From whence comes your beer, and does it matter to you? Does it affect how much you enjoy it?
For example: Maybe you hold in your hand a pitch-perfect, West Coast-style imperial IPA — except it was made in Belgium. Or you’re drinking a credible imitation of a Düsseldorf Altbier — except it was brewed in Vermont.
All beers come from somewhere. It’s just that many of the beers we drink today are not especially connected to their own somewheres.
When made with technical know-how—because today’s brewers can rebuild water chemistry, choose from a bewildering array of yeast strains, import all sorts of fresh ingredients, and adapt their process in seemingly infinite other ways — it seems that our beers could come from anywhere.
Consider an international beer firm like Mikkeller, which commissions a diverse range of products—many of them tasty, and virtually all technically excellent—from breweries in at least five countries. Maybe you’ve tasted the Mikkeller Texas Ranger, which is something like a chipotle chili porter, and thought something like, “Ah, so this is what Danish craft beer tastes like.” But it was brewed in Lochristi, Belgium.
I call this postmodern beer, because it reminds me of things I learned in philosophy classes that I thought I would never, ever apply to real life. Hooray college! Please hang in there as I try to walk that tricky line between not insulting your intelligence and boring the pants off, you know, everyone else.
Briefly: Postmodernism cuts across all sorts of subjects and disciplines, many of them cultural. Its victims include art, architecture, music, literature and yes, food. The common theme is a detachment from location, or reality, or truth. The sign is detached from that which is signified; the map is less interested in the actual territory.
Hence we drink Berliner Weisse—increasingly popular in the U.S.—which has little or nothing to do with Berlin. It was brewed not in Berlin, and likely not in a way that old Berliner brewers would recognize. But it might taste good.
Meanwhile, in Berlin: What do most upstart brewers appear most interested in making? American-hopped ales. And so on.
It wasn’t always like this—at least, not to this extent. I’ve only been drinking beer since the 1990s, but lately I’ve developed a fascination with beer books from the 1970s and ‘80s. They describe a simpler time, when each beer seemed to come from a place. People were just waking up to variety. That beer is clearly Belgian, that beer is clearly British, that beer is clearly German. The classic one is Michael Jackon’s World Guide to Beer—I bought a used copy cheap online, and so can you. This influential book not only tells us about the beers, but it shows us the places in which they are drunk, the streets outside the cafés, the countryside around the breweries.
That book and many others showed us foreign beers from foreign places, and it was fascinating. It was exotic. But what does “foreign beer” even mean these days, when Beck’s can be brewed in St. Louis and Green Flash can be brewed in Hainaut?
We can suppose that in simpler times, most brewers had little choice in this—their beers would have had a sense of place whether they liked it or not. Their water was their water, their yeast was their yeast, and the most practical ingredients would have been the nearest ones. These and other decisions would have added up to a certain house character.
These days, brewers have infinite choices, but what’s really interesting is that lately more of them appear to be choosing to pursue sense of place—they are trying to reconnect to their somewheres.
This is happening a lot with farmhouse ales, as brewers try to make more rustic old-fashioned beers, playing here and there with local microbiology.
A few examples:
Hof ten Dormaal Saison in Tildonk, Belgium, is made in a real farm brewery using barley, wheat, spelt and hops that were all grown on the farm. An overnight cereal mash makes the unmalted wheat and spelt easier for the yeast to digest, but it’s allowed to cool so that lactic bacteria can have their subtle say in the form of a light acidity.
Jester King Le Petit Prince is a table beer of 2.9%, fermented with a half-wild yeast blend collected from the air near Austin, Texas.
Bastogne Ardenne Saison, just south of the town of Bastogne, is first fermented with yeast from nearby Orval before getting a secondary dose of brettanomyces strains said to be harvested from local apples.
There are many more, and by now you can probably name a few. This is sense of place not as an inevitability, but as a decision. A brewer can choose this path for all sorts of reasons: for ethics, because of concerns about the environment or local culture; for marketing, because it makes a good story that sells beer; or just for fun. Or all of the above.
As a drinker, my interests are hedonistic: I travel a lot, and if I think a beer says something about its home or its culture, I tend to enjoy it more. Beer is about pleasure, after all; for me the context is part of it.
It should be no surprise that philosophers have tried to grapple with what comes next. I reckon courses called “Beyond Postmodernism” have been around as long as postmodernism itself. Showing that great academic sense of imagination, many of them call it “post-postmodernism.”
Yeah. We need a better name. But much of it shares a common theme: a return to reality. A return to place. A return to sincerity. Now: Do these beers represent sincere sincerity, or are they just fond imitations of simpler times?
I have no idea. But I look forward to tasting the attempts.