We Are All Beer Geeks Now

Squirrel In Cider

There will never be a greater image on this blog. Never.

I’ve had a thought festering in my head for some time now, but hadn’t been able to crystallize it until a conversation I had with my wife recently. We were talking about Vintage Ads; a livejournal that makes for a great addition to your RSS feed (if you use a reader). Vintage Ads is exactly what you think it is: a repository for images and videos of classic advertisements from yesteryear. My favorite posts on Vintage Ads are often the food-related ones; they tell the tale of American food appreciation from the earnestness (and casual racism) of the early 20th Century to the “Science is improving all of our lives!” spirit (and casual racism) of the 1930s (“Tingling Buoyancy!“; “Sunshine Vitamin D!…mellowed to ripe perfection under PRECISE ENZYME CONTROL; “The acid of the orange aids digestion…the fruit to eat with rich repasts“; “Lively flavor and goodness“), to the war effort/rationing (and overt racism) of the WWII-era and beyond.

My wife was pointing out how in the span of a few decades, Americans went from Hot Buttered Cheerios, Squirrel-in-Cider, gelatin-molded veg-all ‘pie-plate salads’, Impossible Cheeseburger Pie (pies are generally a source of nightmare fuel on Vintage Ads, btw), and frosted ham to a nation of organic, biodynamic, locavore, gluten-free, non-GMO, traditionally-styled/fusion/niche cuisine-craving foodies. That’s when the thought finally came together in my head, as we both realized that beer has taken a very similar path–

We are all Beer Geeks now.

Follow me for a moment: A media star rises, suddenly opening the eyes of an American audience to the history, culture and possibility of their consumables. Most importantly, Americans learn that doing it themselves is easier than they think–and it sparks a revolution. Other celebrities follow, and within a couple of decades an entire industry comes alive, spurred on by those who were inspired by that first exposure, and an American public newly awakened and curious about what it’s been missing out on.

Of course I’m thinking of Julia Child, but I could just as easily be writing about the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson. In the wake of The French Chef, America discovered more culinary guides: Jacques Pepin, Graham Kerr, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain…hell, throw in Rachel Ray, Paula Deen, and Martha Stewart–it’s a big tent, after all, with room for all tastes and interests. Millions were inspired to start cooking for themselves at home; a small percentage of those went on to careers in the restaurant/food industry. Just like that, you have a revolution in food culture in the United States.

Jackson brought history, context, and a nobility to beer that largely had not been considered by America before him. With President Carter’s passage of H.R. 1337 in 1978, Americans began making their own beer in greater numbers than ever before; within a few short years many of the pioneering craft breweries were already up-and-running. People like Fritz Maytag (Anchor), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Larry Bell (Bell’s), and Jim Koch (Boston Beer) began to stake out territory for a fledgling industry still seen as a curiosity by much of the country.

(Note: I realize this is an unbelieveably truncated version of the beginnings of the craft beer movement in America, but I only have so much time. Don’t be pedantic, and don’t be a dick. Don’t be a pedandick.)

Their work found an audience thirsty for world-class American beer, and as they say, nothing succeeds like success. The beers of one generation of craft brewers inspired the next to not only push the envelope in terms of flavor, but in the ambitions they had for the reach of their breweries and their corporate philosophies. Sam Calagione spreads the gospel of beer while encouraging beer drinkers to explore the history of the beverage and to try new and different (sometimes very different) things; Greg Koch has built a national brand while adhering to an overtly political stance regarding Big Beer, corporations, etc., and Lagunitas’ Tony Magee brings a musician’s perspective to the beer business, simultaneously attempting to achieve a purity of expression in his beers while constantly fighting to preserve the ‘artisan’ aspect of brewing as the industry grows. The similarities between the evolution of the food and beer industries are stunning when you start noticing them, and it’s hard to avoid a simple truth–this has all happened before, and it will happen again.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin' toasters.

I KNEW they had a plan. Frackin’ toasters.

For all of the talk of various trends and fads, the overall arc of American interest in food has been a continually rising one. The ‘foodie’ phenomenon has grown to the point where now fast food restaurants are offering ‘healthy’ alternatives and are racing to out-do each other with artisanal-sounding ingredients. Neighborhood grocery stores now stock organic, sustainable, gluten-free items–stuff you had to search far and wide for 10-15 years ago. You can buy organic eggs at the 711 on Washington Boulevard in Arlington now. The foodies have won. There’s no going back; this is the new normal.

The same thing is happening with beer right now. Blue Moon was the first sign that the tide had turned; Shock Top, the brewery buyouts, Budweiser Select, Budweiser Black Crown, Miller Fortune and the like all followed–the big guys chasing an audience that was suddenly demanding more. What’s most important here, however, isn’t how BMC has handled the rise of the ‘craft beer movement'; it’s how ‘craft beer’ has grown its audience to the point where it’s no longer a niche product. ‘Craft beer’ is in our grocery stores, our 711s, gas stations, neighborhood bars–like I said last week:

“I don’t get pissed off because Stone, Dogfish, Bell’s, Lagunitas and the like are available at the Giant across the street from me–them being there means we’re winning”

We are all Beer Geeks now.

The debate over craft beer being a trend, or ‘craft’ versus ‘crafty’, is done. All that’s really left to argue over are personal preferences and philosophies, which is great because those are all friendly arguments; those are fun. We should be vigilant and keep an eye out for BMC taking over more smaller breweries in an attempt to co-opt the movement of course, but once upon a time ‘craft beer’ was the rallying cry for those who wanted options; now there are more choices available to consumers in more places than I would’ve imagined possible even just ten years ago.

So let’s stop talking about whether Goose Island is ‘craft’ or not anymore, or Ommegang or Boulevard for that matter. There are immensely talented brewers working with pride at breweries of all sizes all over the world–it’s all ‘craft’. Let’s be open and frank about our preferences and let’s be specific about them, too. I’ll start: Back before the ABI buyout I got to try a couple Goose Island beers and thought they were good, but nothing to rave about. Since the buyout, I’ve tried some very good Goose Island beers (Honker’s, Harvest Ale, their new  The Ogden Tripel which is nice but finishes a bit hot for my taste; Pepe Nero), but I still see the takeover as ABI trying to buy itself some ‘street cred’. Between those factors and the only Goose Island beer I get requests for on a regular basis being Bourbon County Stout (which I’m also not crazy about personally), it’s an easy decision for me not to carry it. But you won’t hear me say the brewers of Goose Island aren’t good at what they do; nor will I say that they lack passion for beer or are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of beer drinkers, because they’re not. Everyone is trying to make the best beer possible; everything else is a matter of preference.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

There is still work to be done; still whole swaths of the country where smaller breweries aren’t available. But the tide has turned and it’s no longer a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. The day will come when we start reading people bitching about the dominance of ‘big breweries’ like Dogfish Head, Stone, Lagunitas, New Belgium, and the like–a day I think is coming relatively soon, actually. When it does, I’ll just smile and be happy that these upstarts managed to grow at all–let alone become national names–in the face of an industry that wanted nothing less than to kill a consumer movement before it ever had a chance to grow. Welcome to the club, everybody.

We are all Beer Geeks now.

 

 

 

4 responses to “We Are All Beer Geeks Now

  1. Great post! I’ve been sitting on a very similar one that I wrote a while back, and now you’ve gone and beat me to the punch! I’ll post it on Monday with a link back to you :)

  2. So I think the interesting question, which you allude to in this longer version with the reference to Giant, is what happens to the retail outlets like Arrowine (and the customer base) as a result of the continuous escalation? In the Arrowine case, I think it’s already made the move to the less available beers, and your shopper is like the wine shopper – coming in for something special, and a better level of advice. But to my knowledge you aren’t selling $100 six packs (to match similarly priced bottles of wine), and with some exceptions, people don’t buy 3 cases of beer (again, rough equivalent to a case of wine) to cellar, and the store can’t hold stock for the same period of time. So it’s not going to be directly analogous. Can the wine-shop business model work permanently? Beats me, but it’s interesting.

    Eric (of the Atlantic Voice podcast)

    • In the case of Arrowine specifically, I’ve seen a move toward rare/hard-to-get/’state of the art’ stuff right alongside local/regional offerings, and am happy to embrace it.

      In this moment, and over the next few years, I don’t really see any issue with the ‘concept’ of the beer department at Arrowine as I’m running it. When the growth of beer slows down (and it will one of these years), the number of new breweries and beers will slow too, and “new” is the lifeblood of the specialty store (regardless of the product). When that day comes, we’ll see what happens to the independents.

      It could work out anyway: the big thing to remember is that because I have a smallish department within a larger wine store, I don’t have to ‘carry’ the place. I can afford to walk out on the edge because of that. Stores like Norm’s in Vienna demonstrate how an independent can exist and thrive, with a mix of ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ that doesn’t try to be all things to all people, but services a wide range of beer interests equally.

      TL;DR–If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be fine. Unfortunately, not many people do. I’m not sure I’m one of them, but what the hell that’s half the fun of life.

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