Here’s What’s Killing Craft Beer: Us

We’re getting precisely the beer culture we ordered — and the one we deserve.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

We’re the problem: Our incuriosity, our trend obsessions, our perforative consumerism. We’re fucking it all up. Or at least the flimsy myth of what it was supposed to be: a community bound together by mutual reverence of a thing, its process, its history, and the remaindered potential of what it had the capacity to become, outside of the ruthless calculus of corporate efficiency and the ineluctable will of capital. Goodbye to all that. Pretty weak tea to begin with, as far as utopian fantasy goes — someone forgot to imagine in the labor equality, for example. Still better than a hard seltzer.

Allow me to share with you a law of Craft Beeria, deduced from ~8 years of in-field observation: one’s Beer Knowledge is often in direct and inverse proportion to one’s Market Knowledge. The former is what one knows about beer qua beer: how and why and when and where it’s made, and how that set of questions has both historical and political dimensions, what makes a beer look and smell and taste the way it does. The latter is one’s knowledge of trends, brands, who and what’s hot, what’s trading well, what’s rare, who’s on the outs, etc. It’s not that the twain shall never meet, just that they rarely do, and often the entire beer media universe seems bent on keeping them apart.

Faux-populist contrarianism in beer media has contributed to a culture in which all engagement supposedly has value, regardless of how ignorant, mean-spirited or shallow that engagement turns out to be. The inherent tension between Craft Beer Culture and Craft Beer Business supplies the #BeerPositive contrarians with a handy and oft-played trump card: snobbery drives off customers. Don’t get too geeky; you’ll alienate newbies. What do you care if this guy wants to pour his $9 can of gritty consommé IPA into a crystal vase so he can post it to Instagram? Who are you to tell somebody the correct way to enjoy something? Many of these voices are loud, influential, and often even correct in their way. There’s definitely appeal in the notion that we should all just be equally accepting of everyone’s individual trips and come together in a spirit of positivity and a round-table discussion of how beer is neat-o.

However: along with the, uh, positivity, there’s a dark and obvious strain of anti-intellectualism running through today’s beer culture. It’s as clear as day to anyone who’s ever attended a public bottle share, special beer release, ticketed festival or tasting: lots of these punters generally don’t know shit, and what’s more, they’re proud not to know shit. This current of anti-intellectualism is to some degree the extreme edge of an over-correction to the American beer scene of yore, which was rightly derided as aloof and abstruse, an impenetrable subculture where the gatekeepers were largely middle-aged white male beer geeks. In this context, wherein knowledge was often wielded as a weapon by the insecure, beer geekery was intimidating and alienating, especially to women and “non-traditional” (i.e., not middle class cishet white male) beer drinkers. Toning down the geekiness became a way to welcome people into the scene, to make craft beer fun and approachable, not daunting and complicated.

But beer is complicated. It certainly “doesn’t have to be,” as I’ve said myself in innumerable beer presentations, but if it’s something we love, doesn’t it become all of us to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a complex, historied, multi-faceted thing worthy of deeper contemplation and consideration than obtains in an ordinal rating? The overcorrection away from geekery has brought us to a place where endeavoring to deeper consideration or understanding is itself an object of derision, and some seriously unfunny memes.

People today seem genuinely embarrassed by whatever level of knowledge they’ve managed to attain — I know I am, routinely and illogically. I now sheepishly back into conversations about beer that go any deeper than “this was made with breakfast cereal” — wouldn’t want to alienate any potential drinkers by challenging them to sustain consideration of something for longer than it takes to tick on Untappd, after all.

In this environment, it’s telling that Cicerone gets slagged on as often as it does. There are plenty of valid and apposite criticisms of the organization, from the pricey study materials to the methodology of the exams, but for better or worse, it’s one of the beer world’s only professional certifications that mean anything. But Cicerone’s greatest failing is probably in the area of explanation and self-promotion: consumers and beer professionals alike seem to have only the barest grasp of its significance and strata (having passed the Advanced Exam, I regularly encounter people who take that to mean I am now a Master Cicerone), while many self-regarding Pro Beer Guys have plenty of contempt for people who would dare to take this thing seriously and pick up a fucking book. Aspiring and younger beer professionals often ask me: should they take the exams? And I always say, yes, do it for yourself — because no one else is gonna give a fuck, in the main. And some dinguses are gonna mock you for no reason other than their own insecurities and lack of a viable standup career.

The more I consider it, the more I think the downturn in engagement with beer qua beer is to some degree directly related to the downturn in homebrewing. My interest (and later career) in beer followed a pretty well-worn path: interest piqued by Belgian, German and later American craft beer, followed by dabbling in homebrewing, followed by a deep dive into American craft, more homebrewing, study, homebrewing, and eventually a job in the industry. Homebrewing taught me more about beer than 7+ years of selling it and studying it, without a doubt. Even if you’re making bad beer (and you mostly will), you will gain a deeper understanding of things like water chemistry, fermentation science, recipe formulation, flavor combinations, and working with dangerous chemicals. It will also give you an appreciation for the irreducible fact that consistently making good beer is really fucking hard.

As the decline of American homebrewing mirrored the rise of American craft beer, conventional wisdom holds that many people who were previously brewing their own due to the paucity of available styles gave up on the hobby (or never got into it in the first place) once the corner store began stocking a plethora of craft beer options. There’s probably an element of truth to that — but very few people I knew who took up homebrewing did so to save money, or because they couldn’t find a decent Roggenbier (still can’t, though). Homebrewing is a challenge and a vector to deeper knowledge of beer: to get better, it requires thought, planning, research, reading. It requires a level of consideration that just isn’t currency on trading forums or Instagram.

This screed is veering dangerously into Old Man Yells at Cloud territory, I’m well aware. It’s true — I am old. But you see it all comes to bear on what’s ailing craft beer: the industry has created a consumer stable of fickle, desensitized louts, so fucked out and overstimulated that expecting them to read something is probably about as quixotic as expecting them to revisit flagship brands or classic styles. “Morose barbaric children playing joylessly with their unfathomable toys,” indeed. The industry — in its perennial obsession with novelty and trend, its dependence on “limited” release cycles and ephemeral brands, its reliance on social media and need to break through the noise at any cost — has created this consumer, has enabled him and told him in so many words that what he wants is right and good and there’s no real need to think about any of this shit for any longer than it takes you to drink a 3oz sample because the next one is coming and it’s even better. And you’d be a sucker and a nerd to believe otherwise.

There’s still so much to love about beer, even American craft beer. The innovation, the camaraderie, the opportunity, the will to greater inclusivity, diversity and humanity that I see welling up in it — these are all things to be cherished and fostered. But I challenge the cognoscenti of Craft Beeria to stop lowering the fucking bar: challenge people to think, not about market trends, but about process, not about listicles, but about history. Pious declarations that Orval or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale are self-evidently amazing do absolutely nothing; without context, there’s nothing in the glass that necessarily presents to a novice why a well-made Pilsner is as beautiful and deep as a pastry stout. People are still capable of learning, even, horror of horrors, of reading. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting people to learn a bit about what they’re putting in their bodies. But it’s your job to engage them in a way that makes them care, and want to learn.

Because even a self-published diatribe would be incomplete without at least an element of listicle, here are a few prescriptions for making a Better Craft Beer World, spread out across all levels of the industry:

Publicans: Fewer tap takeovers, more guided tastings. Pair beer thoughtfully with food, and explain why, that’s the key part. Clean your draught lines. Train your staff. Please, for the love of god, train your staff. Staff trainings used to be a semi-regular occurrence at places that presumed to have a good beer list. Let’s please bring this back. I know staffing is the hardest thing most business owners have to deal with, and throwing additional training and education on the pile seems like an afterthought, but if you really want to have a good beer program, it’s not optional. The interaction between consumer and bartender is maybe the most crucial one in the entire craft beer supply chain, as well: by having an educated, knowledgeable service staff, you are accruing merit not only to your own business, but to the entire beer industry. Really. And clean your goddamn draught lines.

Wholesalers: Right account, right amount. Remember that one? Haha, just kidding, I know you have volume goals to hit. But seriously: how much beer do you expect to sell after everybody’s had enough shitty oxidized IPA that they just switch to White Claw forever? Help set realistic growth goals for your brewery partners. Don’t push your sales reps to do things that will hurt brands, like dropping pallets of close-coded beer in places it has no chance to sell. Do some beer education along with your sales training (many good wholesalers already do this, to their credit). You don’t need much beer knowledge in order to sell beer, it’s true, but every placement your company makes goes some small part of the way to building your market for next year, and next decade. Consider that the decisions you make about brands today may affect you — and that larger beer world — for a long time to come.

The Fourth Estate: Stop treating people like the mouth breathing simpletons they are, and start treating them like the pedantic assholes they could be. Don’t assume that your audience is going to immediately tune out the moment things get the slightest bit technical; there are ways of threading the needle between general interest and educational fare. Arbitrary lists of the Top 10 Best Hazy IPA Breweries in Massachusetts in 2019 don’t do a goddamn thing except create more grist for the content mill — which, if you’re a freelancer, go with god, child, and peace be upon you. But if you’re an editor, try stepping it up a bit, huh? We’re all getting dumb as shit out here.

Breweries: Thankfully my livelihood has never depended on making the right choices when it comes to launching new brands, seasonal production schedules, how to allocate tank space, etc., and I have all the respect in the world for the people who have to make these difficult decisions in order to keep a business afloat. Do what you have to do to keep the lights on, but not at the expense of your vision or integrity, if you can manage it. Don’t pander shamelessly, but don’t talk down. Don’t chase trends unless you feel like you have something unique or valuable to offer. Work to build core brands. It’s really hard, but relying on a sales cycle rooted in weekly novelty and never brewing the same thing twice is no way to run a business. Unless you plan to sell to ABI. Have a sense of who you are and what you’re trying to do — if your vision for the future is based on endless growth, you’re going to fail eventually. Know when enough is enough, and what’s sustainable for your vision. Ain’t nothing last forever.

Beer professional, amateur sophist. twurt: @slothorentropy

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