Research

The Scholars Who Look at American History Through Beer-Tinted Glasses

August 02, 2016

Courtesy of J. Nikol Beckham
J. Nikol Beckham, an assistant professor of communication studies at Randolph College, was a beer geek — and a home brewer — before she became a beer scholar.
The United States and its allies are waging an existential battle with Hitler in Europe. A letter arrives from the front: An American soldier misses his wife, his orchard, his hammock — and his beer.

The soldier and his dream were invented by the United States Brewers’ Foundation. In 1944 the foundation coordinated an advertising campaign that made beer part of a tableau of national prosperity that would sustain morale during wartime.

Beer was presented "as a commodified symbol of the ‘good life’ Americans were fighting to defend," wrote Lisa Jacobson, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in a 2009 paper called "Beer Goes to War." The campaign was an effort by brewing companies to transform beer from a working-class vice to a "wholesome American domestic pastime."

And it worked. Beer is now so intertwined with American history and identity that people hardly blinked this year when Anheuser-Busch replaced the logos on Budweiser cans and bottles with the word "America," in an attempt to capitalize on patriotic fervor stirred by the Summer Olympics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

The pastime of using beer as a lens to examine American history and culture, on the other hand, is relatively new. On college campuses and elsewhere, beer is more often seen as a public-health concern, says Ms. Jacobson. Accordingly, much research on the drinking habits and attitudes of Americans has been oriented to diagnosing and treating a social ill.

"I think people who aren’t historians," she says, "have a hard time imagining that beer can be the subject of serious historical inquiry."

That might be changing. The Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, last week posted a job ad seeking a scholar who can help the National Museum of American History collect artifacts and conduct field research for a project on beer brewing in the United States, with a focus on the last half-century. Three years ago, Oregon State University created the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives in a similar bid to preserve the historical record of beer making in that region.

Tiah Edmunson-Morton, curator of the Oregon archive, says that the idea of studying beer tends to draw amused grins from people who assume that the work is something like a never-ending happy hour, when in fact beer has exerted a serious pull on the trajectory of American politics and culture.

"There’s so much to talk about," says Ms. Edmunson-Morton, "whether it’s gender, labor, economics, tourism, regional identity, or whatever."

"I think the timing is right," says Ms. Jacobson, "for beer studies to kind of take off."

A Field in Ferment

Strictly speaking, "beer studies" does not exist yet as a scholarly field, but people have been studying the technology and science of beer closely for years. Home brewing, which emerged as a niche hobby in the 1970s after Congress repealed federal restrictions that were relics of Prohibition, has become widespread, while the commercial popularity of "craft" brews has inspired a generation of beer geeks.

Where there are geeks, there are academics.

J. Nikol Beckham, an assistant professor of communication studies at Randolph College, in Virginia, was a beer geek before she was a beer scholar, but one road inevitably led to the other. She could not help but notice that she was the only black woman in her community of home brewers and beer enthusiasts. The professor started wondering about the relationship between beer and race in American culture.

Her research took her back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when parts of the temperance movement took up arms against urban saloons not just because of what they served, but whom. She found political cartoons from the Prohibitionist Party that painted ugly portraits of German immigrants and African-Americans.

Parts of the temperance movement took up arms against urban saloons not just because of what they served, but whom.
"Saloons were dangerous," says Ms. Beckham, "because they were where immigrants and blacks after the Great Migration were congregating as they came north." Beer, then, was portrayed as "antithetical to a kind of upright, Protestant, white, American identity," she says — a sharp contrast to the Rockwellian idyll that would emerge in the 1940s.

It was around then that historians seemed to lose the thread on beer’s role in American history. The end of Prohibition might have decoupled beer from the nation’s political narrative in the minds of many scholars, says Ms. Jacobson. In any case, she says, "Historians sort of took their eye off the ball" — or, rather, the pint glass.

When Maureen Ogle, a historian and former professor at the University of South Alabama, set out in the 2000s to write a history of beer in America, she was surprised to discover how little there was in the academic literature for her to build on. "It didn’t take very long to read the existing scholarly research on beer," she says. "There just wasn’t anything."

The academics who have been working to fill the gaps in that literature now are optimistic that scholarly interest in beer will continue to ferment.

"I’ve been throwing around the term ‘beer studies’ for a while, but it’s always been a joke when I say it," says Ms. Beckham. "Now it’s gotten sexy enough so that maybe there’s a critical mass."

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.