I'm going to tell you about the Erie weekend (the pictures are too good to waste, and it was great to see this fest succeed so well in what is essentially virgin territory), but while I'm working on that, I wanted to take a break and talk about something that happened Saturday night, post-fest. It was about 11:00, and Woody Chandler and I had wound up back at the BrewErie brewpub, drinking porter and looking for Paul Koehler. Paul used to be the brewer at Pearl Street, in Buffalo; now he's working for Flying Bison, and looking like it agrees with him. I wanted to have a couple bourbons with him in honor of old times.
While we were working on our pints and looking for Paul, a guy came over and started talking to me; he'd recognized me and wanted to talk beer. Okay, I can do that, no problem. We talked beer, and we soon came around to finding that he was a homebrewer. From there it developed that he was a homebrewer with ambitions; he'd reached that point where he'd started thinking about going pro because he had what he thought were some good recipes. Well, okay, that's cool, that's how things get started. But then we started talking about the recipes: hops, hops, and more hops, 7%, 9%, 12%.
"What about a beer people can drink more than one or two of?" I asked him. "You might need to brew one of those."
He paused, looked thoughtful, and brushed it aside. "People drink anything they're told to," he said (or something like that; I was tired, we were drinking, it was late). "They just drink those weak beers because of marketing."
"Weak?!" I said. "5%'s not weak, and that porter I'm drinking is probably less than that. It sure isn't bland!"
Well, okay, he allows, but it's nowhere near hoppy enough. Hops do not equal flavor, I tried to explain to him, there are other components to beer flavor, and people like those other components. You can't get by as an all strong, hoppy beer brewery. (Paul had showed up by this time, and we were drinking Wild Turkey 101 and more porter.)
Mr. BigBeer of course brought up Dogfish Head, Three Floyds, and so on. I pointed out that all of them had struggled for years before getting their big beer agenda together, and they were all now pretty well established; someone starting from scratch might want to think about the local market.
"Well, I suppose that with enough marketing people would buy a 5% beer just to drink," he says.
"You're not getting this, are you?" I finally told him right to his face. "People don't buy 5% beers because they've been hypnotized by commercials. They buy them because they like the way they taste, and because they want to be able to drink more than one or two. They drink them because they want to have a beer that isn't going to sand-blast their palate. This isn't about marketing."
His wife eventually took him home; a friendly parting, really, he was a nice enough guy except for his session beer blindspot. But that blindspot continued to bug me, to the point of having to blog (and you know how I hate that).
Where does this attitude -- that people who don't like hoppy beers or big beers are stupid sheep who only think they like the beers they like -- continue to come from? Every time I ask that question, I'm assured that nobody really thinks that anymore, that we all get it, that Imus isn't really a racist... Yet every time we have a few after a fest, someone starts talking trash about "fizzy yellow beer drinkers" and how real beer drinkers begin at 6% and 50 IBU.
I'm not going to argue for session beers, or lambics, or malt-bombs. That's not the point, and besides, I've already done it. I want to argue against this pernicious and simple-minded "bigger is better" attitude among the geekerie.
Beer is nearly unique among alcohol beverages in that lower alcohol styles are still taken seriously -- at least by some experienced tasters. Lower alcohol spirits and wines are generally not well-regarded by critics, but most serious beer tasters will doff their caps to a good lambic or bitter. We should celebrate this. Beer is a drink you can tear into without getting swiftly whacked, a drink of moderation. Celebrate. Beer has a very broad sensory palate, not limited to one type of flavor. Celebrate. Beer is diverse, it has variety, this is what the whole microbrewery revolution is about.
People do not drink porter because it has been marketed to them. No one who makes porter has the money or the inclination to mount a huge marketing campaign to sell people on drinking porter. People drink it because they like it.
Hey, who knows: maybe some of the people who drink Bud do so because they like it! Maybe even Miller Lite!
Radical thoughts. Sorry, it's late. I know it's an article of faith among the cognoscenti that if people would just taste craft beer with an open mind, they'd all be drinking it. Nope. Not really. And there are millions of folks who drink 5% and lower beers all the time who love them: stout, helles, kölsch, pilsner. They're not all stupid sheep, and it's insulting to think of them that way.
Variety. That's what it's all about, and it runs both ways.