In an interview this month with the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, Magic Hat Brewing Company founder Alan Newman was asked about a statement from his book, High on Business: The Life, Times, and Lessons of a Serial Entrepreneur, in which he remarked that beer geeks are "one of the industry problems these days."
A friend of mine — a beer geek in his own right — brought this to my attention and asked what I thought about it. I told him what I'll tell you: Mr. Newman is right!
Allow me to clarify. I think that Mr. Newman made a poor choice of words when he referred to beer "geeks." In the interview, he makes a clear distinction between beer lovers and beer geeks. I think a clearer distinction can be made, between beer lovers and beer snobs.
I was in New York City last month and I stopped by one of its most well-respected and acclaimed beer bars, known for its carefully selected beer list, focusing on fine and sometimes rare Belgian ales.
Now, I'm no novice in this area, so I was surprised when I didn't recognize over half the beers on the menu. They were listed simply by name and price — no description, style or information that I could use to make an informed decision before plopping down $12 on a glass of beer.
It's all about the beer — I get it, and I appreciate that — but the staff would surely help a fellow beer enthusiast unexpectedly out of his element, right? I asked the bartender — who I later gathered to be one of the owners — if she could describe or recommend a few of the beers on the list. She was visibly annoyed and proceeded to give me the laziest and least-informative details about each beer. "It's an ale," she offered. "What kind of ale?" "A strong ale." Very helpful.
This isn't about bad service, it's about a trend in the beer community that I feel is not only absurd but actually contrary to what good beer is fundamentally about. The snobs will tell you that they were into craft beer way before the masses were sipping witbiers and IPAs, and I can relate because I was there too. But what got us into great beer in the first place was not status or the allure of being a part of an elite group of connoisseurs; our passion came from enjoyment of the beer itself — something so universal that you don't need to have a formal education in zymology to appreciate it.
Another form of snobbery involves writing off respected brands once they reach a certain level of success. Many honest beer enthusiasts have been conditioned to ignore large craft brewers like Sam Adams or Magic Hat as so many "big name" breweries with nothing to offer the true connoisseur. But size isn't necessarily an indicator of quality — some of the biggest names in the industry have been doing their best work in recent years, at the height of their growth.
I expect that those who treat craft beer as an elitist hobby will continue to do so as long as they're able to continue to impress with their refined palate and knowledge of obscure brands and styles. But as craft beer continues to grow and gain even more acceptance in the mainstream, fewer people will be impressed by such a thing.
Meanwhile, Alan Newman has a different dog in this fight. He left his position at Magic Hat in 2010 when the small Vermont brewery was bought out by a macro beer giant — North American Breweries, maker of big label beers such as Genesee and Labatt.
But he's a beer lover at heart. Referring to Goose Island, another craft brewery bought by a big name (in this case, the biggest — A-B InBev bought a controlling interest in the company last year), he said, "They get very hung up on the size of a brewer and who owns them … are they still a craft brewer? More importantly, to my mind, do they make craft beers?"
It's not for me to tell people what should or shouldn't be important to them with regards to craft beer. But an appreciation for fine beer is something that can, and should be, enjoyed by all who choose to give it a shot. Beer simply tastes better without pretense or elitism, so why not relax, pour whatever you're in the mood for, and enjoy beer for the beer, and not the image.