Master’s Thesis About History of Beer in California and Its Influence on the American Brewing Industry
Ever wondered about the history of beer or the history of beer in California? A master’s thesis which came out this year studied exactly this topic. Aiming to discuss the history of beer and brewing in California, the thesis also focusses in on taste and craft beer. “The Golden State of Brewing: California’s Economic and Cultural Influence in the American Brewing Industry”, written by Eric Ortega, and completed this year at California State University, Fullerton is a smoothly-flowing master’s thesis that imparts a very helpful history about this commonly-consumed beverage.
With sections entitled “Beer As History”, “Beer and Life in Early California”, “The Dry Spell and the Homebrew”, “Bigger, Blander, and Nationwide”, “Vanguards of the Craft Industry”, “The Counter-Cultural Condition”, and “Food and Beer [Revolution] Pairings”, Ortega covers primarily the history of beer and brewing in California, but also relates it back to the national brewing scene. While it may seem somewhat arbitrary to have picked just one state out of the fifty on which to focus, “California is the flashpoint of a change in understanding about beer. Where the historic trends of brewing in America came from abroad, and from the East Coast, California responded with a different message, in nuanced language.” (3)*
While Ortega had initially considered other topics to research for his master’s thesis, he told me that many/most of them were politically contentious, whereas beer was significantly less so. In his thesis, he writes about how he became interested in beer:
Before I began graduate school, I had the transformative moment to a beer enthusiast. Perhaps it begun as a means to justify a vice but it has since become a passion, a cultural language with which I have become very fluent. What was once a personal weakness has become a professional strength, excess has been tamed to moderation, and a vulgar form of consumption has transformed into something more distinct, respectable, and culturally nourishing. If this project has demonstrated anything, I hope that it shows that there is more to the pint glass than water, barley, hops, and yeast. Those who look deep enough find identity, community, and for the men and women of the industry, purpose. (117)
Once he decided on beer for his master’s thesis, Ortega writes, “Originally, this project began as a rather simplistic investigation of American brewing through the lens of California counter-cultural businesses, but further research has revealed methodological underpinnings that take a simple market and cultural project and tie the research to broader themes of social theory.” (7)
He then also fascinatingly applies an interesting lens in considering taste in his work, which he lays out early on:
In Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Cultural Critique of Taste, the French social philosopher discusses the formation of cultural capital and the differentiation between vulgar and distinction-oriented consumers. If we apply Bourdieu’s theories to the American brewing industry, the idea that there are higher levels of cultural consumption and appreciation can fit neatly with the development of a sub-market and a surrounding community that eschews the vulgar mass-marketed, lowest-common-denominator products produced by macrobreweries. Beer-drinking as a consumer act can be a passive or active action, depending on the level of knowledge held by the drinker. (8)
In addition to the easy-reading flow of the master’s thesis, I also gained a great awareness from having read of not only the broad historical aspects of the brewing industry – both in California and countrywide – but also of the more recent craft beer trends. I hadn’t realized quite how young the industry was or how much California had influenced it. Also super-fascinating to me was how few breweries there had been only a few decades ago. There were, of course, many other fascinating and edifying elements to reading Ortega’s thesis. I found many passages of interest from Ortega’s master’s thesis, which you can feel free to peruse, although if you would like to get a pdf of his thesis in its entirety, you can email him at EricOrtega722 [at] gmail.com. It’s definitely an interesting read!
* All page references in parentheses refer to the pagination in Ortega’s master’s thesis.