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11 April 2012

Beer as Cultural Capital

I started a tradition a couple years ago when my wife and I moved for my current job of hosting an annual craft beer tasting party during Oktoberfest. Here is part of the boilerplate I use in the invites:
Bring a craft beer to share. This could be a six-pack, a four-pack of the high ABV stuff, a classy 40 oz., or a fancy 750 mL. The point is for everyone to try a bunch of tasty, new, and exciting beers while enjoying each others’ company.

What counts as a "craft" brew, you ask? Well, it doesn't have to be expensive, but it does need to be flavorful; it doesn't need to be a microbrew, but it does need to be distinctive. Blue Moon, for example, is certainly a craft beer, but it's relatively cheap and is produced by the same macrobrewery that brings us Coors Light. If you show up with Miller Lite, we'll all laugh at you and then ask you to leave. If you show up with Three Floyds Oak Aged Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, you'll be our new best friend.
Initially, some of our friends read this as "classist" or "snobby." Sociologically, I think this is ripe for analysis.

Beer has generally been seen as plebeian, even working class, especially compared to other potent potables like liqueurs and wines. I suspect that the "craft" adjective alters this relationship in a way similar to the difference between Wonder Bread and artisan loaves (see People Like Us). We can go back to Broudieu who argued that tastes are about class distinction, that they are not innate but are learned, and, through them, social class is reproduced.

The example I always use in Intro to Soc is wine pairing. I ask, "If you invited your boss over for dinner and were serving steak, what kind of beverage would you serve with it?" Several--but, importantly, not all--of the students answer, "Red wine." I then ask them how they know this. Most mention learning from parents or friends. We talk about how these pairings aren't necessarily inherent to the food and drink themselves, how on some level the knowledge is arbitrary, but nonetheless, is consequential. I say, "What might your boss think if you served white wine with steak or red wine with chicken?" The consensus is that that is a faux pas and that one's boss might make some kind of personal judgment about him/her which could, even if unfair, affect one's career trajectory. Arbitrary knowledge matters.

Is my prohibition against flavor-neutral macrobrews a similar demarcation? Am I entrenching class distinction and reproduction by cultivating this brand of cultural capital? I think there is a legitimate case to be made that the low brow beers (e.g. Bud Light, Miller Lite, Budweiser, Cools Light, etc.) have been degraded by the capitalistic process (see Beer Wars) and, thus, should be discarded as bad products per se.

That said, I suspect that beer may be a new area of cultural capital negotiation. I could rethink the above example for the Intro students and ask, "If you invited your boss over for dinner, what kind of beer would you offer him?," I imagine that there would be more debate among the students. Some might want to serve a Russian River Pliny the Younger while others would be fine with a Miller High Life.

I'm going to keep having my beer tasting party, though.

Thinking back to the Beer Summit, I'm wondering how much we can read into the beer selections:

Pres. Obama had a Bud Light, Sgt. Crowley had a Blue Moon, Prof. Gates had a Sam Adams Light, and VP Biden had a Buckler.

See these previous posts on beer.

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