Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kraft Beer Kulture

Where were you in '62? I grew up in SoCal during the 1960's. Kustom Kulture was booming in the San Fernando Valley and I was fascinated--no--enthralled by it. One of my earliest childhood memories is of me and my twin brother sliding across the bench seat of my pop's pinstriped '52 Mercury coupe, during a high speed police chase, so I guess you could say I was born into living la vida hot rod.

What is Kustom Kulture? Think of the movie "American Graffiti", George Lucas's homage to the San Fernando Valley of yesteryear.  Hot rods cruising--or drag racing--down the boulevard, headed for Bob's Big Boy or the Van Nuys Drive-in Theater. Young men (and very few young women) would spend every last dime of their Tastee-Freez paychecks on custom parts and paint for their beloved jalopies. 

Mom and Pop would be gardening in the 1/4 acre yard of their modern ranch-style house, or sitting in green and white lawn chairs, sipping orange juice squeezed from the fruit of their very own trees. The suburban dream was in full swing and no one could have possibly imagined that in just a few years gasoline would cost almost five bucks a gallon, the economy would be in the toilet and the Toyota Camry would be the most popular car ever. Sigh.

When I was a kid I loved everything hot rod--especially the hot rod shows. I would beg my dad to take me to see George Barris's Munster Koach and the Batmobile. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, the creator of Rat Fink, was another '60's Kustom Kulture icon. All of my friends wore Rat Fink t-shirts--on the weekends. Rat Fink gear was strictly forbidden at the Catholic school I attended, even UNDERNEATH our uniform shirts, which made them even more cool. Roth was also one of the preeminent car customizers of his era. The man was a genius, plain and simple. His out-of-this-world hot rod creations were turned into Revel model car kits and I bought and built every single one of them.

When I was a young man, I finally got my own hot rod. I wish I could say that I loved that car, but I was no mechanic and it was a beat-to-hell junker. Still, I imagined myself to be a master customizer--even though that pine air freshener hanging from the rearview was the height of my modifications  Hard to believe that I don't even own a car today. Hot rods are a thing of the past. Sure, there are still some hardcore septuagenarians out there who dust off their highboys on the weekend, and some young grease monkeys working on some badass smoothies and zoomies somewhere, but the high price of gasoline pretty much killed it.

By now, you're probably asking what Kustom Kulture has to do with craft beer? Nothing really, but there are some interesting similarities. I submit that today's craft brewers are the proverbial Holders of the Keys of Kustom Kulture--reincarnated today as Kraft Beer Kulture. Okay, I can hear you saying "What the hell are you talking about, Wolf?" I admit, that's quite a stretch, but give me a chance to explain.

Hot-rodding was very subculture in the 1960's and early 1970's, but it was also very mainstream. Everybody loved hot rods. They were featured prominently on TV and in movies. Even the Monkees had their own custom hot rod. (A Sweet GTO). In spite of the growing corporate involvement, the men at the forefront of customization were rugged individualists. Mavericks. Creators with a tenacious vision and an unwavering devotion to their craft. They worked tirelessly in out of the way industrial areas, where no one could possibly imagine what wonderful things were being crafted behind those bay doors. Sound familiar?

There is also a similar subculture history between the two. Kustom Kulture has it's base in illegal street racing. Hot rods were initially created to run...moonshine. Until 1976, homebrewing--the forefather of modern craft brewing--was illegal in the United States. There's a bit of bootlegging, outlaw mystique in the pedigree of both.

Many of the craft brewers I've met have the same kind of over-the-top creativity that those '60's car customizers had. Never mind those crazy beards, sometimes the beers they brew seem downright crazy. They don't just push the envelope, they blow it up! Most of them don't seem to really give a crap what you think of the work they do, either. They are just doing it for fun--and if they can make a profit, great. That's what makes them COOL. I know of one Portland brewer who has a framed photo of the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, tacked up next to his taps. That says a lot.

When I go to a beer festival, I get the same kind of giddy feeling that I did when I was a kid at the hot rod show. I can't wait to see what my favorite brewers are coming out with and bringing to the tents. I wear t-shirts from my favorite breweries as proudly as my Rat Fink shirts from back in the day. When I read doomsday articles that proclaim craft beer's impending "saturation" and demise, I have to chuckle. Comparing craft beer to the stuff put out by macro-breweries is like comparing a Nissan Versa to my  '79 Firebird.

As for homebrewing, I think I'm a little more successful than I was at hot rod building. It's a much cheaper hobby, too. I think my entire homebrewing operation set me back about $350. Of course, the craft brewers give me a lot of cool beers to try to emulate. I know most of this proposition is based solely on my own "old guy" nostalgia. Thanks for allowing me the trip!

Long live Kraft Beer Kulture! It's cool, Daddio! 

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