"Beer geek" goes back a loooong way. I did a quick 'n' dirty Google search, and the earliest reference I found was 1992. That might surprise some of you -- some may think it's not that old, and some -- like me -- may be shocked to think that's the earliest reference. I'm suspicious of it, myself. There are references in USENET newsgroups and Homebrew Digest that make it plain that the term had been in use earlier; it was familiar to at least some of the people discussing it. Some of you remember Barleycorn, the first mid-Atlantic beerpaper: they had an "Ask the Beer Geek" column back as early as 1993, which argues an earlier familiarity.
"Geek," as numerous incensed beer...lovers have pointed out, is not exactly a term with a great history. Here's what the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) has to say.
1. a. A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy.
b. A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
2. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.
[Perhaps alteration of dialectal geck, fool, from Low German gek, from Middle Low German.]
Hey, great, that's what I wanna be. Some "geeks" don't mind, they 'embrace their geek' and flaunt it. Some people who I think are completely comfortable socially will declare themselves "beer geeks" and don't give a hoot. I don't mind it myself. I've called myself a beer geek. (There are all sorts of 'geeks' these days, though it was kind of unsettling to find out that the Wikipedia entry on geek doesn't make any mention of "beer geeks." Why is that unsettling? Damn...) No big deal.
Maybe. Maybe it is a problem, though. It is an inherently denigrating term, given its history (though some have argued that, like "gay," the word has changed so thoroughly that it has left its origins behind. I don't agree), and it has that air of annoying dipshit about it, the kind of beer drinker who obsesses over note-taking and rarity and process to the point of missing the whole reason that the beer is in their glass. As one whisky-maker brilliantly commented to a rabid collector: "We make the stuff to drink, you know."
The term does damage to us. It separates us from a growing number of craft beer drinkers who just like to drink the stuff -- and, I believe, many of us mainly like to drink the stuff. We talk about it, here and other places, but I can't pretend that most of us do that because it's our job: the number of amateur sites by far out-numbers sites of guys like me and Stan and Jack and Stephen and Jay and Don and so on, who do this for a living, let alone all the brewers who have blogs and often think deeply about beer. There are enthusiasts who do that, who know the minutiae of beer, who travel constantly for new beers, who take their beer very damned seriously. Rightly so, for while beer isn't as important as world peace or economic recovery, it's certainly as worthy of one's time as watching sports or following bands.
I don't think they should be branded as "geeks" because of that. I know some of these people, and they are intelligent, personable, warm and friendly, good friends. But there is a class of these people -- most of you reading this blog belong to it -- and I often find myself looking for a label for that group, so I can refer to them briefly as a group. I don't want it to be too general -- "beer drinkers" -- or branded -- "BeerAdvocates" -- or inherently denigrating -- "beer geeks."
We don't have a good term, and that's why we're still using "beer geek." There have been suggestions: beer snob, beer aficionado, beer connoisseur, beer enthusiast, ale conner, beer lover, beer guy. All of them fail on various points: snob is no better than geek, connoisseur and aficionado are considered "hoity-toity" by many (and can be a bitch to spell for some), enthusiast is too dry, ale conner is too arcane, beer lover is too stupid, and beer guy, well, it doesn't do much for the women who like beer, does it?
I'm open to suggestions, although I'm not optimistic. Names thought up by committee rarely work too well. Please, no acronyms. It's got to be something that you wouldn't hesitate to anoint yourself with, something that doesn't denigrate, and something that doesn't need to be explained. Tall order, which is, of course, why we don't already have it. I just hope we're not stuck with "beer geek" the rest of our lives.
I'll throw out the first one: beer fan. It's an Americanism, "fan," originating in baseball, short for "fanatic." It's mellowed a bit over the years, to the point where a fanatic is referred to as "a true fan." Science fiction has fandom, the truly devoted, there are music fans, fans of television shows. What do you think?