May 31, 2007

Pastoral Nostalgia or Blue Collar Chic? Enough of the Beer vs. Wine Debate!

The Great Wine vs. Beer DebateWine and beer have traditionally garnered their own particular markets in the U.S., pitting drinkers into two camps: the wine and cheese crowd, the stereotype goes, sniff and spit and quaff, all while turning their noses up at the beer and burger set. You know, those red-necked working class nonthinkers who hang out at race tracks and frat houses.

This back-and-forth which is better, which is more authentic, which is worthier debate is hashed and rehashed all the time. Typically, wine drinkers demonstrate a misguided superiority complex, as in wine writer Natalie MacLean's recent anti-beer diatribe (scroll down to the 5/8 entry) in which she explains that "wine is bottled poetry; beer is a canned cliché." But sometimes it comes from the other side, too. Earlier this year, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist railed against the growing "pretensions and airs" surrounding craft beer. It would seem that the bulk of drinkers (beer, wine, or otherwise) are simplistic thinkers who would prefer to keep the camps separated by a nice, clean class line.

Yesterday Slate.com published an interesting take on this beer vs. wine debate, adding a new if equally misguided twist. The premise goes something like this: wine wins its appeal thanks to a "pastoral nostalgia" that ties it to long-forgotten memories of rolling hillsides and deeply embedded terroir, while beer remains a populist, industrially-produced concoction that is now too approachable for our growing culture of connoisseurs. On the surface, this is an ingenious way to frame the debate. But it, too, is guilty of placing wine on a pedestal while implying that beer is somehow an inferior product.

The reality is that wine and beer are more alike than anyone cares to admit:

1. Wine and beer are both ancient arts.
I constantly read histories of beer and wine claiming that each is the world's oldest beverage. Truth is, no one really knows. What we do know, thanks to scientific analysis, is that both beer and wine were accidentally developed in ancient Sumeria around 6,000-4,000 BC.

By that point, humans had pretty much settled in the area, allowing them to grow crops like—take a guess—grapes and grain. And as might be expected back in the day, food storage wasn't all it's now cracked up to be. The theory goes that good grapes sat around for too long, allowing the wild airborne yeasts (which are all around us still) to do their thing. The result was fermented grape juice, a.k.a. wine.

Beer was discovered similarly, this time when someone's unbaked bread dough sat around and started to ferment:
"There must have been deliberate attempts to replicate the probably inadvertent dough brew from bappir, because eventually all Sumerian brewers would coarsely grind wheat or barley, or both, then moisten the grain and shape it into flat loaves. After gently baking these loaves in mud-brick ovens into bappir, they would it crumble it into crocks of water. Left to their own devices, the containers of thin bread gruel would eventually be visited by yeast spores swept into the crocks on a breeze and the content would ferment into beer. Our Sumerian Stone Age forbears would then take a straw or a ladle and imbibe. We know so, because the Sumerians left us not only the oldest description of beer-making, but also the oldest graphic depiction of beer drinking. It comes from a seal found at Ur. It dates from around 3100 BC and shows two gentlemen using straws to drink beer out of a common crock." —Horst Dornbusch

Hops are one of the main ingredients in beer brewing2. Wine and beer are both, at their heart, agricultural products.
Wine advocates would do well to stop using Bud/Miller/Coors as the poster children for beer, pretending that the adjuncts and flavor-freezing technologies implemented by these macro breweries is the way quality beer is brewed. Imagine how these same folks would bristle if I were to use Fred Franzia's Bronco wines as the pinnacle of the wine industry! If you want to adequately compare beer and wine, you must use brands that exemplify the real spirit of the product.

With that in mind, let's actually look at what goes into the artisinal, or craft, versions of these beverages (these stats are based on limited research and may not be all-inclusive—feel free to point me to additional sources):
No. of grape varietals used in winemaking: 150*/230*
No. of yeast strains used in winemaking: 16**
No. of yeast strains used in beer brewing: 15*
No. hops varieties used in beer brewing: 54*
No. of barley varieties used in beer brewing: 32*
Just to clarify these numbers: the number of grape varietals only includes the commerically significant varietals, and not hybrids and genetically bred strains of other varieties. Same with the yeast numbers: when it comes to organic organisms like yeast, most strains are just minor permutations of a single species. And, of course, you'll notice that wheat etc. varieties are not listed for brewing. So, as the above numbers demonstrate, all kinds of natural-grown goodness goes into both products.

3. Wine and beer both rely on an industrial manufacturing process.
Lest you buy Slate.com's romantic notions of barrel-aged wine over industrial packaged beer, don't forget that much commercial wine spends as much time aging in steel tanks as it does in wooden barrels. All those well-oaked vintages wine advocates are so proud of? Many of them get that oak from chips, not actual barrels.

I share this dirty little wine secret only because it's absurd to think that the majority of wineries are still foot stomping their grapes and hand bottling their wines. There are, of course, artisinal craftspeople to be found in both industries. But let's not kid ourselves that wine is somehow less processed than beer. Ever heard of fining? Both brewers and vintners do it, among other things, which makes both equally "guilty" of industrialization.

4. Wine and beer both exhibit a vast array of flavors, textures and appearances.
Beer snobs are sometimes accused of "lifting" the language of wine. I'm not convinced, though, that this indicates a lack on beer's part. Language is, after all, finite; just because beer advocates have until recently been loathe to sound like wine snobs, doesn't render their use of typical wine descriptors inaccurate or inappropriate.

Beer Flavor Wheel by MeilgaardWe have sensory chemist Ann Noble and her Aroma Wheel to thank for some of the unusual terms that spill from the lips of wine snobs: a hint of horse blanket on the nose, or a touch of bell pepper and cut grass. These scents are due to the hundreds of organic compounds and esters found in wine. According to the Aroma Wheel, there are approximately 135 different aromas commonly identified in wine (keep in mind that smell accounts for about 75% of what we taste).

How does this compare to beer? If you think "grainy" is as descriptive as you can get when describing beer, think again. Noble's counterpart in the world of beer is a scientist named Meilgaard, who developed the Beer Flavor Wheel back in 1979. Meilgaard managed to identify 122 common flavors that a practiced taster can recognize, but all his hard work has been dashed by the Big Macros who insist on chilling all that good flavor out of the pint. No wonder wine drinkers think beer tastes dull and bland.


Can't We All Just Get Along?

If wine and beer are so alike, then why all the controversy among writers and critics? Clearly, the idea that these two alcoholic beverages share such common terrain just doesn't make for a good story. It doesn't sell newspapers, it doesn't build repuations, and it certainly doesn't help differentiate the products to drive sales. Truth is, the public likes a little antagonism to fuel our passions, because otherwise we'd have to start paying attention to nuance and complexity (and maybe even think for ourselves once in a while).

Yet there seems to be change afoot in the marketplace. Whereas typically wine drinkers were once clustered on the coasts feeding the "sophisticates only" vibe, we're now seeing the love for grape move inland and across lifestyle boundaries. Wine sales among NASCAR fans, for example, is up 22% over last year, thanks in part to the likes of drivers Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress. But NASCAR viewers aren't the only sports fans getting into wine: my beloved Boston Red Sox are launching a line of charity wines featuring Manny, Schill and Wake. Thinking about this crossover, I can't help picturing John Belushi in the Blues Brothers, flipping shrimp into Dan Akroyd's mouth in the fancy Chez Paul restaurant, finally leaning over to the table next to him to ask, "How much for your weemen?"

But just as wine pours its way into the hearts of those living in the heartland so, too, is beer finding its way onto fine dining menus everywhere. Craft beer poster boy Garrett Oliver, head brewer of the fantastic Brooklyn Brewery, is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the growing acceptance of beer among upscale chefs. His book, The Brewmaster's Table, is cited as a primary influence by beer sommeliers from coast to coast.

So perhaps there is hope after all. I'd like to think the sales numbers are indicative of a larger trend, one that includes the opening of minds and the broadening of palates. Maybe consumers are starting to realize that limiting what they imbibe only results in their missing out on a nice drink. Hell, maybe it even means they're willing to learn a thing or two about a thing or two. I just wish beer and wine writers would stop hindering them by spouting the typical party line. Is it really too much to ask?

7 comments:

camper said...

When you make a case, you make a case!

Jessie Jane said...

I warned ya I'm a wordy bitch!

—JJ

J said...

Well done rebuttal, Jess. I hope you don't mind, but I added a link to your article at the end of my own. You can see it at the Brookston Beer Bulletin.

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el jefe said...

It is a common expression in the wine trade, that it takes a lot of beer to make a great wine. (And a little tequila, but that's just a personal observation.) With beer and wine so intertwined, it seems silly to argue about which is better.

Jessie Jane said...

Couldn't agree more, señor!

nerdling said...

Great post! I don't think I've ever seen so much information on the subject put forth so concisely.

I was a beer purist for a long time—none of that hoity-toity wine snobbery for me!—until last summer, when a friend of the family hosted a tasting for my decidedly pro-NASCAR family. I had never taken the time to learn a damn thing about wine, so I'd learn to dislike it based on the crappy wine I was drinking and the earnest oenophiles that I'd encountered. Armed with a little bit of knowledge, that tasting made me realize that wine is just as humble and delightful as beer—it isn't all about hundred dollar bottles and nosing aromas of ollieallieberry and quince.

Viva fermentation in all it's forms!