In a country raised on a Protestant/Puritan work ethic, where hard work and diligence is mashed together with an unhealthy dose of individualism and aesthetic abstention, it is ironic that consuming alcohol is considered by some to be the nation's first national pastime, and unsurprising that this pastime has had such a storied history. The era that perhaps stands out the most is Prohibition and the simultaneous explosion of illegal alcohol sales, when alcohol's social meaning was imbued with iconic images of moonshine and mobsters. (Literary side note: At the same time, alcohol and Prohibition informed the work of a generation of writers. Take, just as one example, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In criticizing the moral decline of a society consumed by artifice and excess, the book offers numerous instances of alcohol consumption to contrast the moralizing efforts of its Prohibition setting.)
One could argue that the United States is entering another important moment in alcohol history with today's craft beer movement, as we witness a shift, or at least a shake-up, in the symbolic meaning and cultural role of beer in particular (as opposed to alcohol in general). According to the Brewers Association, the highest number of breweries operated in 2009 in the U.S. since before Prohibition. And while beer sales overall were down 2%, craft beer sales were up 10% over 2008. Aside from flavor and quality, what craft beer drinkers are buying into, at least on some level, is the definition of craft beer itself, "small, independent, and traditional." Yes, in the hops of United States' favorite national pastime lie seeds of challenge to a capitalist-consumerist view of alcohol championed by big breweries like Anheuser-Busch/Inbev and Miller/Coors.
Recently, CraftBeer.com posted an article by Julia Herz about how the craft beer movement has shaken up the gender stereotypes surrounding beer as well. While giving shout outs to the industry's female brewers, Herz's title "Women, Craft Beers and Centerfolds" mocks beer's traditional association with equally traditional views of masculinity and virility. The Social Issues Research Centre's brief look at gender and alcohol shows why this is a significant change:
While differences in age, class, status, aspirations and affiliations are frequently expressed through beverage choice, the most consistent and widespread use of alcohol as a social ‘differentiator’ is in the gender-based classification of drinks. Almost all societies make some distinction between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ beverages: even where no other differentiation is found, this primary division is likely to be evident, and, often, to be rigidly observed.
Even in societies where only one alcoholic beverage is available, such as palm wine among the Lele of Zaire, a weaker, sweeter version, Mana ma piya, is considered suitable for women, while Mana ma kobo, described as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, is a man’s drink (Ngokwey, 1987). This literal association of the qualities of men’s and women’s beverages with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes is also a near-universal phenomenon. ‘Feminine’ drinks are often weaker, sweeter, softer or less ‘pure’ than their ‘masculine’ counterparts (Freund, 1986;Gefou-Madianou’s, 1992; Papagaroufali,1992; Purcell, 1994; Macdonald, 1994; Nahoum-Grappe, 1995).
Where female drinking is particularly deplored but nonetheless occurs, alcoholic beverages consumed by women are often conveniently granted a sort of honorary ‘non-alcoholic’ status, such that their consumption does not count as ‘drinking’ (McDonald, 1994; Purcell, 1994). Among Scottish Highlanders, the classification of ‘ladies’ drinks’ as ‘not really alcohol’ may occasionally be taken too literally: Macdonald (1994) recalls an incident in which a drunken man who drove his car off the road one night, miraculously escaping serious injury, "insisted that he had not been ‘drinking’ – he had only had Bacardi and Coke!"
Even in societies where there is less disapprobation attached to female drinking per se, we find that certain drinks are considered unfeminine, while others are regarded as too feminine for male consumption (Engs et al, 1991). The symbolic potency of alcohol is such that the appropriation of ‘male’ drinks by women may act as a more effective feminist statement than conventional political approaches such as demonstrations or pamphlets (Papagaroufali,1992; Fox, 1994).
The gender lines of the craft beer movement is just one part of a very interesting conversation that's waiting to be had. For instance (and to return briefly to the distant place where this post started), does the situation of craft beer in the big picture indicate a shift away from a work ethic that has skewed and stunted the U.S.'s perception of work and happiness (See the Center for Economic and Policy Research's report, "No-Vacation Nation")?