So What is ‘Better Beer’ Anyway?

Every once in a while I like to take an idea and beat the hell out of it think about it for a while.  It’s either the fact that I have a bit of a philosophical bent, or that I’m just bent.

Take your pick.

Anyway, I have to be honest and say that the motto of this blog makes me a little nervous. It seems like an invitation to mindless snobbery.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t have anything against snobbery.  I just don’t like it when it’s mindless.

Like anyone else, there are things I like and there are things I don’t.  I can easily take a list of just about anything and say “this is better than that” or “this one is clearly worse that this other one.”  Someone else can take the same list and order things completely differently, and since we’re ordering things in terms of personal preference, who’s to say who’s right?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say something like  “when it comes to statements of preference, the concept of right and wrong don’t really apply.”  Yeah, OK, that’s technically correct, but it also seems a bit mushy to me.  It’s obvious that you’re in a better position to say what you prefer just I’m in a better position to accurately report what I prefer.  There’s not a problem if we plan to keep our preferences to ourselves

I think the real question when it comes to statements of preference isn’t “who’s right and who’s wrong?” but, rather, “why should I care about your preference anyway?”  What’s it based on? Tell me you’re a hop-head and I’ll know how to take what you say. Hate hops?  Fine, tell me that and I’ll better understand what you’re trying to tell me.  Tell me what you’ve tried that you’ve liked and things you’ve tried that you don’t, and I’ll probably learn something beyond your preference.

That brings me to a rather lengthy defense of Budweiser from Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber, a decidedly non-beer-related blog.  The posting is more than a year old, but it stuck with me when I first came across it.  It’s worth reading the whole thing (though the footnotes –yes footnotes — kind of get away from beer), but this excerpt will give you the … er … flavor of the whole piece:

Budweiser has rice in it. So what? So do Asahi and Kirin of Japan, Bintang of Indonesia and Efes of Turkey, and nobody has such a hate on about them. Lots of the people who claim to hate Budweiser will out of the same mouth discourse long and pretentious about the merits of sake. Rice is a perfectly sensible bulk grain to make beer out of if you want a light lager, particularly in countries like America which grow a protein-rich strain of barley. Plenty of real ale types will maintain that Anheuser-Busch uses rice in its brewing in order to save money, which shows a worrying lack of curiosity, as anyone making this argument can’t possibly have looked at the price of rice and the price of barley. Adolphus Busch in 1876 was a German master brewer of exactly the sort that beer nuts go gooey over, he was trying to make a high quality beer (as proved by Budweiser’s use of expensive Saaz hops), and he decided that the best way to brew a lager was to use rice.

Just this past November, Davies highlighted a paragraph from a New Yorker article in a follow-up post:

Budweiser, eh?

I asked the brewmaster, Jean-Marie Rock, which American beer he likes best. He thought for a moment, squinting down his bladelike nose, and narrowed his lips to a point. Then he raised a finger in the air. “Budweiser!” he said. “Tell them that the brewer at Orval likes Budweiser!” He smiled. “I know they detest it, but it is quite good.”Thanks very much for the heads up to Luis Enrique and Unfogged. Sweet vindication, albeit coming from a guy with pointed lips. Other gems from the article:

“When a brewer says, ‘This has more hops in it than anything you’ve had in your life—are you man enough to drink it?,’ it’s sort of like a chef saying, ‘This stew has more salt in it than anything you’ve ever had—are you man enough to eat it?’ ”Microbrewers, gahhh.

Only one small problem with the excerpt:  he left something kind of important out.  Here’s the whole paragraph:

I asked the brewmaster, Jean-Marie Rock, which American beer he likes best. He thought for a moment, squinting down his bladelike nose, and narrowed his lips to a point. Then he raised a finger in the air. “Budweiser!” he said. “Tell them that the brewer at Orval likes Budweiser!” He smiled. “I know they detest it, but it is quite good.” Later, though, when he described the newest beers coming out of Belgium, they sounded a good deal closer to Calagione’s. “People would rather pay a little more and have a special product than to pay a lot for a Pilsner and have something banal,” he said. “I like Budweiser, but I wouldn’t pay two euros for a Budweiser.”

The name of the article is A Better Brew: The rise of extreme beer.  It’s largely a profile of Sam Calagione and the Dogfish Head brewery, but it’s also a discussion of mass and niche tastes.  Like any good New Yorker article, it’s long.  Unlike some, it’s worth reading the whole thing.  More than once.  You’ll learn things.

In the first post I wrote here (two days ago — hey, it’s a new blog) I defined “better” essentially in terms of the passion a beer is capable of producing in someone, not on any objective qualities of the beer itself.  The last comment from Jean-Marie Rock above (“I like Budweiser, but I wouldn’t pay two euros for a Budweiser”) is telling, and is probably as close to illustrating the notion of “better beer” as I’m ever going to be able to do.

5 Replies to “So What is ‘Better Beer’ Anyway?”

    1. No, we haven’t, but it sounds like something we need to do. Carla and I once spent a day in Hollywood find the graves of famous dead people under the assumption it’s the closest to the Golden Age of Hollywood we’d ever get. Plus it freaked people out.

      Do you have any info on it?

      Thanks for reading!

  1. I don’t think discussing better beer is snobbery. There is bad beer, there’s no doubt about it. The trouble comes when the definition of bad beer comes under debate. And people who like what you think is bad beer get defensive and will press their case til their beer is flat, if you know what I mean.

    There are going to be haters no matter what position you take, so take your position and stand by it, is my advice. Say what you think! 🙂

  2. Hi Tom, I don’t have any info on this year’s tour, but if/when I see something I’ll pass it along. It is something I’d like to do! I just happened to see it was a tour they offered in September 2008 when I picked up Spring Grove Cemetery’s events schedule (I was there for the vintage hearse car show in October).

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