category-iconOP-ED

What Happens When Beer Drinkers Don’t Respect the Past?

April 05, 2019

By Aaron Goldfarb, April 05, 2019

The week before the Super Bowl, Samuel Adams released a special one-off beer called Too Old, Too Slow, Still Here. To Boston-area sports fans, the name was a nod to the New England Patriots’ 41-year-old star quarterback Tom Brady. To craft beer fans, however, it seemed the venerable 35-year-old brewery was inadvertently—as the kids say—owning themselves.

In a Beer Advocate thread announcing the farmhouse IPA’s release, posters used the beer’s evocative name as an excuse to taunt Sam Adams for how stodgy and bland they had become compared to today’s cutting edge upstarts. While Reddit rapscallions merely mocked the brewery, with jabs like: “Sam [Adams] has a place. Like when you go to a steakhouse and your only options are Boston Lager and...Miller, Bud, and Coors.”

What the hell happened to respecting your elders?!

For decades, the entire craft beer community was lavishly devoted to a deep respect for the past. When I got into the hobby in the way early-aughts, pints of pale ale were prefaced with a little prayer to Sam Adams’ Jim Koch and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman for pulling this whole damn country out of the doldrums of the 1970s and 80s flavorless macro dominance.

These men’s origin stories were known to all craft beer drinkers by heart—the same way comic book geeks knew that Superman landed in Kansas from Krypton or Spider-man had once been bitten by a radioactive arachnid. How college dropout bike mechanic Grossman leveraged his work at a homebrew shop into making beer aggressively hoppy for the early-80s, in turn inspiring an entire west coast beer renaissance. How the thrice Harvard-degreed Koch had given up a cushy consulting job to revive his family’s old lager recipe, hand-selling it door-to-door until, through shear force of will, he actually made “flavorful” beer a thing in this country.

People of my age—I’m a year younger than Tom Brady, for what it’s worth—deeply revered the duo, as well as other early craft beer pioneers like Anchor’s Fritz Maytag, Larry Bell of Bell’s, and then later guys like Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head.  But now, all those aforementioned are just seen as old dudes—older than me and Tom Brady—making lame 90s-style beers that don’t hold a candle, in many younger beer drinkers’ opinion, to today’s wait-in-line hazy IPAs.

We’ve reached a point where many craft beer fans are younger than the pioneering breweries that they’re so willing to shit on.”

“Finally tried Pliny the Elder, someone explain this beer to me,” starts a recent thread on Reddit. “I know a good beer when I see it… but after a few years of hearing SO much about this beer and not being able to contain myself when I finally got my hands on a bottle, I felt a little bit disappointed.”

Well of course he wasn’t impressed. He decided to drink a beer that was created two decades ago with no context for why it ever became so ballyhooed in the first place. He drank this beer with seemingly no knowledge that Vinnie Cilurzo, first of Blind Pig Brewing, then of Russian River, literally invented the double IPA. That, in an era when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was still considered “hoppy,” he produced a beer with an almost unthinkable 100 IBUs of bitterness.

Though that flavor profile was initially unpalatable to many back then, eventually this distinctly “West Coast” style of IPA would catch on and become en vogue for most of the early 2000s. Today, however, it has, of course, fallen out of favor because, despite its history, Pliny is now the antithesis of the hazy and juicy (and often 0 IBU) New England IPAs that are de rigueur. To bash Pliny the Elder for how it stacks up to the 2019 A.D. IPA would be like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie and wondering why he isn’t saying anything funny.

Sadly, a lack of appreciation and knowledge of what one is actually drinking has become all too prevalent these days. We’ve reached a point where many craft beer fans are younger than the pioneering breweries that they’re so willing to shit on. In many cases, it seems these fans have no desire to educate themselves on what happened in the industry in the years before they ever cracked their first milkshake IPA.

Pretty much any brewery older than 5 years is susceptible to being “dunked on” by young drinkers online who don’t understand the “hype.” Just look at the countless online comments shitting on Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, the beer that literally created the bourbon barrel-aged category. “Just had a Bourbon County Stout for the first time Pretty awful. Just tastes like melted down chocolate and water,” one reads. “What’s with the hype?”

Or Founders CBS—that whale of a maple syrup stout that essentially built the pastry stout empire. “The beer is good but it’s not worth the hype or the price tag,” another reads. “Why is it hyped up so much?”

Or even a, somewhat, modern beer, The Alchemist Heady Topper—which, in 2012, jump-started this entire juicy-IPAs-in-cans phenomenon that still reigns supreme today. “It was good just not transcendent like it is hyped to be,” according to that guy. I guess the sad truth is, if a beer is iconoclastic enough it inspires enough other copycat beers to eventually render it irrelevant.

You don’t need to like those old breweries. You don’t need to drink their beers. But please, at least respect them and educate yourself how they helped get us to this point.”

I do worry maybe I’ve become the cranky, old guy: Do kids today really need to know the past to enjoy the present when it comes to something as simple as craft beer?

It would be ridiculous for a modern filmmaker to not have studied Hitchcock or Scorsese. How else to understand the wide-angle framing or long tracking shots so ingrained in cinema today?

It would be insane for a modern chef not to understand classic French cooking techniques. How else to build on the necessary basics of sautéing and braising?

But does it really matter if modern beer drinkers think Boston Lager is an airport beer for business traveler dads or that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is too malty? Does it matter if the people that so gleefully build NEIPA can walls on Instagram have never heard of Vinnie Cilurzo? Can’t I simply enjoy my beer that tastes like orange juice and please quit bothering me about bitter hop bombs from 2004, grandpa?

Perhaps a better question is, should the breweries themselves even still be selling beers that are of a style and flavor profile no longer a part of the zeitgeist and, thus, no longer respected? I’ll readily admit that I rarely drink Boston Lager or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or even Heady Topper much any more and I certainly wouldn’t choose those over, say, a new Suarez Family lager.

Still, I lived and drank through a time when finding any bar that even devoted a single tap to a beer like Boston Lager was rare and the mere act of putting stouts in a bourbon barrel was considered avant-garde and breweries were actually having an arms race to see who could make the most bitter (not hazy, not juicy, but bitter) IPA. Understanding these things helps you understand what you are currently drinking.

You don’t need to like those old breweries. You don’t need to drink their beers. But please, at least respect them and educate yourself how they helped get us to this point. Because in a few years, there will be a whole new slew of young craft beer drinkers, making fun of your fruited kettle sours and calling Treehouse lame and thinking that Shaun Hill is an out-of-touch old fart.

And you won’t like that.


Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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