Earlier this week, a column penned by Mike Seate appeared online at the website of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, causing quite an uproar in beer blog circles and at least one beer forum exchange that, the last time I checked, had hit an impressive 99 mostly irate posts! (No, I’m not going to provide a link to the column, because that would be playing into the contrarian columnist’s hands. But I will briefly summarize it below.)
In short, columnist Seate was upset because the beer selection at a Pittsburgh bar, The Sharp Edge, was diverse enough to require a person to give a little thought to what he or she was going to drink, and further, that the price of a can of Newcastle Brown Ale at “a popular beer and hotdog joint” had hit a high of $4.25. These twin facts, he says, offer proof that bar owners have “forgotten that beer is supposed to be a workingman's drink, as free from pretensions and airs as a kielbasa smothered in sauerkraut.”
His solution? “I'll be doing my drinking at home, on the cheap, from a Styrofoam cup.”
Which is fine by me. I’ve been fielding invective from people who think that the word “beer” should apply only to bland, mass-produced lager for more years than I care to admit. And besides, in these days of wide ranging beer choices and availability, to cop such an attitude in print is just lazy, antithetical journalism.
What does bother me, as has been discussed on the Burgundian Babble Belt discussion forum – and here I will provide a link, because the Babble Belt is one of the most intelligent beer chat boards around – is the idea that North American “workingmen,” as popularly defined by people such as Mr. Seate, are expected, no, required to make do with ordinary, often boring food and drink, as if the past two or three decades of gastronomic evolution have never occurred. If your collar is blue, the theory goes, you are expected to make do with a pint of pale, ice-cold lager and an order of previously frozen chicken wings and fries, and be happy for the privilege.
Now, contrast this with what I see in continental Europe, where local people of all stripes and economic classes, and both genders, tend to eat local food and drink local wines and beers. In areas like rural Wallonia in Belgium, the Provençal countryside and the hills of Tuscany, one needn’t worry about being derided for preferring the wares of the small winery or brewery down the street, or noshing on some artisanally-produced cheese or cured meat. Quite the opposite, in fact; a person might be thought too big for their boots if they went with the national, mass marketed brand.
So why is it that on this side of the pond I’m considered a “beer snob,” to use the Trib headline writer’s terminology, if I prefer a Church Brew Works Pipe Organ Pale Ale or Penn Märzen, both brewed in Pittsburgh, served in a stylish glass, over a bland lager in the brutally ugly but standard-issue, frosted, shaker-style pint glass? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that a good number of Pittsburgh beer drinkers have been pondering the same question this week.
Perhaps Mr. Seate will serve up the answer in a column next week.