Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Sucking Up A Social Class: Some Further Observations

As Boak and Bailey point out on their blog, there is a lot of debate at present around "craft" beer and snobbery. I was going to post on their blog about why this is, but then realised that it probably warranted a post all of its own.

There are a couple of things going on here. One is the conflation of money and class, a peculiarly American concept. Could it be that the "craft" beer movement, as well as drawing beery inspiration from the USA, has also imported a load of social values along with it? There are a lot of naysayers who object purely on principle to paying £10 for a bottle (or a pint) of beer. I'm not exactly sure why that is - it would be easy to say that it's jealousy, but I think there's something more fundamental going on. I think it's the idea that there is something posh, snobby, pretentious - call it what you want - about spending your money on fancy, rare or expensive beer. Just as I'd defend anyone's right to spend their money on anything that they want (as long as it isn't criminal, in the legally defined sense), I'd also defend anyone's right to express their discomfort about it. But that's just what I think - I'd love to hear your views on that idea.

Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don't. For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that "only" cost below £3 a pint. But I can't find anything, anywhere that says anything like that, BrewDog's publicity machine aside, of course.

Ah, the B-word. Has BrewDog stance on "industrial" beer become so well disseminated that now people are conflating their views with that of the "craft" beer movement as a whole? Or are they closer than "craft" beer lovers would like to think? Or is it really simply about money and snobbery?

39 comments:

  1. You must accept that, while they're not one and the same thing, there is a large overlap between "expensive" and "snobby". Someone of limited means could quite easily pursue their interest in beer by seeking out cask beers from the smaller micro-breweries while still saving money compared with the Carling drinker. But I would suggest they're not going to be buying bottles at £10 a pop from the fridge of North Bar. If you're doing that, you're not necessarily being snobby, but you are being exclusive.

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  2. Only in the UK can we have this conversation about class…

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  3. Becuase we're a mature society that does have a tiered class system. America hasn't really existed long enough to have a full class system, though obviously there are tiers within that country too.

    I think sometimes class is used as an argument for jealousy, as in someone can get something that someone else can't. Though it doesn't help that people who can often do flaunt it, the same being true of craft beer. Beers being brewed in small batches and bottles numbered add to this. Prices being inflated due to scarcity...though if people are willing to pay it, why shouldn't shops/breweries charge it?

    Needs further thought from me.

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  4. I don't think it is much, if anything, to do with class, but it is to some degree at least,to do with snobbery.

    Not at all sure about these two statements though - "Tied into this is the idea that people who buy fancy, rare or expensive beer are doing so because they somehow think they are better than people who don't."

    OK. With it so far. And likely to have some truth in it.

    "For this to be true, there would have to be a substantial amount of blog content denigrating the sort of beers that "only" cost below £3 a pint."

    Oops. Just fell of the horse. This does not follow at all. The thing about the kind of snobbery we are talking about here - alleged snobbery if you like - is that those doing the snobbing would very much like not to be thought of as snobs, while snobbing merrily away. Nobody would like to draw attention to that fact by doing as you suggest. Mind you, they probably don't think it either. I would imagine you can operate on more than one level. That is liking to boast and pay for rare beers while still swooping a few cheap pints in your spare time. One would not overwrite the other.

    I doubt if affordability is that much to do with it either for many, though undoubtedly for some. I could buy the whole bloody chiller unit contents if I chose to. I don't though, though couldn't say exactly why, as I like the exotic from time to time too. I'm just not inclined. I'd rather have a swigging drink in my hand and keep my brass for something less Will o' the wisp.

    I'm probably an inverted snob.

    But hey ho. For those that do want to spend that way, for whatever reason, good luck to them and to those that supply them, no doubt at a handsome profit.

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  5. I find that, especially among the newer UK beer blogs, there's an almost overwhelming tide of *enthusiasm* for rare and expensive beer, but not much in the way of elitism.

    The topic of your other blog, records and record collecting, offers some insight: there are those who collect records in sealed packaging and never play them because they are magpies obsessed with rarity and the theoretical resale value; and there are those who run around saying "Oh my God, you have to hear this Turkish funk 45 I found! It's brilliant!" They're not saying "If you don't have this Turkish funk 45, you're a loser" and, in my experience, are often only too happy to make you a copy of said Turkish funk 45. The world of beer (at least in our experience) is much more like the latter.

    Any hobby can get expensive. Sad fact of life. But you don't have to spend a lot to enjoy your hobby just as much as the next man.

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  6. "Has BrewDog stance on "industrial" beer become so well disseminated that now people are conflating their views with that of the "craft" beer movement as a whole?"

    Sadly, I think that answer to that question is probably Yes, and maybe sometimes that attitude is percived as extending to unfashionable but non "industrial" bitters and milds as well.

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  7. I object to paying a high amount of money for good beer because there are so many craft beers which are as good or better at a lower price. No snobbery at all in being aware that there is a trend to soak beer fans from certain brewers who leverage false scarcity or other forms of alleged rarity. Seasonals are the primary way to pull this off but phoney baloney branding around "inspired by artist X" or "the beer the Aztecs drank" crap are fast catching up. And then there are BrewDog's short run beers of fictional import.

    I pay a lot for good US craft beer. I regularly drop hundreds on sprees that fills the larder to share with friends and drink over time. But time and time again I put the 750 ml bottle back down when it is over, say, $15 to pick up one nearby that is as interesting for less than ten. Right now my two favorite beers are 500 ml cans that cost 2 to 2.50 each, Narragansett Porter and Six Point Bengali Tiger. Price has only an indirect relationship when it comes to US craft beer.

    Too many craft beer fans are not standing up for themselves and acknowledging this. Tandyman will admit, however reluctantly, that I do not understand all aspects of CAMRA but I do think that the lack of a North American version has left the beer buyer to the wolves in "rock star" clothing.

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  8. I think this 'snobbishness' has only come about as a result of too many people turning their noses up at higher priced beer, and when other people go for it they're branded as 'beer snobs' by those who do not choose to purchase the higher end stuff. I love to by the high end stuff but I don't buy it to shove it in people's faces - more often than not, it's to share it with someone else!

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  9. Here in the States there is definitely a moratorium on talking about issues surrounding social and economic class, vis a vis many Americans refuse to believe that class distinctions even exist. That said, there is definitely a distinction between consumers of what we would call "craft beer" and those drinking the "regular" stuff.

    Claims of snobbishness often come from the latter group in response to beer nerds calling their stuff "macro swill" and refusing to drink it under any circumstances, which can definitely lead to a perceived slight towards those macro drinkers. And while there are many craft drinkers who really do see their consumption add a class issue I'm sure, the truth is that the vast majority of craft drinkers (even those who would not call themselves beer geeks) choose their beverage based on consideration of flavor and not class.

    Furthermore, it's actually a relatively small price difference when you think about it. In my market a sixer of BMC runs slightly less than six bucks, and the so called ultra premium brands can get as high as nine. By comparison the larger national craft brands like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams run nine to ten, and the local micros like Bell's and Founders are in the ten to eleven range. Some of the best bottles in the world (like a 750 ml of St Bernardus Abt 12) are well under fifteen dollars. How much would you pay for a comparably good bottle of wine? Craft beer may be a luxury, but it's an affordable one.

    I think we could avoid a lot of three snobbish image we were a little more willing to let people drink what they like and back off a bit on the macro swill talk.

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  10. Here in the States there is definitely a moratorium on talking about issues surrounding social and economic class, vis a vis many Americans refuse to believe that class distinctions even exist. That said, there is definitely a distinction between consumers of what we would call "craft beer" and those drinking the "regular" stuff.

    Claims of snobbishness often come from the latter group in response to beer nerds calling their stuff "macro swill" and refusing to drink it under any circumstances, which can definitely lead to a perceived slight towards those macro drinkers. And while there are many craft drinkers who really do see their consumption add a class issue I'm sure, the truth is that the vast majority of craft drinkers (even those who would not call themselves beer geeks) choose their beverage based on consideration of flavor and not class.

    Furthermore, it's actually a relatively small price difference when you think about it. In my market a sixer of BMC runs slightly less than six bucks, and the so called ultra premium brands can get as high as nine. By comparison the larger national craft brands like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams run nine to ten, and the local micros like Bell's and Founders are in the ten to eleven range. Some of the best bottles in the world (like a 750 ml of St Bernardus Abt 12) are well under fifteen dollars. How much would you pay for a comparably good bottle of wine? Craft beer may be a luxury, but it's an affordable one.

    I think we could avoid a lot of three snobbish image we were a little more willing to let people drink what they like and back off a bit on the macro swill talk.

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  11. I think any snobbishness that exists in beer is to do with the economy of knowledge rather than of cash. Beer snobs flaunt the hard-to-find, the niche styles, the obscure, the 'beer with a story behind it' and so forth, far more than the expensive.

    Not identifying myself as a beer snob, but I was rather embarrassed about spending $26 on a Old Rasputin XII.

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  12. I'm unsure that we've imported any beer snob values from the US. I think what we have imported that is affecting thinking and attitudes is packaged beer. The US market (as evidenced by the comments above) is quite price-sensitive compared to the UK. Scarcity and high ABVs is driving very high prices for some beers which, ironically, US drinkers probably wouldn't pay. I don't accept that drinking them is necessarily elitism per se on the part of the drinker, though...

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  13. Quite the opposite of elitism. There is a sort of disfunctional needy dependency in the nerds' response to the sight of allegedly scarce boozy bottles from self-declared rock star brewers. As with any such relationship, the fact that the substance often disappoints is all part of the sad circle of commitment to the unworthy parter.

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  14. Alan: that whole 'spooge' thing is a disturbing and distracting phenomenon which I loathe with passion. I don't know if 'snobbery' exists in beer drinkers, or whether it's bad for beer, but the locust-like behaviour of the traders and hoarders definitely is...

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  15. Questa el quando esta: "spooge"?

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  16. Maybe I'm cheap, or just poor but £10/$15.50 is expensive for a single consumable—that's far more expensive than gasoline. I love beer, but I just can't afford to drop that kind of scratch on a regular basis. I wouldn't spend it on wine, regularly either. I might for a special treat, but not weekly. Alan's point is valid, there is a great variety of craft beer that is really reasonably priced, and not hoodoo voodoo marketed, either. As good as beer is, it's only as good as someone will pay for it. My pub, the Lionheart, is on the way home from work, but it also has a $3/pint happy hour—and the later is the real reason if frequent it as often as I do. If you can afford $15-30–50–100 beer, great, but I can't and I don't think that makes me less of a beer lover.

    I'm also confused at how money affecting class (and vice versa) is an American concept?

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  17. All I (and I think most people) care about is good beer at good value. Brewers have the right to charge as much as they want for the product of their labour and I don't have to buy them. Brewers have the right to call their beers "craft" or "Winfred", for all I care, if they believe it'll help them sell beer. I can choose to ignore it. All that bollocks will end in the glass, anyway.

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  18. Snobbery, inverted snobbery or just an attitude that says I'll pay for beer that I want to drink and not be swayed by opinions on the latest ultra rare colab strained though Greg's jockstrap then aged in tar barrels in a Himalayan cave.

    Of course I exagerate, except the bit about the jockstrap, and Sid is right about the sad sights at spoogefests where the needy geeks crowd round that single 250ml bottle just to say they were there when a drainpour was shared.

    I'll admit I have more than second thoughts about parting with £10+ for a beer, especially one that has had all that attention because of it's tickerific value and not because of it's quality. All too often rare beers automatically become great beers simply because of their scarcity, and folks aren't willing to say 'that was nigh on undrinkable' after shelling out their hard earned (I presume) money.

    So no, I don't think it has anything to do with a 'class' perspective, for me it's about having a beer to enjoy, and if it means paying £15 for a bottle so be it. But if I don't enjoy it I'll say so, and I'll probably not waste any more on beers from that brewery.

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  19. Curmudgeon, Tandleman - I thought the whole point of snobbery was to be seen to be lording over one's perceived inferiors? There's no point in drinking something unutterably fabulous if no-one can see you doing so - or read about it via the internet. Isn't the whole point about snobbery is that it's in the deed and intention, rather than the perception?

    Bailey - that's an interesting point, and one that I alluded to when I commented on your post on this subject. I think that a lot of times, I'm more interested in "having an experience" than "getting value for money". For some, that idea is just nonsense, but it means something to me.

    Alan - unless I'm very much mistaken, that's inverted snobbery

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  20. Ghostie - that's exactly my point - in the perceived class of beer geekery, there is no top-down snobbery going on, but a lot of bottom-up finger pointing at the perceived snobs.

    Daniel - I agree totally. Macro is just a descriptor of volume, swill is a value judgement.

    Dan - one example I've noted of that is on beer forums where people will post a request for info along the lines of "I'm going to England, and need to know where to score some good sours". Actually, if you're going to England wanting to drink sour beers, you've completely missed the fecking point. How was the $26 Old Rasputin XII? (clue: the answer is not "it's far too expensive to drink"!)

    Sid - "I don't accept that drinking them is necessarily elitism per se on the part of the drinker, though..." - that's what I feel, but then as Mandy-Rice Davies said: "he would say that, wouldn't he"!

    Craig - I may be wrong, but my impression was that the American class system was run largely on income lines, whereas the English one was largely about something more intangible.

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  21. PF - the key word there is "value" something can be expensive, but good value, or cheap and poor value.

    Ian - I'm sure you've seen some sights from the business side of the BSF bar in your time! But I agree, for some beers, I'd happily pay slightly over the odds just to have access to them, while with some others I roll my eyes at having cases of vertical vintages in the cellar.

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  22. As I sort of hinted before, there is a fine dividing line between snobbery and élitism. And a lot of it is not driven by social-climbing affectation, but by a genuine belief that one is being an ambassador for quality in food and drink. Undoubtedly more so with food and wine than with beer. But in a lot of writing on food and drink in general you find an extremely rancorous denigration of working-class people who do not share the writer's refined tastes.

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  23. Old Rasputin XII was rather good. I never have high hopes for barrel-aged fare, but this was excellent. I wouldn't buy another at $26. Too much else out there. I could score three bombers of Southern Tier for that.

    In the US it's all about the "middle class". No-one knows what it is, but politicians use it to refer to anyone who isn't a banker, a terrorist or an illegal immigrant.

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  24. Here's an article about food snobbery in the US which seems to nail it rather precisely.

    When they write "Whereas you’re keen on Granny Smiths, he insists that you haven’t even tasted an apple until you’ve sampled a Newtown Pippin," it is oh so easy to substitute beer names.

    I get the impression the type is just as recognisable in the US as the UK, maybe even more so as there's an added element of "culture wars".

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  25. I reckon you are a subtle nuance away in getting what I'm saying. It is about lording it but it is also about appearing not to be while actually saying "look at my fancy beer". Good or shite, it is about the act not the beer. Ever so subtly of course.

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  26. Curmudgeon - I'd question your claim of "a lot", and while I'm familiar with the sort of pretentious crap that you present as evidence of this appalling class-based schism, I'm not really familiar with it when applied to beer.

    Dan - I might be in the minority, but every now and again spending $26 to decide that something isn't worth it as as worthwhile an experience as being pleasantly surprise by something that's one-tenth the price

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  27. Tandleman - I get where you're coming from, but I'm reminded of the maxim that offence can only really be taken rather than given.

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  28. Not sure it's offensive as such. Just there. And there is, well, there.

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  29. It appears to me that, when buying 'craft beer', many do so in order to construct an identity rather than to simply purchase a product. It is tied into other cultural products - such as food, music, film, fashion - which are consumed predominantly to project an idea of the 'self' on to others, and not because of a genuine interest. I am generalising here of course, and I do acknowledge that many others, such as the author of this blog, do have real interest in, and knowledge of, such things!

    I suppose snobbery/elitism could be at play, though given the ambiguous nature of culture and society in the postmodern world it is difficult to establish whether or not it is a class thing, or if our notions of class are even relevant to the issue.

    With regards to BrewDog, I think that their marketing and business philosophy is symbolic of the emptiness and ambiguity of the emerging culture in postmodern Britain, regardless of what their product actually tastes like. I also feel that their approach is potentially damaging to the brewing traditions of the UK.

    An interesting discussion!

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  30. Craft brewing in North America to a large degree came out of homebrewing, and many homebrewers brewed to save money, not spend it heedlessly. There was nothing specifically elitist about craft brewing here in the sense of social class, and to this day those who favour such beer represent a broad social spectrum. While there has generally been a price gap as compared to industrial beer, often excellent values are available as Alan pointed out. My sense is the gap isn't large enough to deter most people who want to try craft beer from drinking it at least occasionally, in other words.

    I can't speak for the U.K. but I wonder if "craft beer" (i.e., as a category, the new-styled beers which are often served cold and filtered and/or use U.S. hops) is being looked at differently than here. Its whole emergence seems different to here since it came in initially as an import and now is being made locally by some breweries in the U.S. style. So it has a different image and origin as compared to here. The irony as some commenters have perceived is the new sensation may not improve on the existing tradition (i.e., cask ale made mainly from English barley and hops), but that is another story!

    Recently, I have seen a phenomenon in parts of the U.S. of fairly or very expensive bottles of beer, usually imports from Italy or Northern Europe, but in some cases it's limited issue or other rare beers from U.S. craft brewers. There is a market for these but it will always be quite limited in my opinion. I think one thing most beer drinkers agree on is that beer generally should not become too costly.

    Gary

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  31. I would say there is plenty of snobbery in the craft beer world, but I don't think it has anything to do with socioeconomic class.

    I think there are just some people who once they become knowledgable about a subject, or at least they think that they are, they tend to denegrate anyone with a perceived noob opinion on it. I don't have any real examples, but I have heard a lot of people rip on someone for either drinking a macro, or a macro-produced "craft" beer such as blue moon.

    I'm all for promoting good beer, but there are those who forget that the whole point of the game is to find something that you enjoy.

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  32. Prof - what if what people enjoy is trying the newest, rarest beers and looking down their noses at people. Where does that leave us?!

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  33. Each must be allowed to like what he or she likes, certainly. I know what I like, but I am hesitant to knock others for what they like, because, i) taste is relative and (I believe) culturally driven to a large degree. E.g., guys loved mass-market adjunct lager in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970's and now a good chunk of them love very characterful, often all-malt, craft beers. Their taste has changed with the times, I suspect, or in most cases, i.e., some certainly acquire new tastes via reflection and study, but not that many I think; ii) a lot of craft beer still is not made perfectly, some of it gets oxidized too soon, is too flat, too yeasty, too acetic, whatever. The big breweries at least offer consistency and technical stability, no small advantage since no matter how good a beer is, many will be put off by wet cardboard oxidation, or a heavy yeast bite, say; and iii) there is a time and place for many kinds of beer enjoyment. Some occasions call for a beer that is not highly assertive in taste, although I agree it should be made as good as one can make it at the level it seeks to serve. A well-made, tasty light beer IMO is Amstel Light. It has its own distinctive flavour and is better IMO than many beers or beer styles which are part of the current craft scene.

    It's a big world out there, beer is an old drink, it's been made different ways at different times. Slack should be cut to those of different tastes, including mainstream tastes.

    Gary

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