The Great Sam Adams Debate

While big brewers aren’t bad for being successful, and small bars aren’t bad for aiming to be unique, I have no time for blind hipsterism.

If you are a good little craft beer fan, you probably followed the moderate explosion in the craft beer world south of the border yesterday. Let’s call it Jimgate. If not, you can read the article that started it all here: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2015/01/05/jim-koch-sam-adams-beer/

If you’re one of those pesky Millennials everybody over the age of 26 is trying to figure out, and won’t read the article (don’t worry, I know you will) it basically is about Jim Koch being angry that many craft beer bars don’t serve his product any more. The author has some sound-bytes from bar owners who claim that Boston Lager is mediocre (it’s not, though perhaps that judgement reflects the taster more than the beer), and some horrifically gross sounding PR people, who have you Millennials figured out (don’t worry; they don’t).

The article sparked a lot of vitriol (bad) and a lot of conversation (good). Most of the conversation centered around if, indeed, Boston Lager was “good”; if Boston Beer Company and Jim Koch had lost their relevancy; the reasons why different people and bars choose the beers they do (the word hipster was bandied about a lot); etc.

First off, let me quickly say;

  1. Boston Lager is not just good, but great. A beer I would drink every day happily.
  2. Relevancy is a tough thing, and it certainly would seem that BBC has been relegated by the craft beer masses. But I don’t think a brewery should make constant fresh appeal and “relevance” a core business principle, or you’ll never get good at what you do. Latitude 48 IPA is fantastic, and is a wonderful study in German hops. But it’s not sexy, because German hops aren’t sexy (to the average craft beer fan), which is a shame.
  3. There are many reasons why a bar might choose to sell a beer or not, some good, others bad.

It is this last point I want to talk about, even if that means parts of this are going to read like an advertisment (you’ve been warned!).

A lot of you will know I work with Castro’s Lounge in the Beach. We’re a pretty small bar, with a fantastic beer selection. We also have great live music and feature a fully vegetarian menu. I personally think we’re worth the streetcar ride. My main role with Castro’s is in the beer line-up, so I have a particular experience in the hows and whys a bar chooses one beer over another.

  • Unibroue Maudite
  • Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
  • Steam Whistle Pilsner
  • Creemore Springs Lager
  • Mill Street Organic Lager
  • Mill Street Tankhouse Ale
  • Hacker-Pschorr Weissebeir
  • Delirium Tremens
  • Stiegl Radler

Want to guess what that list is? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Okay, it’s the list of full-time draught beers that I’ve been involved with removing from our tap list.  There’s definitely more I’ve forgotten, too.

To quote my 6 year-old “Hubba-wha?!”

None of these products were removed due to quality issues (they are all made by passionate, skilled brewers). None were removed because they were “mediocre” (while things like the Organic, Radler, or Weisse might not be to your taste, that doesn’t make them bad). None of them were on draught by accident. We had chosen them all ourselves.

So why did they get the craft beer gong?

For the most part, commonality.

And while I’m a slouchy toque and plaid shirt wearing, beard and curly mustachioed, beeswax candle burning, coffee roasting, home brewing, vinyl listening, hipster, I’m not talking about the sin of popularity, which seems to be the focus of most people’s debate.

None of these beers became “bad” because they were popular, or produced by breweries that had been small, but have grown, or been bought out. They are all still great beers, some of them are truly world-class examples of their style.

The reason why we decided to remove them, was because you could get them other places within a few kilometres of Castro’s. Some of them are at literally every other bar in our neighbourhood. And that’s good. I like knowing if I end up at a Noun and a Firkin that I can get a Steam Whistle or a Creemore. I like knowing that a company started by a couple of friends has grown to a size that they can afford nice things for themselves, and to take good care of their growing staff.

But as a bar we struggle to remain both unique and successful too. We have two skilled and dedicated cooks, who hand-make the vast majority of our food, and select pre-made things like tortillas and nachos based on taste over price. We have local artists play eclectic styles of music, and DJs who probably couldn’t find the Top 40 list on Google. We foster an environment where everybody feels safe and accepted. Most of the visuals in the bar are historical, or politically relevant.

Life would be so much easier if we just started ordering frozen and bagged things off the Sysco truck that anybody could drop in a deep fryer and throw on a plate. If 5 nights a week we had cover bands bang through endless renditions of Mustang Sally and The Hip’s back-catalogue. If our servers wore less, and shit got crazy on Thursday night ladies-night with $3 rail shots. If we ditched the 60 year old B&W TV in favour of multiple flatscreens showing all the cool sport events. If we got into the pay to play game. Castro’s owners might even have retirement savings one day, in this scheme.

But we haven’t, and we won’t.

If we were located in Boston, chances are, we would have stopped pouring Sam Adams too. We basically did, in choosing not to serve Creemore, or Mill Street. Not because any of them are bad (they’re not). Not because we’re rare=good hipsters (I’m the only hipster there). But because, for a small bar, we can’t afford uniformity, even if it’s good quality uniformity.

I totally understand why Jim Koch — a man who craft brewing owes so much to — gets annoyed when bars claim they don’t serve his beer because it’s not a great product. And I understand why bar owners who struggle to do something unique get annoyed when they get called hipsters, or worse, greedy, for choosing not to serve really good quality beers that are widely available, for really good quality beers that are harder to find in their area.

What I have no time for is the pop-culture self-indulgence that equates new and small to good, and big and successful to bad. In terms of beer, this looks like people who don’t actually know what quality is; who have no attention span for consideration of a product; who are insecure in that position, and so rely on heard mentality to appear “cool”; who don’t realize that most of the herd are in the same boat.

It predates today’s hipsterism by decades, and was in fact essentially predicted by Aldous Huxley. Another great article (that lead to way less social media chatter) I read yesterday was a Salon piece on Neil Postman, and in it they quote him contrasting Orwell and Huxley:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Aldous Huxley facepalm

I feel the same way, Aldous.

 

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