Saturday, October 18, 2008

Don't Be a Ticker

The term railfan or railway enthusiast is used to describe an amateur hobbyist interested in commercial and industrial rail transport. These fans indulge their passion for trains by rail travel, building websites and gathering in groups with like-minded train buffs. They read books, write books, collect photos and other material related to rail engines and transit systems around the world.

Some individuals are derisively called trainspotters (a British term) by other enthusiastic railfans. These trainspotters have morphed their hobby into an obsession, and are usually regarded with contempt by other members of the practice. Trainspotters are more concerned with the competition than the content, taking great efforts to “spot” each and every type of train without a care or appreciation for the subject that other railfans feel they should.

The American craft beer scene has given birth to their own version of trainspotters. Called tickers for their penchant to tick beers off a largely arbitrary list, these obsessive fans of beer often care more about their lists and acquisitions than about the product itself. They live in a constant state of competition, always striving to be the first to try a new beer and then post a review of it online for all to see.

Sometimes, tickers blend into a crowd but often they are not difficult to identify. At beer festivals or at any social gathering where craft beer is served, some can be seen with heads down, writing in notebooks, photographing labels or even collecting empty bottles to take home. Many have advanced from pen and paper to laptop computers or PDAs. Interactions with the general group at large are limited.

Tickers are also noted for writing full and detailed reviews of beers from the smallest of samples. Gatherings are specifically planned for new and rare beers, and bottles are passed around so that every person can taste just a few ounces of a new beer. These activities are only fueled by online rating websites like Rate Beer and Beer Advocate and their competitive point systems.

Addressing this last point first, many believe that a craft beer cannot be adequately judged short of a full serving, or without an adequate volume to consume. Some beers change their nature through the course of a full glass, and some mature for both good and ill as they warm. An otherwise tasty sip may turn cloying with a full serving, or an off-putting sourness may turn pleasant after just a few ounces. Many flavor elements may not be immediately apparent or detectable with only a brief sample.

Craft beer is an inherently social beverage, and it should be treated as such. It is to be shared and enjoyed among comrades, exchanging opinions about the tastes and discoveries of the flavors. It is not meant to be consumed apart from the group but instead as part of the group. Conversation enhances the enjoyment and appreciation of craft beer, not ignoring others to scribble meaningless notes in a futile competition.

This is not to say that reviewing beer is bad, or these beer review websites are responsible for this behavior, or that small samples do not have their appropriate place. There is nothing wrong with jotting down a few tasting notes. However, our beerfan hobby should not turn into a mocked obsession, alienating other craft beer fans and reducing this pleasant drink to mere ticks on a list. We do not want this to be the image of craft beer taken away by those outside the subculture. Craft beer is meant to be savored, experienced, appreciated and shared.

Don’t be a ticker.

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