I’m going up the country, where I’ve never been before,
I’m going up the country, where the beer tastes like water.*
Before craft beer or craft anything, before pumpkin latte and iron chefs, there was (of course) an appreciation of fine food, wine, beer. It took different forms, generally more exclusive, at least as diffused through the general culture.
The trait characterizes the West back to the ancient world, and Asian and many other cultures, too.
In earlier times a lover of food was often styled an “epicurean”, a word that sounds suspiciously old-fashioned now, or at least anti-democratic. He or she might be an essayist, poet, traveller, ethnologist. The world was simpler then (tell me about it). There was no “hospitality” industry organized as today, little technical food science, no college departments of food history, no or few news columnists who specialized in food and wine, never mind beer.
But there were students of the palate. People have always written books or essays about food that explored its esthetics, social context, and history – not to mention taste. The late Alan Davidson (active 1970s-1990s) collected many examples in his writing and journal work, and was not alone.
It is idle to recite the names. Google Gastronomy and that will clue you in. I’ve written about mid-20th century gastronomic societies as well as early beer criticism as examples of this distant past.
The old school elucidated as well as instructed or entertained. More recently, appreciation of food and drink is more broad-based, probably for the better. This coincides with the growth of the consumer society, itself an outgrowth of the liberalisation of economies and triumph of industrial capitalism in the West and elsewhere.
Overlooked cuisines, Jewish food, say, or African-American soul food, or regional Chinese cooking, came in for scrutiny and became the stuff of commissioning editors.
And so we’ve ended with cooking and travel shows, national cooking competitions, the Gordon Ramsays, the Jay Rayners, the Rachel Rays. The tone varies now from braying to babying, but the preoccupation is same as it ever was: good things to eat, where to find them, how to prepare them if cooking at home.
In the older period, before pocket guides, before online information and mass distribution, the idea when travelling was to drink the “wine of the country”. The idea persists, and has even grown, but shares palate territory with products often shipped far from source. Ideas such as terroir, “drink local”, and ethnic food exploration all give expression to the same idea.
Even in other words in a more elitist time, the idea existed that wine, and by implication other comestibles, had value simply by being local – hence authentic.
Even if one didn’t have the money to order a classified growth in a grand hotel, one could sup the local vintage, perhaps in company or in view of those who made it. It might be a Cahors, a Rioja, a minor Friulian wine, a sourish beer of Flanders. It might be Bohemian pilsener, or a British bitter. You drank what you found on the ground, almost literally.
Where did supping the wine of the country originate? It goes back at least to the 1800s. Ernest Gilbey, the English wine merchant who famously named a gin, used the term in Parliamentary testimony around 1900. He stated that some Portuguese “red wines of the country” were never exported, due to the difficulty of preserving them.
The term wine of the country became part of the cultural acquis by WW II, a chattering class staple. American novelist Hamilton Basso, Louisiana-born but based in New York, used the term to title a 1941 novel of southern Gothic, Wine of the Country. Here, the words were a metaphor for a regional ethos he contrasted negatively with the cultured if emotionally less febrile Northeast. Hence, the term was meant ironically, but only its positive connotation made this possible.
With the spread of a worldwide foodie culture as well as sophisticated food and beverage science after the war, the idea of the local is today qualified. It still exists of course, but few products can be strictly local in today’s wired world.
Hence, ironically, if you ask for an IPA in London, you will get the American type developed circa 1980, not the English original that inspired it. If you ask for a glass of red wine in Europe, you might get something tasting more of California – even if made at home. Mondo vino, they call it.
Yet, local still means something, the idea does exist. What is the wine of the country in Florida (where we currently sojourn)?
It is unquestionably mass-market, adjunct beer. Walking miles through suburbs and seaside towns these last weeks, the litter on lawn and waterways confirms it: Natural Light (or Ice); Busch; Modelo; Bud Light; Corona. I never saw a craft beer container discarded that way. The highest order of beer treated as litter was Heineken – just the carton wrapper, actually.
The crushed cans – well, crushable you know – attested to the regional taste. The beer might be made in Florida (the Buds and Busch, say), it might be made in Central America somewhere, but it all offered light taste, relatively low alcohol content, and generally low price.
The ranks of these beers in the supermarkets, the beer lists in the restaurants, left no doubt about it. Of course, there is a vibrant craft brewing culture here, and some 300 breweries in Florida churn out craft beer as good as anywhere. But it’s still a minority taste, I’d estimate not more than 10% of state sales, 15% maximum.
The “wine of the country” in Florida is a Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Presidente, Victoria, Dos Equis, Miller Lite, Old Milwaukee, the list goes on.
I’ve tried numerous craft beers, but also this wine of the country, to see what the old learning could teach me. Well, not that much really. The typical adjunct palate seems more uninspiring than ever.
But that’s what people like, evidently. It is still wine of the country. The term’s romantic connotations cannot preclude that.
The craft sector, and quality imports, are where the action is for the student of beer. These are not the wine of the country in Florida, not yet.
*With apologies to rock band Canned Heat. The song referenced is their classic Going up the Country.