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

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January '03: Taxes

September, 2007

Flat Tire 

The thing that's on everyone's mind in the beer and whisky world, of course, is the passing of our best friend: Michael Jackson. My thoughts and memories of Michael are here

I've seen a disgusting trend among the geekerie lately. It struck me enough to become the topic for this Buzz when I read the comments to a post on Eric Asimov's blog, The Pour. Eric had made passing mention of drinking some New Belgium Fat Tire Amber Ale while waiting in a long dinner line at a wine festival, by way of introducing a piece on vintage beers. It sounded like a good idea to me; I've been in long lines that would have been greatly improved by the presence of beer. 

The comments from readers were not all that happy. There were a lot of people hand-wringing or snarling about using wine language to describe beer. These were the folks who apparently think any description more elaborate than "Mmmm, beer good!" imperils beer's place as the drink of the people. "30 years ago, you guys ruined my enjoyment of wine with pretentious descriptions. Now it’s beer," groused one of them. These folks have been around since the first time Michael Jackson described a beer; they're nothing new, nor are they going away. Unfortunately.

I can live with them, I guess, despite the annoying anti-intellectualism they represent. The ones that upset me, the ones that offend me, are the ones who turn on craft beers they don't feel measure up. They were bent on running down Fat Tire. "Glad to see you made good use of your “oh my these wine events in the pac nw are sorta big now” time. The beer here is pretty good too. It certainly blows away Fat Tire," said one of them. "I don’t consider Fat Tire to be a Belgian-style Ale, since it doesn’t have bottle fermentation. Using this term is almost an insult to the amazing Belgian-style beers from Ommegang, Unibroue, Alligash, and other North American breweries..." said another. 

Fat Tire has been one of the whipping boys of the über-geekerie for years. It's not hoppy enough (not hoppy enough for what?), it's not big enough, it's not different enough, it's not Belgian enough, blah blah blah, on and on. It's almost a litmus test: if you like Fat Tire, you ain't a real real beer drinker, you're just pretending to like craft beer. 

It's not alone, of course. You may see people whipping up on Sam Adams, too: it's not really that different, it's not really that good, it's not really a pilsener (that one always gets me: show me where it says it's a pilsener!). Redhook gets blasted broadside because of its association with Anheuser-Busch -- Budhook! Even Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale get yawns and disdain, leading a fella I know from the 'Net to remark "Their clothes are weird, their music sucks and they drink malternatives. And now you tell me they probably don't think Sierra Nevada is cool? This is what the passage of years does to you: It makes everyone around you more stupid."

I find their behavior pathetic. They're eating their young, or more accurately, eating their parents. These are the beers that made craft brewing. To judge by sales figures, they're still the beers that make craft brewing. Are they to be tossed aside as just not good enough anymore, even though they haven't changed, because some people's palates have become jaded?

This is elitism, plain and simple. It is the kind of beer drinker who's choosing what they drink based more on whether the right other people like it or don't. That may be a local beer fanatic, they may be a raging hophead, it may be someone who's looking for the funkiest brett-bomb they can find. These folks are racing out across The Plains of Beer, chasing ever-more extreme -- hoppy, potent, organic, tiny production, sour -- beers, enveloped in a haze of alcohol and lupulin.

In and of itself, that's nothing I can't get behind: local's cool, roaring hop's good, bring on the brett. I love it. But the racing quest is all too often driven by the desire to be further out there on the Plain than anyone else, to be on the edge, to not be part of the masses. If the masses (or even a significant fraction of them) have stepped up to Fat Tire -- or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale -- it's time to toss them aside and move on.

I don't have a problem with people who simply don't like Fat Tire. I disagree with them -- I like Fat Tire for what it is, a Belgianesque take on a brown ale -- but if they don't like that kind of beer, okay. It's the guys who feel the need to run it down as "not Belgian" (Duh. It's from Colorado. Is Scotch Silly Belgian-style?), the ones who run it down as "Frat Tire" or "Flat Tire" or "not really craft" that piss me off. In fact, I'm with another one of the folks who left a comment on The Pour: "It’s ironic that several of the comments on this page ridiculed Mr. Asimov for ruining beer with his descriptions while at the same time snottily stating that if he likes Fat Tire then he does not know beer."

Why does beer enjoyment have to mean beer denigration? There are plenty of poorly made beers out there; why slam well-made ones and the folks who like them? Sound too much like "Bud's a well-made beer, why say it's swill?" for you? Well, Bud's not craft beer, and it never, ever will be. But if you can't see the difference, smell the difference, taste the difference between Bud and Fat Tire, you're not a craft beer drinker, and maybe you never ever will be. This is a subjective thing. But mainstream American lagers are just a breed apart. There's a clear, bright line...and Fat Tire's definitely on the craft side of it.

I suppose I'm awfully close to saying "If you can't say something nice, shut the hell up." Which would be kind of weird for me, I guess. Let me sharpen a bit instead. There's quite a bit of disagreement on the definition of "craft beer." But the beers I've noted in this piece definitely fall within any reasonable definition. They also are significantly more flavorful than mainstream lagers. Just because they're popular doesn't mean they're bad, and it certainly doesn't mean they're ripe for slagging.

This is the side of the geekerie that worries me, that makes me shake my head in disapproval. It's not about liking beer the masses don't. Too many folks think that way about other things: music, books, art, wine. Don't pollute the enjoyment of beer with it. What it's about, what it's always about, is the beer. Do you like it? Good, drink it, but don't think that makes you better than those who don't. Do you not like it? Okay, don't drink it...but don't think that makes you better than those who do.

That's what the folks who are concerned about the language are getting at. Don't make beer a club, something you can join by making the right choices and exclude those who don't. Beer's something to enjoy; it is, as the Beer Hunter himself said, a playground, not a prison. I don't ever consider myself better because I like a beer that others may not. I consider myself lucky.


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
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Revised: September 04, 2007