[9 January 2014]
My parents are notorious for holding onto beer for a long time. Dip into the fridge during a visit and you’re apt to find a Coors Light well past its stated freshness date, along with several brews you might recall having brought to a family gathering several months back. My dad, only an occasional drinker, will sometimes buy a case of something he enjoyed once, only to have it linger on the shelf in the basement fridge for months. “Want a Dogfish?” was a common greeting last year, as he tried to push surplus bottles of Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA (Indian Pale Ale). It’s a good beer, but at 9 percent ABV (Alcohol By Volume), it’s not a good idea to have more than one if you plan on driving home at some point.
At this year’s Thanksgiving celebration, the featured beer on offer was left over from summer weekends on Cape Cod. I did my best to make a dent, but my brother wasn’t fully cooperating. He’d brought his own supply of 22-ounce bottles to share, so that by the end of the evening, my dad had basically the same inventory as when we first arrived.
My brother, too, has a full fridge of beer at home, though most of it is newly purchased. It seems he has a bit of a problem: He can’t pass by his new favorite beer store without stopping in for a few bottles he’s never tried – which would be fine, says his wife, if they didn’t then take up precious space in a refrigerator that’s now holding food for a family of five.
I would judge this compulsion more harshly if it didn’t seem very familiar – it’s roughly the same thing I used to do with CDs. Every few weeks from my teens through my mid-‘20s, I was liable to be found at my local record shop, hunting for new treasures and rarely leaving without at least a couple new goodies in my bag. No matter that I had barely waded my way through the discs I had at home, and a severe lack of disposable income; I felt an urgent need to keep the supply up at any cost.
The similarities in the two habits don’t end there. Those who spent hours meticulously categorizing albums and reading music blogs will nod their heads at the hallmarks of the current craft beer craze: Obscurity and novelty are celebrated, the mainstream is mocked, and trends change regularly, with old tastes discarded and fresh genres added to the mix.
Beer geeks can’t help but name-drop the latest special-edition brews they’ve sampled, and are eager to share tips on beers that others just have to try, in the same way I’d offer recommendations on my favorite new artists or make mixes for friends. As much as the buzz of the alcohol, there’s the satisfaction from stumbling on something that has yet to be discovered by the masses.
The discovery method is similar, too: My brother places the same faith in BeerAdvocate’s numbered ratings as most music nerds would a high mark from PopMatters (if you’re not sure it’s good, look at the rating again). He can tell you where most beers rank on the overall list, and it’s clear he aims to try them all, though it’s unlikely any will overtake Heady Topper. The super-exclusive India Pale Ale from The Alchemist brewery has mostly only been available in Vermont, which of course makes it that much more desirable.
My brother and his friends have cooked up and abandoned several acquisition schemes; he even once took the family on a day trip that just happened to pass by the brewery, and ended up with a Styrofoam cooler full of the stuff. Now, he’s found a steady supplier at his favorite beer store, who doles out these special imports only to his favorite return customers – sound like any record store employees you know?
My sister-in-law tolerates, but does not exactly share in, his new hobby. It’s not that she doesn’t like beer, she’s just not a fan of the super-hoppy style of Heady Topper and the like. She prefers Long Trail Ale, which doesn’t have quite the same cachet of other brews (BeerAdvocate gave it an 81, if you must know).
The spectrum of beer is nearly as varied as that of music genres and all styles have their fans; some people crave bold hops, some smooth brown ales, and everyone makes slight judgments about others’ tastes whether they admit it or not. But whatever your taste, there’s a brewer creating a beer you’ll love – or at least one you don’t know you love, yet. Just as music tastes mature with a little attention and exploration, so do most palates, and everyone has that ‘gateway’ beer that introduced them to a whole new range of tastes. For me, it was Belhaven’s Best, sampled in Scotland. Eventually, even the hoppiest of IPAs gets old and you go hunting for something new, branching out into Belgians, perhaps, or even dabbling in sour beers (as much of an acquired taste as free jazz).
The one thing that mostly everyone can agree on is that ‘macro’ brews like Miller Lite are swill not worth the vortex bottles they’re served in. Asking for one of these at a beer bar is like requesting the DJ drop the needle on some John Mayer.
The catch is that, like “indie music”, “craft beer” can seem like an ambiguous term. To some, it might be a synonym for “beers with flavor”. To others, it’s anything not featured in a Super Bowl commercial. The American Brewers Association defines “craft” brewers as “small, independent and traditional”, counting only those brewers who produce less than six million barrels of beer annually. That means that widely available beers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada technically make the “craft” grade, even if many might not see them that way.
Complicating the debate are formerly small brewers like Red Hook, Unibroue and Magic Hat, all snapped up by larger companies in recent years (whose own attempts at passing off their own concoctions as “craft” have rarely been successful, unless you count Blue Moon). Did Chicago favorite Goose Island ‘sell out’ when it was acquired by Anheuser-Busch a few years ago? Maybe, but if the beer’s still good, does it matter who’s producing and distributing it? This debate should sound familiar to music lovers.
It’s no surprise that there’s such crossover between the beer and music communities – much more so than with, say, wine snobs or foodies, whose obsessions check similar boxes. Maybe it’s the accessibility and relative affordability of beer, or just cool labels and good marketing, but there’s a perception of “beer people” as laid-back and amiable, the type you might meet in line for the bathroom at your favorite venue. Joe Swanberg’s recent film, “Drinking Buddies”, a fictional tale of employees at the real-life Chicago brewery Revolution Brewing, reinforced this idea, as its characters frequented the Empty Bottle and listened to Foxygen on their turntables while imbibing large quantities of craft beer.
Beer-and-music festivals are also a thing now, from New Belgium Brewery’s traveling Tour de Fat to the annual Dark Lord Day at Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Indiana, which draws beer lovers from throughout the Midwest who wait in line for hours for the privilege of buying a few bottles of imperial stout, trade rare bottles and listen to metal bands as part of the celebration. Even more traditional music fests are going out of their way to include more than Bud Light among their vendors, recognizing the fact that there are probably as many home brewers as amateur musicians among the attendees.
Beer-centric fests continue to grow in step with the overall community, matching the smorgasboard approach of their musical brethren. For my brother’s birthday, I bought tickets to BeerAdvocate’s Extreme Beer Fest in Boston, where we’ll spend a couple of hours sampling pours from dozens of adventurous breweries. I’m thinking of it as his Lollapalooza.