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Can beer bring us together in 2017?

Maybe beers, bars and real conversation—over a few pints, of course—can help us out of this mess.
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Charlie's Tavern, New York, 1940s. Photo: Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

Charlie’s Tavern, New York, 1940s. Photo: Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

On the morning after the Election Day on which the fate of the world seemed to turn, my wife and I woke up in Bamberg, Germany. We had voted absentee a few weeks before. We swallowed the results with bread and coffee and walked down the road to Schlenkerla, which had just opened at 9:30 a.m.

With smoky Märzen poured by gravity from the barrel, we drank to peace and contemplated this brewpub as a cultural monument. Schlenkerla has lasted through world wars, regional wars, depressions and various flavors of authoritarianism. The first documented mention of Schlenkerla is 611 years old, but the inn’s older than that.

In less than three years—the blink of an eye, to Schlenkerla—there will be another presidential election, and by then things will be different. But how different?

I find the long view reassuring. Let’s bid good riddance to a politically nasty 2016. There is not much hope of healing a divided nation in 2017, but maybe—here is the optimistic view—we’ll get more practice in speaking and listening to those who disagree with us, if we make an effort. A good first step might be to switch off these screens and go out to engage each other in person over something we have in common—beer, for example.

Yet not even beer has been free of the recent vitriol.

In October, the American brewing institution known as Yuengling had the audacity to host Eric Trump and some staff for a tour. As a sensible businessperson, Dick Yuengling might have kept mum on his preferences. Instead he said, “Our guys are behind your father. We need him in there,” and the newspapers reported it.

Reactions are immediate these days. Critics lit up social media with threats to quit drinking Yuengling, many from those who said they were longtime fans. One bar owner in DC posted a video of himself removing the tap for Yuengling—long a popular beer in the capital—from the bar. It’s unclear how many people really stopped drinking Yuengling, or how the news affected sales. The brewery’s marketing department did not respond to a request (made over the holidays, to be fair) for information on sales numbers since late October.

But it would be a mistake to think either side is safe from this sort of reaction.

Highly regarded Hill Farmstead in Vermont—ranked by Ratebeer users as the world’s best brewery last year—has recently been critical of President-elect Trump with its Twitter account. Responses have run the gamut, from support to hostility to pleas to simply stay out of politics:

So, are we uncomfortable with the idea that the people who make our beer might have an opinion? Or are we only uncomfortable with the idea of them sharing that opinion with us? Those who are uncomfortable with the political activities of celebrities rarely bring it up unless they disagree with them—the question of whether or not brewers should even be celebrities is a separate issue.

Of course the problem runs deeper. People have grown used to their bubbles of like-minded people—the internet has made it so easy for us to find them, whatever our fetish, even when it’s only beer—and have grown less comfortable with differing views. Of course that’s a gross generalization; many people never were tolerant in the first place. Those people have found their intolerant friends, at home and abroad, to reinforce their views. Meanwhile the anonymity of the internet has made it easy to dismiss opposing views with a satisfying rudeness about which we could only fantasize before. Otherwise, why do it? That’s not how people talk to each other in person.

This is not an easy nut to crack, and it surely won’t be solved in a beer magazine, but I think those of us who get together to talk over beers are closer to the answer than most. Democracy doesn’t happen at the voting booth, and it never did. Democracy is deliberative, and it happens wherever the conversations are—at the bar, for example. (They happen on the internet too, but its flaws as part of the public sphere are becoming more apparent.)

Beer is something virtually all of us have in common. It ain’t life or death, but it is a beautiful, brief release from the unavoidable stresses of daily life, of work and family and politics, and of the angst that comes from being imperfect actors in an imperfect society. It’s useful in its way.

There must be some reason why Schlenkerla has survived so long.

A Smithsonian article a few years ago suggested that happy hour is a cornerstone of democracy, and last month a New York Times column hailed saloons as “American’s forgotten democratic institution.” The truth is, we share a long history of working out our problems at the bar.

Any pubs out there want to host quiet discussions, over friendly beers, among those who voted differently in 2016? That would be an interesting step toward healing in 2017.

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