45. Cringing on Main: Craft Beer's Not "Cool" Anymore, What Does That Mean for Us Fans?
Thinking about our personal journeys with craft beer alongside its own path to mainstream cultural irrelevance; plus
Is It Embarrassing to Be a “Craft Beer Person?”
A shit storm of sorts, last week was so riddled with administrative fuckery that it was the first week in what feels like forever in which I consumed no media related to craft beer and barely interacted with the subject at all except for actual writing time, which was all already in the weeds on specific areas of research (aka, no new news).
Things took a big swing for the better on Friday, and yet, the result was the same. Between Friday morning and Tuesday evening, three different friends happened to coincidentally all be visiting New York, and in the middle, we had a day trip planned with other friends who are moving away from New York soon. Because of the places we went to talk for hours and laugh harder than I can remember laughing in quite some time (woof), I happened to consume a good deal of craft beer. Top notch lagers and English milds from Wild East at the taproom, a Hopewell pilsner and Industrial Arts altbier at The Gate beer bar, a double IPA and a foeder-aged dark lager at Drowned Lands. But all those beers were were great beers I enjoyed with friends. The extent of the beer talk was noticing that even my very-much-not-in-the-beer-industry friends have found themselves pulling away for IPAs in favor of maibocks and altbiers. I didn’t look at #beerTwitter. I didn’t do three different sniffs of my beer to consider different aromas. I didn’t read any beer news or listen to any beer podcasts.
It was kind of great.
And it made me wonder, having to shake myself back into work for the week, “uh oh, am I finally actually once and for all over it?” I know the answer is no. For many reasons I talk about here every week, like there still being enough community to fight all the horrendous bullshit in this industry to save, and, that I love beer! Whether I’m doing the different sniffs or just throwing one back with a pal. I love watching a brewer light up talking about terpene manipulation or Lukr faucets. I’m excited about a new generation of much more diverse beer lovers enter the fold and make their own marks with their own ideas on how to interact with beer, from the videos they make to the merch they design.
But now, the question I’m more earnestly asking myself is…do I want to identify as a Craft Beer Person? Is it…embarrassing to like craft beer, that much and to that level?
“Oh, you're a beer person? Oh, that sucks.”
That’s from my interview with Beth Demmon, referring to, say, people who are singularly focused on #linelife and such, when she was talking about having been on a journey (Beth wrote about this here on her blog for Good Beer Hunting) that, personally, I’m relating to more and more. It’s a journey of getting into something and being so excited about all there is to explore around you that it’s all-consuming. I think when a lot of us get into craft beer, we’re Craft Beer People. And then we get a little older, and life happens, and then we’re just complex people with complex lives who happen to love beer. Beer is a part of the whole, not the whole, itself. As Beth says, you still care enough about aspects to want the industry to be better, for example. But you’re not willing to give it 100% of your energy anymore.
That might sound obvious to some people, that one pursuit wouldn’t define any entire person, but it’s more complicated than that when something is both your career and your hobby. That’s the whole work/life balance right there! If I’m researching breweries for work, and researching breweries for life, when am I doing anything else?
I think I feared for a while that if I took my eye off the ball, I’d fall too far behind to ever catch up. Especially for those of us in beer who are freelancers or entrepreneurs cobbling together our own unique careers, it’s really hard to not get distracted by what everyone else around you is doing. One scroll of Twitter and I feel like every beer media person has 27 different projects going all the time on top of their regular writing gigs, and they’re spouting off knowledge about another 35 topics within beer, and casually recommending the 10 different podcasts and 19 different articles they consumed, like, that day. But then you can take a deep breath and remember that we’re all feeling like that, when meanwhile we’re all just doing our best, and that means simply finding your niche and trying to thrive within it. Once that really got through to me, I started to feel like returning to the other things I’ve always loved wouldn’t steal time away from beer or the work I do within it. Maybe that would even complement my work, by offering different layers and perspectives.
When you think about it like that, craft beer is like any other industry. It’s about pushing back against toxic hustle culture and against the self-comparison spiral of social media so you realize you can balance the thing that is your work plus your interest with other things that are your interests, too.
And when you think about it in the terms of finding craft beer and diving in, getting obsessed—in a good way, where you read all the books and watch all the videos and plan all the beercations to learn all you can—and then moving toward balancing it with other aspects of your life as you get older, craft beer is like any other thing, too. It’s how I was with metal, and then when I finally matured and opened up to a whole bunch of other genres, it’s how I was with music in general. It’s how I was with fashion, it’s how I was with theatre…it’s infatuation, every time. You fall, you fall hard, it’s all about that thing, and then you settle into loving that thing as part of all the things you love in your life.
So, is it embarrassing to be a Craft Beer Person? Of course not, depending on where you are in that journey. If you’re at the beginning, and consumed by it, you’ve probably just got that road ahead where the fervor will settle. Then again, if you’re this guy…if you’re a lot of old white dudes on Twitter, actually, who seem to feel the world just cannot carry on turning if they don’t log on and use their index fingers to stab some dramatic, condescending decree out into the ether, then, yeah, it’s embarrassing. You’ve been thinking that ranking lagers is worthy of 100% of your energy for what, 35 years now? My dudes, why don’t you go volunteer or raise money for something that matters, or, like, watch “Severance”? I know I’m screaming at a deaf choir, or something.
So, for the most part, of course it’s not embarrassing; if you’re of a certain pompous windbag variety, of course it is. But before we say that’s that, I’m going to throw a wrench in the wheel. One way that craft beer isn’t so easily like any other industry or scene, which is its trajectory…downward?
This is best and most succinctly documented by Dave Infante’s VinePair piece, “Craft Beer’s No Good, Very Bad Beer.” The gist? The industry’s been deflating for a little while, a sad crumpling that picked up momentum in 2021. It’s actual sales and consumer engagement, and it’s culture. Ten-plus years ago—I’d argue maybe even up to five years ago?—craft beer was pretty cool. It was the adult beverage of choice for many who wanted something different, who wanted to support a local business. It signaled a sort of creativity, and it meant more than just a drink, but a whole hobby, really. In the way that enthusiasts chose craft over Big Beer, it galvanized people with a David-versus-Goliath, stick-it-to-the-man mentality. Everyone thought that everyone else in craft beer was a good person.
Now, those of us inside the bubble are struggling to find things worth staying for as we constantly process just how much not everyone in craft beer is a good person. And those outside the bubble don’t give a shit. They just want refreshing flavor with a buzz, and that comes more easily and sometimes more affordably with hard seltzer and other FMBs and RTD cocktails. Maybe the loudest death rattle is that making fun of craft beer nerds doesn’t even really register in pop culture anymore. That Jim Beam commercial is the latest wide-reaching example I can recall, and even then it felt hacky and try-hard.
Craft beer went from being the cool underdog to a more ubiquitous but still more interesting option than the alternative to being shorthand for obnoxious hipsters to being irrelevant. Gen Z would essentially “Sorry to this man” craft beer if it even cared to comment. The memes and jokes and stereotypes now come from within craft beer, as we splinter into sub-subcultures. The in-the-industry, lager-or-death types versus the cultish-consumer, will-camp-out-for-hazies types, for example. Those of us who are at the place I’m writing about, where the obsession cloud has lifted and we’re keeping our love for this stuff in perspective, may cringe at hypebeast-clad IPA chasers. We might think, “Okay, that’s a Craft Beer Person it’s embarrassing to be.” But what about any of this really matters that much? Sometimes poking fun at those people feels right, but other times it feels like you’re trying to show all the cool non-craft beer people that you’re in on the joke. And they’re like, “Sorry, who are you?” and carry on their conversation while you decide to just go eat your lunch with the English teacher.
In the end, then, I think that’s the only Craft Beer Person it’s embarrassing to be: the Judgey Judge…or The Older Dude on #BeerTwitter Who Self-Identifies as Cranky in His Bio. If you take this shit so seriously that you think there are people in the industry and/or the community beneath you, and you think you need to performatively flex your superiority in a public arena, that is embarrassing, my guy! (Note: It is okay, if you ask me, to pass judgment on toxic and shitty people, so, you know, as you were.) It’s not embarrassing to love something. It’s not embarrassing to be excited about something. It’s not embarrassing to nerd out and learn all the stuff about something. This only works when we all just let each other have our own joy*, and sometimes have that joy together. Keeping things in perspective, enjoying what’s enjoyable about craft beer, how could that be embarrassing?
*If you’re considering making that really funny joke about how judging other people’s sources of joy is your joy, don’t.
This week, I pulled The Moon.
Bark at the moon, bay-beeee. The Moon is a member of the Major Arcana, tapping into intuition, fear and anxiety, and a sense of illusions. The entire card represents your mind: unconscious, conscious, subconscious; wild and tamed, etc.
The Moon actually deals a lot with trauma and how we process it—or don’t. It often comes up to say, “Hey, something happened at some point in your past, and those feelings still come up even if you’re not confronting them or identifying them, and they’re causing fear and anxiety and generally fucking shit up for you.” The Moon encourages you to start trying to deal with past trauma and emotions, through therapy, self-care, and whatever you feel helps, so you can start to feel a bit freer and less held back. Whatever happened was already unfair and stole from you, and now it’s continuing to do so by hindering your own progress and sense of calm or fulfillment.
But, The Moon is also very much about being gentle with yourself, so this card is in no way saying, “Get your shit together and face those feelings!” See, The Moon also signals that you could be struggling with a decision or a new endeavor or general forward movement, and sees the way forward through taking time to really think about what you want and cutting out any negative things you’re saying to yourself, about yourself. So, to deal with trauma, and to move forward, be kind to you. Go as slowly as you need, do the things you need, take the steps you need.
This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec
The story at the top of my priority list to get to lately has been David Jesudason’s “Breaking the Color Bar — How One Man Helped Desegregate Britain’s Pubs (and Fought for an Anti-Racist Future)” for Good Beer Hunting. I’m glad I waited until I had the time to really sit with this one. Upsetting but fascinating, and while the themes at play here are sadly anything but surprising, it’s jarring to learn about an entire specific system of racism and segregation, this time in Britain’s pubs, that you’d never heard about before. David beautifully tells the story of Avtar Singh Jouhl and the color bar system in British pubs with so much care, context, and research. This is one to clear some quiet time for, not only to read but to reflect upon.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
I gotta say, getting to drink all those aforementioned fantastic beers without much of a craft-beer-industry care in the world, in the presence of friends I don’t get to see enough, was the thing for me this week. So here’s the highlight reel from Wild East, Hopewell (at The Gate), and Drowned Lands.
Until next week, here is a fall 2020 Darby at The Source Brewery.