Only in Castro’s Cuba has a state of permanent revolution lasted longer than it has in the minds of beer writers.
When a flagship beer can cover the rent, it’s worth asking how breweries decide to take less commercial decisions and why.
We remember the bad old days—before the revolution—when beer variety was non-existent, when bars and stores offered us the choice between Mainstream Lager A and Mainstream Lager B (and C and D, in more adventurous places).
Then came the thrill of discovery as the beer selection opened up, thanks to enterprising brewers and unconventional importers. Beer didn’t have to mean standard lager; there were rich European brewing traditions that offered us scores of alternative flavors.
Nor did beer have to be produced by huge, factory-like installations. It could be made by scrappy entrepreneurs, brewing on their own with cobbled-together equipment, distributing by pick-up truck and promoting their brews one convert at a time.
It was, indeed, a revolution: an upheaval that overturned the conventional way of thinking in the beer world. And beer writers loved the imagery of rebellion and revolt.
But (Fidel aside) revolutions come to an end. A new view of reality replaces the old. What we think of as “the American Beer Revolution” probably concluded in the nineties.
For beer aficionados, the new reality means sixty or seventy distinct styles of beer in American markets. But outside specialist circles, the new reality actually means that instead of ten mainstream lagers on the shelves, it’s probably nine mainstream lagers and one pale ale.
Despite playing a minor role, pale ales, amber ales and specialty lagers are now members of the beer industry establishment. For a small but significant group of beer drinkers, these are the beers they reach for when they “feel like a beer.”
These beers don’t raise eyebrows at the corner bar, they have a place in the convenience store cooler, and their drinkers aren’t making political statements. The beers are delicious and commercially successful.
Why brew anything else?