Seth Kugel, a travel writer for the New York Times who writes a regular column entitled “Weekend in New York,” tackles such Big Apple topics as where to take your dog, ice cream and where to picnic in Central Park. His most recent column (sent to me by my friend Maureen. Thanks Maureen.) is called “For Beer Tastes, on Beer Budgets” and aims to steer tourists and locals alike to the cheapest possible beer that can be had in the city that never sleeps. To which I can only ask … why? What is our national obsession with buying the cheapest possible anything and everything?
I’m sure I’ll be in the minority — again — but I think beer is already too inexpensive and should actually cost more. As it is, few small brewers make buckets of cash for their considerable efforts. Many are fine hand-crafted artisanal products that are akin to other gourmet food products people are willing to spend more for, such as cheese, bread or chocolate. Even the big brewers make their money on volume, not individual margins. Their markup is really quite low when compared with many other types of goods. Even as the cost of ingredients, transportation and marketing continue to rise, the big guys engage in price wars with one another making the cost of a beer artificially low. Most people think this is a good thing because we’ve been conditioned to believe cheaper is somehow better. That whatever is least expensive is inherently most desirable. Wal-Mart has become the biggest retailer in the world by pandering to this cheapskate ethos. People may say they want quality, good customer service and selection but they’re generally full of shit. When they open their wallets, they want to pay as little as possible.
Some of that is understandable, of course. Few of us are as rich as Croesus with virtually unlimited amounts of money to spend, so making choices about what and how much of your money to spend is inevitably necessary. But that doesn’t mean finding the cheapest price should be our mantra. Being cheap shouldn’t be a philosophy or way of life the way it seems to have become. Naturally, the propagandists have been selling conspicuous consumption for close to a century now and most of us have internalized the drive for buying more and more stuff. Couple that with real wages dropping for decades and the only way to keep up with the Joneses is to spend less and less for the same useless crap. We live in a society dominated by business, whose interests have been sold to our politicians. It’s so bad that when terrorists attack us our leaders tell us to “go shopping.”
Kugel likens finding a “cheap beer” to big game hunting, “like trying to find a cheetah on the African savanna.” He adds, “[s]ure, $7 pints dot the landscape like plump antelope, but the rare sub-$3 brew lurks in the underbrush like the fleetest footed of the big cats, hard to bring down without the help of a skilled guide savvy in sniffing out tell-tale footprints or happy-hour specials.” He finds 50-cent Budweiser on the Upper West Side in a bar where “bras hang from above the bar and snapshots of women who had apparently until recently been wearing those bras are posted on the wall.” Then there’s $7 pitchers of beer at the aptly named “Cheap Shots.” Kugel tells us of finding $2 cans of PBR, $5.75 quarts of light beer, and $2 Yuengling drafts. One place in Brooklyn features “’Crap-o-copia,’ a bucket of ice jammed with six cans of whatever the beer-loving cat dragged in for $12. On a recent visit, that included American classics like Stroh’s, Schmidt’s, Genesee Cream Ale and Miller High Life.”
But what he fails to mention or justify throughout his article is just what is the point of the hunt? Why must we find the Cheetah? If Cheetah tastes like Bud, PBR or Coors — the tastes-like-chicken sameness of the beer jungle — then who cares how cheap it is. I wouldn’t drink it if it were free. I want my beer to taste of something, to actually have flavor and I’m willing to pay for Antelope, though I’m confident he could have found discount Antelope — say a $5 pint of something worthwhile. But Kugel seems to take the position that it’s more important for it to be cheap, that it simply doesn’t matter which big game you find because they’re all the same. It’s hard for me to believe that a travel writer has never noticed that all beer is not the same. After all, travel writers are paid to experience new people, places, and things. How is it possible one could remain completely ignorant of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage to the point where price is the only way to differentiate between them?
The two-buck Chuck phenomenon aside, can you imagine stories in the New York Times about finding the cheapest wine or whisky when you’re out on the town? I can’t, and it seems to me this is just another of the countless insults beer endures. Why is beer the Rodney Dangerfield of alcoholic beverages? Why is it so acceptable for the media to take cheap shots (yes, pun intended) at beer without even realizing how insulting they’re being? It’s a bit like telling Polish jokes at a Pulaski Club or fat jokes at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting without even realizing your poor taste. It’s that bone-chilling ignorance that really gets me going. When I lived in North Carolina several decades ago, you’d still hear older white people address black men casually as “boy” without the slightest inkling that they were doing anything wrong, insensitive or insulting. That may be an extreme example, but that’s what these constant attacks on beer feel like to me. I don’t think Seth Kugel, or indeed most of the rest of the beer-ignorant press, sets out maliciously to insult beer. They simply don’t know any better. And that may be the saddest fact of all. It might be downright funny if it weren’t for the fact that people read the Times as America’s “paper of record” and believe what is written in its pages. So while I believe the entire media has a duty to try to be accurate, the Times has an even higher standard to uphold. Yet in the one subject I know at least a little about, they very often fail miserably to show even a passing familiarity with beer (with Eric Asimov being a notable exception).
Beer has been struggling mightily for over 25 years to gain some respect. Given the strides made by the craft beer industry in that time it certainly deserves its place among the other fine gourmet beverages of the world. Once the laughingstock of the world, American beer today is known throughout the world to be of the finest quality. There are now more different beer styles brewed in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. That’s an unbelievable swing in a little over two short decades. It’s a shame that something like 95% of all Americans didn’t get the news. Here, thanks in part to our mainstream media, the perception of beer as interchangeable cheap swill for the hoi polloi remains how most people think about beer, including our intrepid Times author. So instead of searching for the cheapest beer, how about trying to find out what the difference is between a $7 antelope and $3 cheetah. It should be obvious, I agree, but so long as the mainstream media remains so beer-blind such ignorant advice like where to find the cheapest beer will continue to pass for real journalism.