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story.lead_photo.caption (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/PHILIP MARTIN)

I don't know how many bottles of beer

I have consumed while waiting for things to get better

-- Charles Bukowski, "Beer"

I have known some prodigious beer drinkers.

My father, who I never saw drunk, bought Old Milwaukee by the case. Four cases at once, if it was on sale -- 96 beers. That would take care of a three-day weekend. I don't think beer counted as drinking in his mind; it was just hydration.

And there was a lonely stretch where I spent a lot of time with my friend Jim, who guzzled Pearl Light, can after can after can, as we sat up late at night and watched the Braves and Cubs and whatever came after and waited for our lives to start back up. I didn't try to keep pace with him; I only liked the first cold sip anyway, the grains bum-rushing the back of my throat. I'd hold one in my hand for hours, letting it warm. When I brought it back up to my lips it tasted of stale aluminum.

I drank beer with a writer friend the night Bill Clinton was elected president. I don't remember what brand, but it was bottled and a step up from Budweiser or Miller; probably an import. We bought a couple of six-packs at a liquor store, not a grocery or Quik-E mart. There was archival footage of the candidate jogging past my former house -- my writer friend didn't quite believe me when I pointed out my old porch.

He quit writing soon after, and became a carpenter. I don't know that Clinton or beer had anything to do with his decision; he knew he was a good writer but maybe he was a better carpenter. He promised to make me a mesquite wood table inlaid with turquoise, but I moved away before he finished it. He went back to Texas and opened a store.

He could drink some beer.

So could author Larry Brown that night in Oxford when we started out at City Grocery before closing down the bar in the University Inn. (Every now and then he'd order a peach schnapps, but mostly Budweiser.)

Beer was our gateway drug; before we could drive we would wander our suburban neighborhood at night, clutching Schlitz Tall Boys we'd somehow procured. (Mike and Steve both looked 10 years older than they were; they had five o'clock shadows at 15.)

In college we thought it was funny to go to parties where St. Pauli Girl and Heineken were popular with our generic K&B beer from Katz and Besthoff. It was cheap and mood-altering; we figured the rest was just posturing.

I went through a Heineken phase; I drank Carlsberg Elephant. Guinness doesn't seem the same in this country. I usually buy local stuff, though once in a while I'll mix in a Lagunitas. The once a rebellious little label made no secret of its fondness for cannabis. After a narcotics bust at a St. Patrick's Day brewery party resulted in a 20-day suspension of Lagunitas' California brewing license, the brewmasters released the commemorative "especially bitter" Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale. It is now a Heineken subsidiary.

TWO IS THE LIMIT

I don't claim to be a beer drinker. Two is my limit; more like one and a half. For a long time I wouldn't drink canned beer -- now I pour it in a glass. I know some beer aficionados don't like green bottles, but I have no idea why.

OK, that's lazy journalism, reminiscent of the guy who once wondered aloud in his column whether you could still get typewriter ribbons when he could have picked up the phone and called a stationery store. So I spent 15 minutes Googling "What's wrong with green beer bottles?" and found myself down a rabbit hole where people were discussing whether beer in green bottles tastes skunky or not.

The best explanation of why was contained in a column by Wired contributing writer and professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University Rhett Allain, who conducted a couple of experiments then asked his brother Eric Allain, a bio-chemist, why green glass is a problem.

Allain replied that green glass and clear glass are a problem and if you want to avoid skunky beer you should probably stick to brown glass bottles. To wit:

Certain light sensitive compounds present in hops are the culprit of the skunky aroma which lead to the production of 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (MBT). MBT has an extremely low flavor threshold and is very similar to the compound produced by skunks for defense.

Amber bottles block much of the wavelengths of light (300-500 nm [nanometers]) that lead to this photooxidation, but green and clear bottles do not ...

Since the MBT is derived from hop components, different beers with different amounts or types of hops may lead to varying levels of light induced MBT.

Boosh!

This is another reason why I am not a beer columnist. You have to do a lot of Googling to keep up. It's an oceanic subject and science is involved.

For a lot of people beer is cold, wet and inoffensive, with just the merest suggestion of alcohol. Beer is a drink for a summer afternoon, an adult lemonade, a refreshment. They would argue that beer is like a summer blockbuster -- the best way to think of it is not too deeply. Enjoy it in moderation if you must, and laugh at the funny Super Bowl ads.

But it is obvious that some people -- men especially, but not exclusively -- think a lot about beer. It may be that beer is some kind of primal beverage. Archaeologists have suggested that the discovery of beer predates the discovery of wine and even bread. Wandering nomadic tribes have, through trial and error, ascertained that wild barley mixed with water and fermented with yeast was more potable than untreated water and less likely to cause gastric distress. It probably helped that it produced a little buzz.

There are even some anthropologists -- a minority, but more than a crackpot few -- who hold it was beer and not bread that provided the driving motive behind agriculture and therefore the genesis of civilization. Think of it, Homer! Beer might have been the primary agent of human cultural evolution.

It feels like we're in the midst of a beer renaissance, with craft breweries springing up all over the place. Yet in 2018, for the first time since Prohibition, more Americans ordered wine or cocktails in bars than they did beer. And while the decline of corporate lager might seem precipitous, even with all the craft breweries springing up all over the place, only one in eight beers sold in the United States qualifies as a craft beer.

BIG BRANDS VS. CRAFT BREWERS

The three top-selling beers, accounting for more than 25% of the beer sold in the United States in 2018, were Bud Light, Coors Light and Budweiser. Miller Lite came in fourth, Corona fifth and Michelob Ultra sixth.

So the big brands dominate, which ought to be self-evident. They buy a lot of commercial air time. Craft beers are inherently small-batched and regional; we wouldn't expect any to crack the Top 25 and none do -- although Yuengling Lager and Molson-Coors' Blue Moon, which came in at No. 18 and 19 respectively, market themselves as sort-of craft products.

But the decline of corporate lager has been precipitous these past few decades. Compared to 2016, Bud Light sales were down 6.2%; Coors Light were down 4.1%; Budweiser down 7.5%; and Miller Lite down 2.8%.

The import Corona sales grew 3.6%, and Michelob Ultra, marketed to fitness enthusiasts, experienced a booming 21.3% uptick. (While light beer is typically derided as watery and characterless by people who write about beer, in 2017 the three top-sellers -- Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite -- were lower-calorie alternatives to a presumptive "main" product.)

There's another trend at work here. While the consumers of craft beer generally dismiss the products made by the biggest breweries, many craft breweries see a potential growth opportunity in the still-overwhelming number of consumers who drink Bud Lite and Coors. They've expanded their product lines to produce beers that are less hoppy and singular than the IPAs, stouts, porters, bocks and Hefeweizen they're known for, figuring that there are probably consumers who prefer the blander corporate product but might pay a few pennies more for the cachet of a cooler label.

We're starting to see a lot more pale and blond ales from smaller breweries. For most people, it seems the only problem with beer might be its drinkability. They want a beer they can suck down like water when they're good and thirsty.

Beer also serves as kind of a low-cost status marker, one of the factors of our self-image. So the corporate giants portray craft beer drinkers as pretentious and frivolous while craft breweries offer an alternative to the stainless tanked anonymity of the industrial brewers. From a certain perspective it all seems silly, but that's how retail works. It all comes down to what kind of marketing story consumers will buy and what price they'll pay for it.

I believe Americans should take beer a little more seriously and wine a little less so.

But then I used to say that Americans choose their beer the same way they choose their elected officials; that while we make a lot of noise about how much character matters, in the end we tend to end up with something bland and smooth. I'm not sure that analogy holds anymore.

Email:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

blooddirtangels.com

Style on 08/04/2019

Print Headline: Mega-beer sales decline

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