I only read Saveur when I fly. I don't know why, but
when I fly, I often pick up a copy at the airport newsstand and read it, cover to cover,
ads and all. I got the October issue on my flight out to the Kentucky
Bourbon Festival because I particularly like it when Stephen
Beaumont has a piece in it. Stephen's a colleague and a friend, and
he writes well, every bit as well and as enticingly as any of Saveur's
wine writers. So it's good when he has a piece in the issue, because it means Saveur is taking beer
I thought they were, that is. But after I had read Beaumont's piece on the beers of
Bavaria (co-written by travel writer Janet Forman), I turned to the front
and shortly came to the lead
editorial, by senior editor Kelly Alexander: This Bud's for me: When
I want a beer, I don't want baloney, illustrated by a photo of a bottle of Bud, held by a woman's
hand, with the caption "Senior editor Alexander with a very
nonartisanal brew." What the hell
is this, I thought to myself as the old systolic started to percolate.
It was just what you'd think: beer abuse. The opening
paragraph attempted to give Ms. Alexander's credentials as someone who
"likes beer." After all, she says so right in the first
sentence: "heaven knows I do." There's talk of Sierra
Nevada Pale Ale (and "whetting your whistle" with it;
forsooth, where are the copy editors? You wet your whistle;
your appetite), a nod to the boom in imports (with a slick mention of
Beaumont's piece), and a mention of how the beer boom has
"leveled out." Fine, at least as good a job as most newspaper writers.
But the next sentence set the tone, a reiteration of every
condescending, pat-on-the-head bit of 'nice try' writing I've ever seen
about beer. "For some people, though, having access to better
beer apparently isn't enough; they want cachet, too." Those bastards!
Who do they think they are, wanting cachet? Why, they're drunks:
"Perhaps to distance themselves from stereotypical images of
swill-slugging yahoos in pizza-stained T-shirts, at least a few
connoisseurs of suds have looked for ways to make beer more
exclusive..." How foolish of them, to think they could ever
distance themselves from that image. Wine has, though. No one talks
about "winos" anymore, or asks "What's the word?
Remember wine's old image? Let's turn the clock back 25 years
and pretend it's 1978, the days of Gallo and Almaden jugs, the reign of Riunite and
Hill Forever! Now, take
Alexander's comments on how uppity the beer's been getting lately, and
substitute "wine" for "beer." I think you'll get my point
"Suddenly, the traditional beverage of the proletariat [which wine is,
in large parts of Spain, Italy, and France...and California] has
acquired snob appeal. We think these connoisseurs are just being fussy,
pursuing the rare or the unusual merely for the sake of the pursuit....
Wine can certainly be a complex beverage admitting many nuances of
flavor and body -- but it also happens to be one of the world's most
ancient, elemental forms of refreshment. Instead of creating an aura of
preciousness around it, I say we ought to exalt its very
Imagine how that would go over in Napa today. She'd be hissed
out of the tasting room, might even lose her job for being so out of
touch with reality. Wine is all of that, exclusive, and just dripping
with that cachet stuff...or at least, some people have made it that. Wineries
and restaurants love it and the sky-high margins it has meant, because
wine drinkers have become connoisseurs and know what they really
want (okay, some of them know what they are told they want), and
are willing to pay for it.
Are Alexander and the staff at Saveur scared that
something like this will happen to beer, and the posers will take over?
That would be nice, but no, sorry, that's all too obviously not what's
on her mind. Is she scared of beer gaining its potential, being
the lifeblood cultural touchstone that Beaumont so aptly describes in
his piece? If so, why? Maybe she is concerned about her ignorance
of such a huge subject as beer. Maybe she (like so many wine
drinkers) just doesn't get beer. I don't get wine at all,
but I'm broad-minded enough to realize that it's a flaw in me,
not in wine.
Let's finish the editorial in the same way, changing "wine"
to "beer," and see how funny this really is. "We're not
opposed to connoisseurship, but we can't help noticing that the search
for exquisite experiences sometimes robs us of simple pleasures. I
recently confessed to a wine-world professional of my acquaintance that I
occasionally go home and drink Sutter Home White Zin. He reacted as if
I'd said "liquid Drano." That's his privilege, of course, but
at our house we don't always want an archetypal Chardonnay or a vintage
Port. Sometimes we just want a nice sweet glass of plonk."
Does anyone -- anyone -- at a wine or food magazine ever
say such a thing? Of course not. Nor can I imagine Alexander saying
"sometimes I just want to tear into a loaf of Wonder Bread, rip
open that circus balloon wrapper and sink my teeth into that tasteless
moist flour-cloud, because bread's bread, dammit, and I think
these bread connoisseurs are just being fussy!" Right. Try showing
your face in France after saying that in print.
So why is it okay to say it about beer? Part of me thinks it's
fear of the unknown. Beer is a whole new body of knowledge, and as wine
writers have proved over and over and over again with risible results,
you can't pick it up overnight. Maybe they've put a lot into learning
about wine (God knows, there's a lot to learn) and don't want to be
ignorant in this new world of beer, so they undercut it in order to make
that ignorance less obvious.
One line from the editorial's intro lends backing to
this: "...the great diversity lurking within the deceptively simple
combination of malted grain, yeast, and hops." That's
deceptively simple? What the hell is "crushed grapes in a vat?"
Monosyllabic! They don't understand it, and they don't really want to
learn, so they denigrate. It's sour grapes.
Or maybe they're just condescending. I've met very few wine
lovers who didn't think that knowing the wine corpus made them special,
glowing around the edges. That colors their attitude towards beer. 'Look, beer's trying to be like wine, isn't
that cute! Honey, give it a little piece of your cachet.' Then beer starts getting press, and serious taste
reports, and -- gasp! -- chefs start taking it seriously. And
they are, because chefs generally aren't impressed by cachet: they are
impressed by taste.
Then what? Then I'm left baffled by how a senior editor of one
of my favorite magazines could be so far behind the curve as to not
notice that the idea of 'keeping beer in its place' is not only
out-dated, it denies you the pleasures that just a little bit of
knowledge can bring. Alexander could have used this space to
strengthen the message of Beaumont's piece, to help other wine and food
types find the wide-open flavors that the full range of beer
provides...but instead, she patted beer on the head and then turned it
around and hung a "Kick Me" sign on its back.
Work with me. Give a good beer to a wine person this month. Make it something malty,
maybe Belgian, because they've never encountered bitterness before: a
doublebock, or one of the drier tripels. Then, when they've stopped
marveling at how good it is... ask them what they drink on the deck after a hard day at work. Bet it's
not a glass of White Zin.