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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Why I'm Not a Beer Geek

Note: post updated below.

Yesterday, on the discussion-resistant platform of Twitter, I had a choppy exchange about the nature of the beer geek. I argued that I wasn't one, and Nick concluded, "Hilarious to think that a guy who writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles denies being [a beer geek]." (New motto!: "Providing inadvertent hilarity since 2006 .") Let's take it off the Twitter and break this whole thing down. I have lately noticed quite a deviation in my own behavior and that of many other beer fans, and it seems worth a paragraph or seven of exploration.

If "beer geek" is a general category identifying anyone who knows what a session IPA is, then I and anyone reading this fit the bill. I think that's Nick's point. Until ten years ago, that was a useful category because the number of people drinking good beer was relatively small. We were already a subculture. But now a majority of beer drinkers are at least sometime "craft" (read: anything but mass market lager) drinkers. Which means this use of beer geek would mean most people who drink beer, and would therefore be drained of any real meaning.

Even more to the point, there's a big difference behaviorally, and this is where I've noticed it. A subculture of super-fans has developed, and they behave in distinctive ways. They spend a lot of time pursuing new beers and are very trend-sensitive. They are the first adopters, lavishing love on beers like "New England IPAs" (right now), kettle-soured beers (last year), or fruit IPAs (2014). They are hugely promiscuous in their fandom, trying to taste as much beer from as many breweries as possible. They have strong opinions about the best breweries and beers and organize them into tiers of coolness, much like music fans. They dream about landing ultra-rare, usually vintage beers ("whales"). They'll stand in line for hours to get a bottle of the latest, coolest beer--or even drive to Vermont so they can stand in line for hours to get one. They avidly record their activities on various social media apps and ratings sites. When they travel abroad, they want to drink as many different beers as possible, and may go to six pubs in an evening. This is the person I think of as a beer geek.

It lines up pretty closely with the way people describe geeks in other subcultures, too. In fact, people have drawn a distinction between nerds and geeks to give the term extra valence:
Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.... Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.
We don't regularly use the phrase "beer nerd," but I guess it would, in Nick's words, describe a guy who "writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles." I'm definitely far more nerdy than geeky. But there's another dimension here that goes back to the behavior bit, and it's the one that makes me think I'm not a beer geek--and maybe only nerd-adjacent. Beer is unlike sci-fi or just plain sci in that it has an attendant culture and context of use. And this gets to where my interests lie.

There is a group whose main engagement with beer is social. I've wandered into this life of writing about beer, but I don't objectively like beer more than I like basketball or politics, and had things gone a different way, I might now be writing a post about the difference between a hack and a wonk. I could give up beer, the beverage, more easily than I could coffee. By far. But what I'd find very hard to give up is the simple pleasure of sitting with people in a pub and enjoying a pint. In that context, I like a good beer, but it isn't the central feature of the outing. This view is far more prevalent in pub-going countries, where people regularly drink a lot of beer over the course of a year. But the term "beer geek" just doesn't fit. They're beer drinkers, and surely beer lovers. But not beer geeks.

There are other subgroups within beer fandom (the historians/scholars, the homebrewers, the style nazis, the low-information drinkers), but if I had to identify my tribe, it would be the pub-goers. This has given rise in the past five years to conversations that peter out after I confess I haven't tried some new beer or been to a newly-opened brewery. (And by newly-opened I mean since 2010.) It means I end up defending low-status beers in conversations with mystified geeks. Weirdly, it also means that some of my beery interests--an old European brewery I've visited, some weird technique a brewer told me about--are met with glazed eyes by bored geeks. The rise of this kind of beer geek is fairly recent--super-fans didn't exist in enough density to coagulate into a subculture until maybe ten years ago. But now beer geekery is a full-fledged subculture, and its rules, values, and membership mystify me. I am not a beer geek.

This post has spent 24 hours percolating through social media, and there's a vein within the chatter I'd like to respond to. The idea with the post was to point out that a new subculture within beer has developed. I don't think semantics matter here--whether that or another subculture, or even the whole of beer fandom, gets called "beer geek" isn't really the point. The point is more that there now are many different currents within the beer-enjoying community and I feel somewhat out of step with some of them.

I'd like to add that, although I don't see myself as a beer geek in the way paragraph three describes them, I have nothing against those who are. Fandom is like anything--your preferences may vary. I have much more in common with whale-hunters than I do with Bud Light drinkers. We don't need to play our expressions of fandom against one another.


  1. Jeff, that's your most provocative post in a while. It almost feels like an adjunct to the "Beer Mid Life Crisis" session that Oliver Gray recently wrote about (and inspired many others to write about too -

    I feel like the bastard child of a beer geek and a beer nerd. I too have had the beer or coffee, if you had to choose, debate. (Wine was in there too.) But I feel I'm far geekier than you, and I absolutely get what you're saying.

    And I'm kind of glad you're saying it.

    Go Dubs!!

  2. Nice thoughts, Jeff. I think you're on to something. I wrote a feature for Beer Advocate magazine almost a decade ago, back in 2007 ( defining them in that time, and things have undoubtedly changed a lot since then. I also agree that I no longer fit that more modern sense of what it means to be a beer geek, even though it would be hard to argue that both of us aren't fairly well involved with beer on a daily basis. In 2009, I also wrote about being a geek myself for the back page of All About Beer ( comparing the geekery of beer to comic books, and bringing up a few parallels I'd noticed. Maybe it's aging, maybe it's having been at this in some form for 26 years, maybe it's just the way the industry is moving, but my level of excitement about everything going on is nowhere near as giddy as it was once upon a time. Plus, it feels impossible to keep up with everything, with so much going on everywhere, so there's a sense of resignation that you simply can't be on top of everything that, at least for me, changes how you approach covering the industry, and just finding the stories that interest me, or are local, or resonate for some other personal reason, no matter how trivial. Trying to actually keep up with every trend, every new brewery and very new brewery would drive a person to madness, I think. So while I'll always think of myself a geek in general, I think I may have moved past my beer geek persona. Though these days I see myself more as the curmudgeon on his porch yelling at the kids to stay of my lawn. These kids today ....

  3. I struggle to define myself in such terms, too. I remember when I was a geek, a nerd, a fan, an enthusiast, an aficionado, but then people started paying me to know a lot about beer. It's my job. I guess that means I'm a beer professional, like you. Question is, does that status preclude us from being any/all of the above?

  4. Couldn't agree with you more, Jeff. I've had far too many similar conversations. I'm also not a beer geek.

  5. I don't know -- there's a strong sense of "this is what I think a beer geek is, and I'm not that" w/o recognizing that Nick's understanding of what a beer geek is also has merit. It's reminiscent of the A Good Beer Blog writer's insistence that there is no "beer community" by defining community in such a way that makes a beer community pretty much impossible by said definition. "Beer geek" seems like a term that has value within certain contexts: for instance, as a shorthand to describe someone with some amount of knowledge about beers available today from the perspective of someone who doesn't. I don't chase whales, wait in line for special releases, etc., etc., but i can make beer recommendations to others based on experience -- to many friends, coworkers, etc., that makes me a beer geek. Useful. No big deal. It might be important to you within the much narrower community of people in aspects of the beer industry and uber-fans to define levels of connection further, but that doesn't necessarily negate the usefulness of "beer geek" to others when applied to you. Just as no matter what the AGGB guy says about "beer community" -- the term has use beyond his opinion.

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks.

    I added an update that (I hope) addresses Kendall's question and Bill's comments--among many others I saw on social media.

  7. I now love being "AGBB guy" but am still looking for that sort of community.

  8. Thought I'd let this go for a day before replying. First of all, there was nothing "choppy" about our tweetage, at least not as I intended or interpret it to be, anyway. But I'm a lot less combative than I used to be in the USENET or the OBC list-serve days. Moving abroad opened my eyes right quick to how we Yanks are, compared to others, in terms of taking opinions and things so *personally*.

    And I've been nearly completely disconnected from US beer culture since late 2004, when I left Oregon for Franconia. I basically disengaged from beery things in the US, as I had my new beer culture(s) to immerse in. And so I'm unfamiliar with the whole "bro" thing that's come up since then, as well as tap takeovers, releases (standing in lines or buying tickets for such, at least), chasing whales, and all that.

    And I guess I'm also unfamiliar with what people might think of the term "beer geek" these days. Back in the 90's, it was a convenient way for me to describe my interest in beer to people less interested in it than I was. I did actually collect beer, in a sense, in that I bought too much, and kept the excess in a beer fridge, always intending to share some of it, doing verticals, horizontals and all that sort of thing. So maybe I am a geek in that sense.

    But now that you remind me of the difference between nerds and geeks, I guess I'm more of....neither, really.

    Where's all this chatter on "social media" that's resulted? I'm missing out!

    I would also add that some of your response, about priortising socialising and spending time in pubs over beer hunting (hey, MJ did call himself the Beer Hunter...walez, bro!) is a bit surprising, when I think back of your reactions to my tweetage about Oregon beer last June. It was my first time back to Oregon in nearly a decade, and I'd noted that I was somewhat...hell, I forget now. Somewhat lost and disappointed in how things had changed.

    If my recollection is anywhere near correct (and it may not be), you suggested that I wasn't going after enough geeky new beer, rather, spending too much time in McMenamins. In fact, it's the *pubbiness* of McMenamins that ended up being that which I miss the most about Oregon beer, living in Franconia. Keep your sours (sic) and your Bourbon imperial session breakfast-sausage Kölsch stouts. Let me have the Barley Mill, Fulton, Hillsdale, even the new place in Wilsonville.

    (All meant in the lightest-hearted though serious way!)