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Monday, April 29, 2013

Craft Beer Culture in Michigan

The craft beer culture is thriving in Michigan. But how exactly is that culture defined? Among other things, with pretzel necklaces.

Pretzel bandolier
By Wes Eaton

We often hear allusions to “beer culture,” but what exactly does this mean and why is this important? We all know what beer is: fermented malt beverage. But of course, to different people in many different ways, beer is so much more. In West Michigan, beer is increasingly important to the broader do-it-yourself as well as economic growth agendas, which contributes to heightened visibility through media coverage as well as everyday discussions. We are often asked, ‘have you been to the new brewery?’ to which we now reply, ‘which one?’

The Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Fest is big discussion not just for beer geeks but for everyday people who increasingly find craft beer to provide opportunities for community, livelihoods, and a good time. Here is the link to culture that I want to explore. If beer is more than malt beverage, how can the concept of ‘culture’ help us understand its importance and increasing prominence in everyday life? To answer this, I’ll first discuss why culture is important and provide two ways culture has been conceptualized. I’ll then provide some examples from this past winter’s Winter Beer Festival to illustrate the importance and power of culture.

Why is culture important and what does it mean to say culture is “powerful”? Essentially, culture is important as it provides a way for us to make a link between the realms of symbols/meaning-making and social action. In other words, culture is powerful as it is the bridge between ideas and the things we do. How does this bridge work?

Cultural theorist Ann Swidler tells us that there are two dominant ways people think about the concept of culture. The first she calls culture from the “inside out” in reference to what is imagined to be going on inside people’s heads. In this model, people are constrained by the ideas they find out there in the world. Swidler tells us that, from this perspective, “culture shapes action by defining what people want and how they imagine they can get it.” This perspective comes from the famous social theorist Max Weber who tells us world views and ideas are the “switchmen” on train tracks that determine which paths we will take in life. Swidler argues that this perspective is not very helpful as clearly we do not know what is going on in people’s minds.

Swidler labels the second perspective culture from the “outside in,” which argues culture should not be studied as something that is only inside people’s heads. Rather, culture can be thought of as “publicly available symbols—rituals, aesthetic objects,” and other physical manifestations. From this perspective, culture is not useful for explaining individual actions or ideas, values, dogmas, or other meanings, but instead represents the “symbolic vocabularies, expressive symbols, and emotional repertoire” of everyday life. The essential point Swidler tells us is that culture is not the ends that people seek, but the tools people use to seek out anything that they wish. In other words, culture is a “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles that people use to construct their strategies of action in life. By thinking about culture as a tool kit, we can better investigate shared collective and public meanings and symbols and how these are meaningful to people.

Let’s give this a try by looking at examples from this past winter’s Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival held in Grand Rapids. The event is a spectacular menagerie of experimental beers and experimental people. Culture is on display, from the way brewers and breweries present themselves and their beers to the hats, outfits, and especially pretzel and other edible necklaces of the beer culture elites. Short’s brewery, for instance, is consistently a crowd favorite not only for their beer but for their outrageous, inventive, and provocative displays of beer culture. In years past, Short’s crew built their serving booth from blocks of ice cut from a northern Michigan lake and added marshmallows that were toasted with a handheld torch on site to their S’more Stout. Such acts are deemed provocative as they violate the boundaries purists envision for what constitutes “true” beer, much in the same way that the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) works to “differentiate between the bland processed beers being pushed by the big brewers and the traditional beers whose very existence was under threat.”

For me, the most striking and powerful example of beer culture, however, is the pretzel necklace, or at least what started as a pretzel necklace and has now grown to include snacks not usually strewn around one’s neck. As you can see from the photos, cheese sticks, meats sticks, popcorn, and even chicken legs were not off limits for innovative beer fans. What is important here is the power these necklaces afford their wearers. Much in the same vein as a tribal warrior with a rope of bear or tiger teeth around their neck, the beer fans whose necks are weighted down with meats and sweets are respected and even feared in the sense that they are displaying their experience and intensity. These are fans to be reckoned with. Clearly one who took the time or had the foresight to construct such a badge of courage and tenacity knows why they are there and that they belong. Moreover, seeing such powerful symbolic displays leads one to ask ‘do I belong here? These people are the real thing!’

To pull this all together then, I suggest that we think about beer culture as the collective and symbolic expressions of a group or collective identity. Beer culture is something we display, and the importance of that display is only ever meaningful within this group. Wearing a pretzel necklace in the classroom or the office, for instance, is less likely to imbue one with power as it is to incite suspicion and mild anxiety. Moreover, beer culture does not move us around like pieces on a chess board, it does not determine or even guide the actions of people. Instead, we draw on the shared elements of beer culture—e.g. our knowledge of styles or the history of India Pale Ales, the difference between a stout and a porter, number of batches brewed, the Imperial Stouts or out-of-state beers in our cellar, number of MI beers on tap, being rated as “Beer City USA” and so on—like tools in a tool kit to accomplish what it is we hope to do. And in the realm of craft beer, this often has to do with building a specific collective identity that is opposed to the main mainstream elements of both beer brewing and life in general.

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