Friday, March 28, 2014

The Celebrity of Beer

Fred McMurray for Blatz.
Now, he was a beer celebrity.
This past Saturday I was lucky enough to get invited to the Craft New York beer fest in Albany, by Ethan Cox, from Community Beerworks. It was fun. I had some great beer, some really fantastic food, and I got the chance to meet some new folks for the first time. In fact, Ethan myself and Matt Whalen from Hamilton New York's Good Nature Brewing had pretty fantastic conversation about farm breweries and the New York Brewer's Association (the organizer of the event) role in helping to move that initiative along. All in all it was a great evening

But I was struck by something I overheard.

A rather well known, local beer blogger was asked by someone what he was doing after the festival to which he responded that he was "just gonna hang out with some of the brewers" at the hotel bar. But why would he want to do that? He just spent three hours sampling beer, with the very same people he was going to sit at the bar with. Granted some of those brewers may have been friends—friends, perhaps he hadn't seen in a while. I suppose that they may have been to busy during the festival to really catch up. Maybe, but maybe not.

Now, I want to make this clear, what I'm about to write is in no way, shape, or form an indictment of this fellow. I don't know him and I don't care one way or the other what he wants to do with his time, but observing from a close distance, he seemed a bit like a groupie—a brewer groupie.

I've starred to notice that brewers are being diety-ized deified. I'm not talking about a generalized noting of the accomplishments of say Fritz Maytag or Peter Celis. I'm not even talking about acknowledging the business prowess of Peter Swinburne or Jim Koch. I mean there is a celebrit-zing of brewers. The New York Times, just yesterday, ran an article about the rivalry between Mikkel Bjergso of Mikkeller and his twin brother Jeppe, the founder of Evil Twin. Apparently these two jut can't get along and we're supposed to care. I'm not sure why we're supposed to care, but we are. Isn't that tabloid fodder? Sam Caligone had, and Martin Dickie and James Watt, from Scotland's Brew Dog, have a TV show for fuck's sake! Brewers went from simply being a folks who make beer, to some kind of beer making gurus. But like Frank Zappa said, what kind of guru are you? More importantly, this whole nonsensical adoration has going to some of their heads—and I'm not talking about beer foam.

The food world has been going through this for a while (actually I like Guy Fieri). But be it beer or food, the focus is being shifted away from the product to the producer. When that happens, guess who suffers?

You and me.

Coincidentally, Alan Richman has an article on GQ.com about how a new breed of—as he terms them—"Egotarian" chefs are more interested in making food for their own enjoyment rather than the customer. I've pilfered the articles intro paragraph for my own beery needs. See if it rings true.
Something has gone wrong in our restaurant kitchens breweries lately. Suddenly, a new breed of chefs brewers seem to have decided that they should be cooking brewing beer not for your pleasure but for their own. In this competitive, male-dominated school of cooking brewing, the dishes beers that customers are served may be highly inventive and intelligent, but as Alan Richman notes, too often they are more self-indulgent than inspired. The result? Restaurants Breweries where the only person who needs to be pleased is never you, just the chef brewer.
What did I tell you? Not that far off, right?

20 comments:

  1. I'm not going to ask a celebrity chef "Hey, want to grab a bite to eat" and I'm not going to ask for a brewer's autograph or ask for a picture with them. But grabbing a beer...that is something a regular person who makes beer would do. You are over thinking this.

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  2. Yes you are. Also have you ever worked a beer fest? There isn't really much hanging around, it is work.

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    1. What des working at a beer festival have to do with anything?

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  3. Hutch from Crossroads BrewingMarch 28, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    I'm a brewer and I was at the festival. I might have been one of the guys hanging out after the fest that you're referencing. I think you're correct that there's a little bit of a "cultish" atmosphere that develops around some breweries and some individual beers and that can carry over to the actual brewer. But it starts with a love of the beer the brewer is making. But for the most part (like 99% of the time) brewers are pretty friendly down to earth guys. Most of us work hard, long, dirty hours in small breweries in small towns. And unlike celebrity chefs, none (and I mean none!) of us are getting rich at this. We do it because we are passionate about beer and we want to share that passion with our customers. So a beer festival represents a chance to interact with our customers, as well as to interact with other people in the industry, whether that is other brewers, or beer bloggers, or just fans of great beer. And if the beer blogger you're referencing is the person I think it is, he's a good dude and I enjoy talking to him. I'm looking back to your introductory paragraph about having a great conversation with Matt Whalen of Good Nature (who is a nice guy and a good brewer). You really enjoyed that experience, and I bet Matt did too. That's exactly why we do beer festivals. To enjoy beer and conversation with people who share our passion for beer & the industry. I think the "diety-ification" you mention is only present in a very very small percentage of the industry. Hell, if the real redneck housewives of northern Mississippi can have their own TV show, then I think Sam Calagione can too. At least he's a funny guy! So next time you're at a fest come up and say and let's share a beer. Cheers!

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    1. Point taken Hutch, I don't have a problem with beer festivals, and I agree that's it's a great chance for you get a chance to interact with potential customers. That's part of the brewing business. My point is not about not about carrying on a casual conversation with someone.

      But, you even said that in some cases a "cultish" atmosphere develops around some breweries and beers, and that can carry over to the actual brewer. That's bizarre to me. Garrett Oliver commands thousands of dollars for speaking engagements. I'd never begrudge someone the chance to make money, but why is he worth that money? Quite honestly, all he does is make beer. That's not to belittle brewing, it's just the reality. I realize Oliver, Calgione and Koch are on another level, than say the guy running his one-barrel nano—but there seem to be a trickle-down element happening here too. You said that it starts with a love of the beer the brewer is making, and that may be, but the beer quite often gets overshadowed—especially when a brewery starts to grow in popularity

      People often ask why I don't have an about section on this blog. Why don't I tell people who I am or what I'm all about. My answer is in a nutshell, what difference does that make? Drinkdrank is a beer blog about great beer and other notions.

      Here's the long and short of it, in my opinion—and I'll use Mikkellar and Evil Twin as examples—I've had some pretty good beer—but some clunkers, too—from both of those breweries. Sitting on a barstool, however I've heard more about them hating each other than about the beer itself. That says something to me. Brewers are becoming celebrities, and with that comes a fanboy mentality. I see that as being great for brewing, but maybe not so good for beer.

      BTW, Matt seems to be a pretty great guy—and I'm sure you are too!

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  4. Amusing as the idea of "diety-izing" brewers is, I really don't want to drink the resulting Lite ales. (-;

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    1. Bah dum bum! Bryan is in town all week. Try the veal, it's the best in town

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    2. More seriously, it's a great question. I meet brewers fairly often, and I usually really enjoy chatting with them - not least because they tend to be people with a passion, and they usually know stuff I don't or can't know (because I don't spend all my time in brewer circles) but still find really interesting.

      I guess it's part of the modern celebrity culture. It's not enough to respect someone as a fine craftsman, you have to deify them - they are somehow 'more' than us mere mortals.

      I might still take the opportunity to spend another hour or two chatting with them after the festival, though - as long as I didn't get the sense that they were tired and probably wanted to kick back and talk about /anything/ else for a change...

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    3. Deify! That's the word I was looking for!

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  5. I take your point, but I also think that if that article was 150 years old, we'd be lapping up the story of the feuding brewing brothers, wouldn't we?

    Instinctively, I like the article because it doesn't serve the brewers by blindly repeating their PR. Perhaps by turning their story into a drama it does add to their 'glamour', but at least it's not another folksy 'good people drink good beer' yarn.

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    1. But is that to the credit of the writer or the brewer?

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  6. I think everyone has a valid point on this topic. I definitely agree with Craig that certain brewers are becoming rock stars within the industry, like Greg Koch, Sam Calagione, etc. But local brewers, or even everyday brewers who work for big-name breweries aren't necessarily celebrity brewers. I'm not sure who the local blogger you're talking about was (I know it wasn't me since I was up in Lake Placid at the time), but since Sam or Greg or other such celeb brewers were not there, I'm going to venture to guess that whoever Blogger X wanted to hang out with was either friends with or "friendly with" in real life (meaning; friends on facebook/have friends in common/only each other once in a while) . I don't think it was quite a case of beer groupie-ism, but I wouldn't rule it out altogether.

    I've found myself geeking out when celeb brewers have tweeted at me or commented on a video or blog of mine. I'm even "Friends" with some of them on Facebook, but I'm not constantly gushing or kissing their ass or retweeting them.

    I guess a better question would be: what do you consider a beer groupie? Or better yet: what actions must one perform in order to meet the criteria of beer groupie?

    Good blog as always, Craig.

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  7. I don't seek out brewers to chat too all that often but maybe for a few other reasons: (i) I find busy people are best left alone and brewers are busy; (ii) I love the beer not the brewer so I did not get into this to find new pals; (iii) brewers do not always have the context of what they are doing down... by which I mean I know I am interested in beer history and the economics of it all but learned long ago that making the beer does not mean being well versed in the "why" about their beer; (iv) "rock star" brewers are so 2007 and any still holding on to that are likely making dull or overpriced beer.

    For me, the NY Times article only proved my point. These two guys are dull and insular. Their story adds nothing to their beer and often their beer adds nothing to beer. Again, not a negative just a neutral. If they were Red Sox fans or knew how to BBQ pork ribs better I might be interested in them personally. But the beer has to stand on its own if the conversation is just about beer. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. I don't want to end up having to defriend folk who turn out to be poor brewers any more than I need to add friends only because they make the beer I like. But I have a few pals who brew whose time I value because we just happen to get along and both like beer. That's just having a pal.

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  8. I think this all started maybe with Julia Child. :) It is part of a long-term process, hastened by the Internet, where consumers want to know more than just be presented with a product. I am active in a bourbon whiskey discussion group and went for years to Kentucky as part of this. I noticed that initially, most distillers - I mean the people who actually made the product, whom we'd meet at tastings - didn't always like the attention we gave them and the endless questions about their and other people's whiskey. Some weren't comfortable talking about the products' composition, some frankly didn't necessarily know more than their fans did about whiskey in general, or simply were a fish out of water outside company precincts. But there were always some who were natural at PR even though that wasn't their job per se, and the late Booker Noe was a classic example of the smooth down home gentleman: apart from knowing everything there was to know about bourbon, he liked people and being in the limelight. Since his time, most distilleries have spokespeople who are effective in the public eye, and those that didn't have visitor facilities are building them pronto. Well it's like that in the beer world and some of the successful speakers and spokesmen for the craft industry are good at attracting a fan base and obviously many people respond to it. No harm in it from what I can see except one should always keep one's perspective about the beers. I never thought Brooklyn Brewery was that great frankly. I can take or leave a lot of what Dogfish Head produces. I like almost everything Sierra Nevada does though and they certainly are out there meeting the public with various events. I feel the same about Jim Koch and Boston Beer Company, I like most of what they do and would enjoy talking to that guy.

    As long as you keep a sense of perspective, the fan process is at most a distraction but you see it everywhere now, I'm sure famous novelists deal with the fans for instance, the well-known broadcasters, etc. It's become a global village as forecast with great acuity in the late 50's and 1960's by Marshall McLuhan.

    Gary

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  9. A bit I just posted on Jeff Alworth's blog about the Bjergso brothers and the NY Time article.

    "I heard Bob Mondello, the NPR film critic, once talk about the Oscars. He noted that usually, only "important" movies win Oscars. Movies about war, or AIDS or social injustice. The reality is though, as he noted, no movie is important.

    Is the Bjergso brothers story really an interesting story? Or is it "important. To me there's a false sense of importance. Would the Times write a story about two Romanian brothers who hated each other, and yet both ran separate garages—one in Bucharest and one in Queens? Probably not.

    Did the Times really find an amazing story or did they pick up on the wild and wholly trend of craft beer? Regardless, we as craft beer drinkers ate it up. How is that not celebritizing the brewer? And, making brewers celebrities, is a slippery slope—leading to self-indulgent beers that are more about the brewers own "artistic" exploration than making good beer."

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  10. I'm glad you brought this topic up, since I definitely see the phenomenon you're talking about, though I strongly disagree with your interpretation of it.

    First things first, I have to argue with the concept that all that matters is the beer. I'll go ahead and say the AB-InBev is bad for both for the beer industry and for the American economy (they're a mergers and acquisitions company masquerading as a beer maker that destroys jobs and actively fights against healthy competition in the marketplace) but Goose Island, a wholly owned subsidiary of AB-InBev, makes some of the best beer available in the country and at prices no one else can beat. I'm still not going to buy the beer because it's sold by an evil, soulless corporation. That's not to argue who owns the company is more important than the quality of the product, but it is at least as important.

    This leads to your more direct point about how brewers are being celebrated in a way that you think is unhealthy. People care about who makes the things they buy. We can buy things anonymously online or at big-box stores and it's next to impossible for the average consumer to know which companies are run by mom and pop shops trying to make good stuff and which companies are just rebranded crap from huge, uncaring conglomerates. I don't think it's unreasonable to be excited to put faces to the beer that you love, to know there is a human somewhere along the line making good beer. People want to connect with the things that take up all our time and money, and a brewer is a place to do that.

    Lastly, I have to totally disagree with you about beer being made for the enjoyment of brewers. We're seeing an unprecedented growth period in the brewery world which is driven by drinkers finding more and more beer that they like. Consumers have more options, not fewer, and as a result are able to drink more beer that they like. Say what you will about deifying brewers, right now is a golden age of brewing which is being driven by people choosing to drink the beer they enjoy and not by a cult of personality.

    Thanks for starting the conversation,
    Collin
    HenHouse Brewing Company

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  11. I completely agree with Collin here. One of the most enjoyable and unique facets of the brewing industry these days is how directly drinkers and brewers are connecting, which I think will only lead to a healthier market as time goes on. Many people are rejecting the idea of beer as a faceless commodity, and are excited about having a relationship with the people who's products they are passionate about.

    I guess I just don't really understand your concern here and think that you have overstated the issue. If some beer drinkers enjoy talking to brewers at events, how does that have any negative impact? I can assure you that the brewers making self-indulgent beer are doing it regardless of how many "groupies" that they have, and that the dollar vote of the drinker still rules as far as what brewers decide to brew.

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  12. Well, it is one of those "premium" attributes that inflate the good beer experiences and prices. Sure it is fun and flattering for brewers but face to face doesn't make the beer any better it better value for the drinker. So value has to be attached to other aspects of the experience. Whether this story is interesting likely speaks more to how you think you relate to beer or the role you play in the economic chain of events. If you aspire to be important within beer or view others in life as being personally important, this sort of story might be appealing.

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  13. Craig -- a late follow-up: we noticed last night that the Mikkeller/Evil Twin story has made it onto the front pages of both Longreads and Longform -- the first time we've seen a beer-related story do so.

    If you subscribe to the idea that one of the useful functions of beer writing it to raise the profile of beer (and that's a separate debate...) then this has to be considered a success, and that's down to the soap opera.

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