Brews as a Text: The System of Cultural Exchange in Beer Culture

Lately I’ve been kicking around some heavy thoughts about beer and it’s importance to human civilization. Admittedly I have been absent from Bierkast for many months, struggling through a sea of researching, editing, and writing a Master’s Thesis in History on the market impact and cultural changes brought about by California’s brewers. While I have become fairly well versed in the literature surrounding the American Brewing industry, and I have enjoyed many a fine pint with my fellow imbibers, finding a happy marriage between the two experiences can be a pinch difficult; or so it has been for me. One of the sticking points that I’ve had trouble with is how to give theoretical grounding for the historical importance of craft beer.

Let’s take a French philosopher’s ideas on cultural exchange and kick them around with the boot of brewing. Pierre Bourdieu is one of the 900 lbs gorillas of sociological philosophy, he simply cannot be ignored when delving into structuralist thought. His books are incredibly dense and written in a way that forces the reader to progress slowly to not miss a detail. As I revise my Thesis, adding theoretical perspectives is like wrestling a greased-up pig with an armed tied behind my back, but I realize that Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital fit well with the topic of craft brewing.

A quote from Bourdieu’s 1979 work, Distinction: A Social Critique on the Judgment of Taste, astutely sheds light on what I mean;

Tastes (i.e. manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes. In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by the horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others.”

Compare these words, with what Stone has to say about their popular Arrogant Bastard Strong Ale, printed on the back of their bottles;


Bourdieu wrote of differentiating levels of taste, and the ability of a select few in society to appreciate an artistic creation over a baser substitution. While Distinction argued for higher levels of society to be able to appreciate the refined and higher works of art, the brewing industry is not isolated to those with a six figure income; but brewers like Stone argue [directly in this case, but many do so inadvertently] that it is isolated from those unable to appreciate a bold and complex beer. It is incredibly effective marketing, it emboldens the faithful to the company, and challenges newcomers to try a new product.

Drinkers of craft beer own a habitus, a set or dispositions and attitudes, that allow us to effectively take part in the system of cultural exchange that beer drinking now constitutes. This is not simply for the small minority that craft brewing [as a quantifiable section of the market defined by Brewers Association definitions] comprises of the industry, but for all the industry. If the buyout of smaller breweries and last Superbowl’s Brewed the Hard Way AB InBev commercial is any indication, the largest brewing conglomerates now recognize this system of meaning-making as a legitimate force to be reckoned with.


Note: Pierre Bourdieu is not actually a 900 lbs gorilla.

The Cicerone, the Beer Judge, the connoisseur, the veteran home brewer, and all those who dissect and interpret [I use the terms in positive light] are in possession of a cultural capital, the ability to comprehend beer in deeper levels. A peppery Saison, a mouth puckering Gueuze, a warming barrel aged Barleywine; these are products requiring the capital to properly appreciate. Now that last statement was in fact pretentious, and something [I imagine] that the much maligned and stereotyped beer snob would readily state when speaking to a newcomer wanting to try an adventurous flavor. Here is where some danger comes into Bourdieu’s theory; admittedly, he was a pretentious French intellectual, quite possible the pretentious French intellectual. But his ideas about distinction and identity formation through conspicuous consumption are worth thinking about when we proclaim ourselves to be hopheads, stout-lovers, sour beer fans, cask ale devotees, et cetera, et cetera.

Consumption is, in this case, a stage in the process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense, one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of knowledge (savior), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception.” -Bourdieu in Distinction

What makes beer different as a cultural product is that, compared to wine [which Bourdieu was more interested in], it is a much more democratic beverage. The ubiquity and affordability of beer vis-à-vis wine means that the barrier to entry for fine ales and lagers is lessened to a marked degree. Thus we drop the economic barrier to achieving a higher cultural capital, or rather, the knowledge to appreciate and enjoy a complex and artfully crafted beer.

For better or worse, the system of cultural exchange, and ability to think critically about how we interpret beer is a fascinating topic that has many avenues for exploring. But I’ve explored enough for one post. We will return to this subject, time and intellectual energy permitting.



Achieving Cultural Capital, possibly the wrong way.

Achieving Cultural Capital, possibly the wrong way.

Interpreting and Dissecting

Interpreting and Dissecting

About Eric Ortega

Historian of brewing in California at the California State University, Fullerton. - A Fullerton resident, Eric can be found scouring the bars and tap rooms of Orange County and Los Angeles, observing as much as imbibing. - If you ever have a question about beer history, shoot me an email at or you can follow me on Instagram @

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