legant egalitarianism.” That’s how poet and drink critic Evan Rail describes the culture surrounding beer. Beer is, of course, cheaper than wine, its closest competitor among alcoholic beverages, and so more accessible to the masses that belly up to the bar. But there is much more to beer’s allure than mere price. Mr. Rail’s short e-book “Why Beer Matters” grapples with why so many of us love the stuff.
“Consumers are far more comfortable talking about beer than wine,” he writes. “As someone who writes about both beverages, I can tell you that the hairdresser who excitedly informed me that Chimay was her favorite beer fell into fairly funereal silence when I asked what kind of wine she preferred.”
What’s more, this is not a rare occurrence. The stranger who learns that Mr. Rail wrote a book on Czech beer “will immediately, without a moment’s hesitation, offer me his recommendation for a really good Czech beer, or ask me what I think is the best Bohemian Pilsner and then tell me I’m wrong.” Yet on the subject of wine, the same loudmouth is more likely to say, “Well, I don’t know much about wine myself, I just like to drink it.”
Wine has become more affordable in recent years, but its manufacture, grading, sale and consumption are still considered upper crust concerns. To make wine, you usually need grapes, and for grapes, a vineyard. One critic, Robert Parker, is extremely influential in shaping industry trends. Old wine made from the grapes of particular vineyards from good years can fetch thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit. It is collected into sturdy, elegant bottles and poured out into delicate glassware. There are exceptions, we know. You can buy and enjoy cheap wine shipped in box form. Yet that is considered a low-rent way to taste the grape.
Not so with beer. The materials involved in making the stuff are simple and easy to come by, don’t take up a lot of space and can be mastered by most people given enough time, luck and patience. There have been some influential beer critics over the years. They make their mark by persuading and educating, not setting standards. High-end beers enjoy decent but not stratospheric markup. And the best way to enjoy beer continues to be poured right out of the taps close to the point and time of manufacture.
The chief value of Mr. Rail’s essay lies in the fact that he has spent a great deal of time thinking about beer’s “ambiguous relationship with the passing of time.” Wine is a justifiably nostalgic beverage. Sometimes and in some places, nature produces a particularly good grape crop that is hard to beat. Bottles from those years are particularly sought after.
Beer is not so durable and not so scarce. It is reasonably easy to reproduce beers today that were every bit as good as the beers of 50, 100 and 150 years ago. Our only real limitation is shoddy record keeping, which makes it hard to get beers invented before the Enlightenment exactly right. The real possibility of re-enactment is very happy indeed for beer drinkers, because their drink does not hold up at all like wine. “Today, when most beer leaves the brewery its clock is ticking like a bomb,” Mr. Rail writes.
Beer snobs are different from wine snobs in that they essentially are educated enthusiasts and often brewers themselves. The chief reason for our more egalitarian beer culture is that it is much more participatory. The most interesting part of the book, to me, was the story of the combined attempt, by Mr. Rail and other home brewers, to finally recreate the Polish smoked-wheat beer Grodziskie, which went out of mass production in 1993. Brewers have struggled to get the smoke and the malt right, occasionally misfiring and producing a beer that tasted like “licking out an ashtray.”
Brewers finally realized they needed to use a particular kind of yeast to get the right flavor. Mr. Rail took this knowledge and tried brewing his own. When he sampled the product for the first time, he found that “the character of the yeast had become absolutely unmistakable, leaping out over the smoke to punch you right in the nose.” The beer was an “extremely pale gold, faintly hazy, capped with a dense white head, and had a surprisingly light body. The carbonation was fine, almost like Champagne.” It need hardly be added, but I’ll drink to that.