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Snob or Connoisseur? It’s a Matter of Taste

11/30/-1

Snob or Connoisseur? It’s a Matter of Taste

by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 6, No.4)

Learning to appreciate beer is not a “booring” experience.

One day as I was tending the towering hop vines in my backyard, a neighbor stopped by to ask me a question. “Are those hops?” he inquired. When I answered Yes, he asked if I “made beer” from them. Well, not exactly, I replied. I told him that I used the hops to add aroma and bitterness to my beer, to improve its taste.

“Taste?” he said. “Who cares what beer tastes like?”

If you are reading this magazine, you have probably had similar conversations with other typical beer drinkers, whose monolithic attitude seems to dominate North American society. Joe Camel may have had his last gasp, but in spite of the presence of hundreds of microbreweries and brewpubs across the country Joe Six Pack is still very much alive and well. For him (or her), beer is less a beverage to be appreciated than a means to an end — namely, getting drunk. Beer is the (anti-) social lubricant, the essential element of parties, sports events, and weekend binges. It is evaluated for its effect, not its taste, like music for its loudness or a car for its speed. Beer is escape, indulgence, anarchy in a bottle. It is an acceptable way to let go, to get crazy.

For these individuals, any attempt to see beer otherwise is pretentious and snobbish. For such people, “beer is not wine,” an industry executive told me recently. “It is not a gourmet product.” His experience of trying to package his beers as works of brewing art has been a complete failure in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, unenlightened mainstream consumer attitudes are shared by more than beer consumers. In a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, that oracle of American business, reporter Nancy Keates quotes a beer retailer who accuses “beer snobs” of taking the “fun” out of beer by finding something wrong with a person who drinks “beer without flavor.” What a threat to our society’s values! In the face of such perceived danger, Miller Brewing Company has been running its recent “It’s time to return to macrobrew” ads (while at the same time, of course, owning and promoting Leinenkugel’s and Celis, two of the top specialty breweries). Dumb down, America. Let’s bring back the good old days when the only real difference between beer brands was the label on the bottle. Drink beer. Get stupid.

As if criticizing the beer drinkers who amount to less than 5% of the American crowd weren’t enough, Keates interviews a few bigoted wine experts for their opinions on beer. She quotes a New York wine writer who is shocked that a Philadelphia brewpub waitress tells him he has chosen the wrong beer for his meal. What effrontery for someone to give him advice on what to drink! The writer also finds a wine shop owner who sniffs that “wine is closer to nature — beer is a two-note samba.” Keates’ concluding insight: “Many serious wine drinkers think ‘beer connoisseur’ is an oxymoron.”

“Responsible journalist” might better qualify for the oxymoron department. With dozens of beer styles worldwide, from Altbier to Weizenbock, the “two notes” of beer sound more like a symphony to me. To suggest that beer is inferior to wine is absurd; both are beverages of considerable variation and complexity.

My Webster’s dictionary defines snob as “one who believes himself to be an expert in a given field and is condescending toward those who have different opinions or have different tastes.” That sounds like it could well include a few “serious wine drinkers.”

But what exactly is a connoisseur, this term so “inappropriately” linked to beer? Again, according to Webster’s, a connoisseur is “a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgment in an art … or in matters of taste” (there’s that offensive word again!).

With the great range of beers now made and the widely varied brewing techniques used in achieving them, it seems to me that being a real beer connoisseur ought to be the goal of everyone who loves beer. True knowledge and experience in the art and science of beer does not lead to snobbism. Aren’t the real snobs the people who actually know very little, cling to their ignorance, and disparage every other opinion — in other words, aren’t these the very mainstream drinkers with whom Keates appears to sympathize?

So who cares what beer tastes like? I do. Taste is the reason I study it, brew it, drink it, and write about it. I hope this is why you read about it. For me, being concerned with what beer tastes like does not take the fun out of drinking at all — in fact, it makes the experience even more enjoyable. Those who would call this philosophy “snobbism” ought to heed the timeless advice of English poet Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

—Essay on Criticism, part II, line 15

Maybe the beer world could use a few more oxymorons — and fewer just plain morons — these days.

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