“E

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

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.

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