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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

People Know Less About Beer Than You Think

Credit: Sports Illustrated
Peter King is a sports writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the three or four most-read authorities on American football in the country.  His "Monday Morning Quarterback" is a sprawling recap of the week's events packed with tons of insider tidbits and random observations--a must-read for millions of die-hard fans.  It's a very bloggy, online-only article, and over the years King has added more an more regular features.  In the past year or so, he's added a comment about craft beer at the tail end.  He travels the country and tries beers in whatever city he happens to be visiting at the time.  But he's a layman.  He doesn't study beer except on the hoof, and what he knows about beer comes to him through tongue and nostril.  In this way, I think he's perfectly typical.  But it leads to semi-gaffes like this one, from yesterday's column:
Beernerdness: Copycat Beer of the Week (and I'm not complaining), straight from the Salt Lake City Airport: Wasatch White Label White Ale. Closest thing to Allagash White that I've tasted, and there's a reason. Wasatch White uses some of the same ingredients as Allagash White, including orange peel and coriander. In this case, copying is very good. That's a fine, fine beer, Wasatch. 
The gaffe is evident to the beer geek: since Pierre Celis rebooted witbier in the sixties, coriander and orange peel have become the standard markers of the style.  They didn't start with his favorite beer, Allagash, and if Wasatch is cloning anything, it's Hoegaarden.  But how would King learn this?  Unless he happened to read the menu of a local brewpub somewhere that gave the accurate history (brewpub histories are generally wildly to slightly inaccurate), he'd never have occasion to know the history of his fave beer.

This weekend, I attended an annual work retreat for my wife's business at the coast.  Perhaps two dozen folks of varied backgrounds, most of them average Americans with no special knowledge of beer.  Someone dropped by Widmer and picked up a keg of kolsch, and I saw bottles of Rogue and Deschutes, and cans of Budweiser and Rainier.  I heard a discussion of what constituted heavy and light beer.  (Color.)  I tasted a homebrewed wit that was tastier than the Winema Wit I had at Pelican earlier in the day.  (Though if you're in Pacific City, have the spectacular Belgian stout Grundy Love--which I understand has nothing to do with Ben.)  I talked to a woman who wondered why all beers can't taste like the kolsches she fell in love with in Cologne.  Someone told me she hated carbonated beverages, including soda, but liked Guinness because it was flat.  That led to one of those painful beer geek reveries where I yammered on about nitrogen as I watched her eyes glaze.  She didn't actually care, she was just trying to chit chat. 

I was put in a mind of all of this when I saw Martyn's latest post about the recent arrival of India Sessions Ales--a topic to which I may devote a whole post.  As craft beer becomes ever more popular, we're going to have to remember that most people don't actually care about it that much.  They may think about beer for five minutes in a pub before they order one, and then not think about it again until their next beer.  The debates geeks have about ISAs and CDAs and IBUs are fairly extraneous to the larger world of craft beer--even among people who like Peter King who are fans.  And guys like Peter King--and another guy I read, James Fallows--are liable to be the ones who actually turn the conversation of beer to good beer.  Good beer will survive or perish based on whether people with a casual interest like it.  If I were a brewer, that would keep me up at nights.  It's easy enough to target the geek--he makes his preferences very clear.  But shooting for the casual drinker who doesn't realize where his favorite style came from?  That seems like a far dicier gamble.


  1. This could easily have been titled, "Beer Geeks: You Are Not As Important As You Think". I am in full agreement.

  2. Hey, at least King didn't say they were copying Blue Moon ;-)

  3. Good post

    I've been thinking for some time about knowledge and whether it isn't a bit overrated. I've been meaning to write about it, hope I'll be able to in the coming days...

  4. Pivní,

    I don't think one could say that knowledge is overrated. I think, on the other hand, perspective and analytic capability are underrated.

    Without knowledge, it's hard to perform analysis. And analysis coupled with knowledge is what often gives wisdom or perspective.

    I find many beer geeks today are long on knowledge, and short on the other two.

  5. Yeah - my entire discussion about ISA was written from the heart of geekdom, but an essential question I never asked (and should have) was "what does ISA mean for the average beer drinker, even one who likes the occasional craft beer", to which the answer is "SFA, probably."

  6. Couple of things.
    For one, you don't have to know the history of a beer as a casual beer drinker. But even if you're a casual drinker of beer, to make such an uninformed statement as King does, is not acceptable. He's supposed to be a reporter, how long would it have taken to do a Google search?
    Two, he devotes a portion of his column on "Beernerdness" every week. Does that elevate him slightly above casual beer drinker?
    His preferred style of beer is anything with citrus in it. Ummm, ok.

  7. Next up: can someone PLEASE get Peter King to shut up about how great Starbucks coffee tastes?!?

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  9. Great post
    for me, it speaks volume re the need for / benefit of craft breweries, brewpubs, and taprooms to educate, educate, educate.
    Eg, 'Beer Geek' training events, brewery MBA events, descriptive taplist in taprooms, et cetera, ...
    MBA = Master of Beer Appreciation.

  10. Jeff, your comment about people thinking about what they will order for a short time and then not again for some time (the second drink at most), made me think of something. Often at a pub I will see people drink a craft beer which is either a rare event for them - they know beer but in its regular forms and ended in a craft bar for some reason or other - or they know some craft beers but aren't familiar with the style they ordered. (They just followed the recommendation of the server or the person they are with).

    This then unfolds: they'll cock their head after the first sip, as if to say, hmmm that's different/odd/don't like it/like it/whatever - and then the head clicks back and you can see the beer is out of the picture. I always wonder whether they truly "accept" whatever they are drinking or often don't actually enjoy each sip although they won't show it. Probably the former, mostly. The actual taste is important to relatively few people, I think.

    Still, a very good taste (say, Sierra Nevava Pale Ale) will attract more custom, always. Those who care will seek it out, those who don't won't be offended and may become converts.