Beer Culture: Insularity or Cosmopolitanism?

Beer scribes Jeff Alworth and Stan Hieronymous set out thoughts recently concerning insularity in a beer culture. You may read them here and here, while Jeff expanded on his views in a Twitter thread today.

As I read them, Jeff argued for and was addressing those who seek maximum knowledge, in part to avoid an undue spirit of “triumphalism”. Stan was more qualified, questioning whether the current beer culture is more limited in ken than the past, and pointing out that to dive deep is not easy, one must be prepared to struggle with hard questions.

I’ll express some reaction, and then how I see my own place in this.  I’d say most consumers have little interest in gaining real knowledge. They may seek a little at the outset, and then settle in for the duration. This is true in my experience even of many devoted beer fans.  Even highly influential critics such as Michael Jackson were read by comparatively few people. Enough to confer high status on them in their field, but relatively few people that I’ve met in the consumer beer field delved deep into beer writing.

More perhaps saw a Jackson travel video, or read a magazine or two, but not that many, in absolute terms.

I think this is true around the world in most countries.

The situation is better at wholesale and retail levels. Yet even there people often know relatively little. Last summer when in France I recall visiting a beer shop with a pretty good beer selection in Paris. A clerk sold me a bottle of German Helles lager and said the product was wheat-based. This is highly unlikely, even for a beer shipped to France. Maybe the brewer made wheat beer as well and the clerk misunderstood something he was told in that regard.

This happens to me all the time, in many countries, and I just ignore it now. (Another example, from a bartender: “Guinness stout is very filling, a ‘meal’. If I want a meal I eat food”). I never try to correct, I just accept a reality and decide for myself what to buy and on what basis.

At producer level, of course brewers are often knowledgeable about their own and sometimes others’ beer traditions. But it can vary. In the pre-craft era, North American brewers probably knew (I generalize again) relatively little about foreign beer styles and ways to brew. Today, among all brewers, at large breweries too, the situation is much less insular. I know this by having chatted with many brewers from these ranks over the years.

Then too, such persons know things (about technology including sanitation, the market, the inputs used) that even knowledgeable beer critics don’t know. It’s a two-way street.

Now, insularity can be a good thing, even “triumphalism”. German confidence in the pure malt tradition, while at times overbearing, helped sustain German beer quality and international recognition of same for hundreds of years.

If early craft brewers on the West Coast knew how the British viewed American hops for flavouring and aroma in the 1800s, we might not have American Pale Ale and IPA today, but rather pallid copies of bitter and strong ale.

Hence, “too much” knowledge can stifle innovation and result in the second class and even sterile.

So, where does this leave us? Decide for yourself how far you want to go. I’m with Jeff on wanting to know as much as time and my intellect will allow. I won’t be falsely modest. I’ve learned a lot. But there is a universe more I’d still like to know. I’m with Stan that it can be hard work – there is no royal road to geometry.

Decide for yourself what you need to know and, finally, enjoy beer in your own way.