The Fancy Beer Dilema

A recent post on AskMen.com that has made its Social Media rounds seems to call out craft beer – deeming it “fancy beer” and bemoaning the increasing complexity that is today’s beer scene. It’s an easy piece for craft beer enthusiasts to rip apart, an easy knee-jerk reaction would be to proclaim the virtues of craft beer over industrial brands – and that would not be entirely inappropriate. That said, the piece calls out some realities that craft beer bars (and bars that pepper in craft brands) have failed to deal with.

Let’s look at this fictional exchange – which really isn’t that fictional, if you’ve been paying attention.

“Bartender, what’s on tap?”
“There’s the list, next to you.”
“This one?”
“No, that’s the phone book. The big one there, next to it.”
“Ah. Yes. Hmm, I’ll have … uh …”
“Hey, pal. You gonna order a beer or you gonna read?”

This comical look at a bar exchange is pretty typical for those that work around craft beer. Yes, we beer enthusiasts have it made – we can be given a lengthy list of craft brands and – if it’s properly formatted – can quickly spot the beer we want (assuming the list is broken up by malty / hoppy / ale / lager / dark / pale / sour / wheat / whatever categories). That said, imagine you’ve been brought up on an Industrial beverage – what are you to do when presented with ten, fifteen or twenty ‘foreign’ brands? Sadly, most American craft beer bartenders have little patience to walk consumers through the list to find the most appropriate beer – and those with patience often have other customers to deal with. The end result is a crap shoot for customers and an immediate sense of insecurity in their order. So, if the beer comes without explanation, it can be overwhelming and – frankly – confusing. The end result is a justified frustration with the current state of beer. I get that.

The same rings true with coffee drinkers that just want ‘a damned cup of coffee’, unaware of the world’s coffee growing region’s and the differences in roasts that change the appearance, aroma and flavor of their cup of joe. Cheese, bread and even the meat counter have all become a place of confusion for the casual consumer. We are creatures of comfort, and we are increasingly being forced into deeper and more complex waters.

So, what is the answer? I suppose we could just say ‘fuck ‘em’ and move on. I mean, if people lack the curiosity and passion for what they consume, that’s their problem. Others will say we need more education – perhaps another new podcast or beer blog – that makes information accessible for all. Then there is the group that just says we push the consumers into deep water, that they’ll learn quickly that craft beer is inherently better beer and the world will magically right itself. All of these thoughts, I believe, have led us to where we are today – with a slightly larger base of beer enthusiasts, but with a greater percentage of anti-craft beer drinkers.

So, what to do…

Change the culture! Oh, shit, that’s easy! Right? Wait, what the hell does that mean?

For starters, ditch the beer bibles. Well, let’s step back… let’s reformat our beer bibles. If you have a tap house or restaurant with a load of beers available, go beyond the broad categories and list four or five ‘recommendations’ – staff picks, if you will. List a lager, a pale ale, amber ale, stout and wheat beer – the biggest and broadest buckets that may trigger a comfortable response from a consumer.

Second, learn to talk with the uninitiated. When a customer comes into a better beer establishment, they may (or may not) understand that Bud, Coors and Miller won’t be on tap. However, they won’t (likely) understand that Blue Moon, Shock Top and Stella won’t be available – I mean, to many people, those are ‘better beer’ options (fancy beers, if you will). Add to that list brands like Heineken, Newcastle, Corona (yes, seriously), Guinness and whatever beer you’ve stopped enjoying years ago. So, when someone walks in and asks for a Blue Moon, don’t shun them or hit them over the head for their ignorance – guide them positively to a similar product – without the attitude (“it’s like Blue Moon, only better” or “I used to like Guinness, before I found a real stout”). We beer geeks are comfortable saying “trust your palate”, but only when talking about one craft brand over another.

Finally, relax a little bit. We’re all in this together and when we’re going out to drink at a bar or tavern, we really just want a good drink (subjective) and a spot to unwind. I believe we’ll get a lot further in our promotion of craft beer if we are indeed promoters of craft beer – and promoters don’t diminish the tastes or likes of others, they are a positive face and message for that which they promote. This isn’t a war with craft beer drinkers fighting other beer drinkers. If anything, we’re all about supporting a craft product – embracing good liquid over clever marketing, substance over shine. With this attitude, the worst thing that’ll happen is we’ll all enjoy a glass of beer, without creating conflict with others looking to do the same damned thing.

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