Beer snobbery, regulation, and market (non-)failure

By way of E. D. Kain we find this post by Tom Philpott:

In a longer, more general set of comments on the division of the American beer market* into enormous sector-dominating corporate breweries and a thundering herd of tiny artisanal microbreweries thriving in the long tail, Philpott mounts the following defence of German beer regulation — yeah, you know the one he’s talking about:

But even archaic regulations have their place. The most famous beer regulation of all is Germany’s illustrious Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law, which governed that country’s beer production from 1516 until a slightly more expansive version came into effect in 1993. The Reinheitsgebot decreed that products marketed as beer could contain only the following ingredients: water, malted barley and hops. (Yeast was originally omitted, because in the 16th century, the role of microbiota in the fermentation process wasn’t understood.)

Granted, the Reinheitsgebot was always problematic. It prevented German beer makers from engaging in the kind of experimentation that took place in Belgium, home of delightful fruit-flavored beers that would have run afoul of the purity law.

But it saved German drinkers from the truly bad beer that plagues most of the globe. A 2006 BBC story listed additives typically found in corporate beer, none of which you’ll find in the stuff brewed in Germany: betaglucanase, ammonia caramel, rhoiso-alpha acids, sulphur dioxide, protease, amyloglucosidase, propylene glycol alginate, and silicone. Nor will German beers ever be dumbed down with cheap filler grains like corn and rice, which are part of the reason American brews like Bud and Miller taste so insipid.

(From the relevant Wikipedia page we discover that the Reinheitsgebot was originally intended as a food-safety law, to prevent brewers from mixing things like soot into their beers.)

What’s curious about the above formulation is that Philpott discusses the utility of the Reinheitsgebot exclusively in the language of the beer connoisseur.  It was problematic because it didn’t allow delightfully arty weird Belgian shit into the German beer market.  It was good because it prohibited “dumbed down” and “insipid” beers made from “cheap filler grains”***.  Now, I’m all for beer snobbery — as a quick look through the posts I’ve tagged “beer” will show you — but I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that my own rarefied preferences should be used as an objective benchmark.  If “truly bad beer” “plagues most of the globe”, then either most of the globe had improbably similar beer-market histories or, and this might come as a shock so you might want to sit down, a lot of people really honestly genuinely enjoy “truly bad beer”.  My money’s on the latter.

Now, Philpott is absolutely right when he asserts that regulations are not all uniformly bad.  Some, like the pre-Carter prohibitions on home brewing, are arguably worse; others, like the Reinheitsgebot, are arguably not as harmful.  But it’s hard to read a defence of the Reinheitsgebot on Philpott’s purely aesthetic grounds as anything other than high-handed contempt.  There’s no such thing as “good beer”, full stop: there’s only “good beer” by the standards of whoever’s drinking it.  Philpott seems to enjoy Belgian and German beers.  If beer was to be regulated by the aesthetic preferences of the technocrat in charge, and someone read my blog and decided to make me the Beer Tsar, he’d despise me as a heavy-handed despot for promoting thick, syrupy, assaultively flavourful IPAs and porters and stouts.  Delightfully fruity Belgian witbiers and softly malty Dortmunder lagers — oh, and Molson Canadian and MGD — would be regulated into obscurity under my heavy-handed regime.  But like the Reinheitsgebot, I’d be doing it for your own good.

This point applies more generally to the market-failure justification for regulation.  When people look at a market (like beer) and see outcomes they personally don’t like and can’t imagine liking, they tend to chalk it up to market failure… particularly if  they’re wonks or pundits or bloggers or other people whose self-professed role is to be smarter, more knowledgeable, or more insightful than the average bear.  So they go off looking for market failure and of course they find it, because markets are as imperfect as any other human institution.  But it’s not necessarily the case that outcomes that don’t fit your preferences derive from market failure.  It’s more likely — particularly for someone who genuinely is more specialized than the average consumer, like a policy wonk or a doctorate holder — that your preferences are several standard deviations away from the mean.


* American bien-pensants like to imagine that the United States is noteworthy in the sex-in-a-canoe** quality of its mainstream fizzy yellow beers, and to be fair non-American bien-pensants like to imagine that the United States is indeed the only country with this problem.  Sadly, this isn’t true in the slightest.  Every brewing nation has its pisswater beer — yes, even Belgium, even Germany.  I can’t off the top of my head think of a Czech pisswater, but I’m inclined to conclude that my ignorance is more likely than Czech exceptionalism.

** Fucking close to water.

*** If you’d like a more nuanced — and obscene — discussion of how grains affect the flavour of a beer, Stingray has a great post up about it today.

1 Response to “Beer snobbery, regulation, and market (non-)failure”

  1. September 8, 2011 at 06:40

    Radegast Klasik is Czech pisswater, thin and the flavor of day-old Natty Light with a fine aroma of fraternity house dumpster. Aftertaste is reminiscent of water, with fine overtones of nothingness. Low alcohol content (3.6%) means several must be shotgunned to have any effect. There Oughtta Be A Law Against It (TM). ;-)

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