Friday, November 09, 2012

My column at Food and Dining: "Localism + Beer."

I usually get around to publishing the columns I've written for Food and Dining magazine, but I seldom think to do it until a few weeks (sometimes months) after the quarterly issues hit the street.

This time, I'll make an exception. Vol. 38 (Winter 2012) of Food and Dining has been released, and you can read the issue here. My column is called Hip Hops, and this quarter's piece is entitled "Localism + Beer."

For the near future, consider this as a blueprint for my advocacy. It's time to go to the mattresses and return to the grassroots, and it's going to be plain fun.



If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
--Henry David Thoreau

It always has been my aim to accurately describe various aspects of my beer-infused everyday world, but even as I’ve done so, my everyday world persists in evolving. Apart from necessarily using the word “beer,” I’m increasingly unsure how to view any of the rest of it.

Long ago, good beer was about imports exclusively, because there wasn’t very much good beer in America. Several thousand domestic brewery start-ups later, there’s plenty of good beer here, and these days, we refer to it collectively as “craft” beer. This term is fine by me, except that the definition of craft beer starts on a tiny end with the scant barrels produced by a nano-brewery, and ends voluminously with the nationwide airport lounge availability of Samuel Adams.

Semantics aside, the real point of this digression is to acknowledge that I’m changing, too. Back in 1982, St. Pauli Girl probably was the best beer we had during my first-ever gig as a liquor store clerk. Thirty years later, there are dozens – nay, hundreds – of far better beers available hereabouts, and while I’m entirely comfortable in making a “good, better, best” value judgment, it isn’t as simple as it used to be.

Amid the giddy, exploding exuberance, which I’ve long professed and will continue to advocate, it seems that something important is lost. There exists an understandable zeal to embrace the unprecedented availability of international craft beer, but I find myself thinking back to points of origin, and what has made so many of my beer travels memorable: Localism.

It’s drinking great beer at or near its birthplace, primarily because it never tastes fresher than by doing so, but also because the place itself matters. Beer and community reflect each other, and although we must continue to think globally, I’m sensing a new imperative to drink locally.

Home, Not Away

My professional reputation as a beer purveyor was established owing to a stubborn determination to stock the best legally obtainable (well, most of the time) beer, as brewed in locales across the planet. Nowadays, I’m far less inclined to look past my own geographical proximity. The Louisville metropolitan area has its own great beer, with plenty more quality beer being produced within a hundred mile radius.

I’ll never entirely dismiss Belgian Lambics, German Maibocks and Irish Stouts. There’ll forever be a spot for India Pale Ales from San Diego and New York-brewed Saisons, and yet they’re no longer essential to me; rather, they’re for special sampling occasions, as they were years ago when availability was limited. Inexorably, my beer drinking is shifting to local and regional sources, and for the best of all reasons: Drinking local makes me happy.

Places, Not Prizes

Shift happens. It is perhaps the single, fundamental tenet of emerging economic localism, and when it comes time to have a beer, the concept of shift means putting this principle into liquid practice.

Having acknowledged the efficacy of buying local, as measured by factual indices consistently recognizing that localism keeps more money in one’s community, my household is incrementally shifting toward local sources of goods and services, whenever practical. Shift is a process, not an all-or-nothing crusade. If my shift to locally brewed beer implied being compelled to drink an inferior product, obviously I would think differently. Fortunately, it does not.

Another contemporary societal trend to consider is the notion of placemaking, generally described as “a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces.” Placemaking is a grassroots, community-based phenomenon, in which those ordinary people using a public space help to determine how that space is used. Placemaking may help in part to explain my re-emerging interest in community-based beer consumption -- keeping the beer drinking venues local, listening to the local beer drinkers, and knowing who supplies the beer.

Eyes and Palates, Wide Open

Not so long ago, Goose Island Brewing Company was a proud independent, but now it is 100% owned by the multinational monolith called AB-Inbev, meaning that in cold, hard fact, Goose Island is no more independent than an Ignatius J. Reilly-themed weenie wagon on the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea. Honkers Ale remains certifiably better than Budweiser, but to me, it really matters where the money goes … and dollars paid for Honkers ultimately travel to corporate headquarters in Leuven, Belgium, not Chicago, Illinois.

Sorry, but Goose Island sold out. Craft beer drinkers need to examine their consciences lest they sell out, too.

Session, Not Sledgehammer

I’m in my sixth decade, and my body reacts differently these days to the excesses of my profession. American craft brewing has excelled in the creation of highly alcoholic genre classics, including Imperial India Pale Ale, Barley Wine and Quadrupel, and while I still adore these styles, increasingly my palate turns to an evening’s reasonable sustainability, in the form of session beers.

The Pennsylvania-based beer writer Lew Bryson is the founder of the Session Beer Project, and he provides these helpful parameters.

Session beers are:

► under 4.5% alcohol by volume
► flavorful enough to be interesting -- no light beers, please
► balanced enough for multiple pints
► conducive to conversation
► reasonably priced

In brief, low-alcohol, but not low-taste. It's deliberately vague. The great thing about session beers, especially the ones that come in under 3.5%, is that you can enjoy several beers, and still have a BAC of under 0.04.

Craft Beer Is A Journey

Maybe some day I’ll come full circle, and find myself craving bottles of Bud Light iced in a pickle bucket. Doubtful, but entirely possible, because beer is less a destination than a journey, and you make the road signs yourself. All I’m asking is that craft beer drinkers resolve to be unafraid of where thinking can lead drinking, especially when thoughts turn to local options.


Joe Trotter said...


Let's say I owned a local restaurant based in New Albany. I pitch myself as being a "local" restaurant, and I want the patronage of local residents.

I make a big pot of vegetable beef stew each and every day.

My beef comes from New Zealand, my tomatoes come from Mexico, my beans come from California, the barley comes from North Dakota, and my black eyed peas come from a massive company with ties to Monsanto.

I have fooled the public into thinking they should support local just because I happen to own the restaurant, and they should "support local," but clearly I actually do not based on my ingredient list. Breweries are exactly the same way. They are riding a tremendous propaganda marketing machine wave.

How on earth do you justify calling beer local? It isn't feasible to make beer from only local sources. Ingredients come from all over the country and the world for that matter. It is hypocritical of all of these breweries asking us to support local. That money isn't staying locally. It is going to massive companies like Wayerman, Briess, Hopunion, Wyeast, and White Labs. Who is one of Briess's major suppliers? Monsanto!

I support New Albanian Brewing Company because you make a fantastic product. If you stop making a fantastic product I will stop supporting you. End of story.

The New Albanian said...

When it emerged that the bulk of failed Senate candidate Mourdock's campaign monies were coming from donors far, far away, challenger Donnelly was asked if he would refrain from similar left-sourced funding. He said no, because in politics, there cannot be unilateral disarmament.

I observe a principle of "shifting consciousness." The idea to me is to shift thinking and spending to local sources as shift is possible. An easy way for me to do this is to almost never frequent chain restaurants, although there are exceptions. It's harder when it comes to other consumer items. But the idea is to keep shifting.

The beef stew analogy is a bit of a red herring in this sense. Let's not risk being unable to gauge the forest for the trees.

If I were to dump the ingredients in a pot and turn on the burner, it may or may not be edible. The finished value derives from the expertise of the cook. The process is performed locally, The advantages of keeping the money in the local economy remain valid. And, the cook may be shifting already, deciding that local beef, if not cheaper, is better.

I justify calling beer local because (a) the single largest component is taken from the local water table, (b) because the finished value derives form local sources, and (c) the resulting product is the freshest it can possibly be.

You will not that we agree on quality: I clearly state that if the local beer is wretched, I'll still not drink it. Every "think local" campaign in the nation acknowledges precisely the same. But as I gaze (and drink) around the scene in Louisville and the region, we have numerous, great locally-brewed beers.

I'm still very much in favor of the best in beer. What I'm shifting to is a slightly different context. Thanks for writing.

Howard Bacaaazeo said...

Buying local just for the sake of it makes no sense if the quality isn't there. And now that the number of new small breweries is growing, it is inevitable that there will be plenty of 'weeds in the crop'. The concept of 'local' beer is nice, but only if the 'local' beer is good. The problem is that often it is not very good at all; and sometimes it is even shockingly overpriced to boot for what you're getting.

So I don't care how big Goose Island (or any brewery) gets or who owns it...if they (or any brewery) continue to make a good beer, it stays on my list. Growing numbers of 'good beer' lovers are beginning to feel the same way.

The New Albanian said...


And I quote from my piece:

"If my shift to locally brewed beer implied being compelled to drink an inferior product, obviously I would think differently."

You appear to be disagreeing with the next sentence:

"Fortunately, it does not."

So, we do not disagree that quality is important, and while I've no idea where you live, quality's seldom an issue where I live.

Also, your opening "for the sake of it" swipe plainly is gratuitous and unmerited by my argument, which explains (in admittedly cursory fashion) the economic aspects of localism that matter, too. These aspects extend beyond craft beer, but they do not exempt them.

I understand the panicked rush to defend Goose Island, which in fact is dead. No longer exists. I lament the loss, but there's good beer everywhere, and it isn't necessary for us to subsidize AB to produce a GI product which means nothing to AB except utility as chess piece to keep local beers off store shelves and draft lines.

Finally, I think your conclusion is mistaken. Growing numbers of beer lovers are coming to our segment with a local orientation, looking to learn how what we do jibes with their expanded consciousness in other areas. They're interested in the connections.


Brian Swisher, Animal Caretaker said...

Mr. Trotter might note that he can have his locally made beer with some locally produced ingredients too, provided we support the concept. Examples-- Valley Malt in Massachusetts produces very nice malt from grains grown in New England, Sierra Nevada now produces their "estate" beer from malt and hops grown on their land, and in Vermont (my home state) the University Ag Extension is field testing hop variety in hopes of re-establishing hop growing into our agricultural mix. All of this takes a lot of work, patience, emphasis on quality, and a public that is will to pay a premium.