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Oakes Weekly - February 24, 2005
THE FUN HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN
February 24, 2005
The early spring has been beautiful here in Vancouver – clear days and warm afternoons that erase the frosty mornings. I headed out last Saturday to my old hometown to visit the local butcher and have a nostalgia sandwich at my high school sandwich shop.
Where I grew up was a mixture of farms and suburbs. When we first moved out there, the former dominated the flavour of the town. I can’t say I appreciated it when I was younger, but I can definitely see why it appealed to my parents. Now, the suburban part seems to dominate. The old main drag has lost its lustre as the dominant commercial area has shifted over to the highway. Still, I knew where to look for the flavour. The butcher shop is in the farmland, and standing there in surrounded by fields, bathed in warm sun and gazing north to the mountains I caught a glimmer of the good old days. I went to that old sandwich shop and got some more of that feeling. The sandwich hadn’t changed since I left either. I sipped tea and read the newspaper while old folks – probably the parents of my former classmates – sat and chatted in the corner.
It’s not a major destination-type place. You could easily drive by and I’m sure a lot of people in the town have never been there. If you took this place and plopped it in the middle of a mall somewhere, it would be nothing. But it’s old school and that lends it character. It has become interwoven in the fabric of the community.
In North America, microbrewing as a business is over twenty years old. Not only are the longest-serving brewers a part of the community in which they inhabit, but collectively they have become a part of daily life. In most parts of North America, good beer is commonplace. Great beer might not be, but good is. What does this mean?
Well, I grew up in a world where microbrewed beer was a novelty. In high school, I didn’t drink beer because I’d tasted Kokanee and Budweiser and after that I decided that beer wasn’t for me. I remember the days of unprofessional brewers turning out unprofessional beers. Amazingly, there are still a few of these out there, but not in nearly the same sort of profusion that they used to be. I recall a time when I thought it silly to get excited at the prospect of a new brewpub opening in every town on the west coast because we already had enough of them as it was. And if there were microbreweries outside North America and the major Western European nations, nobody knew about them.
Things have changed in this world, and for the better. Stephen Beaumont commented a few years ago that kids just turning legal age would never know a world without microbrews. This means that beer is part of the fabric of existence for that generation. It is also the generation most courted by the macrobrewers, but even if those brewers win the first few rounds, maturity will lead that generation to an appreciation of taste. Unlike my generation and those of people older than myself, when this generation decides that they want something more, they’ll already know what it is and where to find it. Microbrewers no longer have to jump and up down screaming “We’re here, good beer, get used to it!” It’s normal now.
Unprofessional brewers have been weeded out. It stands to reason they’d be the first to fail. The market has shaken out and brewers are able to easily identify niches in which to work. I don’t mean the old “that guy’s the English brewer so I’ll be the German brewer” routine. Some make approachable things like premium lagers, fruit beers and amber ales. There is an appreciative audience for that. Others make massive beers with intense flavours. There is an appreciative audience for that as well. Microbrewers have the freedom to do whatever they want without feeling compelled to be everything to everyone. Diversity has emerged, not for its own sake, but because the market has grown to a point of sophistication where it can happen naturally.
I realize how ridiculous my thoughts were when it came to brewpubs in every town. I wondered why it was newsworthy, why should people get that excited. Well, now I know that a handful of craft brewers is great, but a few thousand of them is a lot better. I suppose at the time one of the things that got me was that they all seemed pretty generic, with kitschy local names and similar product lineups at each one. That would make more a than a few of them seem redundant I suppose. In a lot of places, these have evolved now. The lineups aren’t always the same and even if they are the approach to the lineups can be quite different. I can tour around different towns visiting their different breweries and not feel any déjà vu.
When word first trickled to the world via Michael Jackson that there were microbreweries in places like Scandinavia and Australia it was mind-blowing. By 2000, he was reporting on brewpubs in China, micros in Argentina, and a rich scene in New Zealand. Take a look at Ratebeer now. There are brewpubs and micros in some of the poorest countries on Earth, places like Laos, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Argentina and Eastern Europe are rich with craft brewers to a degree that nobody ever suspected. Craft brewers exist from French Polynesia to South Africa to Israel to Venezuela. India is getting their first later this year. Even Mississippi has brewpubs. Only the heart of Africa and the fundamentalist Muslim world remain without good beer.
Put all these things together and you realize the profound things to come for craft beer on the global scale. Everybody is brewing. Everybody is doing it well. After twenty years or so, any market will have enough sophistication for brewers to find whatever niche they want to find for themselves. Out of this, regional characters start to develop. There has long been, for example, a divide between New England and the Pacific Northwest. Different weather and different consumer tastes have led to different interpretations of beers. The ales of the former are influenced by long winters and more traditional attitudes. The latter has beers has influenced by the abundance of locally-produced hops, warm, wet weather, and a more liberal, global outlook.
You can find regional differences in beers from Russian microbreweries with their house character, in Quebecois breweries with their Belgian influence and in Scandinavian breweries where influences are clearly drawn from both the Old and New World. No matter how hard the big brewers work to spread Unilager to every country, Antarctica, the International Space Station and the nomadic shepherds on the third moon of Zythos V, local flavour is coming back to beer.
What does this have to do with my small town sandwich shop and butcher’s? Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate local flavour. I’ve fallen in love with foods, drinks, smells and sounds that I have to travel to find. But all to often, finding that local flavour is a challenge. In my old hometown, I knew exactly where to go. If you drove through, you’d never find that butcher shop and might stop at Subway for your sandwich.
Beer is one thing that is truly global. More importantly, it is one of the few things that is produced around the world at a craft level. It is up there with art and music as something you can make anywhere with local influences. I look at the way bland interpretations of pop music exist everywhere. But there are also forms of music that have the feel of the land. From the most organic African music to the bleakest metal from the depths of Scandinavian winter, music can be found that reflects the land from which it came. Beer is headed down that path, an intoxicating mix of innovation and born-again tradition.
Right now, of course, good beer is far from common in most places. But twenty years ago, it was far from common in North America. To me, that means that twenty years down the road, we could see an entire world filled with local beer, made to local tastes, in a neverending variety of styles and regional interpretations. For globally-minded beer lovers, and especially beer hunters, the fun has only just begun.
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