The Counter Culture Roots of Craft Beer

In 1969 Sociologist Theodore Roszak wrote a seminal book called “The Making of a Counter Culture”. In his book Roszak develops the concept of a counter culture, which is roughly defined as the provocative, new and even radical creations of a generation of youth profoundly alienated from the parental generation. It is a questioning of the status quo as represented by the dominant world view and an undermining of the foundations of what Rosazak termed the “technocracy” (technological aristocracy)  – read industrialization, mass marketization and homogenization of all aspects of culture. Roszak goes on to propose the “myth of the objective consciousness” postulating that a culture, which subordinates or degrades the visionary commits the sin of diminishing our existence. The question facing us is not “How shall we know?” but “How shall we live?”

It seems to me that we have been embracing this rejection of the technocracy in many facets of culture ever since. We are increasingly concerned with the inequitable and unsustainable way in which we interact with the earth and with each other. There seems to be a genuine desire for change driving many of the ways we now choose to live our lives, and nowhere is this more obvious than in our ever evolving relationship with food.



The Rise of the Foodie Culture

To me, there has been a profound shift in our relationship with (to) the foods we eat and the beverages we consume. Whether you call it visionary or merely a re-discovery, we are embracing a simplicity and accessibility to the things we consume. Building upon the foundation laid (or re-asserted) by counter culture ideals, the slow food movement challenges (and rejects) almost all the prevalent attitudes towards food and eating held by our parents. Microwaves, T.V. dinners and fast food were novel uses of our technology but ultimately they severed any ties we have to what we are putting in our bodies.

Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of Slow Food, suggests “Our century, which began and developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model.” The ‘slow’ in slow food is not simply a rate of change but a way of being that encourages the development of a careful, reflective, quality-over-quantity, intuitive and receptive connection with our food. This desire to understand the foods we consume has manifested itself in countless ways from the notion of a 100-mile diet, the embracing organic and whole foods, the proliferation of farmers markets, the locally-sourced term on restaurant menus, the creation of Farm Folk/City Folk and so on. Oft-mocked as ‘foodies’ there is a growing base of consumers willing to pay more for less in order to re-establish that connection.



The (re)Birth of Real Ale

‘But that was my father’s beer.’ Interestingly this idea has resonance for many people. If it was good enough for my parents then it is good enough for me, it is what they always drank, that brewery has been in business for over a hundred years how bad can it be? The continued popularity of the leading big three lagers, sanitized and pasteurized to the point of having no discernible taste, presents an interesting challenge for counter culture adherents. Fortunately the other side of this stick-with-what-you-know notion is a rejection of the same old same old in favour of actually knowing what goes into your beer, how it is made, who brewed it, and where it comes from. Counter culture ideals are manifest in our (re)introduction to the world of real ale.

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, began in Britain in the late 1960’s with the aim of preserving traditional beer, which was being threatened by the industrialized and mass-marketed ‘beers’ that had become so ubiquitous. Real ale is naturally carbonated cask beer, in other words it is a slow food – it takes time to brew, time to ferment, time to carbonate, time to transport, and time to serve. CAMRA has spawned chapters all over the world uniting brewers and consumers passionate about the craft. Indeed the ever-increasing popularity of craft beer and microbreweries is an amazing testament to our culture’s desire to return to quality over quantity. Brewers have sought out ancient recipes, ingredients and techniques (Dogfish Head), they incorporate local elements into traditional styles (Driftwood) or better yet they grow their own (Rogue).

But there is also a cautionary tale here because as craft beer finds its niche others, less dedicated to the ideals of preservation, find a profitable market. Much like the juggernaut that has become organic food, how to set parameters to ensure the craft remains in craft beer? I feel we can look to one of the principle tenets, if not the principle tenet, of slow food balance for our answer. Being able to successfully market quality product, to be able to sustain and grow your business, and to be able to make a living doing something you love is always the goal; however, when business sense overtakes passion we take the first tentative steps down a very slippery slope.



*Thanks to Theodore Roszak The Making of a Counter Culture, Randy Mosher Tasting Beer, and Carl Honore In Praise of Slow for content.


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