Beer And Wine: Why Can’t We All Just Live Together?

Let's get some respect for beer.

I have a confession to make: I can't remember the last time I drank wine. Leastways, not the regular red/white/rosé stuff. There are a few reasons why that is.

Firstly, they say you should never mix the grape and the grain because of what it can do to you when you wake up the next morning, and since I drink beer just about every day I take that advice to heart. I've always been prone to empire-sized hangovers if I overdo it (something of a disadvantage in my line of work, dammit) and I don't want to do anything to exacerbate that problem. So wine is mostly off the menu, although I make an exception for port, a glass of which I often enjoy while reading in bed. Secondly, I simply don't care for wine that much. I don't actually dislike it, and I've had some very nice glasses of wine over the years (I seriously recommend summer pudding with a Beaumes de Venise). I just don't go out of my way to drink wine.

Yesterday morning I found this link in one of the beer-related news feeds I subscribe to. It brings to mind that many-faceted beer question: why is wine treated with so much more reverence and appreciation than beer?

I mentioned last week that wine is comparatively limited in its variety when held up to beer. I probably shouldn't make such rash statements based on ignorant supposition (because I'm not a wine expert), but looking at it logically, it has to be true. From pale pilsners and table beers, all the way to Russian imperial stouts as black as engine oil, and from sweet syrupy Burton ales and old ales to double IPAs with a hop profile that will make your hair stand on end, not forgetting that strange and mysterious category called sours, there's an incredible array of characteristics present in the...who knows how many different beer styles on offer today. Adding a hop variety here, changing the yeast there, trying a different malt in the grist, putting it in a bourbon barrel for a couple of months, the permutations are numerous and diverse, and it's not as if brewers even have to conform to certain styles. In the past year I can think of at least two beers from Austin breweries - Jester King's Noble King and Independence's Gold Deluxe - which defy categorisation within accepted beer styles. Both were almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a golden ale, a pale ale, a summer ale, a table beer. Gold Deluxe is a superb example of what a brewer can so with one type of malt and one hop variety, and it was delicious. Such a shame that it might never be brewed again.

I grew up in a northern European 'grain' country (Britain, Germany, Belgium etc.) and therefore I was immersed in beer culture far more than wine. Had I been born further south in the 'grape' region (France, Spain, Italy, Greece), wine would have been the dominant everyday alcoholic beverage for me. I had some friends at school who were a little more, shall we say, middle class than I was, and their parents drank wine rather than beer (they also drank fresh coffee rather than instant, ate something called paté and their spaghetti didn't come out of a tin). I became intrigued by the culture of wine. It seemed more sophisticated than beer, and since we're talking about the days during the early to mid-70s when keg bitter had an iron grip on the British beer industry, it pretty much was. Beer was just a means of getting drunk, but wine had far more going for it. You tasted and appreciated it, you paired it with food, and it was more expensive - so it had to be better, right? Wine had a cachet. You aspired to be a wine buff. That couldn't have been said about the majority of beer at the time.

That seems to be an ongoing problem with beer - its image. It's still regarded as a working class drink, a man's drink, a way to get drunk on the cheap, something for bums to get out of their heads on, a mass produced and mass marketed product that cares little for quality. Sadly, the majority of today's beer conforms to that stereotype. I don't think I need to name names here. Elton John's song Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting) pretty much typifies what beer is up against. You don't hear songs like that about wine... except maybe for a certain ballad by Dean Martin.

To get a better idea of the disparity between beer and wine, just look at how the two compare in a restaurant setting. Most nice restaurants will feature a lengthy wine menu and the waiters will have at least a passing knowledge of the characteristics of each type of wine and which one should be paired with which dish. If your wallet can run to a seriously upmarket place you might find yourself discussing your choice with a wine waiter or sommelier. However, you'll be doing pretty well if you can find more than handful of mass-market beers listed, almost as an afterthought, at the bottom of the wine page, and it's doubtful if any of those will be on draft. When a bottle of wine is delivered to your table, you might be shown the label and you will be invited to taste it (but don't make the mistake of saying "Mmm, that's good." You are tasting it to ascertain whether or not it's corked, and a simple nod or a shake of the head is all that's required). If you ordered a glass it will not be filled to brim.

If you order one of the beers, however, you might be lucky enough to be given a glass to pour it into; you might not. You might also get a condescending look from the waiter.

Even in the spiritual home of beer - the pub and bar - your beverage hardly gets the respect it deserves. Remember what I said about a wine glass not being filled to the top? Why is that? It's because some of it will spill either when it's being carried to the table or when you try to lift it to your lips, plus there won't be room for you to swirl it around and sniff the bouquet. We insist, however, that a pint of beer is filled to the top of the glass, and in some places it's actually required by the local weights and measures statutes. How many times have you been handed a pint that's wet from having a foaming head allowed to overflow before being topped off, and which drips all down your shirt front when you take a sip? Ever see a glass of wine treated that way? Fair enough, wine isn't carbonated and doesn't have a head, but that's still no reason to send out a pint of beer that way. Mind you, if it weren't for wet pint glasses, tegestologists would have to find something other than beer mats to collect. 

How many times have you been handed a pint that's a few ounces short because some of it was spilled on the Axminster while the waiter was carrying it to your table? How many times have you been handed a pint that looks like a 16oz glass but which has a thicker bottom and actually only holds 14oz? How many times were you actually told it was a 14oz glass? Next time you're embroiled in a conversation with anyone who thinks the gubmint should stay the hell out of our lives with its damn regulations ask them what they think about getting short pours on their beer, then let them them know the British gubmint has a regulation that makes it illegal for pubs to do that.

The craft beer boom of the last few years is helping to improve beer's status, but only with the help of you and me. Maybe you're fortunate enough to live in a town or city that has a few restaurants who are doing their bit for beer and offering a good selection, perhaps on tap, and perhaps they'll even host the occasional beer dinner. If you have those places close by, go there often. If not, ask your favourite eatery if they'd consider stocking a few beers from a local or in-state craft brewery, or maybe at least Sierra Nevada, Stone or any one of the big craft breweries that your state's alcohol control agency has approved for distribution where you live.

Programmes such as Cicerone are one of the many small steps that beer is taking to improve its image.

The motto of the Alström Brothers, founders of Beer Advocate, is "Respect Beer." The tagline that Pete Brown puts on his beer blog is "Treating beer with the respect and irreverence it deserves since 2003" (if you're reading this you probably already do). Our job is to get out there and convince the rest of the world that beer is as good as wine, should be treated with the same dignity as wine, and in some respects has more going for it than wine.

And if any wine snob still insists that beer is infra dig, there's no need to wax lyrical about the myriad beer styles, colours and flavours, nor that beer sometimes comes corked and caged like champagne, and not even that beer can be aged like wine. Just, very politely, tell them to go to Belgium.