Thursday, November 21, 2019

It is OK to Admit That German Beer Is Meh

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the 1970's, Coors beer suddenly became all the rage.  This was at a time when the consolidation of the American brewing industry was in full swing, with mega-brewers buying out or simply crushing locals like Stroh's (Detroit), Schaefer (Boston), Iron City (Pittsburgh), and so on.  It was also a few years before the first whispers of what became the craft beer revolution were first heard.

Coors, brewed in Colorado, was not yet known for the extreme right-wing politics of its founding family.  It also was still very much a regional beer, with no national distribution at all.  I was in high school in Ohio at the time, and for no apparent reason, people began to talk about Coors in near-mythic terms.  People who went on skiing trips to the Rockies were encouraged to drive rather than fly, because that would allow them to fill their trunks and back seats with cases of Coors to bring back for all of their family and friends.  The ultimate Christmas present!

I was thus primed and excited when a friend called (Remember when people called each other?) and said, "Great news!  I've got Coors.  Get over here now!!"  Within minutes, I had tasted my first Coors, and I remember thinking to myself: "This is truly disappointing.  How is it different from Miller or Bud?  It actually might even be worse."  What I said, however was: "Oh, man, this is fantastic!  Great score, man."

And not to be nice.  The funny thing is that, within weeks if not days, I had stopped noticing that Coors was mediocre (at best), and I was telling everyone how great it was.  And the funnier thing is that I actually believed it.  It was not a matter of the taste growing on me.  It was simply willing myself to believe something that I actually knew to be false.  This was, in other words, my first experience with extreme cognitive dissonance.

And now, this has happened again with German beer.  The question is whether it matters if I overcome cognitive dissonance by believing reality (German beer is meh) rather than by disbelieving the evidence of my own tastebuds.

I am writing this column on the second-to-last day of my Fall research trip through the UK and parts of the EU, the last two weeks of which have been in German-speaking cities (Zurich, Munich, and Vienna) that quite naturally have significant "beer cultures" in the sense that the locals drink a lot of beer and there are a lot of breweries.

It is my good fortune to have had reason to travel in these areas of Europe multiple times over the last ten years or so.  When I am not working during these trips, I am exploring the cities in which I am staying.  This involves a not-particularly-healthy reliance on eating in restaurants, which in turn creates ready opportunities to drink the local beers.

Not that I need an excuse.  Over the years, I have become a beer lover -- never to the level of getting into home brewing or knowing the details about what makes an ale not a pilsner, but simply knowing what the different types of beers are and caring about real taste.  Before craft brewing came along, that meant satisfying oneself with the so-called premium brews like Michelob and Heineken, which in retrospect were brilliant scams perpetrated on people who could not stand the taste of watery Bud Light et al.  How much extra will you pay to taste something -- anything! -- when you drink a beer? Heineken asked us.  And we showed them.

As time passed, some decent European beers began to show up on American store shelves (Pilsner Urquell once being a favorite of mine), but some of those (Lowenbrau, if I recall correctly) were quickly bought up by Anheuser-Busch and then Bud-ized.  The one time that I went to the UK while I was in college, I fell in love with Guinness on tap, and I learned to like room-temperature cask beers because, again, they tasted like something.

The American craft beer revolution started slowly and has crescendoed in the 21st Century.  It started for me when I tried Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam, and the breakthrough moment came when Sam Adams came on the scene in the 1980's.  (The Sam Adams founder, Jim Koch, would later go on to debase himself in front of Donald Trump, but like the Coors family's ultra-right activism, we did not know that yet.)  After awhile, brewpubs began to open in college towns and cities, and it was actually possible to enjoy beer and -- just as importantly -- to be able to choose among styles of beer and brands within styles.  It was no longer just: "Oh, thank god you have something other than Miller Genuine Draft Lime and Bud Dry.  I'll take it!"

Perhaps inevitably, I have become quite the beer snob over the past few years.  So when I started to visit the German-speaking areas of Northern Europe, I was terribly excited about the opportunity to drink "real beer."  After one or two visits to Vienna and Berlin, however, I was speaking to a friend who was born and raised in Vienna and who went to graduate school in the U.S. and now teaches at an American university.  I said, "Man, it was so great to go to these places where people appreciate great beer.  You must hate it in the U.S."

Looking at me not quite with pity in his eyes, my friend replied: "European beer isn't actually good."  Stunned, I said, "No, I get that Italian and French beers are nonstarters, but the Austrians and especially the Germans make the good stuff, right?"  Wrong.  "It's pretty weak, and the German purity laws have actually made it difficult for Germany in particular to innovate in brewing.  And none of them have much taste."

Pshaw, I said.  But when I returned to Europe the next time, I had what I suppose one could call another Coors Moment.  I had been so determined to believe that German/Austrian beer is the best ever that I had ignored the evidence of my own senses.  It then became a bit of an obsession to try all of the local beers that I could find in each city, and the results were grim.

To be clear, I am not saying that these European beers are truly bad, like the American mega-brews.  They have some taste, but they are simply not very good.  This is not a matter of snobbery but reality.  Budvar (the original Czech beer on which Budweiser was apparently modeled) is definitely better than Bud, and if there is nothing else to drink, I might have some.

But maybe not.  The last time I was in Berlin this year, one of my daughters (who has "super taster" taste buds and is truly a beer connoisseur) confirmed that the local beers are meh.  Indeed, the only truly enjoyable beer-related experience that we had on that trip was when we found a brewpub that had sub-licensed from Stone Brewery (from Escondido, California) and sold true craft beers.

To be clear, I do understand that there is no accounting for taste, and the millions of people who swear by Bud or Budvar have a right to like what they like.  But there are some objective realities here, and as a comparative matter, even the European beers are simply blander than craft beers.  Bland is OK, but it is still bland.

One of the more bizarre moments in my beer odyssey was when I visited Munich for the first time earlier this month.  I did not go to the home beer house for Hofbrau, which is the local version of Anheuser-Busch, but I did go to a beer garden nearby.  The beer list there included nothing but lagers and weiss beers, but I noticed that it also included a Gose, a style of wheat beer that does not have the characteristic oversweetness of most wheats.

I asked the bartender for a Gose.  He looked at me blankly, and I assumed that I had mispronounced the word, so I pointed to the beer list and said, "That one."  He still looked confused (even though it was already clear that, like most Germans I have met, he spoke English very well), and he finally said: "Look, do you just want a normal beer?"  I answered: "I don't know what that means.  There are all kinds of beer styles, so I don't even know what counts as 'normal.'"  And I was not being a smart aleck.

In any event, I ended up drinking some local mediocrity that put me off beer in Germany for the rest of the visit.  Luckily, Vienna has over the past few years started to develop a craft beer culture (Ammuts0n Craft Beer Dive and Beaver Brewing being particularly excellent), so I am no longer bereft -- even though the dominant local brands of beer here are as mediocre as any that I have tasted in Berlin, Munich, or Zurich.

The idea that the dominant country in a business can be superseded by other countries is, of course, not new.  Even in businesses where the product's quality is less subjective, however, it takes people some time to admit that the dominant country is slipping.  (See U.S. versus Japanese automobiles in the 1960's and the 1990's.)  The movie "Bottle Shock" humorously dramatizes the 1976 cultural earthquake when a California winery won a European blind-tasting competition over French entrants.  Those Americans cannot possibly know how to make good wine!  What is happening?

As much as I obviously enjoy sharing these details, however, what I find fascinating is that I was again ignoring my own tastes when sampling Germanic beers -- even though I had already been through this once with Coors.  It took an actual Austrian person to break through my self-imposed trance, essentially giving me permission to say, "You know what, this is kinda disappointing."

I suppose that I could draw an obvious political parallel, drawing on the reporting that shows that Trump supporters will ignore all evidence of his many failures -- even the failures that hurt those Trump supporters themselves -- because they simply refuse to believe that he (or they) could be wrong. And no, this is not bipartisan.  Trump cultists are in their own category of dealing with cognitive dissonance by ignoring reality.  I might be a unique case in the other direction, having actually changed my rooting interest from Ohio State to Michigan based on logic and evidence (in sports fandom?!), but the American left is demonstrably more willing to turn against its leaders when the evidence against them begins to add up.

But that parallel is so obvious that I will simply leave it at that.  Instead, I will offer another political question: Have I become an America-Firster?  Frequent readers of Dorf on Law might have noticed that I also wrote a column last month -- "I Know It's Really U.S. Cultural Imperialism, But I Like It" -- in which I reveled in the American and American-inspired greatness of classic rock music and its 1980's offshoots.

Here, I am saying that American beer is simply the best in the world.  I had not said it quite that clearly until now, but there it is.  To quote myself from last month's column: "USA! USA! USA!!"  (Very original, I know.)

But everyone who has met me knows that love-it-or-leave-it patriotism is most definitely not my default mode.  Just because I am always willing to believe that the U.S. is not presumptively the best at everything, however, does not mean that it never is the best at anything.  It just so happens that two of life's pleasures about which I care the most are currently areas in which the U.S. lapped the field.

In music, the rest of the world caught up.  I beg them to do so again with beer.