Beer and Cultural Capital

Our reading on beer constantly ranges among many fields including business, technological, health, and consumer appreciation, both contemporary and historical. Occasionally we encounter specialist studies in other fields including now this study by Thurnell-Read, T., 2016, The embourgeoisement of beer: changing practices of `real ale’ consumption. See Journal of Consumer Culture,

Thurnell-Read is a cultural sociologist and lecturer at Loughborough University in the U.K.

The article is very interesting for the frame of analysis used, consumer theory as adumbrated by various experts in sociology including in particular Pierre Bourdieu.

From Bourdieu’s Wikipedia entry:

[He] developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (in French, La Distinction), published by Harvard University Press. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one’s social space to the world — one’s aesthetic dispositions — depicts one’s status and distances oneself from lower groups.

Thurnell-Read, while not concurring with Bourdieu in all respects, identifies the consumption of beer since 1970 as acquiring hallmarks of competence and specialization previously seen in areas of wine and food appreciation.

The article studies how this shift came to be and in particular focuses on the “real ale” phenomenon although it does refer to craft beer as well. Indeed the author’s conclusions viz. the evolution and prestige of real ale clearly are applicable as well to the current interest in craft beer in Britain.

In his Conclusions, the author states that beer has become:

A trend … in which beer appreciation and connoisseurship appear to thrive as the practice becomes more complex and intellectualised and are, as such, now widely recognised as a field of consumption dominated by the middle class struggle for status and cultural capital.

I and thousands like me in Britain and North America are probably Exhibit A in this process, the group of us in particular who came of age to drink around 1970 and have become deeply involved in the beer culture, or hobby if you will. The very term, hobby, would likely be a hallmark to sociologists of the change in attitudes beer drinking has undergone in the last 50 years.

Every job or profession has its technical vocabulary and it took me a while to accustom to the one used in the article, but with a little work I understand the analysis and argument made.

These brief comments in no way imply a rebuttal, as for one thing sociology is not my field but speaking for myself, for which my claims can go no further, I never wanted to acquire “cultural capital” or status of any kind.

I simply wanted to try new tastes. It is no different than going out for pizza and ordering a different type than you had before. Most people have something different for dinner every night, don’t they?

And once you taste something different, you may want to learn more about it. India Pale Ale, eh? Well, why is India in the name? What does pale mean if the beer often looks amber? Et seq.

At one time this was not possible for beer in a practical sense as so little choice was available. Then it changed, partly under the influence of people who wanted to try something new. That is how a free market works, too, supply and demand interact in a complex way.

The beer interest is no different to many consumer interests whether it be music, cars, fashion, pets, stamps, what have you. Everyone is interested in something, and beer happened to capture the imagination of many. This resulted from some of the factors mentioned in the article, the rise of the CAMRA lobby in Britain, certainly, but also simply the exercise of personal choice.

In North America, parallel “public” factors such as the legalization of homebrewing and the eminence of British beer writer Michael Jackson created a similar atmosphere here for those interested to participate.*


*It is no little irony that Michael Jackson (1942-2007), the greatest modern exponent of consumer beer appreciation, was from a working class family and left school at 16.



1 thought on “Beer and Cultural Capital”

  1. An earlier version of this post stated parenthetically that Michael Jackson wasn’t mentioned in the article discussed. In fact he is, and I amended the post accordingly.

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