Monday, March 31, 2008

Bad Beer Versus Preference

Unavoidably, craft beer fans are drawn to extremes. We love the monster hoppy beers, the high-gravity beers, the imperial stouts, doppelbocks and barleywines. Our desire is to either saturate or outright overwhelm our taste buds with our typical, American extra-is-good so ten-times-that-must-be-fantastic philosophy. It is our nature.

I point no fingers of blame, as I am just as guilty. I desire, purchase and guzzle the latest dry-hopped triple IPA just as much as anyone else. Indeed, craft brewers themselves have learned to work the crowds with limited-edition this and seasonal-release that, feeding the frenzy and capturing the spotlight and making a premium profit, all at the same time.

But an unfortunate casualty in this arms race of the palate is the journeyman craft brewer, the one who either chooses not to take advantage of this marketing trend or does not have the resources to do so. This is the brewer who turns out the session beers, the massive mid-ranged products that are the backbone of the industry: the pale ales, the ambers, the wheats, the casks, the English pub styles or German biergarten fare.

Too often, craft brewers are judged by their extremes. A highly desirable, limited-edition seasonal product can elevate a brewer to almost mythical status, regardless of the balance of their portfolio. Conversely, brewers that are not currently part of this trend are often overlooked or utterly dismissed by craft beer fans. The comment most often made by critics is simply, “I just don’t think they make good beer.”

At this point, a sharp distinction must be drawn: Does the brewer make truly bad beer, or simply beer that you do not prefer? Is the beer produced of a genuinely poor quality, or are they of styles that you are typically not drawn to, avoid or overtly dislike? This point is a very significant difference in the estimation of a craft brewer. Craft beer fans make this mistake more often than they may realize.

Regrettably, there have been a rare handful of (often short-lived) commercial craft brewers that, largely for reasons unknown, have produced and released truly bad beer. "Bad beer" is defined as beer that has identifiable flaws, whether stylistic, flavor components or with some perceptible fault. Perhaps it is too tannic, or too estery, or flat, or stale, or with any of a variety of chemical elements left as byproducts of fermentation and conditioning. These are all the hallmarks of bad beer — or more accurately, flawed beer — and they are not easily missed once you have identified them.

In contrast, consider a simple American amber ale. If you are a lover of hoppy beers, you may reject this as not bitter enough. If Russian imperial stouts are your taste, you may find the amber bland and unremarkable. Those searching for the high-alcohol burn will hardly notice the amber at all, and dismiss it as yet another forgettable label on the shelf.

Yet there is no flaw to be found in this typical American amber. In your evaluation of beers and brewers, you must always take into consideration your own taste calibration and try to value beers as objectively as you can. You need not take up a love of amber ales if your liking draws you to other styles, any more than you should be forced to read Solzhenitsyn if your interests lie elsewhere. But to rate it as “bad beer” or the brewer as somehow a “bad” brewer (or worse, “unable” to make a good beer) is simply wrongheaded.

Be aware of your own prejudices, preferences and tastes, and judge accordingly.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Geek Is a Four-Letter Word

Depending on how you date it, the craft beer movement in the United States is well into its third decade now, and is mature enough to have spawned countless books, websites, magazines, festivals and social groups both amateur and semi-pro. In short, a subculture has grown up around this movement, with members affectionately being referred to as beer geeks.

Or are they? With maturity brings reflection, and craft beer lovers are beginning to turn the microscope on themselves and rethink their modern-day appellation. “Geek” can be either a modern familiar self-deprecating pun or a juvenile epithet hurled against the skinny kid in sixth grade. In our society today, the geek plays the dual role of socially inept misfit with thick glasses and acne as well as the underdog hero who eventually turns out to be your boss. (Mr. Gates, anyone?)

But “geek” has worked its way into our lexicon with a slightly negative connotation, as someone either unusually obsessed with a subject (as in computer geek or Star Wars geek) or as someone exceptionally knowledgeable about a subject, equivalent to our modern use of “guru” — or indeed, both. It is this first association that is causing some grief, especially from those who consider themselves more of the latter.

Fans of music fidelity are called audiophiles, fans of English culture are called anglophiles and even wine connoisseurs designate themselves as oenophiles. As craft beer fans especially like to compare themselves with the wine crowd, of course, they must keep pace with the lingo. However, cerevisaphile has never caught on as an alternative; hence, the seeming default back to beer geek.

Other names have been tried. There have been beer aficionados, beer enthusiasts, beer advocates, beer lovers and many different permutations thereof and more. The bald truth is that neither the prefix “beer” nor its Latinized version of “cerevisa” lend themselves to catchy linguistic combinations. It must be unique, trendy and roll off the tongue to be widely adopted and, frankly, these requirements only bring us right back to beer geek.

Much of this consternation arises from one of the three categories of drinkers that may be designated by the term beer geek. The first is the casual consumer who prefers the taste of well-made craft beer over the larger national brands. Their involvement begins and ends at the palate, and while possibly loyal to a brand or style, their interest goes no further. This category makes up the largest fraction of the subculture by far.

At the other extreme are those obsessed with their hobby almost to clinical levels. They are not only educated about styles, brands and brewers, they often go to lengths to obtain, review and check off each beer as they find it. For these drinkers, the game of acquisition and categorization is almost more consuming than the actual consumption and enjoyment. Trainspotters, if you will.

But the rebuff of the terminology comes from the middle group, the true and loyal soldiers of the craft beer movement. These are individuals who are generally well-educated about various beer styles and different microbrewers across the nation as well as a variety of imports. They know about ingredients and the brewing process, and may even be homebrewers themselves. They take enjoyment in the beverage and the subculture without ever crossing the line into obsession.

This middle category of craft beer fans are stirring the pot against the moniker beer geek because to the rest of society, the term has become synonymous with the obsessive/compulsive group. “Beer geek” has become our culture’s newest four-letter vulgarity, and this misconception drives genuine craft beer fans to seek out new language with which to label themselves.

But why should we let an obsessive minority drive our self-image? The pejorative arises because of a negative stereotype, most likely from a disinterested public outside the movement having only limited or unhelpful experiences with craft beer consumers. Fight back and change the mass characterization. Craft beer fans should proudly take back the definition of beer geek and let society sort itself out.