Craft Beer and its Discontents: Freud Meets Papazian

Freud had it at least partly right: there's something in humans that rebels against conformity, and civilization often requires the restriction of individual desires for the common good.  In that sense, attempts to quantify, define, and order the craft beer world often seems like an attack on those who believe that world is characterized by its individuality, uniqueness, and creativity.  The committed craft beer...enthusiast, shall we say, rails against attempts to "civilize" beer, while others see it as a sign of sophistication and maturity.  On the other hand, those who are attempting the "civilizing" often overplay their hand and come off not as benevolent devotees but as killjoys and martinets.

So which is it?  Freud and the need for order, even at the expense of individuality?  Or Papazian and "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew"?  

Both sides have a point.  But at the end of the day, I tend to think that we need order more than ever, lest we lose control of the beer train.

"The Death of Craft Beer"

There has been no shortage of commentary lately on the "death" of craft beer.  Whether it's because of the encroachment of "big beer" into craft beer circles via "crafty" labels or buyouts, the growth of craft beer pioneers into almost-big-beer-sized producers, or just a dying notion that "beer" connotes tasteless, fizzy, yellow lager and something else demands another name.  Whatever the cause, the notion that the term "craft" means anything is going away.

But if craft beer isn't going to be a distinct "thing" anymore, then we need a new paradigm.  While some in the laissez-faire camp would argue that all that matters is whether beer tastes good or not, that's not going to satisfy the very people that fostered, promoted, and grew the craft beer movement for the rest of us.  Why?  Because something about "craft" beer went beyond flavor: yes, it tasted better than "big" beer, but that was just a manifestation of the larger defining feature.

"Craft" means a lot of different things to people, but most would probably agree that it indicates a degree of care and commitment to the final product, not just to the bottom line that it serves.  Yes, even craft brewers want to make money, but they're not willing to sacrifice the quality of the product to do it.  And they're willing to bet that we'll all pay a little more to drink something worth drinking.

If the term "craft" goes away, then we need something to define our choices.  As much as it pains me to write it (for reasons I'll get into in a second), I think we need to start talking in terms of "independent" beer.  

For a long time, I've been a big proponent of what one might call the "drink what you like" mentality.  If Michelob Light floats your boat, then fine.  If you want nothing but Cantillon, then God bless you (and your bank account).  But I also recognize that there is a substantial amount of validity to the idea that "craft beer" was much more about the value of community, principled business, and devotion to ideals than it was about just making something that tasted better than mass-production light lagers.  For that reason, as high (or at least higher) quality beer is now coming out of those same profit-motivated big brewing corporate behemoths, we can't just rely on notions of quality or craft anymore: we need to stake out definitions.

Many beer people want to base their purchasing decisions on who/what that purchase is supporting.  Even if a bought-out brewery is still producing high-quality beer, a share of that purchase price is going to support an organization that the purchaser might find distasteful.  So for that reason, a change of banners is in order.  I want people talking about "independent" brewing - even if "craft" has outlived its usefulness as a defining characteristic, we shouldn't abandon the idea that not all breweries have the same motives, even if they're producing similar products.  "Independent" captures the idea that some breweries support a community of beer people (or just people, when those breweries are active community supporters!), not just a bottom line or stock price.  

It's a distinction with a difference - and it doesn't require you to disparage the taste or quality of other beers as a price of admission.  Let quality speak for itself, but let's acknowledge that quality alone isn't why we bought craft beer in the first place.

A Question of Style

Likewise, we have some who consider the idea of defining beer styles to be revolting.  I won't rehash it too much (since I just wrote about this), but it deserves a mention here.  There's a lot of beer out there today.  I recognize that, being in Philadelphia, I live in a blessed beer market with an astonishing array of local, regional, and international options.  But even in places that are less fortunate and don't regularly end up with exotic and esoteric beers, the options are still plentiful and growing.

For that reason, we need beer styles.  Otherwise, we'd go insane.

As I wrote about two weeks ago, no one is saying that beer style definitions need to constrain and constrict brewers (and if those definitions are trying to, then they're doing a piss-poor job of it - it's plenty unconstrained out there!).  But brewers: give us a starting point.  A reference.  A discriminating factor.  Otherwise, it's going to be a mass of confusion, and that's not going to help you (or us) at all.

Look: I'm a trained taster.  A BJCP Grand Master, Certified Cicerone, culinary fanatic.  I once wrote on a judging score sheet that a beer's aroma reminded me of Captain Crunch on a beach at sunset sitting next to a topless Polynesian lass (or words to that effect - pretentious as hell, I know, but I always advise judges to write the first thing that comes to mind, and I was wrapping up a 12-mead flight and was probably a little tipsy).  And I'm telling you something: WE ALL NEED A POINT OF REFERENCE when we're tasting.  

If you gathered together a group of trained palates and asked them to identify beer styles from random samples with no knowledge, they'd still struggle to get them right, and I'd go so far as to say they'd get more incorrect than correct.  Giving us a style reference means that we're primed to look for and detect certain flavors, and thus can do so more effectively.  Does that create a risk of bias?  Of course it does.  If you tell me a beer used Grape Nuts in the mash, I might be tricking myself into detecting a "cereal" quality.  But it's a small price to pay to avoid the thought-bubble filled with question marks that you'd get if you don't give people that jumping off point.

And if we're going to have style names, then we need definitions.  They don't need to be all that specific: but we still need them.

To the uber-free spirits out there, all I can say is this: deal with it.  Maybe you're not in need of them, but a whole lot of other people are.  Take one for the team.  The friction between the freedom of beer as a creative culinary endeavor and the necessity for order is one that has to be tolerated if we're going to let everyone get the most out of what they're drinking.

A Place for Beauty

Despite all of this, there's one area where I'm going to err on the side of the fancy-free: the almost unbearable creativity of brewers.  

Beers - even within style definitions - are increasingly a kaleidoscope of unusual ingredients, processes, fermenting agents, and presentations.  They run the range from super-light (try Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale) to the astonishingly intense and specialized (consider Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company's Leon - a Russian Imperial Stout with graham crackers, marshmallow, and baker's chocolate).  And that's fine.

Will it confuse the hell out of some people?  Yes.  Will some hanker for the days when the tap lists had a great collection of flavorful and simple beers?  Yes (including this blogger).  Will some say that beer has gotten too esoteric, weird, and affected?  Yes.  

But that's fine.  Music, cinema, literature, and every other art form has its avant-garde elements, too, and are all the richer for it.  Why not us?

Ironically, we can turn back to Freud for a defense of this view.  As he notes in Civilization and Its Discontents:

"Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.” 

So let the lunatic, lover, and poet run riot in your brewery.  There's always time to brew that simple beer, and I, for one, believe that we'll always trend back towards the profoundly simple, but in the meantime don't worry about breweries that are pushing their boundaries, and don't fear pushing yours.  You'll likely come away with beautiful memories, and maybe beautiful beers.

Moving On

There's a great scene in Defending Your Life when Rip Torn is explaining to Albert Brooks' character that, if he's judged worthy, he'll "move on," to whatever's next for him in the universe.  That's telling, because in that movie you're deemed worthy of it if you've lived a life free from fear.  But to show you have, you need to demonstrate that lack of fear as part of a trial, with judges and advocates, with order and rules - in other words, with civilization.  Freedom demonstrated through process; not a bad construct.

The ordering of the beer world is a necessary evil.  It invites conflict and struggle, disagreement and discord, but it is also a vital component of the logical progression of beer from the post-Prohibition dark ages into the post-Craft Beer Renaissance.

Don't fight it - but don't forget to maintain the spirit of creativity and joy that made it necessary, either.  On that, I'm sure Freud and Papazian could readily agree.

Keep it simple.

JJW