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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is There a High Culture of Beer?

Someone from Eugene's Bier Stein pointed me (via Twitter) to this article by Saul Austerlitz in the Times magazine.  It discusses the rise of "poptimism," the backlash among music critics against those who have long lauded mainly old, white dudes.
The reigning style of music criticism today is called “poptimism,” or “popism,” and it comes complete with a series of trap doors through which the unsuspecting skeptic may tumble. Prefer Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna? Perhaps you are a “rockist,” still salivating over your old Led Zeppelin records and insisting that no musical performer not equipped with a serious case of self-seriousness and, probably, a guitar, bass and drums is worthy of consideration. Find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze? You, my friend, are fatally out of touch with the mainstream, with the pop idols of the present.

Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more “serious” artistic intent.
Okay, so far so obvious.  But then he asks--and this is where the tweet came from: "I like to entertain myself by imagining what might happen if the equivalent of poptimism were to transform those other disciplines."  He imagines the worlds of literature and film under such a backlash (which makes me wonder where he's been--this backlash is very much active in these other disciplines).  Indeed, it's a flavor of meditation that we have been happening since at least the 1960s when pop art challenged the mores of art.  (I mean, it's right there in the title.  How is "poptimism" anything remotely new?)

But now we come at last to the point of this post: in beer, what is haute?  You can't have a backlash without a lash, and I'm not sure we can make the case for one.  Certain beer styles are very popular with a niche group (barrel-aged beers, strong hoppy beers, sour beers), but there's no ruling beer orthodoxy.  The sourheads, to take one example, aren't zymurgical royalty; they are, to use the music analogy, like metalheads.  Many people want to declare a high and low among beer styles, but no one has come close to enforcing it.  Even a group like CAMRA, set up to expressly to do this, now finds itself defending beer that many craft beer fans consider old and lame.

(Parenthetical semi-digression.  The whole notion of orthodoxy probably died around the turn of the century, or perhaps a few years later when Facebook and Twitter arrived.  We're no longer really aware of worlds we choose not to inhabit.  Without a collective dataset that includes both high and low, the critical framework collapses in on itself.  I listen to certain types of music, watch certain kinds of movies, read certain kinds of books, and drink certain kinds of beers.  But only in rare cases do I actually find myself discussing these critically with anyone else; they all have their own, different groups of movies, books, and music.  Everyone sees the Avengers and we all judge it like it's sui generis, or possibly in comparison with a set of very similar movies.  No one thinks to mention Fellini.)

So unless someone can make a very effective argument that there's a high culture in beer, I don't think we're really ready for our pop art correction. 


  1. I largely agree but there is still the endemic "big is bad, small is best" thing in the mind of a lot of craft beer drinkers. It's not quite the same, but it is a way to dismiss some larger more established breweries in favor of smaller ones as if size is an important indication of quality. Since most of the larger breweries are also older you see a little bit of the idea that smaller means innovative, new, and fresh which starts to get into the idea of poptism a bit (yeah, still a bit of a stretch). I think as you get breweries that are a generation apart you'll see this to an extent. Kind of like the comments some people made about Ecliptic when they opened and how the beers seemed pretty "standard" as opposed to seeing them as precision brewed old school beers.

  2. Beer is quite similar to Twitter in the way that it's completely decentralized around the world. In Belgium people drink lambics; in Egypt protesters use Twitter to organize rebellions. In the States, we drink a lot of IPAs and pay attention to Kim Kardashian.

    Your point on the death of orthodoxy is very astute. There is no one truth anymore; we all have to agree to disagree at some point in the argument. It's even more true in the beer world which is already considered "democratic" as opposed to the world of wine.

    One trend I am noticing is the fight for "quality control" arising from such brewers as Stone. I also noticed this in Illinois, where it is illegal for retailers to fill growlers; the local brewing association completely supports the law.

    Established companies will always attempt to stifle innovative newcomers, no matter the industry.

  3. " Everyone sees the Avengers and we all judge it like it's sui generis, or possibly in comparison with a set of very similar movies. No one thinks to mention Fellini."

    Tom would.

  4. Thanks Jeff, gonna start working on my Fellini Poptimism Pale Stout

  5. There's a problem when you want to make this sort of analogy between beer an art. Art is appreciated primarily with the intellect. Beer, on the other hand, is appreciated primarily through the senses, no matter how much I read about sour beers, I still don't like them too much. I understand why some people rave about them, but I'd rather drink something else. That situation, I believe, would change if I exposed myself more to those flavours, I would eventually acquire the taste. With art, on the other hand, it wouldn't matter how many times I go to a gallery, without a certain body of information, I wouldn't be able to appreciate the works in there.

    That being said, I'm still not 100% sure if there's such thing as a beer culture on this side of the counter. Sometimes it seems there is, beer consumption has its specific rituals and codes, and archetypes depending on where you go, but then I see those very same things as just another element of a wider thing. Either way, those things are organic in nature. As with any consumer product, they are affected by marketing and the economy, but the core of them is still something that was born and developed pretty much by itself. The "alternative sub-cultures" of beer (how about that for a name) are artificial, with many of their elements ripped-off from other "cultures" and shoe-horned into beer, with marketing and economic forces playing a much bigger, if not the main, role.

  6. Stan, I see your article and raise you an article.

    Bill, your comment sparks a thought: there's a difference between critical consensus and snobbery. To get to the status of "great artist" (or writer or filmmaker or musician), there has to be something approaching agreement. I can rattle off names of those we understand--osmotically, almost--to be great: Tolstoy, Picasso, Mozart, Kurosawa. But I can be a snob by asserting my own preferences and attempting to enforce them by belittling others.

    Matt, you make it, I'll drive to Hood River.

    Max, I think you and I understand art differently. I appreciate it with something other than my intellect. All art requires a contextual framework, but I'd argue that what makes it art is the ability to stir emotion--and senses are a big part of that. (Though in some cases art provokes disgust.) But I agree that the art/beer analogy is one quickly strained.

  7. There is no haute in beer akin, say, to the charmed status "Chardonnay" held for a long time, or "Pinot Grigio", etc. The reason is not so much decentralization - e.g. you could argue IPA is a contender for the palm - but rather that beer's status endures as a downscale product. Those who love beer will take pride in this, in reverse snobism so to speak - but the larger culture will never regard beer with the high status accorded to wine, foie gras, French cuisine, etc. Certain "idees recues" are too, well, received to be dislodged. Amongst the beer crowd are people of all socio-economic backgrounds, as indeed amongst the light beer crowd. It doesn't neatly divide up that way, but nonetheless beer will always be viewed in Anglo-American society in this way, IMO. Let's accept it and move on - life is too short to dismantle completely the irrational and prejudiced elements inherent in how a culture views one or another of its facets.