Nostalgia Be Damned, This is the Golden Age of Brewing

The present is burdened too much by the past...We have not time...to appreciate what is warm with life and immediately around us…
— -Nathaniel Hawthorne “Notes of Travel,” March 1856


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For years craft beer enthusiasts have been burden by the past, living under the misconception that the golden age of beer in America took place in some utopian 19th century world, where in pre-prohibition bliss small brewers produced God’s personal nectar, pumping out gallons of artisanally crafted ales and lagers to a thirsty local public who appreciated their wares. Still others evoke some colonial past where various of our founding fathers found succor and comfort from the magical elixir that saved the colonies from certain death, prompted revolutionary thought, and gave birth to an independent nation of small brewers.

In recent years, that relationship with the past has replaced its historic heroes of a pre-prohibition era for more recent figures. Now brewers evoke New Albion and Jack McAuliffe, Fritz Maytag and Anchor, or Ken Grossman and Sierra Nevada, placing these heroes of the ’70s and ’80s in a new pantheon of brewing Gods and offering a new legitimacy to the the industry and a new set of small brewer myths of DIY, pull yourself up by the bootstraps hard work artisanal aesthetics.

Tradition and nostalgia are powerful cultural constructs in America. As a nation we cling to these romanticized versions of the past, we find meaning in hallowed traditions, and in our relatively short history, these heritage ideals offer legitimacy to our place in the world. In America, as in any nation trying to prove its worth, historical facts often give way to myth, producing an unsettling blend of superficial flag waving and heritage-based narratives that drive an illogical adherence to made up traditions.

The American brewing industry isn’t immune to the pull of this type nostalgia. In fact, the industry actively promotes brewing’s mythic past, establishing a history that never existed to lend itself legitimacy and a pedigree where there was none before. In other words, modern brewers and beer enthusiasts have internalized these myths and repeated them so many times that they’ve created their own histories. Histories in which the making of beer and the creation of the beer industry become a historic staple of American culture on par with motherhood and apple pie.

Take for example the story of AB’s early history, where Augustus Busch, despite his family’s incredible wealth, promoted his grandfather’s and father’s tale of immigrant success, an industrious narrative that played perfectly to Progressive Era notions of immigrant assimilation and would later prove valuable as an iconic story of American capitalism and its successes. Later during World War I, when anti-immigrant/German xenophobia reached its zenith, Busch created the AB eagle and switched to red, white, and blue labels, distancing the brand from the enemy, evoking patriotism, and playing to his consumers’ American pride. When the war came to an end, Budweiser and beer in general had entered American consciousness as a patriotic beverage, a beverage of winners that was positioned well to challenge prohibitionist zeal (although we know how that ended).

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In the craft beer world one need look no further than Sam Adams, whose advertising since the early ’80s has linked their beer to the founding fathers. The power of that notion, a small scrappy brewer taking on the massive advertising budgets of the macros (like a small scrappy newly minted nation taking on the world power of the British), plays to American’s underdog ideal and makes a historic/patriotic link to drinking a small company’s beer rather than corporate swill. A connection that makes colonial historians cringe every time they hear Jim utter that famous “Brewer and Patriot” pitch.

Then there is Anchor Brewing whose label has always celebrated its historic pedigree with a prominent “since 1886” emblazoned on the the bottle despite the fact that Maytag and many others agree that the beer Anchor was producing before he took over in the ’60s was subpar at best and being sold only because of tradition in a couple of Bay Area bars. Even the first beers that Maytag brewed himself weren’t received all that well. It wasn’t until he modernized the equipment, hired a brewing staff, and started producing a consistent beer that the company turned a profit (see Tom Acitelli, “The Audacity of Hops”). Maytag however has capitalized on this historic pedigree, playing up the golden age myths, using them as way to market his beer. Today Anchor continues the tradition; its advertising, websites and promotional material are riddled with some of the most beautiful and nostalgic images, brewing folklore, and celebratory history.  

 Yard's Brewing Jefferson's Tavern Ale

Yard's Brewing Jefferson's Tavern Ale

I know I’m picking on two of the larger breweries in the craft beer world, but small companies are equally culpable in promoting this type of nostalgia. Look at the labels of Great Lakes’ “Commodore Perry,” Old Hickory Brewing’s (just the name references Andrew Jackson) “Daniel Boone,” Rolling Meadows’ “Lincoln's Logger,” New Holland’s “Pilgrim's Dole” or any of thousands of other labels playing to patriotic notions, characters, or brewing folklore. Hell, Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia sells an entire line of beer, “Ales of the Revolution,” whose labels feature the visages of Franklin, Jefferson and Washington and claim to be “crafted based on the original recipes of your Founding Fathers.” What’s more they make the additional assertion that “...Our country’s founding was fueled by beer!” Granted our colonial fathers drank beer, but few if any made it. Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, they wouldn’t have wasted their time brewing their own beer. Brewing, until the commercialization of the product, was the realm of women, servants and slaves who produced beer for local and familial production (see Gregg Smith’s “Beer in America: The Early Years 1587 - 1840”).

The North American Brewer’s Association (NABA), the Brewer’s Association (BA), and other industry groups are also partly to blame. These groups are tasked with promoting the industry and validating its place in American and craft beer cultures, and as such their websites are riddled with nostalgic romps through brewing’s past. NABA’s history of brewing offers an uncritical history of brewing in colonial America, voiced in the most celebratory tones and filled with unsubstantiated and poorly documented brewing folklore that plays on the golden era myths and promotes the idea that somehow beer was driving force behind colonial progress. In their opening paragraph they write: “Early colonists of the North American continent had a fairly simple life.The typical immigrant from England had only three things on their mind: where to get food, how to secure shelter, and when would they get their next beer.” Not only is this statement wildly inaccurate (colonial life was difficult, rife with danger and death was a real and daily possibility), it also continues to over promote the importance of beer in colonial America. Beer, most reputable historians agree, was drank in limited quantities, if at all, in the early colonial settlements because barley was in short supply, difficult to grow in Massachusetts and Virginia, and expensive to import. Settlers thus relied more frequently on cider, fermented beverages made from pumpkins, persimmons and maple sugar, or most frequently they drank the cheap and plentiful rum coming out of Caribean settlements (see Reay Tannahill, “Food in History,” Andrew Barr, “Drink: a Social History of America,” Iain Gately “Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol,” and Gregg Smith’s “Beer in America: the Early Years 1587 -1840”). That’s not to say that beer didn’t have its place in colonial society, it did; but its importance has been overstated and oft repeated resulting in what Lynn Hoffman, author of “A Short Course in Beer,” calls “brewing fakelore.”   

For the more recent past, The Brewer’s Association’s “History of Craft Brewing: Modern History” is equally celebratory and uncritical, creating a new popular lore of the pre-1990s industry. Emerging from these stories are a new set of brewing heroes whose pull yourself up from the bootstraps ethic have inspired the modern industry.

But, what should we make of all this looking backwards. Why, when we are living in a golden age of brewing do we need this unnecessary heritage and made-up pedigree? Today’s craft beer stands on its own as some of the most creative, well-made beer Americans have ever produced. Brewer’s should be proud of their accomplishments and not held back by some ill-conceived adherence to tradition. With modern brewing techniques, brewing science, and the careful treatment and cultivation of individual ingredients like yeast cultures and malt today’s brewers produce consistently creative and delicious beer unimaginable even in the most recent past.

As a historian I understand the importance of the past and I respect the contributions of those that came before us. But I also believe that we shouldn’t blindly follow some mythic heritage narrative. Here in lies the irony: A lot of the beer we’re nostalgic for was simply bad beer, brewed in a way and with technology and ingredients that would make it unrecognizable as beer today. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to experience a beer made in true traditional fashion. Can you imagine what an 18th century beer would taste like, brewed in inconsistent wood fired copper kettles, held together by lead based solders, brewed with ingredients shipped from half a world away, fermented in open vats and stored in unclean wooden barrels? Yum. In fact the colonial brewing reenactor at the Camden County Historical Society in New Jersey says of the product created in the 18th century, “The truth is, if modern people could somehow taste the beer that was actually made back then, we'd probably all spit it out." 

I’m not sure today’s brewers or we beer enthusiasts need to find legitimacy in the past or in these traditional beers. Sure, we should celebrate the contributions of those who have come before and even look back fondly on them if you must, but let’s not mourn their loss. The brewers of today who are stretching the traditional definition of beer deserve to be congratulated even celebrated for their creativity and the uniqueness of their product not damned for their iconoclasm. Those who are upholding traditions based on nostalgia or some romanticized version of the past destroy innovation and keep the industry from moving forward.