People tend to be particular about the beer they drink, says Dr. Charles Yeager.
“I remember my grandpa … Hamms, Old Milwaukee … those were his beers. It was like a football team. You did not say something about Old Milwaukee being ‘Old Milyuckee,’” he says. “The beer you drink is part of who you are and your culture group.”
The geographic nature of beer is a subject that has long fascinated Yeager, an assistant professor of geography at Missouri Southern.
As a grad student at Indiana State University, he and his advisor researched regional food systems in Ohio. As they did field work, he says he spent down time hanging out and enjoying a beer with his advisor, who Yeager says is “an appreciator of fine beer, as I always have been.”
During their talks about beer, they talked about collaborating on a paper about the relationship between beer and geography, but it was a project that remained on the backburner.
“We were at a conference and a friend of a friend came up and said, ‘I just got the go-ahead to publish a book about the geography of beer,’” says Yeager. We told him that we had been talking about writing a paper, so we were among the first people to get in on writing a chapter for the book.”
Currently available as an ebook, “The Geography of Beer: Regions, Environments and Societies” is set to be released in hardcover in March.
Yeager, along with Jay Gatrell from Indiana State University and David Nemeth from the University of Toledo, penned one of the chapters – “Sweetwater, Mountain Springs, and Great Lakes: A hydro-geography of beer brands.”
“We had been dealing with food systems and how they change over time in a region,” says Yeager. “Beer really fit with that. After all, beer is liquid bread. The production is historically similar to how food was produced.
“It’s a water-based production activity. We looked at how beer production was tied to water resources and how the effects of globalization changed that to get an idea of the importance of water as a natural resource in beer production today.”
Yeager, who is wrapping up his first semester of teaching at Missouri Southern, says they began work on the project about a year ago.
“Luckily, it didn’t require any field research,” he says. “We took our knowledge of food production and applied the model to the beer industry. We did research on how the beer industry had developed in the U.S. and took that industrial and economic model and tied it into the physical environment of all these regional levels.
“There was a lot of reading as well as the cartography part of it. The GIS (geographic information system) part of it is what I did.”
Yeager says his research for the project helped him to make sense of how breweries have developed throughout the years.
“Historically, the brewing region in the U.S. really mirrors the Rust Belt,” he says. “We started looking at beers that had significant distribution in the 1950s and ‘60s. They all tended to be near plentiful sources of natural water … the Great Lakes, the Ohio or Mississippi rivers. At that point, it would have been unheard of for a brewery to use municipal water.
“As time went along, we saw globalization … large companies coming together. By the time we got to the ‘70s and ‘80s, the trend toward natural water being important had gone away. The most important thing for Bud Light is meeting production demand.
“One thing we see now, though, is that globalization consolidates things but opens up local spaces. That’s why we’ve seen an explosion of really high-end craft beers. For those types of breweries, water quality is important and part of their marketing and iconography.”
Given his past research into food systems, Yeager says studying geography as it relates to beer was a natural fit. Plus, as opposed to researching access to food, beer made for a fun topic.
“For some people, (studies of food systems) is not interesting, and to others it’s depressing,” he says. “They don’t want to hear about people in America not having access to vegetables. This is lighthearted and part of American culture. One great thing about geography is you can do fun stuff like this and it applies because there is a spatial component to it.”