The Beer Has Two Faces: Craft Beer Elitism, (Mis)Understood

At times, craft beer is undeniably guilty of having a kind of Jekyll & Hyde syndrome: after all, I'm sure we've all seen someone dressed like a lumberjack with a three-month growth of beard and a trucker hat order a $25 (or more) bomber of some barrel-aged Belgian Quad.  The dissonance can be a little jarring, I grant you.  

But I've also been noticing a theme in counter-craft beer culture (not the neo-prohibitionists, but the people who seem to revel in the fact that they're not in thrall to craft beer and think that we take it too seriously) whereby craft beer people are, as a group, being accused of elitism and hypocrisy.

You might think that, given my past writing on the subject of aleholes, I would agree wholeheartedly.  But the problem is that the common complaints of the non-crafters either ring false or miss the point.  They're reaching the right conclusion, but for the wrong reason - or the wrong conclusion for the right reason...  Well, whichever it is, the point will come clear in the telling, so let's get into it.  

This is my somewhat odd and seemingly paradoxical argument that craft beer is not, in fact, elitist - even as I decry the elitists in craft beer.  

Elitists in Denial

Last week an article in the Washington City Paper made the claim that "craft beer is elitist, but beer drinkers are in denial."  The argument boiled down to a few key points:

  • Beer has gotten very "fancy" and "serious."
  • Beer is a "drink of the people."
  • Beer snobs are hypocrites because they act like elitists while surrounding themselves with "proletarian iconography" (images of workers plowing the fields and whatnot).  
  • Beer elitists, passively and actively, harangue people for drinking what they prefer, and evangelize on behalf of craft beer when someone orders something else (wine, macro beer, etc.).

What I'll grant, without debate and with enthusiasm, is that beer has gotten much more serious than it used to be.  I'll also grant that there's a decent probability that, in the course of visiting a beer bar or attending a party you may well run into an alehole that's out to shame you for what you're drinking - and said alehole may also try to force-feed you craft beer like farmers do to those geese that are destined to be foie gras.  

There's a significant fallacy underpinning the whole argument, though.

That fallacy?  The beer evangelists that are at the heart of the argument, by definition, aren't elitists.

Elitism, Examined

The author notes in the conclusion this complaint: "If you don't like beer, they want to shame or change you.  I'm glad they found something they love, but can't they leave the heretics alone?"  

The fact that the beer evangelists aren't leaving you alone is evidence that, while they might be annoying, they're not elitists.  Elitism is defined as "favoring, advocating, or restricting to an elite."  If they're constantly putting their craft in your face, you can hardly accuse them of elitism.  You might rightly accuse them of a kind of dandified populism, suggesting that surely everyone should want that hibiscus-tinged Scottish Ale instead of their house red wine, but that's not elitism.

By all means, elitists exist in craft beer, but they're the ones who insist that you need to know the IBU load in a beer to really appreciate it, and that the plebs around the bar can't really appreciate just how the expression of yeast changes the flavor profile and shouldn't even bother drinking it.  THAT'S elitism.

Some dude trying to get you to drink Mirror Pond instead of Barefoot Sparkling White isn't an elitist.  He might be annoying, but he's not an elitist.  If he was, he'd leave you alone.  Probably talk about you behind your back, too, but certainly not try to force you to join the club.  Augusta National isn't prowling dirt-track driving ranges and handing out green jackets (RIP, Arnie...).

How Fancy is Fancy Beer, Really?

Then there's the second element of this argument: that craft beer people are "in denial" about their elitism.  For that to be true, we'd need to accept the author's argument that craft beer has drifted from its working-class and rustic roots and morphed into something fluffy and glittery and elitist.

Has it?

"Well-made" isn't the same as "fancy."  What you'll usually hear beer geeks droning on about isn't that their beer is gloriously highfalutin, but that's it's made well.  Crafted, one might even say.

When you drive out to Amish country to buy a handmade table, you're not doing it because you're looking for something encrusted with jewels and wired for WiFi access - you're doing it because you believe it to be of high quality.  And you're willing to pay for it.  But it's still just made of wood.  Fruit and spices don't make a beer fancy, unless you also think that pumpkin pie has gotten too "fancy" and drifted from its eat-your-flavorless-mush roots.  

"But it's as expensive as wine, and wine is fancy!"  That some beers have become more expensive isn't evidence that they're "awfully fancy," it's evidence that they're in demand, presumably because they offer more value in the form of better flavor.

And beer (especially the fancy beer the author mentions) hasn't drifted from its working roots - if anything, it's gotten closer to them.  Read up on the history of Saisons and tell me that a mural depicting two "Average Joes" working in a field in northern France is inappropriate.  Look at the extent to which IPA lovers get off on the idea of super-fresh hops directly from the fields being added to their favorite beers.  Tell me again how Belgian farmhouse beers are somehow too "fancy."

What, just because it isn't near-flavorless it isn't beer for "working" people?  That's insulting to working people, at the very least.  Suggesting that breweries making beer with richer flavors and agricultural ingredients equates to them moving away from their "proletarian" roots because workers wouldn't want them is...wait, what's the word...elitist.

Let's Focus on the Problem

Pointing out the dissonance between the upper-class costs of some craft beer and the lower-class dress of those who buy it isn't fixing anything - it's a non-issue.  As is pointing out that fancy beer (even if we accept that's what it is) in a proletarian setting is thematically inconsistent.  

Beer elitists certainly exist - but I think you'd find that they're not at all in denial about their elitism; hell, it's part of their identity.  And more importantly, they're distinct from the beer evangelists.  And craft beer evangelists often are annoying.  So let's focus on that problem.  

Calling out "beer drinkers" as a whole for being "in denial" isn't going to address the issue the author raises, because the problem he describes isn't a function of elitism, nor is it one that's common to a vast majority of beer drinkers.  It's much more akin to fascism, with its penchant for conformity, and is a disease of only one small part of the beer world.  

The author highlights a legitimate problem, albeit while reaching the wrong conclusion: just because someone's preferences differ from ours, it doesn't give us a mandate to try to talk them around or criticize their choice.  Boorish behavior still sucks, even if it's in the service of a goal that isn't, ultimately, elitist.  So let's focus on that, and leave the murals and flannel out of it.

Keep it simple.

JJW