Stop Defending Cheap American Beer

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Seriously, this is getting out of hand. Awhile back it was low-calorie light diet beer that was being defended, which is a cause célèbre about as legitimate as the war on Christmas. So this latest one comes from the Orlando Weekly, and is entitled Don’t hate cheap American beer – love it for what it is.

I get why it’s from Florida, and why it was published yesterday, four days after chaos ensued. Everyone’s in a tizzy because of the near-riot at Hunahpu Day at Cigar City Brewing. But jeez, one incident, and the advice of this reporter is to give up, and go back to drinking flavorless swill? One catastrophe and she’s suggesting beer drinkers run back to their proverbial mommies? What kind of advice is that? It’s bad advice, is what it is, and it seems to lack any real perspective, instead opting for giving up.

To be fair, I wasn’t at the brewery during the “incident,” but I’m sure it was a bad scene. I was at Russian River the last year they served growlers, and ran out of a 2-week supply of Pliny the Younger in 8 hours. I was there at a SF Beer Week opening gala where the space we were renting changed the deal with had with them on the spot, leaving many people stuck in the line to get in, with many paid ticket-holders never making it inside. And I’ve been at plenty of festivals where the keg of that rare beer kicked long before everyone got a chance to sample it. So I have seen the darker side of humanity; crowds turning ugly, on a dime. You can almost sniff the sense of entitlement in the air, the wounded egos, the practiced outrage.

Cigar-City-Hunahpu-2014

From reading over the manic coverage of Hunahpu Day gone wrong (see, for example, All About Beer or the Tampa Bay Times), it’s apparent that Cigar City was caught in a bad situation, much of it not of their making. As far as I can tell, they handled it as best they could. But for most of the people commenting on their own grief, that was nowhere near good enough. I guess they wanted blood, it’s hard to tell. Many seemed to actually take it personally, as if this is the way Cigar City wanted it to go, and they really were picking on people in the crowd. There was certainly no shortage of people telling the world how they would have done it differently. If there’s anything I’ve learned about people on the internet, it’s that they love to complain: live for it, actually. So it was no surprise that many people are unable, or unwilling, to forgive the brewery. But it’s also quite a shame.

I’ve met Joey Redner a couple of times, and we’ve corresponded a few more. He and the folks at Cigar City unquestionably make great beer. They’ve had a big hand in transforming the state of craft beer in Florida. When I used to visit it regularly over fifteen years ago (when BevMo had a few stores in south Florida) it was primarily a beer wasteland. But by all accounts, that’s no longer the case, and Florida today enjoys two beer weeks and nearly nineties breweries.

In a world where fake and half-hearted apologies have become the norm, his seemed entirely genuine and sincere. He honestly appeared as shaken up by the experience as anyone there. He also took responsibility for what happened, a rarity in today’s damage control savvy media world. Redner admitted mistakes were made, even when several of them were out of his control, and he took a number of steps, almost immediately, to try to make the best of a bad situation. For that he should be applauded, but for some it only seemed to anger them more, which I frankly don’t understand. But then there is just no pleasing some people, I suppose. But it sets up an absurd situation in which the brewery can do almost nothing which won’t cause criticism from certain quarters, so all they can do is try their best to move forward, which by all accounts is exactly what they’re doing.

It’s encouraging that there are at least a minority of people online continuing to show their support for Cigar City, and expressing understanding and even sympathy. Hopefully, they’ll be able to move past this.

But let’s get back to Erin Sullivan’s response in the Orlando Weekly, Where she really loses me, is when she lists her “[f]ive good reasons why it’s perfectly acceptable to drink plain old yellow lager” or “five good reasons you shouldn’t feel bad the next time you sheepishly choose a Stella when your friends are insisting you should drink Swamp Ape.” None of them are actually “good” reasons and a few of them are downright wrong. And the overall idea that this is reasonable at all, especially when she characterizes herself as a “craft-beer drinker,” just doesn’t jibe with me. You hear it from time to time, as if drinking beer with flavor is too much work, and sometimes you want to go back to a time when all beer had no flavor. Who develops a taste for filet mignon, but from time to time craves spam? For most people, I’d say, once they develop a taste for more flavorful beers, it’s downright difficult — if not impossible — to go back and enjoy a flavorless macro beer. Flavor is what people crave, so its opposite — no matter how well it’s technically made — can no longer be satisfying, at least in my experience.

Maybe Sullivan intended it all as a sly joke, a tongue-in-cheek jab at the cognoscenti, many of whom are accused of taking themselves, and craft beer, too seriously. But I’m not seeing any clues to that, no hints peppered through her apologist diatribe celebrating a return to flavorless swill. Of course, much like the war on Christmas, “plain old yellow lager” still holds court in America, in fact continues to dominate the market as it has during all of our lifetimes. People do, of course, freely consume tankers full of mass-produced lager, brewed in tanks the size of Montana. And that’s their right. I disagree with their choices, naturally, and I’ve spent much of my life gently encouraging them to trade up, but in the end, we’re all passionate about different things in our lives. I get that.

But there’s no reason to tell anyone that they should settle for that. I think we can finally lay to rest the long-standing notion that this better beer thing is just a fad, as was so often claimed in the media in the early days. And flavorful food, and other drinks, in countless varieties, have caught up to craft beer so that by now, hopefully, most people understand that there are choices to be made about what to put in your body every time you walk into a grocery store, a bar, a restaurant or even open your refrigerator. Nobody believes that Wonder bread is the best bread available, or that Maxwell House makes the best coffee. The same can be said about “plain old yellow lager,” and it seems like it does no one any favors to convince people it’s not really as bad as they thought, that there’s “no shame in drinking plain old American beer,” even setting aside the argument that a lot of it is brewed by companies who are not, strictly speaking, American (even though they do employ Americans working at breweries located on American soil).

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So let’s look at why Sullivan believes that it’s “perfectly acceptable to drink plain old yellow lager.”

1. “Macrobrewed beer is usually cheap.” This is a terrible reason to base your beer choices on. But you hear it all the time. Are there really people who buy the cheapest possible item no matter what it is? Wonder bread is cheaper than a freshly-baked artisan loaf. Kraft singles are cheaper than Maytag Blue. Two Buck Chuck is cheaper than Chateau Margaux. So what? Who wants to live that way? When you shop by price, you’re commodifying the product, essentially saying it’s all the same. It’s not. Beer has certainly been treated that way in the past, when indeed it was mostly all the same. It was that very situation that led to what was then referred to as the “microbrewery revolution.” It was the sameness that people were rebelling against.

I know people have a limited budget to spend on everything they need to live, but there’s living, and then there’s living. Do you want to eat (or drink) to live, or live to eat (or drink)? I know which way I’d vote, and I do so with my wallet everyday. If I can’t afford the (not very much more) expensive beer, then I’m not going to buy the cheaper one with less flavor that I won’t like. Why would I do that? Who would? As the saying goes, “life’s too short to drink cheap beer.” It really is. I’d rather buy an expensive six-pack of something worthwhile than an entire case that “tastes of nothing,” which is how Michael Jackson used to describe many macro beers.

2. “At the risk of sounding like that commercial, it’s less filling.” Not necessarily. Most of the macro lagers she’s championing are around 5% a.b.v. These days it’s not too hard to find a more flavorful session beer made by a brewery who, for lack of a better term, is considered a craft brewery. Almost any session beer would likely have more flavor than than the average mass-produced macro and also be less filling, too. Even Guinness is only a shade north of 4%.

3. “You’ll probably drink less of it.” This argument only works in opposite world. Because the whole point of craft beer is already to drink less, but drink better. The idea that you’d buy crappy beer because it was cheaper but then stop drinking it because it didn’t taste good is absurd in the extreme, and incredibly wasteful to boot. It seems like if that were true, #3 would negate #1, too.

4. “It pairs well with yard work and wings.” Bullshit. This is another specious argument you hear all the time about “lawnmower beers.” I did an entire newspaper column last year devoted to lawnmower beers, that is beers with a lighter body, that were also still full-flavored. There’s no need to sacrifice taste for a refreshing beer. There are plenty of craft and import beers that will work. And pairing spicy wings with a watery lager does nothing to cut through the spiciness. There are a million better food pairing choices.

5. “Your in-laws (or parents) are coming over.” Really? Show some backbone. If the old farts in your life don’t like the beer you’re giving them for free, let them bring their own damn beer next time. It’s hard to tell if this is a serious one, or she just ran out of already questionable reasons, and needed to pad it out to five. But either way, issues with one’s own parents shouldn’t translate into advice to the population at large, especially when the advice itself is so bad.

Overall, I’d say that if you’re still drinking flavorless beer, it’s going to be hard to convince you at this point. I have a brother-in-law who steadfastly refuses to drink anything with flavor, much to my personal, and professional, shame. I just can’t get through to him, no matter what I try. Sometimes I wonder if he’s so stubborn just because he knows how much it bugs me. But it also shows that the passion that I feel for better beer, along with plenty of others, is not universal. He just doesn’t care that much about his beer. He also wears the ugliest, most garishly colored running shoes, too, so there’s no accounting for taste. Me, I prefer a less stare-inducing pair of plain, comfortable shoes, something like converse all-stars or Adidas tennis sneakers, in black or white.

And that, I think, is what it comes down to, just how much you, or anyone, really cares about beer, or anything. There’s only so much time to think about what to eat, to drink, to wear, what to watch, where to go, what to do, and on and on, and on. Life is a never-ending series of choices. There just isn’t enough time to consider each one with equal weight. So with some decisions we take the easiest path; eat at McDonald’s, watch whatever tops the Nielsens, drink Coke, or Budweiser. Others are more personal, and for whatever complicated reasons deep in our psyche, matter more to us. Mine are numerous, quirky, and even I don’t understand all of them sometimes. But that’s just me, just as you’re just you. Fortune cookie wisdom aside, it really is just how we’re built. I’m passionate about the beer I drink, and I suspect if you’ve read all the way through to here, you are too.

But if you’re one of those people who prefers “plain old yellow lager,” go for it. I may not like it, but I understand it, to some extent. Really, I don’t; but I understand the mechanism that leads to that decision. But having found one of my passions in beer, what I can’t understand, or abide, is trying to talk somebody out of drinking better beer, taking a step backwards, so to speak. Cheap American Beer is still the best-selling kind there is, and nobody really needs to keep defending it. So I’ll keep saying don’t. Make a better choice for yourself. Drink beer with flavor. You’ll be much happier you did.

Comments

  1. Tom Brush says

    Seriously? Serving people the beer THEY LIKE lacks “backbone”? That makes no sense. Being a good host means making people feel comfortable–NOT challenging their tastes to suit your whims.

    You can buy a six-pack of each when you have company. You drink what’s your choice, they theirs. Insisting that people drink the beer YOU choose for them is EXACTLY the kind of self-righteous know-it-all attitude that makes us all look bad in the eyes of the muggles.

    • says

      Guests, maybe. I think you’re right up to a point. But generally speaking, if you have people over to your house, would you think “what kind of beer do I need to buy for them, or food, or what have you?” No, you just have what’s in your house, and you offer them what you have, don’t you? I do. But parents aren’t really your “guests,” they’re relatives. I’m sure some people might go out of their way to please their parents on a visit, but mine died when I was young so I never had that experience. But with other relatives, I’ve always offered whatever I had. I’ve had relatives bring their own beer, knowing I’d only have beer with flavor. If they didn’t drink it all, then bottles of MGD would still be there the next time they came over, months later. But beyond any dietary restrictions (allergies, being vegan) or whatever I might need to cook a specific dinner, I don’t think I’ve ever shopped for a guest coming over.

      Your logic also works in reverse. What guest believes every house they visit has to stock whatever beer they want? Isn’t that somewhat self-righteous, too?

      I have to say, I love your calling the people who don’t drink craft beer muggles. That’s genius. I’ve usually called them “civilians;” but muggles, that’s inspired.

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