Monday, November 12, 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.

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