"Enemy"? That's a strong word. Eric Asimov used it in the NYT last week and it got me thinking about me and good beer:
What unites this team is the striving for real wine, real beer, and real food, as opposed to cynical product. That is the problem, and I think most people realize this no matter what they say or do. Craft beer’s battle is not against wine but against decades of cynical marketing from the giant breweries, which have done everything possible to portray beer drinkers as asinine fools. The enemy of good wine is the atrocious marketing that makes wine an aspirational commodity, just another luxury good to purchase for its status value. That has to offend the reverse snob in all of us.
Writing in this space has been an interesting exercise for the six or so years I have been at it. I have found it a respite from political discussion, an opportunity with a less substantial topic as well as time spent with more genial company. Beer sits in our own subjective space like radio does and examining that personal space is a big part of the interest in examining good beer. So, we have to be aware and also beware those forces which would interfere with our subjective experience. I thought of this when Stan discussed the problem of glassware and also Eric Asimov's comment this week and noted:
The enemy of the good is the excellent. But, as you say, the enemy of both the good and the excellent is the false prophet. I’ve learned more about good beer care of a lawn chair than a special glass.
I come back to a theme - North America has no CAMRA, no consumer protection organization. And no Ralph Nader is on the horizon. Instead there are a couple of struggles. First, there is the quiet and by no means universal shuffling to replace Michael Jackson as the best example and to a certain degree leader of beer writers, the one who has the place to identify the themes that are more worthy. Second, we have to less quiet but also by no means universal jockeying to make good beer into an aspirational brand.
For me, the second is more immediately concerning. There is a skewing of the market that I am not satisfied is based primarily on consumer demand. When cost inputs shot up, we were asked for patience and understanding and to dig deeper for the cause. When the cost inputs collapse, there is silence or the suggestion that beer must have been under-priced. We are asked to pay at an amount, as we read in an article in the November issue of All About Beer, to ensure some brewers plans to be "rich and happy" are achieved. Not that it is a bad thing to be rich and happy but ought there not be some humility about the source of the riches, the consumer? I felt a similar way when the short run documentary Beer Wars came out and the PR told me and others to not only fall in line with the message but pass on that message without comment. You may recall I did not give a rat's ass.
These factors are indicative of conditions which could inflate price to the detriment of the consumer. We know from Andre Barr's excellent 1988 book Wine Snobbery that assertions of excellence should be met with suspicion. The idea is summed up well in his observations that there is no vintage so bad in champagne that excellent sparking wine and that it is critical to the big houses that regional wines are not sold under the particular village name so as to not weaken the brand image which they have worked so hard to promote. Is the good beer market been affected by similar forces? Is even the idea that we consumers are foot soldiers in a "war" facing an "enemy" a construct to manufacture loyalties that distract?
Which leads me to that first problem up there, the state of beer writing. In the few short years I have paid attention to this stuff, I can only describe what we are witnessing as an explosion of great writing and thinking about good beer. But I can't wholeheartedly include beer and economics to the same degree I would point to other topics within this renaissance - though to be fair some examples are far worse than others. I don't know why the economics of craft beer buying are not a discussion. We consuming readers are encouraged to wish all brewers well, to feed our obsessions for rare and exotic, to join the cause. But, while it is true that a rising tide raises all boats, it does not float mine if it is at my expense or at least the role of my wallet is not a major consideration. Because my values include value. And value is relative and, as Lew noted this week, can come in unexpected, unheralded and inexpensive places. Wouldn't a consumer focused discourse make that the story of the week?
For me, is there an enemy? I am sure there are some but it is still too vague, too inarticulately put for me to trust.