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A Toast to the Universality of Beer

11/30/-1

A Toast to the Universality of Beer

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 6, No.3)

In the language of beer, native speakers aren’t the only ones with something to say.

St. Patrick’s Day, for those of us living outside Ireland, is always a great time to haul out the fiddle, toss back a few pints of stout, and basically just enjoy drinking beer. We need more holidays like this, when a bit of overindulgence is tolerated and our public behavior is scrutinized less carefully. As is my custom, this past St. Patrick’s day I barraged my neighbors with a full day of Irish music from every tape and CD I have as well as from my own modest repertoire on fiddle and banjo.

One of my favorite such tunes is a piece of Irish-American doggerel about the adventures of an immigrant from Cork who tries to locate his uncle, Martin Kelly, in New York. “I found so many Kellys there that I nearly lost me mind,” the song laments. “So I went and asked directions from a friendly German Jew/But he says, please excuse me, but me name is Kelly, too.” The frustrated Irishman finally travels to Boston in his search and there finds a naturalized Chinese named — you guessed it — Kelly. The song ends with the thought that “when Kelly discovered the North Pole, sure he found Pat Kelly there.”

Underneath the humor of discovering that the Kellys seem to have overtaken the entire Earth, the song hints at an uncomfortable feeling that somehow, as the Kelly clan has emigrated from Ireland, its uniqueness was lost. The Kellys of Ireland had an identity that seems missing among all the other Kellys of the world.

Some of the same sentiment persists among purists in the world of beer; namely, that once a beer style has been separated from its cultural and geographic roots, it degenerates. If you want to taste a “true” Pilsener, it is necessary to travel to the Czech Republic; pale ale must be drunk in Burton-on-Trent; Oktoberfestbier must be experienced in Munich.

Like many myths, the notion of special identity has some validity. As we know, local ingredients and indigenous brewing techniques were crucial in the development of the world’s great beer styles, from the brewing water of Burton-upon-Trent’s pale ales to the Moravian barley of Vienna lager. We have learned to respect the effects of place on beer just as we honor Burgundy wines or Parmesan cheese. Kölsch beers, for example (named for the town of Köln [Cologne], Germany), really do constitute a locally defined style. The town of Düsseldorf also has its characteristic Altbiers. DeKonick ale is brewed only in Antwerp, Belgium. Because of the relative fragility of beer as a beverage, these beers usually do taste much better, on draught, in or near their places of origin. The cultural ambiance of the established brewing traditions is also a factor in beer appreciation, and beer cannot be seen as simply a product in a keg or bottle, separate from the society that enjoys it.

But although huge North American breweries have concocted “Pilseners” that really do deviate from the style of their European forebears (resulting in some mutant offspring, indeed), many craft breweries in recent years have clearly revived and redefined classic styles. Good examples of traditional Pilseners are now made throughout the United States and Canada. Many of the ingredients for these beers are now available worldwide; I use Belgian and German malts here in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, and hops have even been sent from Washington’s Yakima Valley to home brewers in Antarctica.

I think that the real strength of an art or craft (which is what brewing is) lies in its ability to transcend physical or cultural boundaries. So it is that the German brewing giant Paulaner has had incredible success with its new brewpubs in Shanghai and Bangkok (on a recent trip to Asia a friend of mine experienced the ultimate surreal vision when he saw a Chinese woman wearing liederhosen in Shanghai). One can now find excellent bluegrass bands in Japan, great Cabernets from California, and wonderful Belgian-style ales from Wisconsin. These days, any reasonably good, marketable idea does inspire poor imitations, but it can also spawn respectable variations, such as American pale ale. These progressive, creative variations keep an industry vigorous.

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