Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Craft Beer Culture: Has It Jumped the Shark Or Do You People Just Need to Get Off My Lawn?

The Session
In a 2011 interview, Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione famously referred to the craft beer industry as being “99 percent asshole-free.” At the time, it sounded about right. Maybe it still is. But craft beer’s exponentially increasing popularity has brought a host of new people into the fold, and when one takes a look at the larger beer community these days, one has reason to suspect that Calagione’s estimate may need to be adjusted downward.

I confess: It’s going to be difficult to make what I want to say sound like anything other than the gripings of an aging curmudgeon – or even one of Calagione’s assholes. But hear me out.

Lately I’m finding that I’m just not excited by the same things that so many more recent “beer converts” get worked up over. At Literature & Libation, Oliver Gray noted he was feeling something akin to a “beer midlife crisis.” If there is such a thing, I can think of many symptoms of this malaise.

Take beer festivals. I used to get amped for them. I still kind of do, but now it’s for a different reason than that of most beer dorks. Festivals these days for me are mostly a way to re-connect with old friends and maybe make a couple new ones. The beers themselves – often numbering in the hundreds – tend now to be so much background noise, even the “special releases” that attract long lines of folks.

Or take those special releases themselves. Many of them are just some version of stout or similar beer aged in discarded bourbon barrels. Some of these beers are perfectly fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’ll say it: too many of them are pretty much indistinguishable. Worse, modern-day beer geeks routinely vote them as the best beers on the planet, completely snubbing great examples of staid but decidedly less sexy styles like pilsners, pale ales, or brown ales. The bourbon barrel fad, for someone who prefers beers with, well, “beery” flavors over those of mostly whiskey, is growing really, really long in the tooth.
And yeah, those “best beers” lists and ratings sites. Almost every brewer I know – and I know more than a few – hates beer rating sites. There are various and sundry reasons for this, but the general consensus is that the sites are populated mainly by obnoxious know-it-alls who actually demonstrate they know very little. Apparently believing there are only two styles of beer, double-digit-ABV bourbon barrel aged stouts and imperial IPAs, they often dismiss styles with which they are unfamiliar (i.e., almost all of them) with bad ratings. One guy characterized every beer at a local, long-established brewpub, which specializes in flavorful, lower-ABV English and German styles, as “watery.” Right on, bro.

Then there’s this whole notion, perpetuated in the wider media, that the rise of craft beer is somehow due solely to twenty-something hipster types. (You know, the people who drink PBR and Tecate from cans.) This is where I really get to yell, “Get off my lawn, you kids!” There are more than a few of us who have been drinking, sharing, discussing, even brewing great beer for more than the past couple of years. #Millennials may get all the #hashtags, but odds are Generation X is brewing that awesome beer you’re enjoying presently, thank you very much.

I could go on and on. Trading? These aren’t baseball cards; they’re beers. You’re supposed to drink them. “Rare” releases? This is 2016. There are so many great beers available that you shouldn’t ever need to stand in a long line or pay some exorbitant price to get some. “Whalez”? “Dank”? “Shelf turds”? Read Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer or get thee to a Cicerone training course and learn to talk about beer like an adult. All those pictures of your Founders KBS bottles or Alchemist Heady Topper cans you post to Facebook groups? No one cares. It’s beer, not a status symbol.

Of course I still love good beer. I love drinking it. I love sharing it. I love talking about it. I love writing about it. But the subculture surrounding it – one that I’ve felt a part of since the 1990s – seems to be drifting off into increasingly lame-o territory. Either that, or I’m just becoming an old grouch.

In any case, all this complaining has made me thirsty. Time to go pop open a nice pilsner and enjoy it quietly somewhere well away from the Internet.


  1. Count me in as one of them old fogies!

  2. Count me in as one of them old fogies!

  3. While we may have reached "peak BA stouts", many people would argue that they're sick of new breweries opening up that are completely uninspiring. While I appreciate what you've contributed to the Ann Arbor local scene, the vast majority of breweries in the area are subpar at best, typically only brewing your standard 5-6 craft styles that are indistinguishable with any another brewery down the street.

    It’s hard to be excited by what Ann Arbor breweries have to offer after you’ve traveled to beer cities like Chicago, Portland, Denver, and Asheville. These cities breweries are booming with breweries attempting to distinguish themselves from the pack. Want an incredibly hop forward juicy IPAs or fruit forward sours? There’s likely 3-4 local breweries in those cities doing them. It bums me out when I hear about a local brewery opening that doesn’t have any plans to do anything different than what is already offered by the likes of Grizzly Peak, Arbor Brewing, and Wolverine. This doesn’t just apply to Ann Arbor – most of the breweries in Michigan are indistinguishable. Thankfully, I’m optimistic that breweries like Transient Ales will provide the diversity on shelves I’ve been yearning for.

  4. Distributors in Portland and Denver - the two beer cities which have the longest history with craft beer of the list mentioned in the comment above - are begging for Pilsner, Scottish Export, English milds etc.

    There are great new beers out there, and the newest IPA trend started by Alchemist, Trillium, etc produced many of them. Sadly, Craft beer has become a novelty rich parody in many other cases.

    I know a lot of old brewers. At 37, with 15 years brewing for money, I'm one of them. Talk to them. They're not talking about Hilltop. They're talking about the days when Brewers had to have 5 years on the job to even consider being taken seriously. They're talking about having dogma beat into you so hard you hated it. Most of all, they're talking about the time when brewers who still treated brewing like the trade it is broke those chains and started testing the boundaries of what could be done from the perspective of the discipline beaten into us by the dogmatic masters we worked under. Those WERE the days. Now it seems like if you can grow your beard down to your nipples and fill your wardrobe with hoodies, flannel and Carharts, you too can be a brewmaster. Better yet, put some stuff in some strong beer or put some strong beer into some stuff in another container, and you're a passionate genius.

    There are no rules anymore, and that's ok. What's not OK is that there are also no standards of execution, and a lower percentage of "beer nerds" who know the difference. As long as the beer has a ton of hops, or was aged in a tequila barrel, or tastes like grapefruit, or whatever's happening somewhere else right this second, you'll get quick love and some social media buzz, and that's all we can hope for today. But beer isn't ephemeral. It's solid, working class stuff, and anything that takes it away from that is a gimmick. That's just what's been up for thousands of years. You know, no biggie.

    There will always be brewers who want to reflect and improve upon tradition, just like there will always be brewers who wish exclusively to freak out squares. There will also be brewers who just don't get any of it and make ill conceived and poorly executed garbage which, whether interesting at it's conception or not, is simply that; garbage. As the author stated, we read untappd reviews. We know that most of the posters who come with snarky comments are morons. We know this because we look at their accounts and see that they give the most poorly executed nonsense great ratings and leave fantastic beers unnoticed or ridiculed because they are not "interesting" and are too "meh". Some, I'll allow, know their stuff and are just being honest. Some know their stuff and seem to have anger issues. Either way, what they write affects the men and women who, in many cases, have sacrificed much of their lives and taken a phenomenal amount of risk to bring them a beer which, at the end of the day, they just don't care for, for whatever reason.

    As an aside, I know a lot of the new breweries which have opened in the last few years and most of them are pretty much making stunt beers, so I'd agree that they're boring. Drink what you like and snark away, but crack a book before you rate, is all the men and women who built the industry that bores you so often now are asking for. For what it's worth, we'll certainly know if you don't.

  5. While I value and enjoy the current Ann Arbor offerings, I tend to agree with HeyBoff. The AA beer scene seems about 10 years behind the rest of the country when it comes to innovation. The exception for me would be JP.