We in this country are boastful to the point of annoyance about our technological prowess, but we have long nurtured an inferiority complex about the artistic merit of our aesthetic creations. Since the days when small-town opera houses staged crude pastiches compared to the glittering spectacles staged in Europe, our insecurity has festered, encompassing a wide range of aesthetic endeavors. One of them is beer. How else to explain the survival of green-bottle imports other than snobbery based solely on their European origin?
A meticulous recreation of the grand old styles of Europe is a necessary step in the learning process.
We in the homebrew community are not immune. We look to Britain and Germany, those great brewing traditions with taproots going back to the Bronze Age, for a sense of order and righteousness. And Belgium, that jewel of artistic fervor, which provides inspiration and authority. These are profoundly good places to start, but in my belief, they are not an end in themselves.
A meticulous recreation of the grand old styles of Europe is a necessary step in the learning process. Picasso spent a lot of time copying the old masters of his day. And of course we’ve always had our adventurous side, with some brewers leaping into the unknown, looking to make something new and different.
New World Inspiration
As I travel around the country talking to brewers, I have lately been struck by the amount of interest from home-and craft-brewers in creating beers that build on the best of Old-World tradition but are also undeniably American. From Alaska to the Carolinas, brewers are working to discover their roots, dig them up and literally brew them into beer.
This quest is not new. As early as 1550 colonists in Virginia were brewing with corn (maize), Their goals were practical and economic, but they did succeed at inventing American beer. Of the some $70 billion dollars worth of beer sold in this country last year, more than ninety percent of it contained corn or rice.
Recently, American ingenuity jumps from the glass thanks to our exuberant use of American hops in all their resiny, grapefruity glory. Inspired by English pale ales, they have turned into something quite different, and just about define American craft and home brewing. Not a bad start, but having reached a chemical dead end with the insolubility of hop resins above the lip-peeling 100 IBU, adventurous brewers are looking for something more challenging and meaningful.
The recent fascination with pre-Prohibition pilsner was another good start, as it unwinds an eight-decade march to blandness and replaces it with something more flavorful. Other historical sources are ripe for plundering: the aniseed-tinged Swankey from Pennsylvania; Kentucky common beer and others have been explored, but by no means exhausted.