I was in the coffee shop of a tiny regional airport yesterday—in Flagstaff, Arizona—when I overheard a conversation that felt like a little window into how our culture is growing and changing. The trip was work related, though wonderful: I’d joined a group of climbers in rafting the Grand Canyon, searching for great rock routes. Hiking out alone, through the desert, I’d then driven to Flagstaff, returned my rental car, and settled in to await my flight in abject physical exhaustion.

Unable to contemplate drinking anything alcoholic—I was nursing V8, for the salt—I nevertheless sat beside a man with a beer. It had a curious label, and he appeared to be enjoying it, and once he called out to the waitress to thank her for the recommendation. Not long after, the flight was announced over the PA; it was the only flight the airport had going, and involved a small plane, so there were only a dozen of us passengers in the whole place. As we all stood up from our tables, in the little restaurant, another passenger asked the man where his beer was from, and if he’d liked it. He wasn’t sure where it was from, but said he’d liked it very much. Together, they looked over the label until they determined it came from Portland, Oregon.

Once we’d passed through security, yet another passenger raised the question of the beer, and a conversation ensued: about Oregon beers, about craft beer in general. And here’s what so struck me: Twenty years ago, this conversation would never have happened. Passengers in a small airport would’ve known only the macro beers we all knew. But now, against all odds, regional production, great variation, quality and craftsmanship—these have become commonplace matters of concern and interest. It’s as if the homogenizing forces of modernity and industrialization have been turned around. It’s a version of the joy we all get from the wine experience, again and again, and it’s an example of how the wine/beer experience is about more than just taste and pleasure; it’s also about the nature of the world we live in.

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