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Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beerby Maureen Ogle
Author Q & A
Q: The American beer industry was shaped by German immigration. Men such as Adolphus Busch and Phillip Best settled in St. Louis and Milwaukee, creating a new, American-style lager beer and using the success of their breweries to build vast empires. Do you view their stories as unique to the American experience, perhaps as examples of the belief that hard work is often rewarded?
A: I definitely think that the American experience shaped the work and lives of men like Busch, Best, and Pabst. It’s true that these were exceptional people—ambitious, intelligent, and charismatic. They would have been successful no matter where they lived. But had they stayed in the old country, I doubt they would have gone as far as they did. European societies in the nineteenth century were defined by fairly rigid class structures and relatively oppressive political systems. Had these men stayed in Europe, they likely would have succeeded only with some sort of “boost” from a wealthy patron or a well-connected sponsor.
The United States, in contrast, had (and still has) a remarkably fluid social structure and our political system was (and still is) far from oppressive. Once in the U.S., the only limit to these men’s reach was their own ambition, and they had plenty of that. Mind you, they worked extraordinarily hard—long hours every day for years on end—but I don’t think they would have been inclined to do so had they not believed that the sky was the limit.
It’s easy now to scoff at the notion of the “American dream,” or the idea that everything in this country is possible and rewards come to those who work hard. But in the nineteenth century, millions of immigrants risked everything to come here because they believed those ideas. They believed that living in this country would allow them to improve their lot in life and that here, unlike in Europe, nothing and no one would hold them back.
Q: Large and small beer producers operate under a unique business model, one that is different from most other commercial industries. What makes the beer business different from other industries?
A: Beer is different from just about any other commercial industry or endeavor for two reasons. First, there are always people who want to put brewers (and distillers) out of business. Temperance is a powerful impulse in American culture. At any given moment, there are organized groups who would love to eliminate alcohol from our lives. That is as true now as it was a century ago when the Prohibition movement was in full force.
Second, because there is such fear of alcohol—its manufacture, sale, and consumption are among the most heavily regulated activities in this country. Brewers operate under a burden of city, county, state, and federal laws. They pay enormous amounts of taxes besides.
So it’s not easy to make or sell beer. And I think that accounts for part of the brewers’ success: they have to want to do what they do. They bring passion and commitment to their work and are willing to endure constraints and criticisms that other manufacturers never have to face.
Q: One of the recurring themes in Ambitious Brew is how the brewing industry adapts rather quickly to changes in the marketplace. As preferences change, recipes are altered and new varieties of beer are created. The book addresses the commonly-held belief that the so-called bland, light beer that was popular prior to the recent microbrew revolution was a result of the big brewer’s use of inferior ingredients. Why do you think this myth was so widely accepted?
A: I think this myth was (and is!) so widely accepted in large part because no one had ever challenged it. When I started the book, I assumed it was true; it wasn’t until I actually did some serious research that I discovered that the myth didn’t have much to do with reality.
Also, the people most likely to hang on to the myth are the same people who are loyal supporters of micro brewing, which means they have a vested interest in big corporate brewers being the bad guys.
But that reveals something quite interesting about human nature. Humans have a strong need to be part of a group, and beer drinkers are no exception. Most beer drinkers have “their” beer. They identify with it and what it stands for, whether it’s a hometown brew—Yuengling or Anchor, or Anheuser-Busch—or a type of beer, such as “pure” craft beer or a European import.
So I think the myth provides a way for people who embrace craft brewing and “real” beers to differentiate themselves from other beer drinkers, and to identify with “their” crowd. Of course, people who drink Budweiser are just as defiant in their attachment to it. Bud drinkers use that preference to distance themselves from “snobs” who drink pricey craft beers, or to take pride in being blue-collar workers who sweat while they work—unlike the suits who toil in air-conditioned cubicles. Their “myth” is that Bud is a regular beer for regular folks.
And then there are people like me, who drink Bud and Anchor Steam. Which means that either I suffer from chronic confusion or that I’m hopelessly insecure and want to be liked by everyone!
Q: As a culture, we have ambivalent feelings toward alcohol. We supported Prohibition—and its repeal. We make efforts to eradicate drunk driving, yet we like to have a few drinks at happy hour or while watching our favorite sporting event. Do you view this paradox as a typically American attitude?
A: I think much of our attitude toward alcohol stems from the fact that we’re a nation of workaholics, and I mean that literally: We don’t know how to enjoy leisure. Indeed, leisure is almost a foreign idea to us.
So it’s easy for us to suffer angst over something as basic as a glass of beer. In our minds, we think of alcohol as part of “pleasure” or as something that can cause us to lose control. If we lose control, we won’t be productive or efficient workers. Think what happens when someone orders a glass of beer at lunch: much winking and nudging ensues, along with jokes about how that person won’t get any work done during the afternoon—which is nonsense. A glass of beer doesn’t contain much alcohol, certainly not enough to impair our senses.
But is this typically American? I think so. And it fuels a self-perpetuating cycle. We demonize alcohol, and we teach our kids to do the same. That in turn fuels alcohol abuse. When kids become teenagers, it’s their “job” to experiment with the forbidden, and one lesson every teenager has had ingrained in them since childhood is that booze is bad. It’s evil. It’s forbidden. And because they’ve been taught to demonize rather than respect alcohol, they “mismanage” their drinking, which in turn causes adults to engage in much hand-wringing about alcohol abuse in high schools and on college campuses. Then those teenagers grow up and become adults who pass on the same lessons to their kids.
I think that in this country, we’ve got the drinking culture (and problem) that we deserve. Most other cultures enjoy different attitudes toward alcohol; kids are taught that it’s a normal part of life. Children sip watered-down wine or beer at the dinner table. They learn early that alcohol should be respected rather than feared.
Q: In recent years, dark hoppy beers—once a staple of American brewing—have made a resounding comeback. Do you have any sense of what is next for this industry?
A: I think interesting times are ahead for the industry. On one hand, time has shown that craft brewing is not a fad. I doubt we’ll ever go back to that anomalous and mercifully short-lived period from 1945 to 1975 when there were very few breweries—fewer than fifty by the early 1970s—and they all made the same kind of beer. American brewing right now is extraordinarily inventive and creative. People like Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery), Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River Brewing Company), and Jim Koch (The Boston Beer Company) are just a few examples of current world-class brewmasters who rank right up there with the best in history.
On the other hand, Koch, Grossman, Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing Company), and others of that first and second generation of craft brewing are now in their fifties or older. My guess is that some of them are starting to wonder what will happen to their breweries. Unlike the German families of yesteryear, most of these brewers don’t have a passel of kids waiting in line to take over running the company. So it’s not clear where those breweries will be in another ten or fifteen years. Will they close? Will younger brewing idealists buy them and keep the tradition going? It’s hard to say.
Q: You have held a few interesting positions prior to being a writer—restaurant server, cab driver, and hotel maid, to name a few. What led you to pursue a Ph.D. in the history of technology and science?
A: Oh, boy, now the whole world’s going to know just how accidental my life has been! I flunked out of college the first time around—too young and dumb to know what I was doing. And that’s how I ended up with all of those “interesting” jobs. By the time I hit thirty, I was bored with doing manual labor. There’s nothing wrong with it; but I wanted a different kind of life, so I decided to go back to college.
I managed to get a bachelor’s degree and that was enough to convince me that I wanted more. I loved the idea of being able to read and write for a living, so I knew I wanted to get a master’s degree or a Ph.D. The person I was dating at the time pointed out that whenever I talked about what I wanted to study, it was always something about the past; he pointed out that maybe I should think about a Ph.D. in history.
He was right—I guess that’s why I married him. But I didn’t know much about graduate education. Almost no one in my family had gone to college, and I only knew a couple of people who had gone to graduate school. In fact, I wasn’t real sure what graduate school was; I just knew that I wanted to go. So I applied to Iowa State University here in Ames. I applied late and had what are probably still the lowest GRE scores in the department’s history. Frankly, I didn’t expect to be accepted.
About a week before classes started, another student decided not to return that semester. The department chair was desperate for someone to teach that person’s classes—that’s how I got in! Then the director of the program in science and technology, who was apparently equally desperate for students, persuaded me that I should take his classes.
That turned out to be a fortuitous string of events. Just about everything is a form of technology, so I was free to let my curiosity roam. My time in graduate school fostered an intellectual open-mindedness that has served me well over the years: from plumbing to Key West to beer, and now to meat, my latest project.
Q: In your previous book, All the Modern Conveniences, you document the development of our nation’s plumbing system. Ambitious Brew relates the story of American beer. As a historian and writer, what other subjects interest you?
A: All the Modern Conveniences, my first book, began life as a dissertation. I wrote it when I was still a history professor and it’s aimed at a scholarly readership. I wrote my second book, Key West: History of an Island of Dreams, for a general audience. Now I’m working on my fourth book, a history of meat in America.
A common thread runs through these projects. Beer, cities, plumbing, and meat are part of our everyday lives. I’m intrigued by what the commonplace—the stuff we don’t notice because it’s so “normal”—says about us as Americans, by how our values and culture shape our material world.
The Key West and beer books are also about ambitious people of vision and drive, people who created something from nothing. I’m fascinated by those kinds of people; in some ways, I think they exemplify who we are as Americans—that this nation is a place where people can make their dreams come true.
On a more personal level, I’m also intrigued by people who are not afraid to think big, to envision grand schemes and plans, and act on them. I’m not sure where that comes from, except that I’ve had a fair amount of adversity in my own life and I’ve worked hard to make something positive and productive out of a life that probably should have turned out otherwise. So maybe I’m looking for stories about people I can relate to as role models.
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