Toasting Regionality

One of the great things about traveling to different parts of the United States is the chance to experience the differences that exist from one region to another.  Whether it’s mountains versus seacoast versus rolling prairie, odd local food favorites, or curious accents found only in one part of the country, the intrepid traveler strives to check out, and appreciate, the unique aspects of different sections of our large and diverse country.

Regionality was once in danger of being lost, back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, with the rush toward sprawling national brands, like McDonalds and KFC and WalMart, that used the power of economies of scale and familiarity to put a lot of local concerns out of business.  But the tide seems to have turned, and craft beers are leading the way.

Wherever you go — whether it’s Asheville, North Carolina, or San Antonio, Texas, or the Pacific Northwest, or Columbus, Ohio — small local breweries are creating their own unique brews, with labels and brands that typically celebrate some element of local culture.  Even better, these entrepreneurs of the suds have been able to convince local pubs and grocery stores and gas stations to carry their offerings.  Boosters are touting their successful local breweries as examples of the special qualities of their communities and how small concerns can thrive in their business-friendly towns.  And virtually every sizable city and town lays claim to being one of the premier craft beer settings in the country.

Our recent trip to Maine was no different.  New England generally, and Maine specifically, offer a lot of local beers that you simply can’t find here in the Midwest.  I felt honor-bound to sample some of the distinctive offerings we found in restaurants and at the grocery store — it’s one of the duties of the intrepid traveler, in my view — and all of them were good.  A particular favorite was Allagash White, a light, fizzy, crisp beer that went especially well with a steaming bowl of haddock chowder and oyster crackers on a rainy day.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to try the Smiling Irish Bastard, but I did get a kick out of the name and the label.

It’s interesting that breweries have become a source of distinctive local pride, and it’s a trend that is good to see.

When Federal Regulation Goes Too Far

Government regulation is the price we pay for living in a civilized society.  But when ill-advised government regulations threaten to limit the selection of craft beers available to the brew lovers among us, it’s time for the feds to dial back and understand their proper role.

In this case, the government actor is the Food and Drug Administration.  It’s the entity that makes sure that Americans don’t consume diseased foods or drugs that have harmful side effects.  No one disputes the need for such regulations, of course.  But the FDA has also promulgated a regulation that would require restaurant chains to offer full nutritional information for all of the beers they have on tap.  In order to comply with the regulations, which go into effect next year, brewers will need to perform expensive tests that allow them to specify the number of calories in their beer, the protein content, and so on.

usa-whitehouse-beerThe tests are a cost that can easily be borne by the major breweries that crank out millions of bottles of beer a year — but not so much for the small, local craft breweries that prepare tantalizing artisanal offerings in small batches that typically vary from season to season.  Think of that rich Winter Warmer you enjoyed when the cold snap hit last weekend, or the tart Summer Shandy you found so refreshing on a hot July afternoon.  The cost of the tests might cause the craft breweries to dial back on the number of their interesting offerings, which would be a shame for us, and them — and for the people employed in the craft beer industry, which has been booming in Ohio and elsewhere.

I’m all for labeling consumables where people might logically want to look at the label to determine calorie count, cholesterol levels, carbohydrates, sodium content, or whatever other ingredient might be an area of dietary focus.  And if brewers want to market their suds based on one of these areas — like with low-carb beer — then by all means let’s make sure those statements are accurate.

But craft beer is not one of those consumables where ingredient labels are useful.  No true beer-lover makes a decision on whether to order a particular craft beer based on its protein content or calorie level.  They just want to know what kind of beer it is (“hmm, that Belgian-style ale sounds good”) and its alcoholic content, which is typically disclosed already at any decent craft beer establishment.

Inspect the breweries?  Sure.  Make certain that they are clean and aren’t producing a product that might make people sick?  Absolutely!  But don’t implement pointless regulations that wouldn’t make a difference to craft beer consumers, and in the process cut down on our choices.

Doesn’t anyone in the FDA drink beer?  If not, perhaps they should consult with President Obama.  He seems to like a cold one now and then.