“For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.” -Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale
Beer is in.
Nanobreweries are the new gastronome’s baby. Monk’s Kettle plies its gastropub trade in SF’s trendy Mission District. Mikkeller, noted ‘gypsy brewers’, are settling down and founding what aspires to be ‘the world’s best beer bar’ in SF’s SOMA this summer.
One might be tempted to draw a comparison to the rise of wine bars in the nineties. But you’d be mistaken; beer and wine couldn’t be more different.
Unlike wine, beer is subversive and lewd and witty. Beers have names like Panty Peeler and Velvet Merkin and Kilt Lifter (for a Scotch ale, of course). A beer bar boasts of the freshness of its stock and not, like a wine bar, of how long it’s been sitting idle in a bottle, ‘aging’ like some discredited political philosophy.
Beer is the twenty-first-century alcoholic beverage, the tipple for the man who makes his living by the sweat of his cerebrum, and not the happenstance of his birth. A brewer will guard his or her recipe book as jealously as a tech company protects its source code. Like computer code, the beer recipe contains the brunt of what you need to replicate the magic. It is intellectual property, that valuable, legally-defendable thing that pulses at the heart of our modern information economy.
What stands at the heart of winemaking? A property deed to a piece of special dirt.
Beer versus wine is practically a software engineer squaring off against a medieval knight, which might seem like a lopsided contest, except that societies that do things like program computers also do things like machine aircraft parts and refine jet fuel, and that knight will be vaporized by a drone the engineer programed before he even spurs his horse to charge.
Is it a wonder that beermaking attained its heights in precisely those countries who most prospered under the wave of industrialization and free trade that swept Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? It is it mere coincidence that the Maison Des Brasseurs (Brewers’ Guildhall) in the Grote Markt of Brussels stands a mere stone’s throw away from the Brussels Stock Exchange, each dominating the two main squares of that city? Should we be astonished that the pre-eminent beer nations of Europe (namely, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands) are also among its most prosperous, while those repositories of feudalism, winemaking, and crony capitalism (Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, and Greece) still play economic catch-up?
The reality is: as in beer, so in industry. The Germans have no monopoly on steel, glass, or rubber, and yet only they can produce a vehicle like the Porsche 911 GT3. Likewise, I can buy all the Belgian Pilsener malts and Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops I want, but I will still be incapable of producing a weizenbock so beautiful as the Weihenstephaner Vitus, a beer that makes a man think angels have camped out on his tongue. The wealth is in the recipe, and in the recipe is the algorithm that reflects a deep understanding of fermentation,the subtle interplay of malt and hops, and the hundreds of chemical reactions that happen inside a brewing tank. Beermakers don’t horde their starting materials, erecting real or imagined monopolistic safeguards such as appellations d’origine contrôlée, any more than Google would horde C++ compilers.
By contrast, winemaking is the grasping, monopolistic greed of the oilman, who knows a particular piece of land means a gushing fountain of money. Winemaking is the false patina of snobbery and exclusivity that sports ethereally meaningless tasting terms like ‘weedy’ and ‘lightstruck’ and ‘blowzy’, and yet whose experts, when tested systematically, can barely distinguish wines they themselves have anointed as superior. Are we surprised that the first thing some low-born arriviste, a billionaire hedge fund tycoon or venture capitalist, long on money but short on education and pedigree, who wants to buy his way into the American nouveau-riche aristocracy, in the first instance buys a vineyard? What else would such a person do? And make wine they will, because there’s very little craft to it, and so long as you have the grapes the rest is just commentary, and look!, there’s our name on the bottle: Chateau Douchebag, 2010. ‘A great year’, the proud owner will proclaim to his gathered guests. To clarify the ridiculousness of this, can you imagine anybody above a moron pointing to their 2004 Dell Latitude laptop and saying ‘that’s the best year of that make of thing, so I only use that because there aren’t so many around anymore, and aren’t I special?’ It’s that idiotic.
Which brings us to the core of my jeremiad: Beer, unlike wine, advances. There are now more beers in existence, exponentially more beers, than have ever existed in human history. Brewers around the world are experimenting with bizarre hybrids that have never before been attempted: Belgian-style white IPAs, hibiscus flower saisons, yerba mate ales. And the list of experimental ingredients goes on and on: coriander, orange peel, marijuana, butterscotch, palo santo, coffee, oysters (yes, really, there is a class of beer called an oyster stout), honey, crushed cherries, peaches, and on and on. You could create an Iron Chef knockoff — called Iron Brewer, of course —where contestants are forced to brew from a collection of incongruous ingredients (smoked salmon, alfafa root, lemon zest, malted quinoa, masala curry powder), and they’d concoct something drinkable, as often as not, maybe even good. If it was good, it would ship as a new seasonal beer in the next brew cycle, and the world could partake of it. That is the beauty of beer: New ideas become new products, which in turn become happy customers and profit. It is the very creative destruction of capitalism, described by Schumpeter of old and enshrined in such juggernauts as Google, Facebook, and Apple.
Can you even imagine the boredom and pointlessness of a show like Iron Vintner? It would be as dull-seeming as the wine section of a grocery store once you’ve properly appreciated a decent beer section. Oh, we’ve gone from weird herbs and black pepper and aromatic hops and exotic grains to, wait for it, grape juice. In a bottle. $50 a bottle?? But they’re special grapes, from a special place halfway around the world. But it’s all just grape juice, stuck in a barrel to age, and then corked into a bottle? But some guy at a magazine says it’s 91 points, it says it right there on the label. The same set of guys who can’t tell a $5 wine from a $500 one?
You know what the wine section looks like after you’ve strolled through the beer section? Like black-and-white TV after watching hi-res color video. Archaic, a certain fusty beauty that makes an otherwise mediocre shot classic and memorable, but completely impractical, dated, and nothing you’d actually use on a daily basis. It’s, in a word, dull.
Wine is an anachronism, like bullfighting or public executions, some vestige of a thankfully bygone era. You know what it reminds me of? Fur coats. Yes, fur coats, those barbarous echoes of an age when man wore animal skins, and taxidermied trophies from the hunt served as the social plumage of prestige. Modern tastes (other than oligarchic Russia) have rightly decided that such accoutrements have no place in civilized society. Whether it be because of the ketchup-throwing activists in front of Neiman Marcus, or the withering look from a dinner party hostess, no aspiring grande dame, no matter the measure of her striving, dare step into public wearing a mink coat or an ermine stole.
By extension, we will one day ridicule the preposterousness of wine making, tasting, and growing.
I like ending posts with predictions. It’s the sort of prognostic bet the author makes with the reader in exchange for hanging around so long. Here’s the prediction: When man finally settles on other planets and spacefaring craft carry our little race across the cold, dark reaches of infinity, man will want his drink. Whether it be on Mars or an exploration mission to Alpha Centauri, there won’t be any damn wine, as no one in that gratefully expanded state of consciousness will give a shit about Bordeaux this and Napa that (and no one’s going to waste fuel to ship magic grape juice around). But somewhere on that colony or spacecraft, there’ll be a vented jug filled with the strained runoff of boiled grains, with some hops or spices added, and a bit of yeast busily working to make sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. It will be warm and turbid and bubbling away loudly, the gurgling music to the ears of a proud and thirsty brewer.