I don’t want to be a curmudgeon.
Really I don’t.
But I recently realized I was being just that, through an interaction with Nick McCormac aka Drink Blog Repeat, a favorite beer blogger of mine (sorry Daniel…second favorite). Nick was tweeting about Hopslam arriving at various spots in his area, with a “keep calm” qualifier befitting the breathless hype that too often accompanies this and other “whale” beers. I replied, “I’m quite calm,” and received the following back:
@ryanselfbeer Ah, the annual ritual of you reminding me and anyone with a pulse you don’t care about Hopslam.
— Drink. Blog. Repeat. (@drinkblogrepeat) January 31, 2014
This might seem like the typical pithy back and forth the Internt is so famous for, except that it came from someone I read, respect and consider a friend. So it got me thinking. What is the appropriate response to Hopslam (and KBS, and Cold Mountain, and whatever absolutelyinsaneohmygodgetitno
1. Go nuts, buy all you can.
2. Casual interest. Buy it if you see it, don’t take to social media searching for it.
3. Take an antagonistic view of the hype, become esentially anti-Hopslam and holier-than-thou.
I’ve been doing number three, which means I’ve been doing it all wrong. Hopslam (nor any other rare beer de jeur) is not the sickness in our beer scene, it is merely a symptom. We have become a beer scene that talks openly about a return to craft beer enjoyment over collecting, fundamentally solid beers over hype, and local artisanal brewing over jumping from one new barrel aged imperial boozebomb to the next. We talk a good game, but our actions (and our tweets) say differently. I don’t know one beer blogger who doesn’t agree with the sentiment that a hype driven beer scene is unsustainable, and yet when the newest beer drops, most immediately jump to join the hype train. Maybe beer writers are just responding to public demand, what the people want to read. But how much of public demand is established and driven by what’s being pushed out there, and what’s being sold as “Get it now, rush rush it’s the best ever and it’ll be gone soon!” It’s a vicious cycle. We’re telling newcomers to the craft beer scene that craft means only extreme, high alcohol, and rare; creating a barrier to entry and the appearance that buzz rules over taste.
That being said, it’s even worse to be an insufferable prick about it, telling anyone who will listen how you’ve already had it, it’s no big deal, I’m evolved and I’ve moved on to this other beer you newbies aren’t even aware of. Hipsters are annoying, whether in music, fashion or craft beer. The people who collect beers don’t love beer, they just love being the smartest guy in the room. I think the tweet above was subtly calling me out for doing so, and he was right. It’s easy to get so weary of the hype train that one becomes more insufferable than any Hopslam hoarder, and in the same boat as the craft beer elitist looking down their nose at the Sam Adams or Yuengling drinker.
We’re supposed to be an inclusive, welcoming scene, fighting the fight together for quality over inferior ingredients and monolithic advertising agencies that happen to make beer. So, in that spirit, allow me to spell out the case against the white whale of the week in a more nuanced way.
Craft beer is not just a product, or a label, or a personal identifier. Reduced to its core elements, beer is beer. What makes craft exceptional are the people behind it. The brewer hand crafting a recipe he developed with the greatest of care, the beer shop taking great pains to store their stock appropriately, the beer bar serving beer at correct temperatures, in proper glassware, at its freshest; because all know the end use customer cares. Buying a beer because it’s the rarest is essentially succumbing to the same marketing tactics of buying a beer because it’s the coldest can or pours fastest. We’re ignoring the steak and buying the sizzle, which demeans the brewing process and puts our local bottle shops in a terrible spot: sell the beer first come first serve, or hold it back for regulars and be forced to lie to customers or face the Wrath of the Message Board. I’ve had many chats with Mike Brawley of Brawley’s Beverage, a beloved local institution, about handling distribution of rare release beers. His policy is to save them for his regulars, rewarding their loyalty with access to the rarest releases. However, he also refuses to lie to his customers. He won’t tell a first time shopper looking for Hopslam he doesn’t have it; he’ll tell them he has it but it is reserved for his regulars. Most folks don’t take kindly to this news (and have no compunction about saying so publicly), but what is his alternative? Tell a regular, “Sorry, I know you buy all your beer here, but I sold my Hopslam to a guy I’ve never seen before who doesn’t support my shop the other 51 weeks a year?” It’s a no-win situation that we help to create by telling folks who are still new in their craft beer journey, “Forget everything else, THIS is the beer you want.”
We’re not going to create the craft beer scene we want by ignoring tried and trusted favorites over the rare beer of the week, and feeding the hype cycle. We’re also not going to get there by acting elitist, as if we’re above anyone who is still looking for these beers. That’s my mistake, and on Hopslam release day, I’m going to atone for it by staying quiet and visiting my favorite local bottle shop to buy a sixer…of Bell’s Two Hearted, or Dale’s Pale Ale, or Noda’s Hop Drop and Roll; my hoppy beers that never disappoint. They won’t trade for much on BeerAdvocate or sell on eBay, but they’ll drink damn fine at half the price.