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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Vintage Buzz

January '03: Taxes

February '03: Coffee

March '03: St. Patrick's

April '03: Liquor Taxes

May '03: Extreme Beer?

June '03: Screw 'Em!

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

August '03: Subtlety

Sept. '03: Pay For It!


October, 2003

Humbling Beer

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 seriously.

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; you whet 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? Thunderbird!"

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 Mateus. Strawberry 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 pretty quickly.

"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 humbleness."

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. 



Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: January 28, 2004