On May 24th, 1976, a blind tasting wine competition was held in Paris featuring a collection of US and French wines collated by British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier. The contest, dubbed The Judgement of Paris, sent shockwaves through the industry as California wines rated best in each category.
It might not seem a shocking conclusion today, but in 1976 California wine was yet to make its mark in the world, and Spurrier genuinely believed the US wines could not beat the French.
Today, the competition is recognised as an official historical event and the turning point at which California wine began its journey to world class recognition. Based on the true story I’ve described, the film Bottle Shock captures the essence of this legendary wine event.
How does all this relate to beer?
A lot of California’s wine success comes down to their disdain for rules. Unlike the old world, there are no regulations on what grapes you can grow or how the wine should taste; instead, there is only one regulator – the consumer. This lack of control encouraged far greater experimentation and ultimately led to the creation of some world-beating wine as the Judgement of Paris suggests.
Similarly to wine, America’s attitude to beer is equally indifferent to regulation, and while they learn from the traditions of Britain, Germany, and the Czech Republic, they are not bound by the shackles of history.
I talk as someone who recently wrote an article questioning if it was time for Britain to stop using the term “real ale” and instead, embrace an inclusive term (maybe craft beer). The response was fascinating.
Generally speaking, the responses fell into two main camps, just as I’d alluded to in my article:
- Dyed in the wool CAMRA supporters in favor of maintaining the status quo.
- New wave craft beer enthusiasts more in tune with the American attitude of flavor over rules.
The following select examples give some context; identities from the unofficial closed CAMRA Facebook group are concealed for anonymity:
— Pete Drinks (@petedrinks) January 12, 2016
— Stephen Beaumont (@BeaumontDrinks) January 12, 2016
These responses ultimately led to my drawing comparisons between beer and wine and the comparable battle of old vs new. While a term like real ale isn’t legally binding like some European wine regulations, it does encourage a fixed mindset about quality that ultimately stifles innovation.
Arguably, the most drastic example of creativity limiting regulation exists in Germany, where the so-called “Reinheitsgebot” (Purity Law) is so ingrained culturally it’s undoubtedly holding them back.
The Reinheitsgebot states that beer can only be made using barley, hops, and water; malted wheat was later added as an exception to the rule. While this consumer protection law was successful in preserving the standard of German beer to a very high level, much like the definition of real ale in Britain, it also succeeded in narrowing the definition of quality beer.
The Craft Beer Channel’s video below explains succinctly how the German purity law still weighs heavily on the German nation, and while small pockets of new-wave brewers are beginning to tread new ground, consumer expectations are still firmly rooted in tradition. Sadly, even if they can succeed in winning drinkers hearts, they can’t call it beer as the Reinheitsgebot forbids processes such as barrel ageing and the use of auxiliary ingredients like fruit.
“Monopolies breed subversive cultures.”
The above quote is, for me, the most profound statement from the Craft Beer Channel. As they’ve suggested, it’s human nature to rebel against unquestioned authority, and ultimately this leads to segregation as the subversive individuals fill the void.
While misunderstood by many CAMRA or “real ale” supporters in reaction to my previous article, it’s exactly this sort of divide I was attempting to highlight. I don’t want to see craft beer replace real ale – far from it. Arguably, though, traditional styles – both in Britain and Germany – are more likely to thrive under an inclusive beer culture. Craft beer might be difficult to define (particularly when there’s history involved) but it’s the best term we have to separate good beer from bad, and no matter how you feel about labels, isn’t that what we’re all trying to achieve? At the end of the day, when all the rules and traditions are put aside, there are really only two kinds of brew: good beer and bad beer.