Tradition is everywhere in the world of beer, from the labels to the glassware to the names and the whole of the beer experience, including the beer itself and the many ways we consume it. Of all the things you might find on a store shelf, beer is among the most tradition-drenched.
As beloved as these traditions can be, they can also stifle creativity and excuse stagnation. The question is not whether tradition is fundamentally good or bad—it undoubtedly is both—but how to celebrate tradition and allow it to speak while preventing it from becoming a bully or a tool of lazy thinking. To think properly about tradition in beer means embracing two opposing thoughts.
Every beer—timeless classic or cutting-edge experimental—is part of a larger story, coming out of a specific cultural context. In fact, any work of art serves as a touchstone for much more than you can see, hear or, in our case, taste. Art uses our shared experience to wriggle into our collective consciousness, and tradition is one important path to that destination.
These background stories, technologies and aesthetics shape the specifics of beer itself. Equally important are our expectations and attitudes that color the nature of our interaction with it. This is what makes the artistic experience so rich and resonant, especially for those who appreciate this context and can understand the metadata behind the liquid. For me, one compelling thing about beer is its backward-looking nature. Because beer is a familiar, comforting product, its past is always present. That historical context gets poured into the brew right along with the malt and the hops. Tradition has the intoxicating perfume of nostalgia, pinging people’s deep longing for things they view as grounded, legitimate and authentic.
The Battle Between Good and Not So Good
Tradition can be a powerful muse. Since there is very little new under the sun, art constantly recycles and gives new context to ideas from other times and places. Artists jokingly call it “stealing,” but it’s really a way of expanding our world of ideas, adding to the conversation and ensuring relevance with ideas that have stood the test of time. Saxophone players still learn Charlie Parker solos; classical musicians always have a grounding in the standard repertoire. Brewers all work with traditional styles in one way or another.
Like plant breeders going back to the wild genome for desirable traits, we return to brewing traditions as repositories of the past and windows into ways of thinking that may be alien to ours. Modern American beer was built on this foundation. Inspired by the beer cultures of Europe, our new-school beers may have started as reasonable replicas of the classics, but as brewers interacted with their audiences and embraced North American ingredients, the beers here became something new and different from their inspirations.
And it’s still happening. The treasure trove of classic European beers has mostly been plundered, but obscure examples still resurface. Just look at the overwhelming enthusiasm for gose, that quirky, salty-sour Germanic witbier variant that tickles today’s palates just right and also makes a great base for everything from blood orange to gin and tonic to cucumber. There is more to come, I am sure.
On the other hand, the leather shorts can get pretty stiff and itchy. Tradition, mindlessly embraced or forcefully policed, leads to creative death. Reduced to empty pastiche, tradition becomes ossified and Disneylike, and ceases to be living, breathing culture. In this state, big business often piles on, feigning the trappings of tradition while propping up a corpse. Some consumers are content with trappings like dirndls and lederhosen, but extreme tradition can be a monster: dogmatic and cartoonish, hindering innovation and artistic growth. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Sam Calagione is fond of saying that the Reinheitsgebot, the famous Bavarian beer purity law, is nothing more than 500 years of art censorship. Many people share his view. It certainly has been that at times. For all its traditional trappings and delicious helles, bocks and schwarzbiers, Bavarian beer has been just about innovation-free for the last century or more.
Getting Tradition Right
One problematic aspect of tradition is that it is subject to the foibles of human perception, understanding and agendas, so tradition quite often differs significantly from history. So great is our desire for a compelling story that we will embrace a tradition even when there’s little or no historical truth, spinning the skimpiest wisp of an idea into a towering edifice. “Farmhouse” beer pushes all of today’s crunchy buttons: artisanal, rustic, local, authentic. Wallonian-ish hazy blond ales in various guises are blisteringly hot, as drinkers are seduced by the agricultural summer vibe. I love the style and its irresistibly charming tale. But as an actual matter of history, there’s little or no evidence for true farmhouse brewing in Belgium within the last couple of centuries. The beers as we know them are very much 20th-century inventions.
In fact, this whole mechanism of incorrectly reimagining history is a major driver of change and innovation, and not just in the world of beer. Whether you’re talking about politics or art, as history fades from view, we take the parts and pieces and reconstruct it into something useful and relevant for today, often in the name of tradition.
We also tend to view the rules of a specific tradition more narrowly from our present-day perch than they may have been in their original form. A style definition in a book or a competition guideline can seem precise and definitive, but the reality was often much messier. There was often a lot of variation from brewer to brewer, and sometimes even some serious eccentrics. So when invoking tradition, you need to make sure you are well-informed and understand the context and richer picture behind the guidelines.
Sometimes the noblest motivations have unintended consequences. In the early 1970s, England’s traditional cask ale was threatened by brewers determined to make the system more modern and efficient, which of course had disastrous consequences for the beer. A group called CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) launched a battle to preserve classic English cask ale. Its mission made it fiercely anti-innovation. While the group did prevent the extinction of real ale, its rigid dogma put English beer on pause, creatively. So while beer was blooming in the U.S., beer in the U.K. ceased to evolve. Fortunately, a new wave has gotten things moving again.
While from our vantage point styles appear to be fairly static, brewers constantly make small changes to the product for reasons of economy, practicality and market pressure. Even if they tried to remain steadfast, there is always much beyond a brewer’s control: ingredients, technology, regulation and many other factors. Malt, for example, differs in genetics and manufacture from just a generation ago, and the same could be said about almost every other variable affecting beer. This drift creates another distortion of what “traditional” really means, making brewery claims such as brewing with a “400-year-old recipe” really laughable.
And whether you love them or hate them, traditional styles are a necessary form of communication with drinkers. Each style is a familiar footfall for all but the most adventurous, the space between being an uncomfortable wilderness. As my brewery partners and I have found out, there is only so much space on the chalkboard tap list. Faced with vague or nonexistent style info, some enterprising bar manager will make something up rather than leave it blank. Brewers are best advised to speak the local language.
To cut oneself off entirely from tradition is a bold folly, especially for a product so embedded in emotion and memory as beer. We are cultural beings, unwilling to venture into the thin air of the absolutely new. Even the most extreme avant-gardist ultimately must find a way to tug at the heartstrings in one way or another. We beer lovers prefer to clink glasses in the company of friends by the light of the fire and soak ourselves in this strange and dangerous thing called tradition.