When you’re passionate about something, it’s easy to lose a bit of perspective. Anyone that supports a footy team will probably agree. Take, as an example, a dangerous tackle. If it is your favourite player that inflicts one upon the opposition, it somehow doesn’t seem quite as malicious as it would’ve had your favourite player been on the receiving end. It’s just that the more passionate you are about something, the more you lend yourself towards bias. You become so engrossed that you sometimes fail to appreciate the bigger picture. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just happens.
This became a pertinent beer-related thought after rummaging through a secondhand book store and finding a copy of Mark Shield’s Beer Guide. According to the preface, Mark Shield was, at the time, Australia’s most circulated beer writer and his work appeared in many major national publications. This particular book was published in 1993 as an authoritative guide to Australian beer, containing a concise history of the industry and in which 250 local and imported beers are tasted and rated. In a pre-internet world, one can imagine such a resource to have been of great value to beer lovers.
From a 2012 perspective though, a beer guide from 1993 probably gets more use as a doorstop than as a point of reference. These types of publications are most useful as a current gauge of an industry but as time marches on they quickly lose much of their relevance. Things change considerably within a year, let alone 19 years. And for an industry like craft beer that appears to be trundling along so quickly it doesn’t have the time to define what ‘craft beer’ actually is, this is especially true. That the first three months of 2012 have already given birth to actual breweries that did not exist in 2011 simply shows the speed at which change occurs. This year for craft beer will not be like the last, which was not like the one previous. Each year, onwards and upwards and it’s the technology that has helped to make reference books redundant that is helping to take us there.
In the current age we can immerse ourselves in beer as we never have before. To be able to follow brewers online in real time, to interact, review and collaborate with likeminded people is a truly wonderful and remarkable thing. Above all else, this constant interaction helps to build knowledge and a sense of authority. So, comfortable in this knowledge and with full confidence that now is the time craft beer will follow its rightful path into the mainstream consciousness, you could open a book like Mark Shield’s Beer Guide and be sure that the contents would be more or less irrelevant. Perhaps the best you could hope for in a book like this would be a few interesting titbits, perhaps a cheap laugh or a disapproving shake of the head at the backwards beer culture that was 1993. If anything, it would simply be an opportunity to revel in how far things had come.
The problem is that history tends to punish ignorance and arrogance, and page one duly deals a crushing blow in the way only the harshest truth can. An excerpt from that first page is as follows:
“Look at the lack of press coverage. I write three weekly columns on wine, but it is difficult to sell the occasional beer article. It seems that a lot of people consider beer to be for drinkers, rather than thinkers. The aim of this book is to redress some of the imbalance and to focus on this wonderful drink.”
That passage was written almost two decades ago, but slot that into the preface of any beer book today and how much of it would be untrue?
For all the enthusiasm and the near surety that craft beer is on a steady rise how different, fundamentally, is the craft beer world of 2012 to that of 1993? Still there is little coverage in mainstream press, especially when compared with wine. Still beer is looked upon as something to be quaffed in vast quantities with scant regard for quality. And still the challenge of persuading more people to change their attitude towards beer is immense.
It goes on;
“Beer with food is another issue. In the enlightened age beer will be back on the table as a beverage to be enjoyed with food. Unfortunately people tend to make wine the maid of all work, but there are certain foods where wine is not compatible… In the enlightened age, there will be no stigma attached to having a bottle of beer on the table at a swank restaurant.”
In the almost twenty years since, how close are we to actually reaching this ‘enlightened age’? It certainly does feel like it’s getting closer, but it probably did to Shield too. Is craft beer finally ready to thrust itself into the spotlight after a very long fermentation period, or is it simply the same old scenario in a different guise, in a different time?
The book was clearly never meant as a premonition, but it is interesting to see that many of the predictions Shield had for the future of the industry – the continued decline in overall beer consumption, the increasing influence of marketers turning beer into a fashion statement through the (as he puts it, ‘baffling’) rise of clear glass bottles and slices of lemon – have come about. One indirect but ominous warning was about borrowing heavily and over-capitalising to fund small breweries amidst a time of unstable financial markets. (This is in reference to an apparent boom of microbreweries in the 80s which were subsequently crippled by the stockmarket crash in 1987. This sad plight of the microbrewery was apparently not a new one even then though – the early 1900’s had seen the same trend with small breweries going under or being incorporated into larger and more efficient companies, leading to the formation of Carlton & United Breweries Pty Ltd).
This comparison of the relative states of the industry is not meant as criticism, but more as observation. It’s more for those of us who are relative newcomers to the beer scene, the ones so full of enthusiasm, hope and unawareness of the past that we exist in an idealised world. Unlike the brewers and the bar owners, we consumers have little on the line other than where to get the latest beer. If craft beer is to make a real impact in the social consciousness it helps for all of us to step back and take an objective look at the state of things. It’s pretty certain that we all want to go in the same direction – to do that it’s sometimes useful to know where you’ve been.
As the past decades have shown, getting more people to appreciate beer is a monumentally difficult task. Mark Shield seemed confident all those years ago that we would one day reach the enlightened age and a great many people today would no doubt still agree. Let’s just hope it won’t take another 19 years to get there.
According to the publisher’s website (Penguin), Mark Shield died in 1998.