I made the grave strategic error of reading an article from GoodBeerHunting, on my Facebook feed, this morning, entitled, “White Claw Might Be The Only Thing That Can Save Craft Beer From Itself“. There’s the link. The sad fact is that if what I’ve written here is to make sense, you’d have to read this whole thing to get it. BRIEFLY, what it suggests is that craft beer has become SO artsy and affected that it’s turning off consumers and our only salvation may be to focus on what craft beer is REALLY all about…
What a steaming load of crap this article is. It’s written by Dave Holmes, who has a bloated (and questionable) reputation as some sort of small-gauge beer guru and yet here is this guy promoting all sorts of seemingly PROUD wussified observations like:
– “While the country’s indie breweries were adding notes of pine, stone fruit, and cardamom to their products, the brains behind White Claw posed a question that spoke to the college freshman in all of us: what if water got you drunk?”
– “But here’s the absolute truth about even the very best IPAs: while the question of whether they taste good or bad is up to the individual consumer to answer, we can all agree that they taste a lot. Each one has a unique, complex, and evolving flavor profile, and each one replicates the experience of holding a nine-volt battery in your mouth for a full afternoon.”
– “They can be too heavy or too hoppy or both, and too often the people who order them are caricatures of themselves.“ (Which links to a post by something called a Kyle Kastranec, who says he tried Jester King Spon and appreciated it but his beer of choice? Miller High Life.) (NOTE: It may be worth noting that there are ads on the page where Krestanec’s paean to shit-beer is located…ads for Miller High Life. Hmmm….)
– “Which brings us to the truly wild trend of hard seltzer, an idea so brilliant only an idiot could have thought it up: what if someone else went to the trouble of putting booze in your LaCroix?”
It goes on for a bit more but you get the drift…
What this is, precisely, is the sort of studied pose of uber-hipness that bored trade professionals indulge themselves in so that they can feel (and TRY to appear) more sophisticated than We, the Unwashed Masses. “I’m brave enough to come out for hard seltzer. And if you don’t, you’re just a creaking throwback who worships at the altar of the false Craft God.”
What a load of crap, Part Deux.
The whole thing is the beverage equivalent of Trumpism: “I’m JUST FINE as I am! I don’t need to learn anything and having evolved or complex tastes is just posing and trendiness!” This whole article is predicated on ONE idea: that the primary motivating factor for ALL young (and not so young) people, in drinking anything, is TO GET DRUNK. That’s the premise. It’s right there in “what if water got you drunk?” and dismissing all IPAs as “a nine-volt battery in your mouth for a full afternoon” and “what if someone else went to the trouble of putting booze in your LaCroix?” If this guy was expressing his own tastes, that would be one thing but his homie tosses in Spon as either an example of how Cool he is or he actually prefers cheap, shitty domestic lagers and uses that very artful beer to illustrate his point about craft beers wearing us out.
Funny, then, that those beers he bemoans as “wearing us out” are wildly popular and keep on spawning new styles and techniques, not all of which involve adding his scorned stuff like pine (a naturally-occurring flavor of hops), stone fruit (another natural hops attribute) and cardamom, which has been used, usually in a sensory tag-team with coriander, in many European beers for over two centuries. Case in point, the Brut IPA, which is a bone-dry, frequently un-fruity, sparkling beer that actually plays down its hops. It has become a solid trend in craft beer and no amount of scorn is likely to change that a molecule.
Curious, also that I, with my palate trained by 30+ years as a working chef, have never once felt like I had a nine-volt battery in my mouth. Maybe Mr. Holmes is just drinking some really bad IPAs? Or maybe Mr. Holmes just doesn’t like forward hops and, rather than cop to that and have people know that IPAs are just too bitter for him – which might well get him ragged on a bit – he has decided to make his aesthetic deviation the beer’s fault, instead of just his tastes? Our fault, maybe, for daring to stray so far from what he regards as the acceptable? Hmmmm, Part Two.
Holmes also conveniently ignores (Why slow yer roll, eh?) the current massive resurgence of the Pilsner, exactly the same style as all that BudMillerCoorsPabst crap but now being made, in craft breweries, in the original style of the Czech and German and Austrian Pilsners and not the dumbed-down recipe that Adolphus Busch handed to his brewers when he started Anheuser Busch, with the admonition, “Here make this, Americans don’t know beer, anyway. This will be good enough for them.” Now, we have those authentic Euro-Pils, Mexican-style Lagers, brilliant German-style Helles, Marzens, Vienna Lagers, Gose, Berlinerweisse, Rauchbier, Hefeweisen, Weissebiers, American Lagers like Kentucky Common and Texas Lager and California Commmon…all of which Miller-guzzling retroverts would probably love, even prefer…if they didn’t have their reverse snobbery cred to nurture.
This distilled, low-proof adulation of the low-brow and frat-boy tastes ignores a major FACT of the Craft Beer Phenomenon: we all went All In on craft beer, in the first place, because we wanted flavors – and not the same three that were all BudMillerCoorsPabst had to offer. Craft beer was a reaction to and a rejection of the shitty domestic lagers we were all, up until about twenty years ago, raised to think of as what “beer” meant. It’s what we saw in our family fridges, growing up. It was what was in dad’s hand at picnics and ball games and weeknights, after a hard day at the vinyl siding mines. It was what all the signage and ads and TV spots told us was “beer” and we decided, a few of us, back in the 70s, starting with New Albion Brewing, that we didn’t want, anymore. So, Jack McAuliffe and a handful of others began turning out anything that was NOT domestic Lagers and Ales, anything those mega-“breweries” weren’t making. And that turned into a tidal wave of discovery that has become the ONLY trend in brewing in the past fifty years to put a serious dent in the Buds and Lites and Pabsts that formerly OWNED American beer shelves.
Craft beer doesn’t need to be “saved from itself”. What craft beer needs is to address the tastes of its customers, continue to explore each new idea and style and innovation (the Lemondrop hop was INVENTED in Yakima, by a fine hops lab, and produces flavors that probably even the seltzer-teenies would love) that evolves out of previous styles and flavors. If these arrested development kids that Holmes is pandering to in this nonsensical post were the entire market for beer, then craft would be in trouble. But what Holmes is eliding right on by is that this disastrous cratering he’s seeing as craft’s death throes is, for anyone who ever studied economics, a COMPLETELY predictable, rather spectacularly modest marketplace adjustment; the exact sort of consumer trend that ALWAYS happens to EVERY single new business class as it ages and evolves and comes toward its maturity. It’ll continue, too, as consolidations and acquisitions increase and breweries partner up and adjust to the new reality of this fucked-up age of neo-conservatism and willful ignorance. And the seltzer craze is one of the clearest signals of that ignorance: “I just want to get DRUNK. Keep your eyes on the ball, brewers! We don’t want flavors and choices and stylistic evolution. We just wanna git FUCKED UP, Dude!! YAHOO, BABY!!“
Fortunately, this country is NOT all post-teen party boys and their female counterparts. The craft community was built on a rock-solid base of MILLIONS of curious, adventurous, intelligent people who embrace everything that the “Git Fucked UP” crowd rejects. It is also abominably, uh, stoopid to even suggest that all newbie drinkers – or anything more than a small minority of those folks – just coming of age each year are part of the Peter Pan Syndrome that breeds the “Hammered for Hammered’s Sake” crowd. The clear majority are ready to leave their childhood tastes behind and embrace adulthood, which explains why any given night in America finds millions of 20-Somethings sitting with friends in brewery taprooms, a dewey glass of the house IPA in hand.
It was absolutely inevitable that, past a certain point of proliferation of breweries, the economics would start to pull back the other way. Brewery closures have become more commonplace in the past decade and that will continue. Geographic clusters WILL lead to another, ongoing market adjustment and breweries we all like WILL shutter up and disappear. That will NOT all be from economic forces, either. Organizational stupidity and even illegality, as with Founders recent, heinous racism scandal, will drive more out of business, which SHOULD happen to Founders, if there were actually such a thing as justice. (Trump outlawed that by executive order, doncha know?) And bad business practices within some breweries will kill others.
What MAY actually cause harm to craft brewing are two things…
1. The enabling and exalting of tasteless, immature, drunk-seeking undescended-testicle cases who never cared about beer, anyway, and were NEVER potential consumers of craft beer, preferring to continue clinging to their juice boxes, long after they have escaped at least their PHYSICAL pre-teens, if not yet their mental and emotional adolescence.
2. Everyone in the craft culture misreading the economic markers and running around with their hair on fire, screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” and suggesting that craft beer somehow NEEDS something as silly, faddish, and vulgar as fucking hard seltzer to save it. Seltzer is simple-minded, lowest common denominator swill for the Simple and the Slow. It appeals to a growing number of breweries as a cash stream because it costs nothing and requires no more skill or involvement from their facilities or staff than some space and enough coffee to stay awake while making it. Anyone who thinks those breweries are suddenly going to renounce beer and become seltzer factories is living in La La Land and sessioning with Michael Jackson.
“What if instead of a complicated mix of flavors, you had a craving for, like, lime-ish?”
Ah, the crux of the matter. Answer: has there ever been anything easier or cheaper to make than a bottle of soda water, fresh lime wedges, ice, and some Everclear or Monarch Vodka? Make no mistake about it, THAT is what’s in that seltzer can. You can make your own and have it FRESH, all natural, no additives with cancer-causing initials. If you really wanna Kick Out The Jams, Dude!, you can substitute your wimpiest ginger ale – say the Kroger house brand – for the water. I have those, minus the Everclear, which is tasteless, (and with a solid ginger ale or ginger beer and not the mass-produced stuff) all the time, in the summer. It’s honest, doesn’t involve propping up giant mega-congloms and their jaw-dropping ad budgets, faster than even that trip to the corner Thrifty Mart where they keep the “Gourmet Seltzers”, and controllable. Wanna git all knee-walkin’, snot-flingin’, fucked up, Bubba? Everclear will get ya there a TON faster than the panty-waist amount of alcohol the seltzer makers are legally allowed to include in that can. You COULD dump in enough straight alcohol – vodka, Everclear, Spitytus, Clear Spring, whatev – to render yourself incoherent and bullet-proof in ONE glass, and nobody on the planet is going to be there to tell you no…except maybe your Dad, if he wanders down to the basement for a frozen brisket.
I’ve been asked about eight or nine times, now, to review hard seltzers. Why? What am I gonna say? “Well, Ralph’s Fireworks and Seltzer brand is ‘limeier’ than Summer’s Eve Palate Douche”? (You KNOW that’s coming) And that’s why articles like this Holmes piece are so annoying. They try to shame everyone whose tastes don’t slot neatly into their own narrow reverse-snobbery as poseurs and trendies when actually the exact opposite is true: enjoying the diversity of craft beer is now the Mainstream and juvenile tangents like hard seltzer are no more than trend-seeking, hipper-than-thou, momentary day trips off the long road toward adult tastes. Eventually, all the seltzer-weiners WILL graduate to Something. It very well may not be craft beer. People who are so hopelessly attached to their Capri Sun and Sunny D habit may never develop an affinity for the complexity and hundreds of flavors of modern hops. And there’s not a thing wrong with that, either. They should drink what makes them happy.
But stealth wimps like Holmes and the Kastranec Unit want to have their cake and a cool place to eat it, too. Much of the rabid effort to make seltzer a cornerstone of modern craft brewing is the knowledge, among these latent-teenies, that breweries are the place where all the Cool Kids now hang out. Been like that for two decades, now. And they want to go there, hang with all their beer-intensive friends, strike manly poses, and not be called wimpy or get sneered at for drinking bubbly water without flavor enough to satisfy a toddler. It’s NOT a flattering aspect of brewery culture that such – well, let’s call it what it is – discrimination is so commonplace but it is, unless the seltzer-wiener in question is sufficiently lucky to have friends with maturity enough to just drink their own beers and let those who don’t like beer have their own lives and tastes. THAT would be the ideal, in some ideal world. In this world, however, people who stand around copping cool ‘tudes while nursing a White Claw often get hassled. And they see this as unfair.
And it is.
I’ve suggested this before and haven’t gotten a lot of feedback but I proposed that drinkers of seltzers just form their own culture. White Claw is certainly raking in enough gelt, annually, to open a few seltzer taprooms, where those folks could gather and discuss…well, whatever there is to discuss around the nexus of fizzy flavored water with octane in it. There has already been at least one seltzer festival that I know of, a couple of months back, in Denver. I was bugged by the festival’s PR people to publicize it and then ragged on because I confessed that I don’t like hard seltzer and have no interest in promoting it. The promoter emailed me and said “If you’re so fucking smart, why don’t you try brewing one?!?” I replied that I saw no reason to “brew” something that I would wind up dumping down my kitchen sink, which is what I’d do, as I have no interest in drinking it. If there are mule-headed people like him involved in the “seltzer community” (if such a thing exists) there will probably be someone with the wherewithal and the entrepreneurial spirit to get the seltzer taproom ball rolling.
The festival guy called me a beer snob, in the one chat session we had. I replied as I always do:
“YES, I am and have been a devout beer snob for the past fifty years. I don’t inflict that upon people, unless they bring it up and become combative, as you now have, but it sets my boundaries quite clearly and outside those borders lies all the wine coolers and near-beers and low-alcohol fruit beers and most cocktails and now all the hard seltzers. I have ZERO interest in breaching those walls for anything that seeks to reduce or dilute the evolution of flavors and styles and sense of discovery that is craft beer and artisan wine and small production spirits. Ultimately, you have nothing either new or interesting in this stuff. It’s a dumbed-down, alcohol-doused drink that the unevolved guzzle to get shit-faced and that’s really about it.
Curiously, I’m not a wine snob at all. Just beer and that because beer, of all of those beverages, is the one that was laid siege and held hostage for over 120 years, because of corporate greed and out-right thuggery, and which needs defending. Seltzer doesn’t. If seltzer is not successful enough for your liking, go out and WORK to expand it. But quit badgering people like me because we don’t like seltzer and won’t help you legitimize it. I’m not obligated to do squat for seltzer and no rationale you’ve offered yet moves my needle even a millimeter.”
I found an awful lot of really, genuinely objectionable and immature bullshit in the Holmes piece, the kind of fixation on the Getcha Drunk aspects of beer that devalues virtues like flavor and skill and respect for the traditions. Holmes disregards the future of beer and boils down an entire culture that is FAR greater than Dave Holmes to the idea that we really only drink to get ripped. We could easily do that with fizzy water and some alcohol, is the clear message, and that we’re all just fooling ourselves and erecting facades with our love of craft beer. I don’t know whether Holmes’ disingenuous attempt to promote seltzer, his pose of backhand-sophistication, or his implied condemnation of an entire community of millions of honest craft fans is the most offensive/silly in all that. But I do know that craft beer is larger and more solid and enduring than the momentary affectations of people like him or the occasional tangent like seltzer that people get all puffed up about and then watch run its course and fade into whatever its marketplace niche will eventually be.
I suppose I’m really showing my age. (But I ceased caring about that maybe two decades ago.) I remember vividly a bar room argument I had with a salesperson for a DC distributor, back in the late 60s, in which he flatly stated, “Fuck your snobbish bullshit. Bartles and Jaymes is here to stay and, in about thirty years, you’ll be sitting across from you and I’ll remind you of what a snot you’re being right now.” I called him 30 years later, He didn’t respond.
I apologize for that B&J reference (google it) and also for all the big words I used here. (Here’s a handy link to Merriam Websters, in case anyone needs to look something up.) But I am not apologizing at all for having a brain and grown-up tastes and refusing to ignore all that and get on the FizzWater wagon. Life is too short and my memory is too long and hard seltzer is too boring to be the thing which shakes me off of any of that.