On Beer Culture and Beer Subcultures

One of the reasons Carla and I started Hoperatives is that we wanted to celebrate and support Cincinnati’s beer culture. Back in another lifetime I used to think a lot about culture and media for a living. It’s a fundamental part of the way I look at the world that “culture” is largely defined by the rituals we use to communicate about the things that are important to us. It’s our privilege to be part of a lot of folk’s rituals in discovering what’s happening with beer in Cincinnati. We’re part of the beer culture, but only a small (replaceable) part. We don’t have any plans to go anywhere, but we don’t have any illusions about our place in the ecosystem. We could go away tomorrow and craft beer in Cincinnati would be just fine. The culture is here whether we’re part of it or not.

My reason for bringing this up are three blog posts I read this weekend from beer bloggers I have tremendous respect for. Roger Baylor is the owner of New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany, Indiana and writes a blog with what is quite possibly the most perfect title ever: The Potable Curmudgeon. The Hoosier Beer Geek blog is the indispensable resource for what’s happening in the beer scene in Indianapolis written by passionate craft beer fans who collectively call themselves the “Hoosier Beer Geek Knights of the Beer Roundtable.”

I’ll start with the two Hoosier Beer Geek posts first. The first has the somewhat provocative title “Is Untappd unintentionally killing craft beer culture?” The second, is a response titled “Is Hoosier Beer Geek unintentionally killing craft beer culture?” The reasons author Jake Koeneman gives that Untappd is unintentionally killing craft beer culture are as follows:

1) The time it takes to check-in and the impact that has on conversation
2) The usage of the app to check-in beers during festivals and provide a quick rating
3) The braggadocious attitude that the app encourages via social media

It’s probably no surprise that the response makes three similar claims about Hoosier Beer Geek’s own reviewing and reporting methods:

Point 1: The time it takes to write down notes and the impact that it has on conversation.
Point 2: Roundtables often involve multiple beers and sharing of bottles.
Point 3: The made-up-word attitude that HBG encourages via its blog.

Understand here that I’ve summarized two blog posts in three sentences each. Go read the posts in full. If you form a judgment off of just what I’ve written about what they said, you’re doing it wrong.

So, is “________ (un)intentionally killing craft beer culture?” Roger Baylor’s blog post suggests it might be a good idea to make sure you know which culture you’re talking about before you answer the question. His extremely well-thought-out post describes at least four distinct subcultures:

  • “A homebrewer/craft culture that principally values being able to analyze, recreate and ‘brew it yourself.’ “
  • “A trader/swapper culture that principally values the mechanics of the chase and the joy of collecting.”
  • “A ratings/priestly culture that principally values the presumed exactitude and objectivity of language in quantifying pleasure, and wielding it subjectively like a tire iron.”
  • “A localist culture that principally values the personal, grassroots experience of places and people.”

The text is quoted directly from what Roger wrote, but I’ve edited his list to appear as a bulleted list to make it a little easier to read. I hope that doesn’t change the meaning — I don’t think it did — but if it does the fault is mine and not Roger’s. Again, I’ll urge to to read the whole thing1.

Roger’s post is a good example of something I often experienced in grad school. I read it and realized immediately that I could never unread it. It’s a filter I’m going to use whenever I hear someone talk about “beer culture” from now on. What subculture are you talking about? I don’t think this is something where you have to pick one or another subculture and identify with it alone. I know passionate homebrewers who are just as passionate about bottle swapping and then obsessively rating them on Beer Advocate, Rate Beer and/or Untappd. And who won’t order a beer in a bar unless it’s local, preferably from the same zip code as the pub. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think at least one writes for us sometimes.

But not everyone cares about all of those things with equal passion. I respect homebrewers. I’ve homebrewed. But I’m not a homebrewer. I like letting the pros make it for me.

I am fascinated with local beer. I love to travel and find the local brews that people there take for granted. I’ve traded beer with folks elsewhere, butI don’t do it a lot. I’d rather go where they are and have the beer there. And I think the folks who undertake serious training in identifying styles and flavors for things like BJCP and Cicerone are doing important work. Work I don’t want to do.

You probably feel differently. And that’s a good thing.

I think where some conflict can arise within the beer community is the failure to recognize that the subcultures exist. Take, for example, the “Craft vs. Crafty” issue. You can argue from strict “ratings/priestly” perspective that a beer from InBevMilloors can meet or exceed every judging criteria for a particular style as the offering from MyZipCode Brewing Co-Op from down the street. And if that’s all you care about that’s fine, I guess, but don’t be too surprised if you can’t get MyZipCode Brewing Co-Op beer anymore because InBevMilloors buried them with more distribution leverage. On the other hand, belittling someone who happened to try the InBevMilloors beer for the first time isn’t likely to give them much reason to trust your recommendation that MyZipCode Brewing Co-op is a makes a darn tasty beer. Extremism seldom works out, regardless of the context. You like the Reinheitsgebot and Belgian Lambics? You sure about that, Skippy? Sounds like one or the other is negotiable to me.

Hoperatives is all about “Believers in Better Beer (in Cincinnati and Beyond).” It’s a motto built for alliteration, not ideological purity. I’m perfectly comfortable telling you what I think about different issues with respect to beer, but I’m not at all comfortable telling you what you ought to think. You, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. I’m not saying you get to tell other people what they ought to think — you don’t — but you do have to decide what it is you think. Socrates observed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. (Or maybe it was the NSA. I get them confused.) Anyway, it’s probably a good idea to think about those four beer subcultures and decide if and how you fit into each of them. It won’t cure cancer. It won’t feed the hungry. It might help you make up your mind as to whether you want to check into that beer on Untappd, though.

And it might help you have a conversation with another person who’s also part of the craft beer culture. Just a different part of it.

1 For the record, I always want to respond to people who have the balls to write “TL;DR” (“Too long; Didn’t read”) as a reaction to a blog post with “NIN; YJALD” (No, it’s not; You’re just a lazy douchebag.”). But that’s just me.

One Reply to “On Beer Culture and Beer Subcultures”

  1. Great work man, I totally agree with many of the things you said here. People often ignore the concept of subcultures withing a culture. Hell, craft beer as a whole is a total subculture within that of beer lovers within that of drinkers.

    I’m happy to dip my toes into all of these craft beer subcultures.

    Also, MyZipCode brewing has already been trademarked by AB-InBev :P

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