Annoying Connoisseurs Make Things Better for the Rest of Us
you may not like coffee guys but you like the coffee, guys
Here’s something that the Youth of Today will never understand: how much better beer selection is these days.
When I first came of legal drinking age in 2002, if you went to a liquor store (affectionately known as a “packie” in my native Connecticut), your choices were Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light, Michelob, maybe Molson, Corona, maybe Heineken. Even at the giant warehouse store Connecticut Beverage Mart, where we would troll for $9.99 30 racks of PBR, your options were only increased by a few more very-similar American lagers and light versions like Natty Light and Icehouse and (ye gods) Milwaukee’s Best. Maybe thrown in Killian’s and Sapporo. It was a bleak scene. If you loved Bud, that was fine, but even most diehards would like a little variety every once in awhile. And while I meant to frame this purely in terms of range of choices - I am studiously trying to avoid making subjective value judgments about the beers you could buy in the early aughts - well… they weren’t very good, if I’m being honest.
But now? Now I can get more variety in the average gas station than I could once get in a liquor store. It’s crazy. I can walk into a nondescript corner store here in the city and expect to find beer made by specific mid-sized breweries from Michigan. It’s not “will there be a stout?,” it’s “will there be one stout other than Guinness, or two?” The range of IPAs is crazy. I don’t worry “will there be an IPA,” I wonder “will there just be English and West Coast IPAs, or perhaps also a double and a session?” At a bar I can choose a porter so smoky it’s like drinking an ashtray, triple IPAs so hoppy your whole body puckers, sweet sours and sour shandies, delicate pilsners and throaty bocks, bitter bitters and smooth cream ales, and yes, American lagers of every hue and taste you can imagine. And of course the ancillary sweet-alcohol products like seltzers and malt beverages never stop multiplying, but I guess that’s unrelated. (Although I never do see the humble wine cooler anymore.) Choice in beer exploded in ways that it did not in many other products.
What happened? Snobs happened. Nerds happened. Connoisseurs happened. For good and for bad. Here are two ways to think about it.
The internet reveals markets that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Hopheads have existed forever but few executives in the American beverage industry in the mid-1990s had much reason to believe that the overwhelming dominance of watery American lagers was a bad thing. Those who wanted different tastes could drink imported Kirin or Amstel, right? But then the internet happened. Subcultures grew. Geographically-disparate people who would never have found each other were able to connect, and to do the only thing people really like to do on the internet, grouse. Pretty soon people came to realize that the absolute dominance of one style of beer and a few imports, also mostly pale lagers, was a drag. These attitudes helped drive an explosion in craft brewers, micro breweries, and homebrew, all of which filtered more diverse and flavorful beers out into the American palate. And the more Joe Sixpack drank IPAs and sours, the more he wanted options and alternatives. The market filled the need, and what started as a niche movement in a few cities became a nation-wide wave that ended up with Gumball Head available at your local Kroger and a limited run of ten kegs of something with an absolutely shit-eating name from an artisanal micro on tap in Bushwick. Cue Tyler Cowen to lead the pro-market tickertape parade!
Also. The internet accelerates and deepens subcultures. It takes the thing you like and makes it into the thing you can’t stop thinking about, the thing that defines you. I happen to think that this has many obvious and profound socially-undesirable consequences. GamerGate, armies of racist Star Wars geeks, the fact that if you say “I’m not a particularly big K-pop fan” on Twitter a laser sight dot will immediately start dancing between your eyeballs…. The very concept of an appropriate love for the things you like died with the advent of America Online. You go into these various forums and the message that is relentlessly drilled into your head is that there is no level of obsession high enough. Your knowledge is your passport and your performance of passion is your value.
Beer was the perfect vehicle for the collision between authentic pleasure and the inherent deception of creating your identity online. The varieties of beer are endless, dizzying simply in terms of nomenclature and style, and so you can always compete on quantity of knowledge. Meanwhile the qualitative aspects of any given beer are subjective and so one can wax poetic about a given beer to demonstrate a true gourmet’s palate. And of course there was Joe Sixpack, a lower race of beer drinker against which you can contrast yourself and your taste. Were/are all beer guys like this? Of course not. But online life hands the worst people the mic, always. Liking beer online became a cold war, an ever-accelerating race of superior knowledge and deeper investment. In time some of the people who were part of this culture graduated into the industry itself, and so the beer industry became captured by the interests of a small number of self-selected experts. So being a beer drinker no longer meant preferring beer to wine; it now meant being able to tell what’s been triple hopped vs double hopped by the taste. And so now when you ask what’s good in certain places you get the bartender in a $300 apron he bought off of Etsy grunting while he gestures to a chalkboard covered with enough numbers to bewilder NASA.
Both of these stories are true. And they aren’t restricted to beer. Coffee is another good example. I have a tough relationship with coffee these days. I sometimes take amphetamines to deal with Zyprexa brain and I can’t stack them and anyway I mostly find that I don’t drink it to enjoy it but to keep my hands and mouth busy. But: I am damn sure that the coffee I mostly don’t drink now is far superior to the Chock-full o’Nuts my parents drank. God, the variety of coffee available out there now! Yes, I live in New York City, and the options accessible to me are greater than those available to many, but still. Starbucks is easy to hate, and I find their actual coffee inedibly bitter, but if your town has a Starbucks then you have access to both variety and knowledge that were totally inaccessible to the average consumer twenty years ago. There’s more choices, and better choices, and more knowledge, and even some ability to dictate what kinds of environmental and labor conditions are associated with the coffee you buy. (Allegedly.) And you have coffee nerds to thank: the vanguard drives the adoption of newer and more unusual things and then the normies discover they enjoy those things and suddenly McDonald’s is publicizing where it sources its Arabica beans.
Also, you know, liking coffee has become an exhausting nightmare and trying to find basic information online without getting dragged into some sort of coffee war is a huge pain in the ass.
I like beer. I like guys. And yet beer guys… eh. Some of them are friendly and eager to share knowledge. Some of them are immensely annoying and eager to parade knowledge. For whatever weird reason there were an unusual number of good beer bars in and around Lafayette, Indiana when I was there, and I liked going to places like my beloved Black Sparrow or the certified hop-head bar the Pint, and I always had a good time. But I also know that some grad school friends found those places off-putting and intimidating, complaining that their whole setup was based on the presumption that everyone who walked through the doors knew the difference between a kolsch and an altbier. (Again, by the taste.) The more that information becomes democratized, the higher the burden of informing yourself becomes, I suppose. And that gatekeeping quality seems, in a truly bizarre way, to be the handmaiden of populism. You make things more popular and more available to the masses by empowering the people who are most disdainful of mass tastes.
But in time, I think, a steady-state of variety and knowledge emerges - not necessarily perfectly healthy, but navigable. Consider wine culture. Wine culture has been a snob culture for a lot longer than beer culture has, which means that it has enjoyed both more choice and more pretension for a long time. And, indeed, much of wine culture is annoying. But some of it’s fun! I often think of the movie Sideways, which both skewers wine lover culture relentlessly and also effectively dramatizes why wine is worth loving in the first place. Wine is one of those subjects about which you can never know enough, and there are certainly annoying people who will never let you forget everything that you don’t know. But that bottomless-knowledge quality is valuable in all manner of hobbies. You can grow old with them for that reason. And the seemingly infinite grapes and vineyards and varietals of wine means you can explore as deeply as you’d like. The sheer variety of beers that are now common to not just liquor stores but, like, Target has been the norm in wine-buying for decades. There’s a bewildering set of options - and while it’s not fun to be bewildered, it’s still better to have all that choice. Besides, if you merely ask for help, you will no longer be bewildered. You’ll just also be harangued by a pushy person with big opinions while you become informed.
We can push this analysis. Music subcultures are a good example. Like every Tinder profile you’ve ever read, I Like All Kinds of Music but have particular love for certain types of metal and extreme music that are not for everyone. And of course there are very irritating dynamics of insular music communities. Black metal culture is so annoying and absurd that it’s not clear to anyone whether the term “kvlt” has ever been used as self-reference unironically. Many moons ago I wrote a piece for a mainstream pub walking through some of my music tastes, an editor used the term “doom metal” in the headline where some of the referenced bands were not in fact doom, and I still hear about it to this day. That’s annoying. But! I am glad Southern Lord exists, and I’m glad Bell Witchand Baroness are thriving, and I love that you can find reviews of extremely obscure metal records on the internet. My contention here today is that you can’t have one without the other. A world where Full of Hell can support themselves financially through their music, thanks to the dedication of a passionate niche culture that has grown and sustained itself online, is also a world where Full of Hell fans can annoy the fuck out of you in YouTube comments for insufficient devotion. Nerds gonna nerd, and that is neither good nor bad. What nerds bring us is both choice and the constant insistence that we are choosing wrong.
But real choice wins. It must. Though I certainly have my opinions on the relative quality of the beers available now versus what you could easily buy when I was young, you don’t even really need to make those subjective judgments to see that this state of affairs is better. One of the reasons I don’t understand diatribes against snooty beer culture is that you can still buy Bud Light, or Keystone Light, or Icehouse, or Red Dog, or what have you now. If you’ve been bringing home a six pack of Bud every Friday night for 40 years, nothing’s stopping you from continuing to do so. Just don’t drink with people who use the term “cellaring” and you’ll be fine. And on the flipside, now I get to decide whether I want a Belgian white from Belgium or one from St. Louis when I’m at a fairly average bar. So I thank beer guys for their service; they have helped create a consumer architecture that allows me, somewhat more than a beer novice but much less than a beer nerd, to drink a different good beer of a different variety every night. (Well, a six pack every weekend, these days. Things change, when you get older.) If I want information on what to drink, the internet will deliver a firehose worth, and while I lament the difficulty of drinking from that firehose I know it’s all for the better. Beer guys are the revolutionary vanguard who led the way.
I just don’t necessarily want to talk to one at a party.
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Affectionately known as the Beast, it tasted the way sweat smells.
I am aware of the immense consolidation in so-called craft breweries and its likely impact on distribution.
Beer guys the joke here is that these are not really that different, please hold your snark.
I say “enjoyed” more pretension as well as choice because, as I will keep insisting, being pretentious can be a lot of fun.
Start with Four Phantoms. Metal + no guitars = we must stan.
Start with Yellow & Green. The cover art! 🤩
I wanna put in a plug here for one of the virtues of midwestern culture: it seems like here in the midwest, we're better at getting enthusiastic about stuff without turning into insufferable snobs. So for instance, here in Cleveland, beer culture is pretty huge, with tons of very popular local breweries all over the place. But everyone at these breweries is, pretty much universally, helpful and excited to show people new beers they might like (and are happy helping beer newbies get started). And yeah, I'm sure there are snobs floating around, but most of the beer guys I know are perfectly happy to drink a PBR or even a white claw if that's what's available.
So my hot take, I guess, is that snobbery doesn't necessarily have to be correlated with enthusiasm and knowledge. I think snobbery is really it's own distinct cultural phenomenon that infects whatever it touches. Beer or coffee enthusiasm doesn't turn people into snobs, but snobby people are happy to weaponize whatever interests are available to grab on to.
I'm going to put in a plug here for Jimmy Carter, who legalized home brewing of beer and helped launch the craftbrew trend. In this particular case it wasn't just the internet.
James Fallows published an overstated take on this in the Atlantic, but since he had to walk it back slightly I'll link to the correction and not the original: