When you think about young, underaged, clueless teens sneaking off for an act of rebellion, what do you see them sneaking off to drink?
What about a crew of construction workers leaving the site and heading to a bar? What will they reach for?
A tired business executive coming home after a long hard day’s work?
Wine, tequila, vodka, rum, gin, or beer?
The UK may have recently announced through an informal poll that Argentinian reds have tipped UK’s appetites towards wine over beer, but breweries and pubs argue otherwise and say that beer sales are 10% higher than wine. In the United States, liquor and wine continue to chip at beer sales, but brew still remains the country’s best selling alcoholic beverage.
Obviously, not every country in the world has citizens favoring beer over wine or other beverages. In countries where some other alcoholic beverage is culturally imbued — soju in Korea, sake in Japan, Mekong whiskey in Thailand, for instance – beer sales suffer. Yet even in those countries, beer intake is on the rise.
And with good reason. Throughout the twentieth century, as more and more countries industrialized, beer was the drink which had no attached baggage.
Think about it. A clueless and insecure man walks into a drinking establishment with colleagues and proceeds to order the most popular beer brand they sell. Although not a very good brew, although not made with quality, it’s a blameless choice. None of his associates are going to turn to him in derisory tones and, “How can you drink Budweiser/Beck/Amstel/Heineken?” They’re probably drinking the very same thing!
Wine, on the other hand, has cultivated another appeal, and until quite recently, it was a drink thought to cater to well heeled sophisticates. If you were writing a story in which two posh characters were sitting in the lounge having a drink together, you’d likely have them drinking a rare bottle of wine that costs tens of thousands of dollars. There’s probably a bottle of beer somewhere that can fetch $10,000 or more, but I’ve never heard of it.
We have wine cellars to house our extensive and presumably expensive collections of wine. There is no equivalent beer cellar. Or rum cellar. Or vodka cellar. Wine has historically positioned itself as a drink for the elites. That’s starting to change slowly, as wine sellers offer a wider range of wines at more varied prices, some downright cheap. In 2002, the American specialty grocery store Trader Joe’s started offering wines by a company called Charles Shaw that sold bottles for US$1.99. These bottles soon became known as “Two Buck Chuck” and Trader Joe’s has gone on to sell 600 million bottles of them in the ensuing decade. Trader Joe’s insists that “these wines have struck a chord – they’ve proven that wine doesn’t need to be expensive to be good, drinkable wine.” I think that’s simplifying the matter a bit too much. Two Buck Chuck sold 600 million bottles because people perceive wine to be an expensive drink. When they saw a wine for less than $2 being marketed by a credible grocery, they felt they were getting a deal. Two Buck Chuck is not eminently drinkable. Wine appeals to the masses because they think they’re getting something expensive for a song.
Beer drinkers don’t need that snob appeal. The biggest of beer drinkers don’t know or care about hop types, gravity, filtration, secondary fermentations, natural carbonations, or whatever. This, too, however is starting to change, as craft beers take a larger share of the market.
Craft beers, in a sense, are like the wines of the beer market. They can be priced higher because the public perceives they should cost more. An ultra cheap “Two Buck Chuck”-type of craft beer would likely be derided in the beer marketplace because it doesn’t cater to anyone. Joe Averages, content with whatever mainstream beer is available, wouldn’t seek out another brand; they’re on autopilot most of the time they order. The growing class of beer snobs would raise their noses at an ultra cheap craft beer, thinking it a lowly made industrial posing as a piece of art.
Various other types of alcoholic beverages become the baggage-less drink of choice in select situations. If our group of underaged teens is traveling to the Caribbean and looking to get tanked as quickly as possible, they’d reach for bottles of rum. The Caribbean is renowned for producing high quality export grade rums, but where high grade is found, so are gallon jugs of rot gut. These teens wouldn’t be downing Appleton Estate 21 Year Master Blender’s Legacy. They’d be picking up the plastic bottle in the aisle which merely reads RUM on the label . . . because it costs less than a Big Mac combo meal. On a wild night out in Tijuana, Mexico, the average drinker would content himself with no-name el cheapo mezcals and tequilas sitting alongside the windows in the myriad of duty-free stores.
Where beer is unique is that it is a safe choice in any situation. Wherever you go, there are always ‘safe’ and eminently affordable brands available.
Know what shotgunning is? I first became acquainted with the custom, but never practiced it, in college. A hole is punched into the side of can of beer and the beer in ingested very quickly. Is wine shotgunned? No, it’s savored. Shots of vodka, tequila, or rum could be downed rather quickly, but they’re thought of more as drinks to be enjoyed in various cocktail forms, sipped more quickly than savored but not shotgunned.
Beer is an elastic alcoholic beverage. No one condemns you for drinking the cheapest or drinking it like a slob. Fellow drinkers will actually slap you on the back and buy you another after you’ve documented your shotgun expertise. Someone as dumb and incompetent as Homer Simpson can drink cheap Duff Beer and fit in, while a brilliant and ultra competent millionaire CEO can drink more elite Belgian ales and also fit in.