LONDON: In Montgomery, Alabama, a state that did not wait for federal prohibition to go dry, a parched visitor combs the downtown for the best available alcohol until Common Bond Brewers appears like a brick mirage somewhere between the Rosa Parks Museum and the Hank Williams statue.
As pleasing as the India Pale Ale, which is so amber that you expect to find a scorpion preserved inside, is the view of the on-site production facility, all silver tubing and mechanical corsetry, like the exterior of a Richard Rogers building.
Common Bond is barely a year old. It is part of downtown Montgomery’s economic restoration. I would be surprised to find it here if I had not already sampled micro-brewed IPAs in as improbable a place as Wyoming.
WHERE DID THE GOOD BEER COME FROM?
The reason good beer has become inescapable in a country that used to specialise in the most insipid of suds is that, at some point, a small number of people were willing to be thought of as fancy and affected in order to do something new.
Some of them were what we know, almost always pejoratively, as hipsters.
I am not a hipster (too old, too bourgeois) but I approximate one enough, in sensibility and appearance, to be on the business end of the prejudice against them from time to time. And to understand it well enough.
Some of it is provoked by the gap between their pretensions to originality and their underlying conformism.
For such avowed mavericks, hipsters look awfully alike: The Nietzsche moustaches, the boxy specs, the tight denim on men, not all of whom have the legs for it.
SNOBS WITH TASTE
Some of the resentment touches more seriously on ethics and economics. Hipsters tend to lead the process of gentrification, even as they fulminate against it.
These grumbles mount until you end up with such headlines as “10 Underrated Cities That Hipsters Are About To Ruin” and “Why Do We Hate Hipsters So F’ing Much?”.
And those are from BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast respectively. Even now, I feel I should stipulate that Common Bond is not a hipster joint. My keenness to do so is itself indicative of the stigma.
Who, the hip are entitled to ask, are we kidding here? There is more than an element of denial in our loathing of them. After all, it is to them that we turn for guidance on matters of taste, even if we do not quite know it.
What happened to beer has also happened to bread, coffee, pizza, gin, ice cream, burgers, chocolate and much else.
The reason why the average standard of these things is better than it was a generation ago is because, in part, a small sect of people decided to be insufferable snobs about such matters, a slightly larger number patronised their wares, a sort of critical mass was attained, and supermarkets and other mainstream producers had to raise their game in response.
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It is analogous to the process by which haute couture — those gonzo designs you see on the catwalk — ends up influencing the offerings in the cheapest department stores within a matter of months.
The transmission mechanism between the avant-garde and the mass market is fuzzy, yes, but it is no less real for that.
This influence goes beyond food and drink. Hipster design has won, which is why the blandest hotel chain will make some nod to distressed brick and industrial lighting.
“Football hipsters”, jeered by more laddish fans for their tactical gobbledegook, their fealty to the obscurest teams (Lille are “in” this year), have transformed the way the sport is watched and analysed.
The use of statistics was still esoteric a decade ago. Now no broadcaster would dare do without them. From a minority habit come mass enlightenment.
Hipster is a much more democratic culture than its enemies allow. It is an elite movement that ultimately serves the broad consumer middle-class.
It just does it so gradually and indirectly that we are unaware of the process in real time. We do not recognise our debt to it.
If we seriously believed that these trendsetters ruin things, we would not imitate them so consistently. There is some rage of Caliban in all this beating-up on them.
No one wants to go back to a world in which Stella Artois was a classy beer. Yet no one wants to salute those who helped to make sure that it no longer is.