"Mr. Beer" and the Rise of the Aleholes

I really should have seen this guy coming.

It was mid-session at a well-attended regional beer festival.  This particular event was always popular with what one might term the “non-craft-beer” crowd, falling as it did around the winter holiday season, and as a result saw a relatively high rate of attendance by groups of family and friends, looking for a fun evening of socializing and holiday cheer.  My homebrew club was pouring beer, just to raise awareness of homebrewing as a hobby, and I was taking a break to help out a friend by manning the taps for his newly-opened meadery.  There were frequent questions from those who were almost totally unfamiliar with craft beer and mead – true neophytes, but curious and well-meaning, and enjoying the wide range of options at the nearly-one hundred tables.  They were also almost universal in their praise of what they were drinking, though they frequently mentioned that they weren’t really sure how to evaluate it all.  “That’s not a problem,” I assured them.  “Make some notes of what you like – who made it and what it’s called – and see if any patterns show up!”  And off they would go, with a slightly-tipsy twinkle in their oh-so-innocent eyes, to see what the next table had to offer. 

Then up rolled “Mr. Beer.”  I’m sure you can picture him now, even before I write another word (obscure brewery hoodie, cultivated three-day growth of stubble, ironically antique glasses), but please don’t be fooled – he could have been wearing anything, with any amount of facial hair, of any age, and not necessarily a “he.”  He did, however, give off a palpable attitude of overbearing confidence and ennui, as if he’d seen it all before and knew that we were all just amateurs, lacking his sense of nuance, innovation, and creativity.  This wasn’t just a man, not just an enthusiast – this was an artist.  A visionary.  A poet.  He lolled up with a friend, pointed at the tap, looked me square in the eye and asked, “Is this a mead beer?”

Well, I have to admit, I’d never heard that question before.  I responded that no, this was just mead.  I then started to give the pair of them my standard one sentence run-down on the difference.  “All alcoholic beverages are basically just fermented sugary liquids, with different sources of sugar – beer gets sugars from grains, while mead gets sugars from honey” – at which point, Mr. Beer cut me off with a withering, “I’m a homebrewer, OK?  I knooooow what mead is.  I just wanted to know if this was mead beer.”  This didn’t really clarify the question, in my mind, but I smiled and let him know that this was just a straight dry mead, and if he had any questions I’d be glad to answer them.  I turned my attention to the next couple in line, and went back to pouring and chatting.

Mr. Beer took a single side-step to his left, and proceeded to give us all a running commentary on his evaluation of the mead in question.  His verdict?  This was not at all representative of mead.  Now, I have no problem with differences in individual tastes.  We all like what we like, and reasonable people can disagree, and that’s fine.  But it was painfully obvious that Mr. Beer here had no earthly idea what he was talking about.  This “beer mead” was not nearly bitter enough (meads aren’t bitter), was too dry (for a dry mead?), and needed to be more “Ale-like” to be a truly good mead (?????).  When his companion indicated that she enjoyed it a lot, he practically spat at her that she hadn’t had his experience (“I’ve been drinking these for more than two years”), and as a result her opinion was invalid.  They walked off, and I felt sick.

Mr. Beer was emblematic of some worrying trends I’ve noticed lately – he was, in fact, the very epitome of them.  Within our community, we have been quietly producing and perfecting a rather unexpected and ironic strain of “beer person.”  This beer person stands sharply at odds with our traditional view of the craft beer movement – scrappy, resourceful, community-oriented, and above all, welcoming.  This new beer person – by no means universal, but depressingly present – is exclusive, snobbish, postmodern, and fault-hungry.  This same person may be unknowingly ignorant (like my friend Mr. Beer) or possessed of remarkable beer knowledge, but what they share in common is near-disdain for those who do not have their level of beer erudition (real or imagined).  And they are nearly all in pursuit of something far more special, unique, and complicated than the rest of us.

Whatever happened to, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew”?  Or “For the love of beer”?  It was simple – make the thing we like (beer) with high-quality ingredients (real malts and grains, fresh hops, healthy yeast, good water), using a process that is centuries old and remarkably simple and robust, so that we can all gather together and enjoy a beer and some fellowship.  Then simple went away and became complicated, esoteric, and elitist. 

We have been growing – and, maybe, becoming – aleholes.

The Road to Complicated

So what happened?  How did we end up facing down a beer-centric identity crisis?  I don’t presume to know exactly what happened, but I have a theory, and it’s based on the French Revolution.  Bear with me – I know you’re thinking, “OK, now who’s being esoteric, jackass?” but I promise this is going somewhere.  My theory is that we’ve all become victims of a trend towards extremism and polarization that is typical within any group – one classic example is the Jacobins, a political club that formed during the French Revolution.  It was a group that started with a number of moderate members, but because some things are easier to argue for (and harder to argue against) than others, there is a tendency within groups to develop towards extreme outcomes.  In the case of the Jacobins, it was the role of the monarchy and how best to reform the French political system.  While some members were all in favor of a limited monarchy created by constitutional constraints, others argued that only a full decapitation (literally) within the aristocracy and upper classes would suffice to guarantee a real French republic.  If you’re a moderate in that group, how do you come to the defense of the aristocracy?  You can’t, and you don’t, and you get the Reign of Terror and tens of thousands of executions.[1]  Those who might have opposed it ran the risk of being branded as “enemies of the revolution,” and so kept largely quiet so as to keep their heads and/or positions.  Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes, when opposition is either absent or suppressed, as the group develops towards its “purest” impulses.  How do you argue against the execution of those who let their country starve? 

This same kind of thinking can lead to our friend Mr. Beer and his ilk.  We witnessed an evolution from “craft” to “competitive.”  In the beginning, it was radical enough that microbreweries were making “real” beer: no adjuncts as a cost-saver, hops that provided more than just bittering, yeast strains that were selected for their unique flavor characteristics, and that brewers were making decisions on what to brew, not accountants (though we all, of course, understood that they’d like to earn a living and support their employees).  Craft beer was a rare product in the marketplace, and craft breweries actually had more to gain from cooperation than from competition, if only to educate their potential consumers.  Our craft beer Jacobins are still moderates at this stage, seeking recognition of the quality of their products and a fair shake at getting them into the hands of beer drinkers.

However, as craft beer takes on a bigger role in the marketplace, and as competition begins to increase within the craft beer segment (instead of just competing against “big” beer), craft beer starts to change.  In order to stand out as a craft brewery, it’s no longer sufficient to just be the brewery that makes high-quality beer with high-quality ingredients using a careful and thoughtful and artisanal process.  Craft breweries start amping up a large range of beers to “imperial” status.  They start having IBU-offs, trying to see who can produce the most-bitter IPA.  Ever more-exotic ingredients are sourced and used, regardless of whether they’re actually doing anything good for the beer they’re in.  Before we even appreciate what’s happening, we’re all riding the crest of a wave of 55% ABV “beer” being poured out of a squirrel’s ass down a slippery slope greased with smoked goat brains – and I really wish there was a single hyperbolic thing in that last sentence, but it’s all real-world examples.  As every brewery, large and small, tries to claw out its share of shelf space and beer-searching eyeballs, there is an increasing incentive to push, to market, to attract – and the Beer Jacobins go extreme.  If “craft” is good, then “so-crafty-you-can-only-get-this-ingredient-on-a-mountaintop-in-Antarctica” is even better, right?  RIGHT?  If “local” is good, then “so-local-you-can’t-even-get-it-unless-you-know-a-guy-named-Guy-who-works-at-the-brewery” has to be better, right?  RIGHT?  This both influences and is influenced by homebrewers as well, since they’re in a position to both shape the market and participate in it.  And we’re officially off to the brewery-sponsored goat races (which I’m not knocking, by the way – they’re great fun). 

 The problem is that somewhere along the way, we get lost – overrun by the Beer Jacobins and their devoted but also post-modernly “so over it” followers.  Talented brewers get pushed by the realities of the market to run to extremes, even though that may not be their inclination.  Maybe the best (and/or largest) satisfy the market and use that revenue to continue to make solid (but “too simple”) beer for those who will appreciate it.  That’s a problem we can live with.  What we can’t live with is that as we move further away from what I would call “simply” beer, we also erode the basic skill level and expectations of many brewers.  Novice brewers – home and commercial alike – start to think that brewing is all about being adventurous and “extreme,” and has nothing to do with the culinary skill required to produce clean, high-quality base beers.  The recent wave of new brewery openings, expansions, and invasions should be something to celebrate, but instead it is a profoundly dangerous moment for the craft beer movement.  How?

Question: what if these new breweries succeed in displacing the macro-beer barons, and every adult in America tries out a craft beer, only to find out that they are borderline undrinkable due to high alcohol, high IBUs, bizarre ingredients, exotic fermenting bugs, and poor brewing practices?  And what if the person they ask for help and guidance is a bartender or patron like our friend Mr. Beer?  Will they stick around after they are mocked for not appreciating the subtlety of their double-decocted Imperial Berliner Weisse aged in Hungarian oak and spiked with Prague-sourced Wormwood? 

Answer: no, no they won’t.  They’ll go back to drinking that pale lager that at least doesn’t try to make them feel stupid, and that they can drink more than four ounces of without needed a chaser to cleanse their palate.  Multiply that by a few million instances, and you’ll see many breweries going under.  Many will deserve it – since a lot of new breweries aren’t making particularly good beer – but a great many that should survive, won’t.  And we’ll all be the poorer for it.  It’s like the collapse of the civilization on Rapa Nui – so concerned and obsessed with building ever-larger stone heads that they use up all of their trees, and as a result can’t build canoes to fish.  

If beer wants to survive, the community needs to take a longer view, and it needs to reel in those Jacobin-like tendencies.  My principle argument is that it needs to get back to basics.  It needs to be open, encouraging, realistic to pursue for both hobbyists and professionals, and simpler.  If it doesn’t, and we all keep chasing obscure bottles, ingredients, and higher (or lower) ABV and IBU levels, then I fear that the much-maligned Big Beer people will end up sailing up to our abandoned Craft Beer Islands, and marveling at the ingenuity that created such wonders but was unable to save itself.

The Audience

Who is this blog for?  Everyone.  Anyone who considers themselves a “beer person,” obviously, but also for those who are just curious about beer.  This blog is part brewing guide, part tasting guide, part beer community manifesto, and part confessional.  It is a blog that probably has useful tips and ideas for even advanced homebrewers, who might benefit from some simplification.  It is also for novice brewers and beer hobbyists (whether producing or drinking) who might benefit from a simple explanation of what are, in some ways, complex things.  But it is my sincerest hope that this beer blog will find its way into the hands of the beer elitists: the aforementioned aleholes, the “crafty” crowd, and the beer scientists. 

First, the aleholes.  You can always spot them, because they want you to know how much more they know about beer than you do.  Typical behaviors in the wild include explaining how nearly every beer they have sucks in some way (they’re fault-hunters, determined to identify what’s wrong with every beer you hand them).  They also seem to be under the impression that the only truly great beer is the one you can’t find; they’ll wait hours in line for the annual release of what is a pretty ordinary imperial IPA, simply because of its rarity.  They love antagonizing beer novices, and often make no secret of their assumed superiority.  And of course, they’ll get into the technical details of beer that you wouldn’t understand.  What makes this interesting is that for many of them a few basic questions from an actual beer expert might reveal that they don’t understand those same technical details.  Others, admittedly, do know what they’re talking about, but are just very high-handed about it. 

Then there are the excessively crafty.  For them, only small and local can be good.  Any brewery that meets with success and increases production, distributes widely, and actually tries to get their beer onto airplanes or into sports stadiums, has sold out.  These are the same folks who believe that if you don’t drink beer from a local brewery, then you’re basically the beer equivalent of Satan.  Local beer is always better beer to them – not because it gets to market faster and is therefore fresher, but because it’s local.  They ignore the reality that some breweries – that might even be local to you – are horrific and producing beer that is closer to fire-ant urine than anything you can enjoy a pint of.  For the “crafty” beer elitists, it’s all about satisfying that holy trinity of local, small, and novel.  When it comes to bottles of beer, the more obscure and fewer produced, the better.

The last group of beer elitists I’m hoping to engage with are what one might term the “beer scientists.”  This might seem contradictory, given that I’ve also said that many brewers lack basic skills, but what I fear is that their specific brand of expertise is hurting us by making beer seem too intimidating and complicated to the uninitiated.  Without a doubt, beer is an area that is ripe for detail-obsessed, minutiae-laden conversation.  It’s a complex biological, chemical, and magical (right?) process that is dynamic and fluid, with myriad moving parts and variables.  But it’s also just beer.  Humanity figured out how to make this stuff basically by accident, and kept it up for millennia without the benefit of a gas chromatograph and a Brix refractometer.  Let’s reel it in a little bit.  If the same phenomenon were observed among parents discussing the anatomy, physics, and fluid mechanics of delivering a spheroid object wrapped in leather through time and space en route to a terminus point that is created by attaching an adjunct appendage to a child’s hand, then kids might never work up the nerve to ask their parents to have a catch.  This is mainly a beer expert PR problem, but it’s one that needs to be considered if we’re going to get new people into beer without scaring them hopless.

Bottom line?  This is a blog for people who love – or might love – beer.  It isn’t meant to attack anybody.  I’m absolutely convinced that most alehole-ishness we witness is either unintentional or accidental, and for the few that don’t fit into that description, well…they’re probably just run-of-the-mill assholes.  If I use hyperbole or humor that seems to mock, I do it only so we can see these hyperbolic cases as exemplars of more-subtle (but no less serious) issues.  And rest assured, most of what we’ll be doing here is positive, constructive, helpful, and (of course) simple.

 

Goals and Purpose

This blog is about the “whole beer” experience, how to make it better (and simpler), and how to share it with others.  I’ll discuss what to look for when tasting beer, and how to appreciate and understand the differences between them in a way that lets you become a more-informed taster.  I’ll discuss brewing and fermenting for those who homebrew (or might, and we all can), with a focus on streamlining your process, maximizing your effort, and finding your perfect brewing system, volume, and recipes.  I’ll discuss evaluation of beer – both on your own, and as an entrant into structured homebrewing competitions – as a way to promote a robust and helpful quality control process, which will mean better beer for you and those you share it with.  And finally, I’ll discuss sharing beer with other beer people and (more importantly) how to be a good beer ambassador without alienating those who might like good beer (which is everyone – they just don’t know it yet).

This isn’t a step-by-step introduction to brewing.  There’s no reason to re-write the many great “how to brew” blogs out there.  The brewing and beer tips, stories, and ideas shared here are aimed at making everyone’s beer and brewing experience a better one.  It’s just that simple.

 

Why?

Three reasons.  First, because of the people.  Beer people are, on average, some of the best people I’ve ever known.  They tend to be curious, thoughtful, interesting, intelligent, and conscientious.  Even Mr. Beer, from earlier, is probably (DEEP down, underneath his vintage glasses and signet ring) a great guy, once you get past his alehole-ishness.  If we can head off our lesser tendencies, we can bring even more people into this group, which brings me to my second reason: the community. 

The beer community is simply remarkable.  Beer brings together people from every walk of life, background, social class, and occupation.  It gives them common ground, and nearly everyone is happier with a good beer in their hands.  When the National Homebrewers Conference came to Philadelphia, it was a potential disaster.  These are the people who threw snowballs at Santa and booed a blind kid who had just finished singing the National Anthem.  More than 3,000 (mostly local, including myself) homebrewers descended on the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the conference, and after one of the marquis events, those same 3,000-plus people were attempting to get back up to their hotel rooms using only eight elevators, after a full day and night of beer tasting, and loaded down with luggage carts filled with kegs.  The line stretched literally through two buildings, more than one hundred yards.  Such a thing might have caused a riot at other events in the city – but this group was too busy laughing, socializing, and enjoying each others’ company for that.  Some were even still pouring samples off of not-quite-finished kegs.  I have never been more proud to be a homebrewer than at that moment.

Last (but certainly not least), I’m doing this for the beer.  A simpler and more-welcoming beer community, populated by more of the aforementioned beer people, will ultimately mean better beer for everyone.  Better-prepared novice homebrewers with an appreciation for the basic tenets of brewing means better beer.  More-thoughtful advanced homebrewers with an appreciation for the best ways to use the many ingredients at their disposal means better beer.  Beer enthusiasts who stop short of being beer elitists and, as a result, bring more people into the craft beer drinking marketplace means more support for good breweries, and means better beer.  The end result of a vibrant and appropriately-discerning community (and not elitism-driven exclusivity) is better beer, and more of it, from the smallest home brewery to the largest craft brewery.

The last part of this isn’t really “Why?” but rather, “Why me?”  What special wisdom or knowledge do I have that lets me lecture all of you on how to evaluate, produce, and share beer?  And the answer (much to my publisher’s chagrin, I’m sure), is “None.”  I’m just a homebrewer and beer enthusiast, much like any other.  I don’t have special powers.  I know a lot about beer and brewing, but I’m not the world’s leading expert on anything.  I know a lot about the beer community, but I don’t work in it as my primary occupation.  I know a lot about homebrewers, but I don’t presume to speak for all of them and their wondrously varied systems and methods.  But here’s why I’m writing this blog: I’m a carrier of the alehole gene. 

In many ways, I live in both of these worlds.  On the one hand, I run the very real risk of being a beer elitist.  I’m a Grand Master Beer Judge Certification Program judge, and I think every beer ever brewed should be subjected to blind evaluation.  I’m a Certified Cicerone, and I think that bars and restaurants owe it to their customers (especially the beer-literate ones) to give them a great beer experience.  I brag regularly about the obscure and wonderful beers we get in my home city of Philadelphia, many of which are available only where they are brewed, and here.  I have a rigorously controlled brewing process that I monitor with relentless detail.  I can tell you the target statistics and beer style characteristics of every beer I brew.  I harp relentlessly about the importance of drinking from good local breweries, and there are some that I’ll even wait in line for.  In other words (David Mamet’s, in fact), I have become what I beheld.  I’m guilty of every sin I mentioned earlier in this chapter.  I am….MR. BEER!  No, I’m not, but for a second there I was envisioning a Usual Suspects-esque reveal.  I’m not Mr. Beer – at least not the one from that festival.  But I recognize him.  I really do. 

While I am very much a beer nerd/geek/snob/elitist, I’m also a beer purist.  I very much enjoy making simple lagers that showcase what beer ingredients actually taste like.  I love finding a brewery that does a simple English bitter – a beer that isn’t dressed up with American hops or fruit or Belgian yeasts.  What originally attracted me to beer was that behind all of the science that explained the great diversity of beer in the world (largely the story of water and the ability to grow hops) was a simple story of making the same thing in different ways based on local conditions.  It spoke to the culture of a place – in fact, it spoke to the culture of almost every place – and created common bonds between what, at times, were warring peoples.  There is a sublime quality to a warm day sitting around a scarred picnic table drinking good beer with good people that can’t be manufactured, or filigreed, or passed through a gas chromatograph.  It’s the “simple” of it that I love, because simple is often pure.

Yes, I live in both of these worlds, and only Nixon can go to China.  You can Google that one – no more history lessons here.  But that’s “why me,” and if you stick around, we can get started on simplifying you, your beer, and your brewing.

 JJW

 

[1] See I. Woloch, Jacobin Legacy: The Democratic Movement under the Directory (1970); M. L. Kennedy, The Jacobin Club of Marseilles (1973); Kennedy, The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution (2 vol., 1982–88).