How beer can help mend our differences this Thanksgiving

How beer can help mend our differences this Thanksgiving

There are going to be a lot of uncomfortable conversations and silences around the table this Thanksgiving, which means there’s going to be a lot asked of Thanksgiving beer.

Ordinarily, this is the time of year when I’d throw together a list of Thanksgiving-appropriate beers, suggest brews that will please everyone around your dinner table and bolt out the door for the long holiday weekend. That’s just not happening this year. Emotions are still raw after the election, some folks are feeling either hurt or genuinely frightened about the future, and others wish those hurt and frightened folks would just shut up and get over it already.

That’s setting the table for disaster over the next couple of days.

You can filter out dissenting opinions on social media and you can curate your circles of friends to prevent ugly interactions, but you’re seldom afforded such luxuries with parents and relatives. There are going to be households where gruff uncles show up in “Drain the Swamp” shirts while their nieces and nephews home from college for the weekend lament the popular vote and offer unsolicited opinions about the Electoral College. There will be homes that ask for blessings for President-elect Donald Trump in the evening’s prayer, and others that curse him through mouthfuls of starches and gravies.

This is the part where I’m supposed to make a dad joke about how the better part of a six-pack can fix anything, but there’s nothing healthy or particularly funny about telling someone to drink to get past an issue. Instead, I offer that beer can only be a proper salve if it’s used in the ideal barroom context: Where it either promotes the free exchange of ideas or its presence steers folks clear of the more unpleasant portions of conversation.

Almost 20 years ago, I received one of my finest bit of beer education in a bar in Hoboken, N.J. I’d put together a map of Irish pubs for a weekly magazine I was producing at the time and received an angry call from Patrick “Padge” Hennessey informing me that I’d left one pub off the map — his. I was summoned down to Duffy’s later that evening to talk to him about how to make amends, but arrived early and took a seat at the bar. I asked one of the gentlemen where Patrick was, and was told he’d be back in a few minutes. When I was asked why I wanted to see him and gave my answer, the response was “Oh, you’re that guy.”

Patrick didn’t show up for some time, but I’d struck up a conversation with the fellow who identified me as “that guy” and his friend in the interim. The war in Kosovo was on the screen, NATO intervention was imminent and the gentleman beside me had attended a military college in New Hampshire and said he would have been eligible to go if he hadn’t been injured.

It wouldn’t be my last time in Duffy’s or my last time speaking to this person. It turned out that, after a stint as an Anheuser-Busch BUD, -0.91% representative and a bartender at Duffy’s, he was trying to break into journalism and get published. I spoke to my editors, got him a tryout and eventually brought him on as a columnist. We’ve been friends since, and he now owns a magazine in Hoboken. Through our various beers and conversations, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons about the more positive social functions of beer:

1. Drink in rounds: There are a few good reasons for this. For one, buying a round disarms everyone involved and is a display of good intentions. For another, it shows you’re invested in both the conversation and the other person — buying a round signals that you’re at least in it for the rest of that drink. Finally, the rounds system is a great way to foster mutual respect. If the favor is returned, it’s an act of good faith. If it isn’t due to circumstances beyond someone’s control, returning that round in the near future suggests you matter enough to that person for them to remember you. At Thanksgiving dinner, this could translate to everyone bringing beers to share and swapping them around the table.

2. Toast: While a favored toast was always Sláinte (“health” in Irish Gaelic), clinking glasses before sitting down for a session always set the right tone. I could never put my finger on exactly why it did, but beer writer Jeff Alworth here in Portland summed it up well back in October:

“Stopping after receiving that first glass of beer to offer a toast centers the moment in its social setting. Offering a toast is a way of re-establishing connections. We say ‘cheers,’ but we mean, ‘let’s not miss the opportunity to affirm how happy we are to have a chance to be together here, now.’ In nearly every case, I sense the actual connection being made.”

I’m not suggesting that it replace prayer at Thanksgiving dinner tables, but I’d heartily suggest adding it to the repertoire when the first bottles or cans are opened. My grandfather used to do both, and my family remembers him as a gregarious man of good cheer because of it.

3. Listen: The best part about having a conversation that involves beer is that everyone involved inevitably has to shut their trap for a few seconds at a time just to enjoy said beer. How you use those seconds is key: Are you listening to what the person across from you is saying, or are you just loading up some zinger or talking point to counterpunch? Are you asking yourself why you have a problem with what’s being said and, if so, are you formulating a question for the other person so he or she can explain more thoroughly? Is your beer glass overly full from pontificating and dominating the conversation?

Those sips are there to help absorb and reflect. They provide a luxury that’s seldom found in modern discourse. Use them wisely.

4. Don’t overdo it: You can say “drink in moderation” until you’re hoarse, but until a person realizes that overdoing it not only makes their conversation less coherent, but often belligerent and bellicose, they’re going to get a little too comfortable.

A good conversation itself tends to moderate beer drinking. However, if you know you’re going to be at it for hours and don’t want to spend the entire night racing to the bathroom by going from drink to water to drink again, find yourself a nice, low-alcohol solution. Guinness, for example, is only about 4.2% alcohol by volume, which is less than a light lager like Budweiser and about equal to a Coors Light. If you’re big on craft beers, there are any number of “sessionable” options to choose from, but this might offer you the opportunity to bring a low-alcohol-style Berliner Weisse or English Bitter into the mix.

5. Be open-minded: Not just to the content of the conversation, but to what the other person is drinking. As ideologically divided as the country is politically, it can be equally so in the beer aisle. Craft folks, remember that light lager still makes up about 70% of the beer consumed in this country and that those drinking it may like it for reasons other than its ubiquity. Lager drinkers, just remember that the offer of a free beer is still incredibly considerate and that there’s no harm in trying something new.

Besides, though you may not see the people around your Thanksgiving table often, you have a basic sense of what they’re about. If you’re a craft fan and know someone’s big on light lager, have a pilsner with them from your favorite brewery. Light lager fans, if you know you’re drinking with craft folks and don’t want to blow a budget or a few hours figuring out what to get them, there’s a chance that the folks who make your favorite beer have bought a brewery within the past year that makes beer that your craft-loving family members enjoy.

6. Realize that beer doesn’t fix anything, but conversation over beers can: In the thick of the election, Anheuser-Busch InBev polled beer-drinking voters and found that 84% of them came together on a political issue with a friend or family member over a beer. While there are polarizing issues out there that no amount of beer is going to work through, more than half (54%) of American voters find common ground over the economy and jobs most over a beer.

My friend from Hoboken and I had very different views on the election and took very different paths with our votes. There are multiple issues where we don’t see eye-to-eye and where we haven’t generally come together in agreement. But nobody’s out to convert anyone: Two decades’ worth of barstool conversations work evangelism out of your system in quick fashion. But those long conversations with him and others also make it clear that few people are as ideologically pure as the blues and reds of the political map make us out to be.

To take Jon Stewart’s point a bit further, there are few monoliths in this world. There are few folks who cut straight across party or ideological lines and wall off any and all dissenting opinions. There are, admittedly, people who’ll you’ll never reach and whose dogged support of ideas that chill you to your core will make you understandingly reluctant to talk to them or even be around them. That’s understandable.

However, if you remember that uncle as a pretty decent guy before he took that surprising far-right turn a few years back, or if you remember what you were like when you were that college student’s age and still processing all the information the world was throwing at you, maybe there’s something there worth salvaging. Sitting down at a corner of the table, in an empty spot in the living room or in front of the television and having a beer isn’t going to peel all of those ugly layers away, but it’ll give you a look at what’s under there and see if it’s worth revisiting.

Beer’s legacy is built on its stature as a social drink. It can either be the bad solution to a miserable Thanksgiving near the end of a miserable year, or a tool to help us remember what it was like to actually talk through issues and figure each other out. For the sake of all of us this holiday season, I sincerely hope it’s the latter. See you in the beer aisle.

Beer’s legacy is built on its stature as a social drink. It can either be the bad solution to a miserable Thanksgiving near the end of a miserable year, or a tool to help us remember what it was like to actually talk through issues and figure each other out. For the sake of all of us this holiday season, I sincerely hope it’s the latter. See you in the beer aisle.

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