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.


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The Strange Hypocrisy of Pumpkin Beer Hate

Beer people (myself included) tend to bristle a bit when not-as-beer-nerdy people suggest that all beer tastes the same, that they "just don't like mead," or speak generally about how they "don't like lagers" or "really only drink ales."  We typically respond by suggesting that they're overgeneralizing, that they need to try this beer or that beer because it's better than the example they cited, that mead isn't the super-sweet bee-gasm that they get at Ren Fairs, etc.  

Which is why it's odd to me that we're such hypocrites about pumpkin beers.

Not everyone, of course.  But pumpkin-beer-hating seems to be as much a part of the fall as Oktoberfests and football, and I have to say...I don't get it.

Pumpkin Beers Suck

Yeah - some of them do.  Just like some imperial stouts, IPAs, and ANY kind of beer suck.  But a lot of them don't, and some are exceptional.

Yet we've all seen the meme:

It isn't as though spice beers or fruit beers are somehow anathema to us - but build it around a gourd and all of a sudden we lose our shit?  Why the double standard?  In any other scenario we'd be defending the creativity and ingenuity of brewers and saying that just because you had a few bad examples, you shouldn't be judging all pumpkin beers that way.  

Pumpkin Beers are out ALREADY?  Too soon...

Says who?  I was at an "End of Season" sale for summer July.  Where were the "too soon for sweaters" haters?  Or the people screaming at my local hardware store for having snowblowers out - on a day with a heat index of 102F?

Hell, I love fall.  I don't care if we have this stuff year-round.  But what's it to you?  Yes, some bars go overboard and overstock their taps with pumpkin beers, but it's hardly universal.

And if there are an overabundance on tap, so what?  Every time I bring up the ubiquity of IPA and how 75% of the taps are dominated by it, the "Invisible Hand" aficionados are out in force to explain to me that, "hey, it's obviously what people are buying, so stop complaining!"  Well, when you can't get your favorite IPA because there are nine pumpkin beers on...well, you now know how I feel looking for an Altbier in a forest of DIPAs.

Pumpkin Beer Season is So Artificial...

Yeah, it kind of is.  But so is Summer Ale season, and I don't see anyone complaining when they hit the market - in April, btw...

Do pumpkin beers crowd out other fall-friendly styles like Oktoberfest, nut brown ales, and hop-harvest beers?  Maybe.  But see above: where's our overriding concern for variety on the taps when we're talking about a run on hop-forward beers?  And there's nothing stopping bars from putting malt-forward beers on at any time of year, including all winter.

They All Taste the Same!, not really.  In "researching" this phenomenon, I noticed that there's a common sentiment that they "all seem to fall into the same trap: they're loaded with sugar and so alcoholic you can't drink more than one..."  

Again, I'd point out the backlash that occurs when people paint with this broad a brush on things like IPAs and lagers: we're quick to point out that there's a huge range of variation within general parameters.  This is no less true for beers that might or might not even include pumpkin, use a wide range of spices in multiple ratios, and come in session, standard, and imperial strengths.

If we argue that all pumpkin beers taste the same, then we also need to accept the argument that all IPAs taste the same.  And all beers taste the same.  Sound good?

What Might Really Be Going On

I have two pet theories as to what's really behind this.

The first one is boring: devotees of any niche market develop strong attitudes towards things they like and dislike in that market, and thus the anti-pumpkiners are really no different than people who express dislike of sours, or imperial everything, or barrel-aged beers, or "session" this and that.  Possible.  But boring.  And also not necessarily apt, since I honestly don't notice anything like this kind of response to other questionable market segments.

The second one is less-boring, and seems intuitively plausible to me: pumpkin beers make us feel like the mustachioed hipsters that the big beer companies like to mock, and so we all turn into latter-day Peters when confronted with them.  

And so we overreact.  We mock a particular spice beer because it seems like pumpkin-spice-everything is out of control and super trendy - while ignoring that FALL BEER seems like the most logical place in the world to find it and isn't like the artificial use of pumpkin spice in other products.  But since everything else in that category seems over-hyped, we dismiss and denigrate it as a way to suggest that we're too cool for it.  It's inauthentic.  It tastes bad.  It's a product of marketers and sheep who will buy anything because of that delicious aroma.

And it makes us hypocrites.  At every turn we celebrate craft beer's use of interesting ingredients and its ability to offer variety and diversity - except here.  

Pumpkin beers are fine.  Maybe you love them.  Maybe you hate them.  Maybe you just like to drink them because you like autumn and they make you think of autumn (hand raised).  But there's no reason to suggest that within the panoply of beer varieties out there, this one is especially deserving of ridicule and contempt.

If you didn't like that one you had - try another sometime.  Maybe you'll like it.  But don't dismiss or disparage them just because its trendy to do so, as the irony of doing that (while citing the trendiness of the beers themselves) might actually make your head explode.

And this, too, shall pass - just in time for Christmas beers to be released...on October 30th.

Keep it simple.


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