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Friday, April 09, 2010
5 Months to 5 Years: Is it really 'Just a Beer'?
Really? Is that what we should think...? ...say? ...write? There seems to be an uptick recently in various stops around the Web (I've lost track of the number of places) that it is, in fact, how we should treat beer---as "just a beer." Occasionally, I have a difficult time discerning whether this is merely a curmudgeon-like tone that I'm hearing or if there really is truly some fact-based foundation for these concerned voices. I could have commented over at Jack's (It's Only Beer), Stan's, or The Beer Nut's (Beer Doesn't Matter) sites. (Or most recently, as of yesterday, Stephen's site.) Plus, doing the search-and-link thing, I traversed my way back through time and found other references going back quite some time...take another entry by Stan (It Is Only Beer), for one example. But, this issue is not something necessarily new but one that has pestered me since before any of them addressed it. Some of my feelings are also fed by, not only by folks entrenched in the industry, friends and family who when talking about the beer writing that I do, talk to me in a condescending tone that suggests...yup, you guessed it---"it's only beer." So, I figured my thoughts instead deserved their own spot here with appropriate links back to their material on the subject instead of burying them in the comments section on someone else's. Here's the thing: I'm just not buying it. What if the Mesopotamians had said, "that's good enough"? Or the Babylonians or Sumerians or whomever else might take credit for the first malted grain beverage. What if the German Reinheitsgebot edict was carried across the globe as the standard for beer making and it led to a downstream effect of everyone saying, "ah, don't go crazy...after all, it's just beer"? What if the Belgians and English didn't try to do anything different with their beers because, of course, there was already a 'standard' and, don't worry, "it's just beer"? (it actual reminds me of that southern legislator in Alabama a couple of years back...remember? "What's Wrong with the Beer We Got? I mean the beer we got drank pretty good, don't it?"....heheh, that one never gets old for me) Or Pierre Celis...or Fritz Maytag...or what if Garrett Oliver said "why bother trying to figure out which foods go best with which beers---it's just beer, we're not supposed to do that with beer"? I'm going a bit far here in exaggeration (though I don't think anyone would/could dispute my analogies thus far), but the point that I'm trying to get to is that beer is a many splendid and much wondrous beverage and, I think, we all know that already. So then why are some so quick to relegate it back to the class of "just beer?" I don't get it. Why are some so quick to dismiss their work in writing and talking about beer as "not important?" (sidebar: in a Philadelphia City Paper article yesterday, I see that the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team alone has attracted more than 60 blogs dedicated to their topic of baseball....is baseball more/less important than beer? ponder, but not too hard...because there likely is not a right or wrong answer) Don't misread me, though. I think that very few of the folks that I read across the Web are trying to downplay beer to the point that they don't respect it or wish to promote it above other beverages. Some of it, I'm sure, has been fueled by the über-geek brewers and consumers that have been fomenting a rage amongst the geekerie to a level unseen and unheard of in (almost?) forever. And further, before I go any farther, I should also stop and say that to a certain point, I agree. To a certain point, I said. I agree that just about the only things that really, truly matter in life are things pertaining to life, death, war, and peace---things that can directly affect the well-being of individuals. Medicine, the military, etc. Oh, then maybe in that case I should be throwing in the judicial system...something that really matters, affecting and protecting our well-beings; then, you need to call in the legislative system as well, with all of its warts, because that flows right on through to the judicial system. How about food and food safety? That's pretty important too, since what we put in to our bodies pretty close to directly affects our lives, our deaths, our well-beings. Hold up then. Is beer a food product? Depends upon whom you ask, I suppose. I think we all agree around here in 'The Lounge' that it is. And, here comes the primary reason why I think that the beer industry---its products, the players, and, yes, including the writers---matters. It is a multi-billion dollar industry full of people who risk all they have to start up businesses to make products that they believe in with the hope that consumers will buy them (of course, there are the money-chasers too, but this is a special industry which seems to have a disproportionately smaller number of them compared to those with a passion and a zeal for creating something special and sharing it with the world with the hopes of making a modest profit). If we get specific to the craft beer segment of the industry, it's an industry where people like you and me own small breweries, brewpubs, distributors, and bars that make, promote, and sell what we all think of as beer better than most of the other 94% of beer sold in the United States. When we look at these beers--these products--that these good people make and sell, they represent "not just beer." At least "not just beer" as many beer drinkers in the United States have become conditioned to believe all that beer can be or should be. They represent creativity with a beverage that we believe is more than "just beer." They represent jobs and they represent livelihoods that you would never wish anyone to lose. But, yet at the end of the day, in some way we do want it all to still be "just beer." Or do we? Going deeper into this conversation and comparing the merits of 10% Triple IPAs versus Helles Lagers on the other end of the taste and color spectrum is not something I had wished to do under this heading, but I realize that it is a part of this conversation that will unavoidably get called up. It's just not one that I feel should be the end-all (or catch-all) for this debate about what beer is and whether it's "just this" or "just that." I say let the brewers experiment with high alcohol and low alcohol...lots of hops and hop substitutes...smoked malts and adjuncts...fruit and yeasts. This is what makes the world of beer so unbelievably interesting. And, it's what makes the jobs of the people in the industry so important. So, to boil it down to "just a beer" is a bit of an unfair reduction of the importance of the jobs that these folks put so much blood, sweat, and tears in to. By saying "it's only beer", I feel that we're reducing the beverage to a pedestrian one, and undercutting the creativity and the growth potential for the brewers who make the beverage that we profess to love so much. Do we want beer to be approachable and democratic? Yes. Do we want people to feel intimidated or left out? No. Do we want a six-pack of beer in the fridge that we can easily reach for at the end of a hard day's work and share with friends around the picnic table without getting into heady esoteric talk about the beer characteristics? Sure thing. But, do we want beer to be exclusively this? Do we want to clip the creative wings of these brewing artists? Do we truly know what beer is and what its potential is? Likely not to all three questions. As someone who is nearing his five year anniversary of maintaining a website dedicated to talking about and promoting this craft beer industry, I'm prouder than ever to be spending my time and money supporting the people and the products involved in keeping the industry growing. Growing in some ways that are obvious and sometimes predictable. Growing in other ways, oft times unpredictable and surprising---rewarding because of it. I'm interested to hear feedback from any and all...but, would be especially interested to read viewpoint(s) from brewers and the like to hear if your beer being referred to as "just a beer" gets under your skin at all. In some ways, I would argue that writers, bloggers, podcasters, and the like play a very important role in sustaining the industry. Don't get me wrong; I understand that it is not necessarily of vital importance that I do it, or he does it, or she does it, but having documented history of the industry from Michael Jackson down to little ol' me and everyone in between is very much important. It may be impossible to quantify the benefit, impact, and influence that writing about beer has on the industry and its consumers. But, until someone comes along and tells me that I'm not doing at least a better-than-average job or convinces me that there's no point to it, I'm gonna keep on... With this, I'm kicking off "5 months to 5 years". In 5 months, I will "celebrate" (maybe "achieve" would be a better word?) 5 years of The Brew Lounge. Because I don't consider this to be fall under the category of excessive navel-gazing (but it surely stands the chance of turning into this!), I'm going to share with you 5 different perspectives of what I do here at The Brew Lounge---past, present, and future. One installment per month until September. They will all be from my perspective so, of course, I can't be wrong :) Cheers to Wonderful Beers and the Friendships and Jobs that they create!