Saturday 8 January 2011

Elitism in Beer

So here's a question with which to start this years blogging. Setting aside any debates about keg vs. cask, or what constitutes 'craft' beer, or whether Tim Webb has a point when he suggests that CAMRA have achived their goals and should cast their net wider, what constitutes elitism in beer?

I've been mulling this one over since our work Christmas party, covered fairly thoroughly here by m'colleague Ghost Drinker, who very dilligently recorded what we drank over the course of a few hours in The Grove Inn, Huddersfield. If you don't know The Grove, I think it's fair to say that it's a beer geek's dream. But at the same time, it's a very honest, down-to-earth pub where the profusion of well-chosen beers are very reasonably priced. It's a very good pub - it's not a bar, or a restaurant with beers, but an honest-to-goodness pub.

Now, if you haven't read Tandleman's beer blog, you should - there is a lot of well-considered opinion on there. I think it's fair to say that we've had the odd ding-dong (see here for the latest example), and he very kindly commends me to his readers here, with the caveat that the beers I write about are hard to come by.

This absolutely isn't a snipe at Tandleman in particular, who I like and respect very much, but more of an observation that there is something of a split among beer drinkers between those who want to try everything they can, at any price (see, for example, the BrewDog shop's guest beer list), and those who clearly draw the line somewhere.

But it does make me wonder: If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

For the record, of the four beers pictured above (photo by Ghost Drinker), they were all (for me) pretty much undrinkable, except for the Celebrator, which shone out as a stone-cold classic.


  1. Elitist? Not at all. I'd rather a decent pub offered up esoteric bottles rather than the "come drink the only cask of XXX in the world ever" approach of some brewers and bars. *That's* elitist.

    And the Grove is very unusual in offering those beers. I couldn't buy them in a pub/bar in Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham - possibly even Sheffield. In fact, the Grove is unique in what it offers on cask, bottle and keg.

    As for Celebrator... I'd go to the Grove for Thornbridge, Marble, Dark Star, Moor and end up adding to my plastic goat collection instead :-)

  2. No doubt about it - there is a line.

    Excellent beer, however, forbids that line from ever being drawn.

    It's exactly the same principle with excellent pubs.

    These two often coincide.

    So none of us really need to quarrel.

  3. It's no more elitist than suggesting that people who drink mainstream lager do so because they've been brainwashed by mass advertising campaigns. That old chestnut immediately implies that those making the argument are somehow immune/resistant to such brainwashing, while the Carling-drinking masses are not. Sounds pretty elitist to me.

  4. I don't think it's elitist, although I understand your point. The Grove has a full spectrum of drinkers, regulars there for sub 4% session beer, groups doing the rail ale trail, students, workers as well as knowledgable beer geeks and tickers making a pilgrimmage because they know how good the choice is there. I think what's really great about the Grove is the way it educates people to the wider possibilities of beer. Its great to sit in there and listen to people trying different styles of beer for the first time, making guesses as to what they might like, going out on a limb to drink somethijg they've never tried before or asking for recommendations from the staff. I also really like that Ian just set the place up and let the word spread organically, it has a great Facebook page now and the website helps spread the word to some extent but I'd guess the vast majority of people who go there, do so because they've heard about "this pub with 200+ beers", they're going because they like the idea of having a lot of choice not because the Grove has got some of the latest BrewDog or barrel aged Mikkeller in. Long live the Grove! by the way I didn't like Devine Rebel or the 1000IBU particularly either :)

  5. Come on now guys the divine rebel wasn't that good but the 1000 IBU's was an epic beer! (but maybe it's just my craving for such intense beer?) Zak I can understand why you found it a little undrinkable but I still think it's an incredibly interesting beer and I bet your glad you tried it? I think sometimes we can talk to much about beer when we can be drinking it, I don't believe in any elitism, just an innocent ignorance - we must spread the word about good beer to those who have never had the opportunity to drink something other than what their 'one pub' offers. ((take your own definition of good beer.(and 'one pub'))

  6. Elite beer drinking is something of an oxymoron - like "curling action" or "exciting Canadian breakthrough." I am more concerned that it is a rip off and manufactured dupery.

  7. I think it all depends on the attitude of the drinker. There are people out there who feel they are special because they've been able to drink or get their hands on a beer that nobody around them has ever seen, or because they "understand" sour, extreme, etc. beers. Either way, I could call them "snobs" rather than elitists.

  8. So if it is elitist what do you do? Stop writing about the beers, stop drinking them? These beers exist, the demand, however small exists, maybe the elitism exists. Not the end of the world I would respectfully suggest.

  9. I think the only way these would be elitist is if they were only available in one place and at a very high price. Even things like Dark Lord Day don't suggest elitism to me, it's just beer geekery at its upper edges, but I quite like that (the idea of the day, not the beer).

    For me, what stops elitism is that everyone has a choice about these beers. They are available to all and it's the choice of the consumer to get it or not. The Grove attracts 'normal' drinkers as well as those who seek out certain names so they are in an extraordinary position but they still quench the normal drinker's thirst.

  10. "they still quench the normal drinker's thirst"

    Are you thus above the normal, and consider yourself part of an elite?

  11. Simon - so is elitism tied into rarity and how people react to it? Is it to do with the mindset that getting a glass of THAT cask (or keg, or bottle) of beer is an imperative?

    Pete - I've no doubt that most people who drink Carling do so because they prefer to. In the last year, I've made a new set of friends who are confirmed 'industrial' lager drinkers, and who will open-mindedly try anything that I bring to their respective houses. But they never seem bothered about having a second one, and that's fine.

    Ian - and that's sort of my point - The Grove is such a natural, unforced sort of place that it is the very opposite of elitist, despite having some very hard-to-find beers. Maybe it's the attitude rather than the beer (which sounds painfully obvious now that I actually write it!)

    Ghostie - I'm not sure that it was an interesting beer, to be honest. It was a beer that was made to hit a certain set of targets via a mathematical formula. In my experience, any beers born of that sort of dogma are usually disappointing. Am I glad I tried it? I like to try everything. Would I have chosen it myself? Probably not.

    Alan - is it a case of people falling for 'the emperor's new clothes' that bothers you? And if so, why?

  12. Pivni - I think you're right that it's with the drinker rather then the beer. Maybe what is driving this post is the fear that I'm being elitist on this blog - but I suppose I could just run a poll to discover that.

    Adrian - that's a fair point. I guess as a communicator, I want to try and engage with as wide an audience as possible, not turn them off with a lot of blah-blah-blah about things they'll never get to try. But as you say, if it exists, there's a demand, and if you can go somewhere and buy it, you probably would if you were curious enough.

    Mark - that's my point exactly - if you can go into a pub and buy them, then they're not elitist. I guess it's what you do with the experience that counts.

  13. I'll say more about this on my blog.

    Price is an interesting one - I can't decide whether it's a red herring or not. I mean, one of the things I like about beer is that trying something new and different usually costs about the same as stopping off for a pint after work. To say that a beer that costs a tenner for a half-pint bottle is available to everyone - because everyone can find a tenner if they really want to - would be missing the point that it's not *equally* available to everyone, both because many people wouldn't dream of paying that much for a bottle of beer & because many people (not necessarily the same ones) don't have that many spare tenners.

    On the other hand, there have always been unusual beers & beers with expensive ingredients, and some beers are probably always going to have a limited market. It's when that limited market acquires sentience that I start to get twitchy.

  14. Cracking post. I’d point out to the difference between elitism and snobbery. Many things are elitist, from sport to education and that’s rarely considered a bad thing. By all means be elitist and pay prices for your grog that are exclusive and designed only to appeal to either the wealthy or stupid, but you will be disagreed with by those “campaigning” because a wider appreciation of anything from real ale to most things is by its nature none elitist. I remain amused by the wine glass affectation but I honestly don’t consider you a snob, Zak. I don’t recall you stating your beer preferences made you any better than us lout necking masses. You are a decent chap sharing his unusual and slightly geeky hobby with the world, and I very much enjoy that you do. Beer snobbery will always be amusing. Any bunch of bearded unfashionably dressed slightly overweight middle aged gentlemen drinking something unusual and thinking it makes them more discerning and better informed will always provoke laughter, but I have long thought I mis-aimed by laughing at you.

  15. Curiosity in beer is a good thing as is availability. The Grove is pretty damn good at bridging the divide and providing both the rare and the not so rare side by side, though is is annoyingly atypical.

    Elitism is I suppose when you only seek out the rare, strong, ultra hoppy, expensive or whatever beers and look down on those that don't take the same view. There are other definitions of course.

    I just like to see a bit more about beers I'll come across in a typical local pub or free house, but then I'm a pub man and see dangers for the pub in a new home drinking generation.

    Different points of view are healthy though.

  16. I would say élitism is making a virtue out of rarity.

    Incidentally, has anyone tried the crunchy insect snacks at the Grove?

  17. Yes, it's linked to scarcity and people's attitudes towards it. A limited release beer, with geographically limited distribution and high retail price isn't necessarily elitist. But those qualities can be exploited by the seller to make it seem so, especially if the customer want to feel elitist when they drink it.

  18. It could be that there are different answers in different places. I wouldn't say there's elitism in American brewing ... yet. (Although our state's brewers guild has a promotional club called "SNOB"--Supporters of Native Oregon Beer.) We're still in the infatuation stage. And, like anyone smitten, we're still naive and unjaded.

    Elitism is a later manifestation and it requires that there be an acknowledged "elite" who have some authority in trend-setting. Right now there are geeks and enthusiasts, but no one who could be described as an actual elite.

    The answer might be different in 20 years.

  19. Let's get semantic.

    Your question was, "What constitutes elitism in beer?" Well, elitism has a definition generally agreed upon. And we already know what beer is.

    For argument's sake, and because it was really easy to Google up, the Princeton definition is "the attitude that society should be governed by an elite group of individuals." So in place of "society" let's put "beer" or "beer culture."

    It's a pretty tricky idea to apply to a (mostly) market-governed industry.

    On the other hand: In any field where public opinion plays a role--such as the market--aren't there always elites and opinion makers? Maybe the elites are the ones saying, "Hey, you should try THIS instead." Maybe we're the elites, even if we're usually just trying to spread a bit of joy.

    Even so, according the definition above, we're not elitISTS unless we think we OUGHT to be governing things. Personally, I have enough trouble governing myself.

  20. Phil - I see your point, but to reduce that point to absurdity, people would drink whatever is cheapest, which is seldom the case. Most people have a sweet spot, a money-to-taste ratio that they are happy to purchase within. Personally, the odd tenner for a bottle of beer is nothing over the year to me, but your mileage may vary.

    Cookie - it's a fine line to walk between snobeery (that's a typo, but I think I'll leave it) and enthusiasm, but I hope that I manage it.

    Tandleman - I agree with much of what you say, although I would suggest that what people want from a pub has changed substantially over the last few decades. At least, what I want has changed.

    Curmudgeon - yes I have. They're all variations on crunchy skin, to my palate.

    Simon - I guess when scarcity and price become more significant virtues than flavour and drinkability, then something is up

    Jeff - I think there isn't in brewing, but in the way that it's consumed, that elitism is all too prevalent on some of the more US-centric forums.

    Joe - maybe the difference is between people saying "you shouldn't drink that mass-produced crap" and people saying "you should think about trying this - it's damn tasty"?

  21. This is definitely the correct time to touch on beer elitism. There is definitely some strange market promotions USA side and beers are becoming rarer; barrel aged versions of the sister beer and a lot of interesting over-hyped beers as Mark gives a great example of DL day.

    I personally think beer has an elitist side where people go nuts over the rarer stuff without comparing it to an average bitter. However the key factor is drinkability. As much as I love world class beers which are rare and imperial barrel aged; I've had those, I'm not going to be drinking them every day. I feel guilty if I open one up if I'm not sharing. I feel especially guilty if I'm drinking them and realise a uk brewer could duplicate this incredibly well so now I am finding myself stashing important brews and waiting for brewers or home brewers to share them with.

    I want the beers to be duplicated here at a fraction of the price with the freshness which was lost and to attain easily. We get beers in this country which are exceptional and not elitist. Thornbriddge Bracia is a perfect example. Only expensive because of the amount gone into the product.

    I've had two of those beers in that picture. The Mikkeller 1000 IBU I've had before and it was bland but the barrel aged I got from BeerMerchants was stunning and full of speyside which I adored.

    The Devine Rebel I think I missed so I'm pleased you didn't enjoy it. Most likely the hops dried out and it became undrinkable. The Celebrator is fantastic aged and comes with very little oxidation. A friend kindly gave me an aged bottle and I was blown away. Definitely one of the best German beers, up there with Augustiner Eldestoff. Celebrator also ages better than Westvleteren 12!

    Great points made Zak and I'm pleased that you're wise to it. You're saving a lot of money and I generally think beer elitism is very unhealthy. Beers get missed under the rader which are world class but the more elitist it gets the more beers cost and the less worthwhile the beers are. This is sad and not good for the industry. Get it when you can and make sure as many brewers can have it as possible and watch them duplicate it and sit back and enjoy!!!


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