Fancy beer: pinkies out or middle fingers up?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about beer becoming higher class/more expensive/more accepted/more like wine/more pretentious/etc. Most of these articles and comments seem to come from outside the beer community. I feel like more of us from the actual beer culture — as opposed to food writers, wine writers, and people who discovered beer last Tuesday — need to weigh in on this.

Here’s the type of thing I’m talking about. It’s not an isolated example and I hate to pick on this one writer, but it does encapsulate a lot of the gee-whiz-fancy-beer sentiment that’s been going around. Even though I’m a bit of a scumbag myself, I’d say beer going highbrow is a good thing to a certain extent, and I’ll explain why later…but there are a few things I want to say first.

Comparing beer to wine was old five years ago
Google “beer is the new wine” and you get 130,000 results. Stop it. Seriously. Beer is not the new wine. Beer is not the new anything.

Talking about “the winefication of beer” makes me insane. I understand that beer in a glass with a stem on it rather than YEEHAW FROSTY MUG is confusing for some people. I know some folks are used to a wine list but not a beer list. I get that most people think of good wine as expensive and all beer as cheap. For too many people, beer is still nothing more than that skunky stuff they played drinking games with in college. However, complimenting a beer by saying “it’s like wine!” or “this doesn’t even taste like beer!” is about as good a compliment as “you clean up nice” or “you look good for your age.” I know you mean well, but jeez.

We can also stop with lines like this, please: “And like wine, sour beers are best savored and explored, not downed.” Look, beer that tastes more like wine — non-hoppy, barrel-aged, containing actual grapes —  is not automatically classier, better, snobbier, tastier, or more deserving of respect than a fresh Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. As a beer bartender, let me tell you why wine-tasting beers are amazing: they enlighten wine drinkers that beer isn’t a duopoly of watery blandness on one side and rip-your-face-off-hoppy on the other side. Also, when done right, they sure can taste great. But wine is not some holy thing that improves beer by mere proximity to its grapes and barrels.

Beer was good before you or I got here
Beer becoming available in nice restaurants didn’t make beer good. The rise of beer bars so shiny you could take your date or your grandmother there didn’t make beer good. Wine and food writers discovering beer didn’t make beer good. Beer has been good for years.

Not all good beer is expensive, and not all expensive beer is good
Likewise, you shouldn’t have to go to an upscale place to get servers who understand their product. For instance, my local brewpub is a completely unpretentious place with very well-trained bartenders. Which leads me to…

Knowing a lot about something doesn’t make you a snob
Some people are starting to use the phrase “beer snob” to describe anyone who knows a lot about beer. Knowledge and snobbery are not synonymous.

If you think the most knowledgeable people in the beer world are snobs or hipsters, clearly you haven’t been to an industry event lately. We, for the most part, are not fancy ladies and gentlemen. We just want to drink tasty things.

Conversely, some of the most pretentious people on beer review sites, trust me, don’t appear to know much of anything. Using big words you learned on Beer Advocate or from Tasting Beer isn’t the same thing having as deep knowledge of a subject.

Are there beer people who are both knowledgeable and snooty? Sadly, yes…because there are all kinds of people who are both knowledgeable and snooty. All I can do — and all you can do, if your job involves both beer and dealing with the public — is try to drop knowledge when appropriate/asked for and not be a jerk.

Quality is not anti-American (or is it?)
A problem with good beer being seen as higher class now — and a problem I can’t see a solution for, to boot — is that it’s putting some people off. We are not reaching people who think good beer is the same thing as snooty beer and that consuming it will turn them into some sort of pinkie-raised yuppie asshole. If you ever look at comments on any mainstream article about the beer community — which you shouldn’t, because reading online comments will make you go blind — you’ll find that guy (or dozen) with the “shove your fancy beer up your ass, I’m gonna drink a Bud because I’m Just Folks” mentality. (One recent example is here)

This is so confusing. It’s like, “fuck eating something good, I’m gonna get Mc Donalds just on general principle! Because I’m not an asshole!” But we do that, too. Calling a politician “elitist” is one of the worst things you can say, and we base that on food more often than makes sense. Remember the reaming John Kerry got for Swiss cheese and Obama got for arugula?

If you don’t want to buy beer (or wine, or food) with prices in the top 1% or 10% or 50% of what’s available, don’t. There are plenty of other tasty options, and frankly not all of the most expensive beer is stuff I want to drink anyway. If you don’t want to go to a bar you see as pretentious, don’t. On most days ending in Y, I prefer a casual environment to an upscale one myself. But the existence of upscale places isn’t an affront to my beer-drinking humility.

Making quality beer the new normal would be good, right?
We’ve determined no one likes a snob — that implies someone who is condescending and possibly mean. And I hope I’ve convinced you that “elevating” beer does not need to mean snobbing it up. Either way, I think what is happening with the upscaling of beer is going to make it an all-occasion beverage with a wider customer base, and that’s hard to argue with even if you’re not the white-tablecloth type.

Example: I work at a bar that is viewed by some as overpriced and pretentious, but I’ve got plenty of customers who would still think beer is icky if every beer bar felt like a dive. Not because nice furniture makes beer taste better, but because they simply don’t go to lower-brow bars. (More room for me!) On the other hand, some of my customers generally prefer a more casual atmosphere but come to my workplace anyway because we’ve got the beer they want and we’re not dicks.

You should be able to go out to a high-end restaurant and have great, well-cared-for, food-appropriate beer to match instead of HAVING to order wine or a cocktail. I want people to see beer’s possibilities as a special-occasion beverage. I want to get rid of the idea that wine is for classy people and beer is for hooligans. That’s as outdated as thinking beer is for men and wine is for women. (Don’t get me started.) That said, I also want every dive bar to have beer worth drinking served through clean lines.

While I’m making a wish list, I want more people with fat purses to spend some of it supporting the beer industry. I want to stop hearing about anywhere in the world where beer is taxed differently than wine and I want everyone that will ship wine to be able to ship beer. (And that was the closest I’ll ever get to comparing wine and beer.) If it takes some beer having a certain kind of marketing or a certain price tag or availability in certain dining/drinking environments to rid the world of derogatory stereotypes about the type of person who drinks beer, that’s fine with me. Elevate me, baby! (Wasn’t that a Pixies song?) Let’s drop this classist Joe Six-Pack bullshit. To do that we have to bring rich kids into the fold…but we do NOT have to let them take over.

A final anecdote
Last year at the Craft Brewers Conference, some brewery people I’d been hitting the town with told me they were were headed back to their rooms to dress up for the beer awards that night. Oh shit! All I’d brought to San Diego was my usual uniform of jeans and beer t-shirts. I milled around the hotel lobby, starting to panic as a few industry people arrived in gowns and ties. When I saw a Bay Area brewer I knew walk into the lobby in shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, I ran up and asked if he planned to change his clothes.

“Yeah,” he deadpanned, “I’m going to take my sunglasses off my shirt and put them on my hat.” Turns out there were plenty of people at this event who looked like they’d come directly from Toronado. (*raises hand* Guilty.)

Let that be your takeaway if you like: a wonderful aspect of the beer community is that it’s okay to get fancy and it’s okay to keep it super casual, as long as you’re drinking something you like and having a good time. I hope there’s always room for every single one of us.

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8 Responses to Fancy beer: pinkies out or middle fingers up?

  1. Anselm says:

    Hear, hear! Found this through @CollinMcDonnell on Twitter (old friend), and gotta say I’m glad to see someone say this. Also, really glad to find this blog.

    Any thoughts on freshness of beer in pubs? Is it polite to ask? Will they likely know?

    • Jen Muehlbauer says:

      Thanks man! I personally wouldn’t be offended if someone asked me about freshness of a beer on tap where I work, especially for hoppy styles that go downhill fast. That said, it’s hard to know for sure. I tend to go with “if it tastes fresh, it’s fresh.” Bottle dating, on the other hand, is awesome.

  2. wafflesnfalafel says:

    Yes – exactly. I have had funky cask stuff in the middle of a light industrial park at Black Raven and Belgian Tripel at Canlis – both were awesome, memorable experiences.

  3. Deano says:

    “and rip-your-face-off-hoppy on the other side.” You say that as if it were a bad thing…

    Well done, again. For me, the bottom line is, the more people put “fancy” beer in their faces, the better. True, good beer has a “cool” factor these days, and plenty of people are at the snooty bars just for the scene. Hopefully, it’ll grow on enough people to stick and they’ll keep buying it because they like it. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

  4. Pingback: Tasting Beer Part 3: Wine-ification | Hooked On Hops – The Las Vegas Craft Beer Site

  5. Paul K says:

    Oh Jen!
    Love this article, sitting at ØL and reading it with Rachael :-)
    You need to do some promotion of this blog at the bar and continue the great discourse of beer culture with customers online!
    Cheers

  6. Pingback: Rare Barrel taproom draws sour fans to Berkeley | East Bay Beer

  7. Pingback: Why I don’t call it “craft beer” | East Bay Beer

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