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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Boundary-Work & Craft Beer: The Struggles of American Hops

Photo by Scout Seventeen
By Weston Eaton

As citizens of Rene Descartes’ Western society, we often assume our personal preferences have predominately private, as in individual, origins. And while, over time, we may observe some slight changes in our palate, we generally speak in dichotomous terms, pointing out what we ‘like’ and ‘don’t like.’ I want to suggest another way to think about our sensory capacities, one inspired by craft beer and hop guru Stan Hieronymus’ recent visit to and talk given in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, aka “Beer City, USA.” Ultimately what I hope to show is that taste and preference are as much collective accomplishments as they are privately decided upon, and, importantly, our ‘private’ tastes are contingent, as in they are situated in a particular time and place.

To tell this story, I first need to introduce the concept of ‘boundary-work.’ Sociologists of science coined this term to refer to a strategy we are all familiar with: the effort to demarcate ‘sound’ science from ‘arm-chair’ or ‘pseudo-science.’ In other words, boundary-work is the effort to identify the uninitiated and keep them in their proper place in the attempt to create a favorable public image for the establishment. Boundary-work is also important in places outside of science, such as in the world of craft beer. For instance, Jim Koch of Sam Adams and Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association, are constantly tending the fences between craft and non-craft beer. These are not real boundaries, of course, but political and economic constructions, and therefore susceptible to contestation. The boundary-work I am interested takes place between two regions, North American and Europe, and their respective hop traditions. At stake is our preference in beer.

On his visit to Grand Rapids, Hieronymus spoke with a group of West Michigan homebrewers as part of Siciliano’s Market’s homebrewing seminar series. Hieronymus’ discussion was centered on hops. He discussed the latest research on hop flavor, aroma, and bitterness, and the emergent science and innovative technological processes associated with the ever-increasing search for the new hop variant that would meet the complex demands of farmers, distributors, brewers, and consumers. What caught my attention, however, was the subtle underlying story of shifting hop attributes and industry preferences. 

While Hieronymus did not use the term, the history of the hop plant in the world of beer brewing can be assessed in terms of boundary-work. For instance, the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law of around 1500, designated beer as consisting of three ingredients: malt, water, and hops (yeast had not yet been discovered). In the realm of hops specifically, before the introduction of American varieties beginning in the 1970s, four ‘noble’ hop varieties dominated the world of brewing. These hops had the distinct combination of low levels of bitterness but with strong aromatic properties. These characteristics defined not only these hops, but what was known collective as beer. In other words, by today’s standards, raised significantly by American craft brewers who brought American hops onto the global beer scene, there simply were no “hoppy” beers in the sense of a Two Hearted Ale. 

By following this hop story through up to the 1970s, then through today, and crossing shores to North America, we can begin to see the significance of these constructed boundaries, and their relation to what we often take to be ‘naturally’ occurring or individually selected preferences. While the British Colonies brewed an array of ales, with numerous local ingredients, it was not until the Germans arrived that brewing in the New World drew the attention of the world’s famous beer cities. Armed with the recent technological invention of refrigeration, and the accompanying lagering process now perfected into a style of beer capable of mass production, Germans in Mexico, Texas, and especially Milwaukee, began mobilizing and monopolizing the preferred tastes of millions of Americans. 

The key to American lagers, however, was the smooth hop flavor of noble varieties. American hops, on the other hand, were largely labeled with normative, derogatory terms such as ‘rustic,’ ‘inferior,’ and ‘not suitable’ for what was commonly understood as ‘good beer.’ American hop varieties were indeed wild, with citrus, pine, and resin as opposed to the spicy, earthy, and floral attributes of noble hops. One hundred years ago, the beer geeks of the day had not yet encountered these as flavor possibilities, while the brewing establishment had little interest or incentive to risk experimenting with new varieties. This of course changed with the developing of the Cascade hop variety in 1972, the original American “C” hop, and the innovative and infamous use of this hop to develop the flavor of the first distinctly American beer, the American Pale Ale, epitomized by Anchor Brewing Company’s Liberty IPA and Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale. With the introduction of an American Ale, and more generally, a growing appreciation for American hops, the boundary between noble hops as ‘good’ and American hops as ‘bad’ has been increasingly transgressed. As a result, we have a new meaning for the term ‘good beer’. 

To pull the treads of this story together, the ‘preferences’ for subtle bitterness have given away to a diversity of beer flavors and styles, including the strong bitter attributes of American Ales. However, as we can now more plainly see, the term preference is itself misleading if applied to individual choice as it fails to take into account the historical shifts in the landscape of beer styles that are driven by technological innovation, migrations of nationals, experimentation, and continental variations in hops. In other words, what we ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ are as much representative of this particular juncture in the landscape of beer as they are of individual choice.

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