Most Fridays during my sophomore year of high school (about a million years ago), I dressed in green and gold (the school's colors) and attended that day's pep rally for whatever sport was in season. I wasn't interested in sports and understood nothing about the action on a football field or basketball court, but I went anyway.
Looking back, I realize I was engaging in a middle-class kid's version of joining a gang: School colors, pep rallies provided me with a place where I could hang my hat and my identity. The teams' victories and losses dished up what amounted to a small series of myths ? albeit small, localized ones ? around which my group could coalesce.
That memory bubbled up in my brain these past few weeks while I traveled the country talking to people about Ambitious Brew and reading the reviews of the book.
Some people, I realized, would never accept what I'd written because it undermined their particular myths; the ideas and beliefs that sustain their corner of the world. No matter how rigorously I documented the book's more contentious claims, their myth carried more weight than my facts.
The most controversial part of the book concerns the use of "adjuncts" such as corn and rice during the brewing process.
According to conventional wisdom, Big Brewers began these adjuncts to their beer after World War II. Why? So that they could lower their production costs (the idea being that corn and rice "stretch" a bushel of barley the same way that a cook might add pasta or rice to hamburger to make it go further).
Having slashed their costs, the brewers could sell the beer at a higher profit and screw consumers, who were forced to drink watery swill instead of rich, malty beer.
That's the "myth" of Big Brewing. It's near and dear to the hearts of many people who drink so-called "craft" beers ? those ales and lagers pure of heart and malt made by honest brewers in small batches in small, quaint breweries. To drink craft beer is to spit in the eye of Big Brewers like Anheuser-Busch, the Antichrist of craft beer lovers everywhere.
Drinkers of craft beer also believe, fervently, in another myth: That they've won the battle of the beer. As many of them told me, "everyone" drinks craft beer now, and microbreweries are springing up like mushrooms.
Just one problem: neither myth adheres to reality, at least reality as measured by facts, evidence, and documentation.
American brewers began adding corn and rice to their beer in the 1860s and 1870s, not the 1950s. They did so not because they were trying to cut costs (although that's an issue for any manufacturer), but because they were trying to brew a particular style of beer using domestic ingredients.
As for craft brewers: They account for a mere six or seven percent of the beer sold in this country. The other 94% comes from Big Brewers. Anheuser-Busch alone accounts for about half the beer sold in the United States, and one brand of its brands, Budweiser, accounts for eighteen percent!
So much for the idea that "everyone" drinks craft beer.
But many craft beer drinkers don't want to hear this. They need to hang on to their image of the craft brewer as the David who is out to slay Goliath. They want to believe that Big Brewing is evil. It's their version of wearing school colors and cheering at pep rallies.
I don't blame them! Life is messy, complicated, and unpredictable. We all need something to hang on to.
Hence the attraction of something as powerful as religion, and something as seemingly trivial as MySpace.
Both provide places and ideas where people can hang their identity. Where they can find safe harbor in the comfort of ideas that take on the power of myth: Life makes little sense, but I've got god on my side. I'm not sure who I am or where I'm going, but I have lots of "friends" at MySpace and it's the hippest thing happening and take that! you old fogies who don't understand me!
So, too, the passion for craft brewing. Supporting craft beer means supporting small entrepreneurs and local business. Craft beer allows drinkers to express their sense of aesthetics and distance themselves from the masses.
That's all good. Unfortunately, the power of myth also means that no matter how much evidence I offer that contradicts a particular piece of that story, some people won't accept it. I'm wrong. They're right. End of story.
I hasten to add that none of this is meant as criticism of them. I know that my own obsession with exploring the American experience derives from my own need to connect to something.
And the people who are passionate about craft beer are an essential component of the craft brewing industry. If they lose interest, the craft beermakers won't stay in business, and we'll be back to where we were in the 1970s: a handful of giant brewers making a handful of brands of identical beers.
So we are myth and myth is us, and myth is good! Let's have a beer.