenance. Rochester, New York's Genesee Brewery, for example, is quoted as saying, "We just hope the next time the President has a beer, he chooses an American beer, made by American workers, and an American-owned brewery like Genesee." I don't begrudge the company for seizing on a potential marketing opportunity, but this question of "American or not?" was the sole angle of the story (other than the Prohibition thing). Yet it is such an out-of-date way of thinking about the world.

The missed teachable moment yesterday was that we live in a globalizing era which challenges our preconceived modern notions, sometimes for the worse, more often for the better. Perhaps falling into the former category--perhaps--is the trans-nationalization of global industry. This is how an historic U.S. brand like "Budweiser" ceases to be "American", or so it might be argued, since as of last year, it belongs to the Belgium-headquartered, multi-national giant awkwardly known as AB-InBev. But it could also be reasonably argued that the President's Bud Light yesterday remains a genuine, red-white-and-blue American beer, since it was made in a U.S. brewery and it's a brand that remains overwhelmingly consumed in this country. By the same token, though, there are many popular "foreign" beers that are actually brewed in the United States, such as Japan's Kirin and the Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell, which for the Southern California markets at least, are more economically produced at the local Budweiser and Miller breweries. The bottom line is that one simply cannot honestly slap a national flag on 21st-century corporate enterprises; to do so is to engage in a 20th-century rhetoric that ignores the realities of 21st-century economic geography.

Globalism at its best provides spaces in which the authentic and meaningfully local can thrive, after a long period of being shrouded and effaced by stifling modern nationalism. As Randy Mosher recently wrote in Tasting Beer, the vibrant world of craft beer, and Slow Food in general, offers hope for a more interesting and humane future:

"For more than a century, this immigrant nation tried to find ways to become one people. Finding common language in mass-market, ‘modern’ products was one way to do this: Campbell’s Soup, Wonder Bread, American cheese. They’re still on the shelves, but the bright, soulless rationality of these industrial icons no longer holds so much appeal. Many of us would rather have our bread unsliced, our cheese moldy, our coffee freshly roasted, and our beer dark and maybe just a little bit hazy. Irrationality can be a beautiful thing. (p. 142)

"Craft brewing adapts itself to the culture, market, and tastes of wherever it finds itself, but the basics are always the same: people passionate about the flavor of great beer, brewing up fresh character-filled beers of all strengths, shades, and sensibilities. Quality beer is a part of a lifestyle that values the experience of living, of making every moment an adventure, every taste worth tasting." (p. 211)

Just as human beings cannot be crudely boiled down into stereotyped racial identities such as "Black" and "White", the products of human activity can not, or at least should not, be bland, simplified commodities. Despite popular misconception springing from decades of corporate megabrewing, all beers are not made alike, differentiated only by their packaging and brand images contrived on Madison Avenue. No, beer comes in a profound variety of colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and strengths--dramatically more so than other enthusiastically consumed beverages such as wine, whiskey, coffee, and tea (all of which I also drink and enjoy in their tremendous variety.)

This is what made the beer selection at the White House yesterday so uninspiring. It wasn't so much the crude national geography of the brand's identities or present corporate ownership, but the simple fact that two of the three chosen beers--Bud Light and Red Stripe--are generic, insipid, twentieth-century light lagers, engineered to be as inoffensively flavorless ("drinkable") as possible. (Officer Crowley's choice of Blue Moon, while part of the MillerCoors portfolio, at least is styled after something more disntinctive and interesting, the Belgian witbier.) Beer, just like human identity, is so much more than a simplified commodity.

What a missed opportunity, then, for yesterday's "beer summit" to celebrate authentic, flavorful, hand-crafted products made by local entrepreneurs. Rather than an endangered species, these "small business" icons of economic populists are presently thriving in our global age of consumer choice and world-wide information flow, at least in the brewing industry. There is no shortage of potential selections from either the greater Washington, DC, or Boston areas that the President's party could have chosen, and in the end, it was nice to see the Harvard professor trade in his faux-Jamaican Red Stripe for a much more flavorful and authentic Sam Adams Light from the Boston Beer Company. Imagine, though, if the President had invited, say, Garrett Oliver, to guide the foursome in a sampling of craft beers from across the United States. It would have provided a wonderful moment for these four men, from different walks of life, to see both their similarities and their differences in an entirely new way. ("I really like this hoppy IPA, Mr. President." "I don't know, I'm more partial to the malty doppelbock.") Exploring the surprising and interesting worlds of beer, both new and old, global and local, could have been an ideal metaphor for seeing "race" in America in a fresh way, one that seeks out our fundamental unity while also celebrating our very real differences--differences which, like our similarities, may not conform to our preconceived ideas of what race, or beer, is supposed to be.

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