The current consumer interest in beer is becoming a world-wide phenomenon. Ask for “IPA” in the bars of any major Western city, chances are it elicits no special reaction. Parts of the world remain resistant of course, many tourist areas in particular, or in some countries with deep-rooted wine traditions. Still, anyone who persists can usually find good imports even in these places, or a brewpub or two, to sate the desire for full-flavoured, natural brew. A friend reported recently that with only a little effort he was able to find excellent IPA and other craft beer in Barcelona and Madrid, for example.
Within my own memory, the appreciation of flavours and different beer styles was completely unknown in the larger culture. Not just that, it did not exist as a sub-culture. In England, CAMRA (the Campaign For Real Ale) and earlier, the Society For The Preservation Of Beers From The Wood, started a ferment which had broad repercussions in the U.K. and finally, indirectly at least, North America. But here around 1970, say, there was virtually no interest in beer apart from an understanding that the major brands differed somewhat. The consumer was expected to find one to his taste and stick to that – end of story. Advertising then, and still of course for much of the mass-market, was focused on various aspirational and other values: leisure, fraternity, tradition in a vague sense – the consumer was left to figure out the taste. A former sales executive for a national brewer in the 1980’s once told me the attitude prevalent then in the business was, “you’ll sell what we make”. I asked him, how did they know what to make? He said, they just knew.
I think in part this was due to the fact that alcohol was understood as existing primarily to relax or even to intoxicate. Brewers and distillers knew that was what people sought primarily. The means to facilitate that – a sweetish cereal drink with the bitter tang of what was originally a preservative, hops – was a secondary feature, not requiring justification or explication. Also, the temperance history of North America surely inclined alcohol makers away from flowery encomiums in their advertising. I’d think ad agencies were given a brief to be restrained in how they created appeal for the products, so as not to attract unduly dour government inquiry.
The vocation so to speak for beer and other alcohol to alter mood will always be so, yet a cult of appreciation had existed for centuries in the wine world – it was small and Anglo-centric, but the critical appreciation of wine has been accepted for hundreds of years and probably longer. I am sure classical studies disclose examples of a wine culture in this sense in Ancient Rome and Greece. Epicurean thinking has involved the twain of food and wine since at least its Greek avatar, but probably started earlier.
Whence then the origin of the modern critical reception of beer? A similar recent change attended the development of whisky. Re-reading the superb Scots on Scotch, ed. by Phillip Hills (1991, reissued in a new edition 2002), the answer was brought home to mind. Hills explains that in the 1970’s, a small group in Scotland, diverse in social origins, promoted interest in malt whisky and grew steadily. Until then, malt whisky was little understood by consumers vs. the ubiquitous Scotch blends in which the “real stuff” makes a minority and qualified appearance. There is a fascinating cultural side to this, in that Hills compellingly argues the rebirth of Scottish nationalist sentiment and cultural pride from the mid-1900’s assisted the recognition of single malt whisky as a classic product and symbol of Scotland. The distillers picked up on this interest and saw the potential for good margins in a niche category. To get people to twig to malt whisky, which by definition was not a “brand” (it was craft-like – sound familiar?), advertisers sought to trumpet hitherto occult qualities: peatiness, sherry notes, a waft of briny sea, and so on.
Wine producers were doing this earlier but not for all that long. Initially, high end producers in Europe and California had a base among those who had learned about their quality, there was no lauding of terroir and grape varieties in consumer wine magazines – there were almost no consumer wine magazines. Bulk producers satisfied the broader market in various commodity classifications and that was that, this was especially so in France where people accepted wine as a birthright. It was Anglo-American and Antipodean connoisseurs via their wine clubs, gastronomy societies, small publications and other tentative means who helped establish wine as a bourgeois consumer interest. Finally, this approach transplanted to France, Italy and the other great wine-producing areas.
Where does beer fit in? It fits in very well in that CAMRA, the consumer writer Michael Jackson, the developing craft brewing industry in California and the home brewing movement created the broader interest in good beer which had taken root in the last generation for wine. Both malt whisky and beer developed a similar critical appreciation in this period. And just as for whisky and wine, beer advertising too, certainly that of the craft producers but increasingly for some products of the national brewers, started to focus on product attributes. These covered e.g., notable ingredients, a unique taste, an interesting history (Belgian white, you say…?). In the end, what appealed to small and disparate groups initially became much bigger and the producers borrowed their language and enlarged on it. The history of so many things is similar, whether food products like cheese, olive oil or bread, or cultural phenomena such as blues music, visual arts, fashion. It goes on.