I Was A Beer Snob – Are You?
Posted by Bob Skilnik on August 21, 2007
My parents once told me that I enjoyed my first beer when I was about three or four years old. I would help myself (so the story goes) to my Dad’s fish-bowl-sized schooner, filled with beer from one of the local breweries that still operated in Chicago during the 1950s. I don’t remember any of this, unfortunately, but the tale’s become a family standard.
I do remember my second taste of beer, this one from the “Land of Sky Blue Water.” I was a mere lad of thirteen. This beer drinker’s rite of passage took place at the grammar school graduation party of a friend of mine, a hot day in June as I recall. All the parents were upstairs in the kitchen enjoying the cooling effects of a window-unit air conditioner and iced beer. Downstairs in the basement, a reserve cooler of beer was calling to my friend and me. I don’t remember if it was the cartoon enticements of the Hamm’s bear or untapped teenage curiosity but we went down to the basement where the cooler sat and each grabbed a blue, flat-topped steel can and opened them with a “church key.” I got past my second chug of cold beer but stopped when I thought I was going to puke. My buddy’s reaction wasn’t much different, turning green after having knocked off the entire can.
I was seventeen when the beer bug bit me again. This time I balanced the bitterness of a sixteen-ounce can of Bud with occasional nips from a half-pint of Cutty Sark and big gulps from a clear-glassed bottle of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose. I was on my way to becoming a beer drinker.
For the next five years or so, I developed a taste for Schlitz products, including seven-ounce “little Joe’s,” their sixteen-ounce “tall boy” cans and the much smaller-sized Schlitz malt liquor in cans. Of course, if you had put a cold (fill in the blank) in front of me, I probably would’ve chugged it down, too.
When I was twenty-three, I began a four-year stint in West Germany as a translator, courtesy of Uncle Sam. For a confirmed beer drinker, my European experience was like dying and going to heaven. I was stationed in Franconia, located in the upper portion of Bavaria. Franconia is more well-known for its production of white wines, bottled in the uniquely-shaped Bocksbeutel, but beer was everywhere. Bavarian Pilsner (“Ein Pils, bitte!”) soon became my beer. With a malty roundness, just a slight touch of sweetness, little hop bite or bouquet but a clean aroma of fresh yeast, this style of beer had a thickness you could almost chew on. Of course, I also went through my fair share of Rauchbier, Kölsch, Fest, Bock, the occasional Pilsener Urquell from neighboring Czechoslovakia and even the German-equivalent of low-carbohydrate beer, Diät-Pils.
On a layover on my way back to the U.S. for a vacation, I stopped at a small U-shaped bar in the duty-free section of the airport in Shannon, Ireland and made sure I had my first taste of Guinness draft on the old sod of Erin. Couldn’t help it. It must have been my mother’s McCarthy blood in me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was on my way to becoming a beer snob.
When I got back to the States in 1978, I was in a quandary. I had gotten used to the thicker and/or richer qualities of European beers and found that I had become more selective in my choice of available beers. Most of the German imports I tried were old, oxidized or skunky. My old American-brewed favorite, Schlitz, now tasted terrible. It was years before I discovered that my taste for Schlitz hadn’t changed, the formula for their beer had. Old Style was making a huge impact in the Chicagoland area, especially after some deep discounts were offered by the La Crosse, Wisconsin brewery. I jumped on the Old Style bandwagon throughout the early eighties…hell, I sometimes drove it. If you lived in Chicago at the time, so did you. Going out for dinner or when I felt like treating myself or was just big-balling, I sometimes ordered Michelob on tap or the occasional Heineken or Beck’s…and then came my homebrew phase, mixed with the beginnings of the microbrew movement. Soon after this, I don’t recall exactly when, I became a 101% beer snob.
By the time I enrolled in the brewers “long course” at the Siebel Institute of Technology in 1991, I was a practicing beer snob. I remember sitting in the school’s Bierstube between classes and telling a microbiologist from Coors that I thought that a glass of Lake Michigan drinking water had more hop bittering units than a can of Coors Original. She smiled and graciously walked away from me. I soon found alliances at Siebel with a small group of brewers from U.S. microbreweries and brewpubs, but we radicals were in the minority. It didn’t matter to us that most of the students from the national breweries were microbiologists, engineers, research personnel or seasoned brewers for the last twenty years…we knew better.
My elitist beer attitude followed me wherever I went. I even looked down at friends and relatives who drank big-name American beers. At family gatherings, I’d drink water or soda pop rather than the can of “slop” my relatives offered me or brought my own beer and spent the whole night telling them about why my beer was so good and theirs so bad. Acting as a missionary for the new “beer revolution,” I won the souls of scores of converts but now look back at my fanaticism and wonder why a Miller Lite beer drinker didn’t take me out in the back of a South Side Chicago tavern one night and just shoot me? I was an obnoxious beer snob.
Do you see yourself in any of my past experiences? Then you’re probably a beer snob, too!
A year or so ago, I had a beer epiphany. I was trying to lose a little weight and bought a six-pack of Amstel Light to ease the rigors of my weight reduction regime. With its light body, the Dutch-brewed beer was an equitable match with many of the lower carbohydrate meals I was enjoying. This marriage of light food and drink got me to reflect on my past eating and drinking habits. A diet of pizza all the time or steak or spicy foods gets a little old after a while; on the other hand, so does a constant diet of tofu and bean sprouts.
What about beer, I reflected? Is it always necessary to order an IPA that’s heavily hopped, a Scotch Ale that’s thick and sweet, a rich pilsner with a head that won’t quit, a head-storming barleywine or a chocolate and coffee-flavored stout?
Our choice in foods is based on the concept of variety, sometimes heavy or light, sometimes rich or bland, sometimes sweet, sour or bitter. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. Why not look at beer in the same way? Because of this revelation, I’ve recently been tasting a number of beers from the big-named American breweries, something I haven’t done for the last fifteen years or so. I find that I’m enjoying several of them again. Is it my maturing taste in beer, or, more importantly, is it my changing attitude towards these beers?
I’m sure my taste is changing…everybody’s does. Things that I wouldn’t eat years ago, I find I now enjoy. The same thing is happening with my taste in beer. But more importantly, my attitude towards these beers has changed. I’d like to believe it’s a sign of maturity but I also recognize this evolution of what I now drink as a sign of rebellion.
Rebellion against what? Beer snobbery, that’s what. I’ve become tired of the worn out, holier-than-thou arguments by a small, vocal minority of beer drinkers who insist that drinking from the Holy Grail of “craft-brewed” beer is the only choice in beer enjoyment. In the last fifteen years, I’ve heard all the beer snob arguments. Hell, I used to use them myself. Here are a few classic beer snob arguments that I once believed and practiced.
- I blindly used to follow the beer snob’s credo of not drinking imported beer, only craft-brewed beer. Imported beer was supposedly stored in crates for the long travel across the Atlantic, subjected to all kinds of temperature changes and bottled in those dreaded green bottles. Delivery to the shelves of local stores was slow and tedious. As a result, the beer was “off” in flavor. True, I will agree, ten or fifteen years ago. Well, fellow beer drinkers, I’ve got news for you. The import market is now the fastest growing market in the American beer trade. Pick up a copy of the trade magazine Modern Brewery Age and count the new beers from all around the world that are currently being offered to the beer drinkers of America. These beers arrive on our shores in the most efficient manner and are distributed and maintained by people who understand the beer market. A distributor, like the respected firm of Merchant du Vin, got to where it is today by providing good quality imported beer at reasonable prices, not old and skunky beers. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for some of the craft-brewed beers I’ve purchased in the last few years. I’ve been burned so often by foul-tasting or spoiled small-batched beers that are going for $7.99 and up, that I now limit myself to just a handful of local brews. I purchased these small-batched beers on the recommendations of fellow beer snobs. No more. Brewers, big or small, have no business selling beers from California in Chicago, for example, if they can’t maintain them on retail shelves or work with a local distributor to do so.
- Remember a few years back when we beer snobs weren’t supposed to like Jim Koch and his Boston Beer Company? The most vocal beer snobs pointed out that his beers were contract-brewed. So what? His beers are some of the freshest, best tasting and affordable beers on the market today. Although still a beer snob at the time when this argument was a snob credo, I never felt comfortable expounding on this theme. To make matters worse, went this argument one bizarre step further, Koch was actually dating his beer! One brewer from a small concern once told me that this dating of beer placed an undue burden on his operation because he couldn’t assure that his distributor was properly maintaining his undated beer on retail shelves. Apparently it was easier for him to sleep calmly at night and keep on taking my money for his old spoiled beer rather than to try to find another more pro-active distributor.
- One of the things that adversely affected the old Post-Prohibition brewing industry in Chicago was a lack of brand loyalty. It’s still a problem, even for today’s more respected small brewers. As a beer snob, I was always moving on to the next “hot” beer on the market. Right now, Belgian beers are in. “Extreme” beers are running a close second. I asked myself sometime ago, “What am I really looking for in a beer?” I mean, after quaffing 200 different brands of pale ale, what was I looking for in a pale ale? The brewer can tinker with the grain bill, maybe adjust the hopping rate, but what I, as the consumer, wind up with is, well…a pale ale! John Hall, owner of Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, points out that the very successful Goose Island introduces different seasonal brews periodically in order to offer variety to their customers, otherwise there’s a fear that they might move on to a different brewery’s products. Hall’s right to think this way. Beer snobs have no brand loyalty. Beer snobbery can be exhibited in a number of subversive ways. A sales representative for another Chicagoland brewery once lamented to me the fickleness of his always tentative customer base. Going through the pages of a local beer club web site, he found a lengthy review of a highly-hopped pale ale in his brewery’s product line, labeling it an “…inaccurate representation of a true IPA.” “You know,” he observed, “we cater to these guys…help sponsor some of their events and stuff, and then one of their ‘beer experts’ (read snob) posts a totally wrong review of our product. It’s not an IPA and we’ve never said it is. It’s a pale ale. The problem now is, somebody will probably believe this guy.” Beer snobs are always “experts.”
- One of my favorite beer snob arguments is the “Anheuser-Busch is the Devil” theory, although any big-named American brewer probably fits this setting. According to this scenario, every craft-beer drinker is supposed to avoid A-B products because of their alleged predatory business practices, especially as they relate to small brewers trying to establish a niche in the retail market place. The beer industry is probably the most highly-regulated industry in the United States. If these charges are ever proven true, I’m sure the Justice Department will take the appropriate measures. Beer snobs, however, don’t like to mention the generosity of A-B with its scholarship programs, emphasis on minority hiring or their moderate drinking programs.
- High prices mean high quality. What hooey! Now I understand that a price of $7.99 and up per six-pack adds wanted valuation to a product and that deep discounts affect the perception by the public of the quality of the product. I recognize the concept, but let me ask you this. Would you rather purchase a six-pack of beer brewed by an established, centuries-old English or German brewery, for example, for $5.99 or more, a brewery that has the wisdom and experience of highly-trained brew masters, support staff and a proud history, or would you rather plop down your hard-earned money on the latest beer to hit the market, this one from a brewery located 1500 miles away? To make matters worse, the “brewery” consist of $35,000 worth of used dairy equipment and is maintained by a “brewmaster” whose only brewing experience is that he’s won three national home brew medals (“All gold!”) and spent a week at a beer school?
- Expanding on this argument a bit further…wouldn’t you like to be able to spend a mere $4.99 or maybe $5.99 on a six-pack of good quality, clean-tasting and attractively packaged beer? It doesn’t have to make your toes curl…just satisfy.
Then why not consider a beer from an American, big-named brewer. I have.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not shilling for the big boys of the beer industry. They don’t need my help. I still prefer cleanly-made, all-malt beer products. On occasion, however, depending on what I’m eating, or simply because the mood strikes me, I now sometimes purchase an A-B, Miller or Coors product. (Remember the “lawn-mower beer” theory?) This past summer, I could sometimes be seen with a cold bottle of Michelob, Coors Original or Miller Lite beer. I even enjoyed the occasional light-bodied Corona, forcing a wedge of lime into each of the clear bottles. Stupid, I know, but part of the experience. Just as often, however, you might have found me sitting on my patio with a richer and heavier beer from Three Floyds, Goose Island or the Boston Beer Company in my hand.
By the way, for those drinkers of Coors Light, MGD or even Busch, if you see me at a party, don’t avoid me anymore. Please come on over and talk to me. I’m not going to bore you any longer with stories about why the beer I’m drinking is better than yours.
I’ve changed. I’m no longer a beer snob. How about you?