I was very pleased that the post about beer snobs provoked such a reaction. It shows how important beer is to people. And it got me to thinking about why.
In September this year it’ll be ten years since I first had the idea to write a book on the social history of beer. I figured I’d write that book, then once I was published I could move on to write about other subjects, maybe even get cracking on my novel.
It would take me almost five years to get the book published, and over that time I became obsessed with beer. I’m now writing my third book on the subject, am marketing editor of a beer trade magazine, talk about beer on radio and TV, and spend every spare minute writing and thinking about beer, and most of my money on travelling the world learning about beer and beer drinkers. It pays me less than I need to live on, and I abandoned a lucrative career in advertising to do it. The novel is a distant memory. It would probably have been shit anyway.
Why does beer exert such a powerful hold?
That’s the key question. I suspect my answer may be a little different than it is for many beer bloggers, but I hope anyone who cares about beer will at least respect it, even if they don’t entirely agree. I’m defensive about it, because it automatically brings up the subject of beer snobbery again.
The people we/I call beer snobs love the amazing variety and intensity of flavour and character they get from lovingly-brewed craft beers. They believe small brewers who are doing what they love make the best of these beers. And they belive that these small brewers, lacking the marketing muscle of the macros, need all the support they can get to make their voices heard. I agree strongly on every point. But for me, the beer world is bigger than this. Beer is more important.
When I started writing about beer I loved cask ale, but not exclusively. I was thirsty to find out more about American micros, but my knowledge of Belgian beer stretched as far as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, and they were my favourite beers. Don’t get me wrong – I preferred the taste of Pete’s Wicked Ale or Sam Adams Boston Lager when I could get them, but beer for me has always been about more than taste.
What first fascinated me about beer was the way that, in my old marketing days, when we did focus groups beer would engage a marketing-weary audience more than any other product was capable of. Young lads determined to look cool in front of their peers would talk about it with a passion and enthusiasm otherwise reserved exclusively for their football team.
When I decided to find out why, I discovered that beer is the most sociable drink in the world, and always has been. The ancients drank beer from communal pots through long straws not because they were poor, but because it was more sociable that way. When we really admire someone, we say “He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with,” not a cup of tea or glass of wine. The pub remains an environment where you leave the cares of the world at the door and treat each other with respect, as equals, and beer is the soul of the pub. Beer is why pubs are like this and wine bars are not.
The history of beer is the history of ordinary people. Beer brings history alive and makes you realise what it would have been like to be a seventeenth century diarist or thirteenth century pregnant woman, the strong birthing ale on standby for when labour began.
Beer remains the most popular drink in the world. While customs and habits vary, the underlying truth of beer is constant – getting together to relax with friends, in a safe environment, kicking back and being your true self.
If you were reading the fifth paragraph and thought to yourself “Why is he talking about Pete’s Wicked Ale and Boston Lager? There are far more characterful brews out there. Sam Adams is little better than a bland macro”, ask yourself if you’re really getting what beer is all about. One of beer’s strengths versus wine is the fact that it’s not elitist and difficult. Of course there are better beers than Boston Lager. But that doesn’t mean that Boston Lager, or Heineken, or even (God forgive me for saying this) Budweiser are completely without merit. If you cannot agree with that because you only ever see beer in terms of product character, and if you always judge product character in terms of “more is better”, then I’d argue you’re only seeing a small part of the whole picture.
Like most beer fans, given a perfect choice I’d always go for a resiny IPA, spicy Belgian saison or vinous Imperial stout. I’d much rather give my money to a guy running a one barrel plant who’s excited because he’s just got his first bottling line, goes to bed dreaming of new recipes and wakes up itching to brew, than I would to a corporation run by former Coca-Cola marketers who view beer as just another marketable beverage. But that’s me and my drinking, and that’s about as significant as an atom on a football field in the whole world of beer. If promoting the virtues of (please, please have mercy) Bud Light was the only possible way to get someone to even consider allowing beer past their lips, then I’d do it.
Beer’s beauty is its unparalleled scope, its amazing variety, its depth of meaning in the world.
This blog will continue to cover the efforts of the biggest and smallest brewers in the world. It will judge beers and beery initiatives on thier own merits. It will call out rubbish, and celebrate the good stuff. It will be irreverent at times, because beer should never take itself too seriously.
If I write a piece on, say, Heineken and its efforts to introduce a genuine continental serve to the UK, before you post a reply explaining that Heineken are corporate whores and there are far better lagers out there – I KNOW. So does everyone who is likely to read this blog. If someone else comes up with something amazing about the history of Miller in the nineteenth century and you want to tell them that Miller beers are now characterless compared to most micros – guess what? They probably know that too. But there may still be something of value in what they’re writing.
Beer is a broad church, and I’ve realised that’s what I love most about it. I am not saying writers who meticuolously analyse flavour profiles of obscure micros and nothing else should start writing about beer culture or corporate marketing. I’m glad they do what they do and I find it very helpful. I’m simply asking that those guys recognise they’re dealing with just one facet of what makes beer the best drink in the world.