Wine marketers have it comparatively easy. They merely summon a picture of a bucolic vineyard or people raising their glasses around a table full of food—they don't have to sell their selling points. This is why brewers have been frantically pushing beer-and-food pairings lately. Beer—which can be great with food, by the way—is in danger of being left out of the American mealtime, banished to the den (only when pro sports are on) or to the back porch (only for the early rounds of grilling).
The boom in foodie connoisseurship in this country has dovetailed with the rise of pastoral chic. Both trends work in wine's favor. Wine, even when it's made at oil-refinery volume, can trade on pastoral associations; beer seems somewhat industrial, no matter how handcrafted the brew. This is a serious handicap. Cheers columnist Lew Bryson, in his beery lament, acknowledges as much when he calls for "a change in beer's culture: Scotch whisky people don't talk about 'moving units' of 'the liquid'; they talk about 'selling cases of whisky.' "
But it's more than a question of switching terminology. Wine is basically an agricultural product (fermented grapes), while beer is the result of a complicated process of manufacture (boiling barley to extract sugars, adding hops and yeast, fermenting the wort that results). This holds true whether the brewer is a medieval English villager or Anheuser-Busch. The hallmark of beer is consistency: A brewer strives to make batch after batch of Pilsener so it tastes the same—and often succeeds without much difficulty. Wine is more variable: The sugar levels and tannins and acidity of the grapes fluctuate from year to year, and so does the character of the resulting wines. This explains why the whole concept of vintages is so central to wine but largely absent from beer.
In fact, you can trace the United States' shift from an agrarian society to an urban, industrial one through beer. In the Colonial era, settlers drank mostly hard cider (the rural drink of choice), rum, and whiskey. It wasn't until the mid-19th century, when German immigrants came over in large numbers to man the new factories and brought their brewing skills with them, that beer really took off. When beer became more popular than cider around the time of the Civil War, it signaled an altered American landscape as much as altered tastes. Mass-market beer arose out of two key innovations of the industrial revolution: refrigeration and pasteurization. Suddenly, beer could travel long distances, and lager slowly took over countryside as well as town.
But in America today, beer has lost its grip. In a column on brown ales, Eric Asimov, the drinks writer for the New York Times, wrote a line that could serve as a beer elegy: "Mild brown ales, the knock-back drink of thirsty coal miners and dock workers, are not so appealing to post-industrial office workers, who are less thirsty and more aspirational."
But who knows? Pastoral nostalgia fueled the wine boom—after all, we long ago became a mostly urban and suburban nation. Maybe industrial nostalgia will be next, now that our factories are gone. Cubicle-dwellers, raise your pints!