A Bulletin reader (thanks Garrett) sent me this article by Ben McFarland from the British trade magazine, the Publican. McFarland is a two-time recipient of the title, “Beer Writer of the Year,” an honor bestowed on him by the British Guild of Beer Writers. If you’re in America you probably haven’t heard of him, because he writes primarily in England and in trade magazines, rather than consumer publications.
I recently invited him and some colleagues to join me in judging Imperial IPAs at the Bistro’s annual Double IPA Festival. He seemed an affable enough chap, though I didn’t get a chance to talk with him at length. He was in America working on a CAMRA book for British tourists wanting to visit our west coast beer scene. So I confess I was more than a little surprised by the tone of this recent article, “Look out for the beer snobs.” I think my first reaction was something along the lines of worry. As in, oh dear, did he recently suffer a blow to the head?
This is a subject somewhat near and dear to me, as I only recently wrote an article on beer geeks for the new Beer Advocate magazine. Since I use words on a daily basis, like any writer, I probably pay more attention to them, their meanings and how they’re used than the more normal person does. As a result, I became fascinated by the uses of the terms “beer geek” and “beer snob.”
The origin of snob, for example:
Originally, a snob was someone who made shoes, a cobbler, before migrating to a person of the lower classes who wants to move up and then on to its present meaning of a person who places too much emphasis on status or “a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to others.”
Occasionally, you hear beer fanatic, beer enthusiast, beer aficionado or hophead, but for me they never seem to quite strike the right chord. Despite my personal feeling that a new term needs coining, geek still appears to be the preferred term. Quoting myself, again:
Most of us prefer to be known simply as beer geeks though, oddly enough, the word geek meant originally a fool and later referred to the lowest rung of circus performer, one who may even have bitten the heads off of live chickens, as popularized in a 1946 novel, “Nightmare Alley,” by William Gresham, about the seedy world of traveling carnivals. In that book, to be a “geek” was to be so down and out that you’d do virtually anything to get by, no matter how distasteful or vile.
Like many old words that were primarily derogatory, its meaning has now been turned on its head. Beginning probably with the original new nerd, the computer geek, it was taken back as a source of pride. So today there are band geeks, computer geeks, science geeks, film geeks, comics geeks, history geeks and Star Wars geeks, to name only a few, all of them proud to call themselves geek, because of the shared passion that is so central to its modern meaning. Today a geek is an obsessive enthusiast, often single-mindedly accomplished, yet with a lingering social awkwardness, at least outside the cocoon of their chosen form of geekdom.
But while there may be some general disagreement about the preferred term to call ourselves, most would agree, I think, that geek is the more gentle term and snob more derisive. At least all my anecdotal research seems to suggest that. I find that I’m most often a beer geek but consider that when I veer into obnoxiousness — oh, yes, it happens more often than I’d like — that I’m acting like a snob. For me, that seems the general distinction though there are certainly times I feel just as proudly snobbish as geeky.
Given that McFarland is by all accounts a good writer, he begins his little screed by admitting that although “beer is undoubtedly a truly wonderful drink there’s really no need to wax quite so lyrical.” “Quite so lyrical?” Quite so lyrical as whom? Who gets to decide how far is too far? Ben McFarland? Are we all to use his gauge of what is gong too far, because he offers no other or more general rules of thumb by which to police ourselves. Is Stephen Beaumont, Fred Eckhardt or Michael Jackson’s writing too flowery, too imbued with nuance or introspection? Do we who take money for our words get a pass for being lyrical or is everyone so cautioned? Or is he simply taking a cue from the Mike Seate playbook of inflammatory journalism where it’s enough to simply be outrageous without really being able to back it up? Where it’s enough to simply wind people up and watch the hit counts soar.
Beer, thankfully, has always lacked wine’s academic airs. Beer is the solace of the everyday chap and, quite frankly, can’t be doing with such excessive introspection. OK, so beer education is important, but there’s never been and still isn’t such a thing as a ‘Master of Beer’. Quite right too — anything that requires holding a pen or scratching a chin is using a hand that could be clutching a pint.
There’s a difference between academic airs and being able to describe how something tastes — no easy feat — by just grunting. He seems to be suggesting that beer writers must stick to unlyrical terms or else he’s saying we should say nothing at all. And that helps who exactly? And as for this “solace of the everyday chap” bullshit, I am sick to death of this insulting argument. Mass-produced beer-like industrial products may indeed be the drink of a large portion of the masses, but that’s not the only thing beer is. Beer is not just one thing. It’s not the same to every person, nor should it be.
He goes on:
That’s not to say that beer is entirely without its pomp and pretentiousness. As beer has climbed the social drinking ladder, so too has the number of self-important beer snobs whose lexicon is becoming increasingly ludicrous.
You know the type: grandiose swirling of the glass; ostentatious inhalations; unnecessarily opaque and absurd verbal acrobatics; haughty guffawing at the word ‘lager’; and patronising dismissal of any beer that isn’t brewed by a 16th century monk with a limp.
We all apparently know the type he’s referring to:
- grandiose swirling of the glass: By all means, let’s not swirl the glass to release aromas. That wouldn’t be cricket apparently, especially not for the everyday chap. Let’s keep those aromas locked inside. Good plan. Or perhaps it’s just the “grandiosity” he objects to. If so, I’ll have to watch my swirling arm very carefully for fear of descending into the realm of a circus freak. I wonder where the point is where swirling becomes “grandiose?”
- ostentatious inhalations: Uh, oh. We’ve got the same problem here. When does smelling the beer become too ostentatious for Ben? I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I risk upsetting his delicate sensibilities of smelling propriety
- unnecessarily opaque and absurd verbal acrobatics: Again, who gets to decide when a description is too dull or unintelligent or when the words turn absurd.
- haughty guffawing at the word ‘lager’: This must be a British thing, because I’ve never heard anyone guffaw haughtily or otherwise.
- patronising dismissal of any beer that isn’t brewed by a 16th century monk with a limp: Sure the limp is important, but I think anyone who’s been dead for five centuries would probably have a limp of some kind. I know McFarland’s merely waxing poetic to make a point, albeit a labored, somewhat unnecessarily opaque one, and therein lies the rub, and the pinch of hypocrisy.
The fact of the matter is, these condescending clowns are, so far as I can tell, incapable of describing what’s in their mouth or on their nose with any degree of accuracy.
Hmm, now that sounds like “a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to others.” Because in order to so definitively know that such people are “incapable of describing what’s in their mouth or on their nose with any degree of accuracy” one would have to be a snob, wouldn’t one?
And that’s why this whole things seems laced with hypocrisy on several fronts. First, most beer writers, McFarland included, simply by virtue of doing so much tasting over time probably do have better palates than the “everyday chap” who sticks to one brand his whole life. So that alone makes him something of a snob already, even without the disdain.
Then there’s the desire to keep beer descriptions simple and without lyrical prose. Clearly, any description of anything can go so far in trying to be clever that its meaning is obfuscated … sorry, becomes unclear. Does that mean we should only use short, simple one-syllable words in our descriptions, only describe a beer by comparing it to another beer, or dumb it down for the “everyday chap” he assumes the reader to be? To me, that seems a huge mistake that takes us back several steps. There should be beginner’s books that use simple terms for the inexperienced but a developed palate demands better, more thorough descriptions that also include the beer’s more subtle complexities. Not all sports writing assumes the reader knows nothing, but is written for different levels of understanding in different contexts. The same is true for business writing in the evening paper versus a business magazine, or even in USA Today versus the Financial Times. The writing is tuned to the presumed sophistication of the average reader. Since McFarland admits that “beer has climbed the social drinking ladder” (a condescending remark if ever there was one) why would anyone think the way beer is talked about or written about would not change, too? That he finds the beer snob’s “lexicon is becoming increasingly ludicrous” is entirely his own problem.
Then let’s not forget the irony of the initial complaint that “[w]hile beer is undoubtedly a truly wonderful drink there’s really no need to wax quite so lyrical” as he proceeds to wax this way and that way throughout the article. Using phrases like “ostentatious inhalations” for sniffing or “unnecessarily opaque” for dull or unintelligent is not waxing lyrical? McFarland may indeed be a terrific writer who uses, ironically, very lyrical prose. I just wish he’d come up with something more constructive to write. I feel like I’m attacking a colleague and it causes me no small amount of pain to do so. So Ben, if you ever do read this, I’m truly sorry but I felt it necessary to write this strong rebuttal. Perhaps I went to far, but as reasonable men may differ, I sincerely believe your words are damaging to the idea that beer is worthy of respect in how it’s enjoyed, perceived and talked about. That it’s discussed at all in print and in the pub is why you and I have a job. I don’t always agree with the way people talk or write about beer, either, but I’m content that they are.
McFarland ends his piece with this final thought.
Sure, beer is just as complex as wine in its aromas and flavours but let’s just shut up and drink it, shall we?
Good idea. You first.