Beer connoisseurship is hip. Over the last decade, microbreweries have enjoyed a second renaissance, fostering an entire generation of beer snobs. This also generated a reactionary movement of people who reject the finery of expensive, obscure breweries, and are instead snobby about the fact that they drink PBR or something. Suddenly, everyone is caring about what beer (and what kind of beer) they’re drinking, even if it isn’t that good. Anything this trendy tends to trigger my poseurphobia, but what’s worse is that beer connoisseurship is particularly trendy among college-educated twenty-somethings; if I’m picky about beer, I wouldn’t just be jumping on the bandwagon, I’d be conforming to a stereotype. That particular mix of conditions is usually enough to make me entirely reject any trend (see Facebook), but I’m actually pretty snobby about beer. I hate to assume that my reasons for beer connoisseurship are different from everyone else’s, but then again, I’d also hate to assume they’re the same, too.
I think I’ve always tended towards snobbishness mostly because of a well-developed, albeit tame, hedonist streak. I was interested in maximizing my enjoyment of whatever I was doing, which as a kid meant developing a sensitive palate for candy and dirty jokes. I could then start to develop elaborate theories as to what will bring me the most pleasure, including a pretty in-depth schematic of the order in which one should eat Halloween candy (eating something fruity immediately before a kit-kat highlights the vanilla notes of the wafers; if no fruity candy is available, something with nuts is an acceptable substitute). This snack-time sommelier attitude served me well through high-school, where I could come up with the perfect soda-and-salty-snack pairings. I imagine I picked up a lot of this snobbery from my father, who is a certified wine sommelier, and has always cultivated a refined taste when it comes to food.
Around the time I was graduating from High-School, my father changed careers, landing a job as a salesman for a wine distributor in southeast Michigan. This meant there was suddenly much more wine in the house, so my mom’s usual nightly cocktail of rum in coke became a nightly glass of chardonnay. I found something about this deeply objectionable. I don’t know if I was embarrassed about the sudden wealth of wine, or the idea of a nightly glass of wine (which at the time struck me as sickeningly lush), or even just that I was stubbornly proud of my ignorance of such an acquired taste, but I wanted nothing to do with the world of wine, and by extension, the world of drinking.
I arrived at college a strict teetotaler, the type that judges you for drinking and is generally no fun to be around. Needless to say, my social life suffered. I only held out to the winter of that year, when I was handed a beer by an upperclassmen I particularly admired and thought “why not?” Like any virginally inebriated musician, I parlayed my buzz into a jam session, replete with all the required noodling in the blues scale. I enjoyed the experience, but didn’t make a point of seeking it out again. From time to time, I would be offered a beer at some gathering or another, which I was generally inclined to accept, but I never went out with the motive to drink. That summer, I returned home to a particularly soul-crushing office job, and started stealing beers from my parents so I could drink them while I watched tv by myself. I was suddenly the lush, going from a quasi-reluctant social drinker to someone drinking alone just to feel something. Yikes. It was at this point that I decided I needed to become more discerning about how much I was drinking. The most logical way for me to limit my drinking was to limit what I was drinking; I was only going to drink the good shit, meaning I would turn down the vast majority of drinks offered to me.
Now, “the good shit” isn’t actually that good when you’re in college. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but to me, the opposite of shitty light beer was the darkest, heaviest beer I could find. I became a stout and porter fiend, developing a taste for creamy, chocolaty, coffee-y beers. These were flavors I was already familiar with, so it was easy to like them. I was willing to settle for other beers, as long as they didn’t come in a can, but given the option, I would always go for the darker beer.
Early in my Sophomore year of college, I broke up with my girlfriend of almost three years. I’m not sure if this triggered or was a part of the self-destructive binge that followed, but that drink-the-pain-away attitude came back with a vengeance. I drank prodigiously and took girls home from parties, generally becoming the kind of collegian that mothers don’t want their sons to become, but are praised as heroes by their peers. Any fun that I had during that time was colored by equally un-fun embarrassments. I continued my downward spiral straight through to the start of my Junior year, when I decided I needed to shake myself out of this tailspin. I recommitted myself to teetotalism, and swore off women. Neither of these commitments lasted more than a couple months, but I think that landed me back at a more healthy middle-ground than either extreme.
Meanwhile, my palate was growing weary of the richness of the dark beers I had favored up until that point. However, I still lacked the sensitivity to find most other beers anything besides bland. The exception, of course, were IPAs. The arcing sourness and baroque floweriness of an IPA is certainly an acquired taste, but its also decidedly not bland, so I decided to cultivate a taste for them. It doesn’t hurt that they have a uniformly high alcohol content (this isn’t my drunkard tendency poking through, but my stinginess — as much as I like keeping pace with my friends, why pay for three drinks when you can nurse two to the same effect? Actually, it’s important to note that I now have to pay for my own drinks. At college parties, I was more or less limited only by my stomach capacity. Now I’m limited by my wallet, which is a pretty effective method for preventing over-drinking.) Unfortunately for me, IPAs seem to be the trendiest type of beer to have a taste for. There are probably many reasons for this, but I imagine the most important is that they’re kind of hard to like. The fact that it’s an acquired taste excludes people, which is kind of the point of being snobby about something.
It’s the snobbishness that really irritates me, that makes me wish I wasn’t associated with it. Unfortunately, once you acquire a taste, it’s difficult to go back; I don’t think I can kick my snobbery. My solution is to just keep pushing myself until I’m snobby about everything. Bear with me: people like IPAs because their strong flavors are difficult to appreciate, but beers with subtler flavors are even harder to appreciate. If I can challenge myself to find what I like in all beers (the same way I do with music), I’ll cease to be snobby at all; my pretension will simply swallow itself whole.