Beer and Pavement

On Soul

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Manifesto by SM on November 18, 2011
Trappist Westvleteren 12

There's a whole lotta soul under those caps. - Click for source.

Some big news in the beer world this week was AB InBev’s announcement that they will be opening Belgium beer cafes, sort of akin to the influx of Irish pubs 20 years ago. For such stories, I like to depend human filters such as Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer Blog. Stan sorted through an article to find a key quote. One line caught my eye:

“You don’t build create a Belgian beer cafe in five minutes,” De Baets says. “It’s generations of owners and customers that build the place, and then give a soul to it.”

De Baets is Yvan De Baets, masterbrewer and co-owner of De la Senne brewery in Brussels. Stan sees De Baets as a trusted mind in the beer community. So, by proxy, I trust him as well.

Regardless, the part that really struck me was the fact that an authentic Belgian beer cafe has a soul. That’s the biggest difference between an actual Belgian beer cafe and whatever AB InBev will establish in every mall and airport across the country. The idea of the soul of a place (or things – that’s coming) speaks to me. It feels like the clear difference between the authentic and corporate is the soul.

How does a place or thing develop a soul? As suggested above, it’s the people who frequent a place. It’s experiences and memories that contribute to a soul. I suppose that’s not entirely different from people, but we tend to have souls to begin with (if you believe in that sort of thing). All the marketing in the world cannot construct a soul. If anything, the sterilized, watered-down, corporate aesthetic that is sure to pervade these AB InBev beer cafes will hardly leave room for a soul to develop.

Anything corporate tends to be soulless. Despite what Mitt Romney tells us, corporations are not people and they have no soul. Of course, an authentic Belgian beer cafe isn’t technically able to have a soul either, but try telling that to its loyal patrons. For anyone who has a regular place at which they socialize and imbibe, said place is a living, breathing thing. So, such a place can have a soul. It just takes a while to develop.

Before you all jump down my throat for discounting anything corporate, I’ll admit that these places and things can have a soul. It’s just more difficult in a corporate model. Apple products have a soul, even when some of their corporate actions are a bit soulless. Some of the old auto factories in Detroit certainly had souls as the center of their communities…until they were shut down and their jobs were sent south of the border. (I’m not talking about Ohio.) There are other examples, but I don’t think it’s nearly as prevalent as the non-corporate world.

Like the Belgian beer cafes, craft beer has a soul. It’s in the people who found breweries and brew the beer. It comes from the cicerones and beer enthusiasts. Homebrewers almost certainly play a role in the soul of craft beer as well. While corporate beer depends on its own people, hard-working, salt of the earth kinds of people, it’s not the same thing. Any semblance of a soul is sucked out corporate rice adjunct lagers when you find the Budweiser you get in St. Louis is exactly the same as the one you get in Hong Kong or Germany. Corporate efforts to standardize their product everywhere strips it of its humanity and its soul with it.

Craft beer demonstrates its soul through the characters who represent it. Although Boston Beer Co. has nearly outgrown its craft beer status, Jim Koch remains the face of Sam Adams beers and continues to fight for the company’s soul. Better examples might be found at Dogfish Head (Sam Calagione), Stone (Greg Koch), Russian River (Vinnie Cilurzo), Jolly Pumpkin (Ron Jeffries), Stillwater (Brian Strumke), etc. All these people are not only advocates for their industry, they are also personality that encapsulates their breweries. This personality and humanity gives these breweries soul.

Soul is how I separate what’s indie and what’s not. No, I’m not talking about that kind of soul, but it can fit my definition if need be. I’m talking about the same kind of soul that goes into craft beer. It’s that soul that can only be associated with humanity that defines indie rock. Can a band on a major label have soul? Sure. However, so many musicians are constructed or manipulated in a way that strips their art of any kind of soul.

Music, like all art, is tougher to pin down to what has soul and what doesn’t. It’s so much more subjective. Also, all art comes from a very human place, meaning that just about all of it demonstrates a soul at work. So, I won’t go much further into what constitutes soulful music and what doesn’t. I have a post on the way about what’s indie. That should suffice to define my criteria.

Anyway, the original point is that something that is indie, craft, artisanal, whatever demonstrates soul or soulfulness. The human component should be strong in order for that soul to exist. As producers grow and become more corporate, some of that humanity and consequently the soul is lost. So, the next time someone asks why you choose to drink that craft beer, tell them it’s because it has soul.

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