Historical roots of beer vs wine snobbery? A Spanish perspective

Our amigo Chela has posted an interesting entry on the “Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza” blog about the supposed battle between wine and beer. He suggests that in “wine countries”, wine has always been democratic in its appeal to high and low society alike. In traditional beer-drinking countries, on the other hand, we’ve developed a bit of an inferiority complex towards wine over the ages. And from this has recently emerged the trend for trying to make beer “the new wine”, and leading in some cases to a “Manichean battle” between beer and wine, or at least lots of words being written on why beer is superior to wine.

This can be seen from googling “beer is the new wine”, and is a topic that recurs on American beer blogs in particular. Appellation beer, for example, have a whole series of posts about beer and wine, making “beer is not the new wine” one of their rules. Amen to that. There are enough bloody know-it-alls as it is, without making beer into some rarified “interest”. That said, it would be nice if it had a bit more respect, i.e. articles in the weekend papers, the odd nice beer in a restaurant, that kind of thing.

Back to Chela’s post. There were many interesting comments in response about people’s preferences, whether one really was better, and trends in shopping for wine. But what really interested me were the historical reasons put forward for the cultural superiority of wine. Obviously, in the UK, it’s always been a status symbol, as only the rich could afford it, but why should it be considered a superior drink in countries where it’s common, cheap and easy to produce, like Spain? Galguera suggested it has its roots in the Roman empire — wine being associated with the sophisticated Romans, while the barbaric huns drank beer. Cotoya suggests the religious influence is more important — you don’t get communion beer, after all.

I thought these were interesting points. I’ve had the occasional debate with a wine-lover about how sophisticated beer can be, how it can be just as complex as wine, but I’d never really thought about the origins of our cultural prejudices, or how common they were across Europe, despite the differences in drinking cultures.

Notes

Chela, Cotoya and Galguera all contribute to Compañía Asturiana de Amigos de la Cerveza. If you don’t speak Spanish, Google translate does a pretty good job these days, but don’t trust it to translate English into Spanish.

Boak

15 thoughts on “Historical roots of beer vs wine snobbery? A Spanish perspective”

  1. I really don´t give a damn about the Wine Vs Beer thing. I´ve come to the conclussion that the vast majority of people don´t have a palate and can´t be relied on discerning good from bad.

    Even in a “wine country” as mine, you will find people spending loads of money on “good wine” and then they wont spend the extra buck to go for something more than a Quilmes, Heineken or Stella. It´s not strange to hear from them that decent beer has “strong flavor” while they swill their pale lager… wtf??

    Sadly, in the end it seems to be nothing more than a trend thing.

    The very reduced group of “wine people” on which palate I know I can count on, have been more than receptive after drinking “good beer” for their first time and are more than eager to drink an occasional pint of stout, pale ale or even IPA. In fact, most of them complain of not being able to palate the “industrial stuff” anymore.

  2. In the post I tried to emphasise the cohabitation of both drinks-and their resulting cultures, without forcing that permanent struggle a number of critics especially from some USA beer and wine circles are making

    I also tried to put the stress on the following points:

    There’s no room for that “manichean” battle because each drink has its
    moment , its space and both can, from my perspective,live together.

    On Gastronomy There`s a place for beer at the table because its gastronomic posibilities are endless when pairing food. What we need is a kind of “beer awareness” from the professionals to finally introduce it in their menus.

    Wine is in many countries over valued, it is too much related to class and high living standars. There’s a popular side of good wine that some economic sector deliberately avoids because wine exclusiveness is more profitable.The problem is that in general that fact derives into snobbery. In my opinion, both wine and beer snobbery have to be avoided in order to appreciate and enjoy each drink at their best. Expresions such as “beer is the new wine” or comparisons between both drinks are useless and uneffective. “knowledge makes us free” and through it we can fight things as snobbery itself, abusive prices, trends and bad experiences.That knowledge is useful for a beer culture to get rid of that so-called inferiority complex towards wine and for a wine culture to appreciate the great and rich world that lies behind a good beer.

    Beer can express a lot by itself without any comparison possible. And so does wine. Understanding their differences and respecting personal tastes and elections is the best way of giving each drink its own space.

    Haya Salud

    P.S- Thanks a lot for the link and kind references, amigos.Glad you enjoy the post!!!

  3. Chela – of course I didn’t do justice to your original post and the debate that followed. I also think the two can get along just fine.

    But I was interested in exploring why we’ve got these stereotypes in the first place.

    Cheers for posting!

  4. Boak,
    The reason is simple. In non wine countries, the drink was always imorted, which made it expensive and thus, only available to the elites. They are the ones who created a wine culture in Britain and the USA. Wine then, became associated with them and sofistication while beer with the masses.
    You can still see that in American politics. Joe Sixpack (the real American) vs. Chardonnay drinkers (European-like snobs).

  5. Yes, but why the stereotype in wine drinking countries as well? I know that wine is “more democratic” in Spain, i.e. everyone drinks it, regardless of class, but it is still seen as a “better” drink than beer. Unless I just missed all those posh restaurants with beer menus?

  6. As it is Known, vineyards and wine were in Rome much before Christianity reached its status as religion of the Empire and they were spread almost all over Europe as a side effect of The Conquest.

    The real fact is that wine snobbery is a minority in the wine European countries menawhile it is a proper “movement” in non producer European ones and especially in the USA.

  7. Very interesting point about the history of this. I’d add that the religious factor grew from that same Roman worldview: Christianity owes its existence to the culture of Roman Empire, after all.

    I hypothesise that if the European wine-producing countries which have a culture of “wine snobbery” also had a parallel beer industry which produced beer as popular and as varied in quality and price as their wine, they would have a parallel beer snob culture too. But they don’t produce beer like this, generally. In most of them good beer is of novelty interest or doesn’t exist.

  8. Wine snobbery has spread to all corners of the world. That is because it is good business, that is why it exists in wine countries, too. But mostly it is helped by the “mystique” that wine has and beer probably never will.
    As I said in CAAC blog, the average consumer will associate wine with concepts like vintage, varietals, terroirs, etc, while beer will be associated with a brand, even in beer countries like the Czech Republic.
    These things have been abused by the marketing people and have had a bad effect on both beer and wine.
    The worst thing is that in the Czech Rep, and I believe in Germany and Austria as well (all countries with a relatively imortant wine industry) when you go to a posh restaurant, you will be offered a list of hundreds of wines from all over the planet, but you will have only one or two choices of mass produced beer.
    And as for beer snobbery, it already exists, to a lesser degree than the wine one. Just look around reviews in beeradvocate or ratebeer to see it at work.

  9. If you want to be historical… the US was a Whiskey(portability) and Cider country until German Immigration reached critical mass in the late 19th century. Then prohibition put distilled spirits back in the primary place again. Post prohibition wine had a very bad reputation until the 1970’s-80’s (hence the term Wino for an alcoholic bum) when the wine marketers overcame the fortified wine stigma and California wine made giant leaps. This ran in parallel with the critical mass of rising affluence and Americans travelling abroad and discovering the food and wine culture of Europe. Meanwhile a similar thing was happening to beer, as Americans who travelled abroad experienced better beer and began to demand same at home. They either started import companies or microbreweries which cribbed off Europe. It’s a very new phenomenon.

  10. Some very interesting comments here, thanks! It hadn’t occured to me about the origins of “wino”.

    Belgium seems to be the one beer-producing country where they have real respect and interest in it. In Germany and the Czech republic, people will proudly tell you they have the best beer in the world, but don’t seem that interested in trying different types – certainly in Germany they look at you quite strangely if you want to try a different drink on the next round. In Belgium, there seems to be more respect and interest for the variety, and you get it in a lot more restaurants.

    Or is that just a simplistic and uninformed generalisation?

  11. Boak,
    I think you are right about Czech Rep. and Germany. At most pubs you will find only one or two beers, usually from the same brewery/group. But at least here in Prague, things are slowly starting to change, Pivovarsky Klub has been a massive success and other pubs with rotating beers, or a wider offer have started to copy the model, sort of, and doing quite well at that.
    brendan has a point, but is forgetting that Claret and Champagne were already drunk at fancy dinners of the American High Society at least as early as the first half of the 19th century.
    The wine that the winos drank I’m sure was no different to the tetrapack wines favoured by the winos of today. These wines are completely ignored by wine snobs, as if it was something else, or something that didn’t exist.

  12. Although wine snobbery has spread to every corner people in European wine culture countries( and by them I mean, Portugal,Spain, France and Italy) have great chances of avoiding it and making a, let’s call it, normal approach to the wine they like because is something attached to our cultural origin. Of course you also find bad wine, posh wine, snob wine but we have to underline that there mere exceptions. Max raised (on CAAC) a real interesting point by mentioning that there are marketing movements taking adavantage out of this snobbery which force people to buy something which quality doesn’t worth the price they’ve given it.

    Similar cases in beer is something that people from European Beer culture countries should try to avoid in all cases.
    As we said before we need education and instinct together in order to enjoy our favourite drink paying not attention at all the snob movements, whether they are product of a trend or an economic interest .

  13. In beer countries like Czech or Germany I don’t see beer snobbery as a threat. In these countries the consumer is used to good quality, yet cheap beers. Ironically, it is a disadvantage for those who want to brew something very special, aimed at a gourmet market.

  14. Those marketing gimmicks can happen only thanks to those things that give wine its mystique. Meaning that if a wine has been made in bordeaux with grapes from local vineyards harvested in 2006, it’s going to be a Bordeaux 2006, and there is no arguing that. Whether the end result is a good wine or not, that’s another thing.
    A similar thing happens with those rubbish German house brands sold at discount supermarkets.

  15. That’s the point, the cultural feature allowing people to be used to good quality without paying an unfair price. That’s the same it happens in Portugal, Spain or Italy regarding to wine…And for the same reason wine snobbery is something we just don’t care about.

    I think that t he marketing we are referring to is also affecting beer in some way. Belgian beer is highly considered by a great amount of beer lovers and a lot of other consummers not specialised in beer. Lots of people tend to think that a beer is good by the mere fact of being Belgian, in the same way others do with the Bordeaux 2006 you mention.

    P.S-BTWPeople who only see Bourdeaux 2006 on the label is what I’d call wine snobs- or even a worse name I won’t say in public hehehe

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