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Beer And America
It came over with the Mayflower and stayed on to be the unchallenged drink of democracy.
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Beer as fun has had slightly more staying power, but it is closelv tied to faddishness and can easilv eet out of hand. As it did in the late eighties, when Bud and Miller resorted to spring-break promotions and wet-T-shirt contests to carry their message to college students, roughly half of whom were under the new federally mandated 21-year-old drinking age. A bizarre-looking female bull terrier named Honey Tree Evil Eye, better known as Spuds MacKenzie, party animal, was the last straw. Lawmakers were convinced that brewers were intentionally targeting children. The industry, under threat of an advertising ban, had to accept warning labels in 1988, and two years later the federal beer excise tax was doubled.
Ever since the days of the Beer and Whiskey League, beer has had a powerful connection to sports. (Just as you would never serve beer at an art opening, you’d never bring wine to a Super Bowl party.) And it’s no wonder, considering the aura of men-at-work-andplay they share. It was in the 1920s that New York brewer Jacob Ruppert, co-owner of the Yankees from 1915 and sole owner soon thereafter, raided the Boston Red Sox for Babe Ruth, and then built him a stadium. Thirty years later Gussie Busch bought the St. Louis Cardinals, acquiring the right to sell his beer to thousands of fans and also to place Budweiser signs all over a stadium seen by millions of television viewers. But this would turn out to be child’s play compared with the marketing wars of the 1970s, when Miller and then Bud would between them buy up every available minute of ad time during sporting events, using jock spokesmen to make the point that the new “lite” beer was just as macho as the fullcalorie kind.
Beer was about holding on to a heroic and humorous stoicism.
But most enduring, and most powerful, is beer’s connection to the culture of American workingmen, a connection that’s grown only stronger as the idea of the working class has morphed over the past century into the idea of the average Joe, Joe Six-pack. With all of beer’s obvious success in all social strata, it still carries overtones of nose-thumbing at class pretension and high culture. A classic example is the Marx Brothers’ 1935 A Night at the Opera . When the highbrow singer Lasparri is knocked cold by his dresser (Harpo), bystanders Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) and Fiorello (Chico) each plant a foot on his body as if stepping up to the bar. “Two beers, bartender,” says Groucho, and Chico pipes in, “I’ll have two beers too.” It’s a straight shot from there to the wild, beer-soakedantiauthoritarianism of the 1978 Animal House , with Bluto (John Belushi), the symbolic center of the movie’s anarchy, crushing beer cans and smashing beer bottles aeainst his head.
In another and subtler guise, this is the macho bohemian side of beer culture, a line that stretches from Jack London’s waterfront dives to the Beats, all variations on working-class skepticism. The person who may have understood this strain best was John Steinbeck, whose 1945 novel Cannery Row gave us the nonconformist scientist Doc and the ne’er-do-wells of Monterey’s sardine district. “‘There,’” Doc says of them, “‘are your true philosophers. … In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. He waved two fingers in the air and smiled. ‘There’s nothing like that first taste of beer,’ he said.”
The deepest layer of all, though, lies in the ties between beer, work, and the saloon and the connection of all of these to a working-class vision of democracy that has seduced the whole culture. Somehow, by the middle of the twentieth century, the bar where men shared beer had picked up resonances of both the colonial tavern, mythical birthplace of patriotism and democracy, and the pre-Prohibition saloon, refuge from the competitive marketplace, from confining domesticity, from the coldness of modern life, from the pressure to rise and “better” oneself. The Miller brand discovered the power of the image when, in the late sixties, marketers changed the advertising approach. “The Champagne of Bottled Beers,” with its implicit appeal to class, became “It’s Miller Time,” an ode to the workingman, and Miller found itself shooting up from seventh place in beer sales to second.
If wine was about class aspiration, and cocktails were connected with the compulsive striving for success, beer, in this deepest layer, was about accepting who you are and trying to get by. It was about effacing, for a time, the bruising society outside the bar with the joy and dignity, the original democracy, of the community inside. And it was about holding on, in a harsh world, to your sanity and your sense of humor.