LEVELS OF CRAFT BEER CONSUMERISM

A few months back, Brother Barley reflected on these pages about how he has evolved as an alehead. It’s a piece that I reread the other day, because:

1. I liked it. I thought it was well-written.*

2. When I have idle time, I am prone to being the laziest person on the planet. Reading a beer blog on a perfectly fine vacation day is the act of a lazy man. Re-reading a beer blog on a perfectly fine vacation day? That’s the act of an obscenely lazy man.

3. There are way too many commercials in the game of football, and they provide the time needed to finish one of Barley’s novellas…err…posts.

*No, really. I did. Honest to God.

So anyway, there I was, re-reading his piece during the NFL games and totally re-connecting to everything he was saying. Well, almost everything. I didn’t have as much of a dramatic and drawn-out lead-up to becoming an alehead (my first beer was at college, whereas Barley was heading down to the package store with Gramps McHops in high school). Furthermore, for about my first 8 years out of college, I was in alehead purgatory, thinking that my purchasing the likes of Harp, Bass, Smithwicks, and Belhaven was sufficiently outside the box. Though I knew enough to eschew the likes of Budweiser, Coors, and Miller during that period,  I couldn’t tell you the difference between an ale and a lager, and I certainly didn’t realize that Bass was a Miller-Coors product. Barley, on the other hand, was well on his way to becoming a full-fledged Alehead at that time.

Transitioning to a true alehead started for me in a more condensed way than it did for Barley. And to be fair, most of it has happened just over the past 22 months of participating in this blog. The ride for me has been more like a plane taking off from a runway than anything Barley described. Few bumps. No turns. Just straight-ahead acceleration.

I think a lot of us have experienced aleheadism that way. And in no way is this transformation more apparent to me than when I set foot in my local bottle shop.

Trips to my local liquor store are so much different now than they ever were before. It’s like going to the grocery store for the first time after you’ve read a few of Michael Pollan’s books. You start to see things completely differently, and you can’t go back and unsee. While nothing is completely clear–as Barley notes time and again, there is SO much more to learn about beer and we still have no idea how much we don’t know–I can say for certain that things are definitely clearer when I enter the liquor store now than they ever have been. I like to think about my transformation over the last 22 months to an alehead-minded consumer at my local bottle shop in terms of stages or levels.

Level 0: You are unaware of craft beer entirely. You enter the store, walk past

cases of bud light

Just shoot me.

the aisles of 22oz. beauties and colorful sixpacks and go straight to the coolers in the back, where you grab a case of Bud Light, and without so much as breaking your stride, circle back to the cashier. I like to think I started at the next level. Though we’ve all see those people in Level 0 walk past us.

Level 1: You’re past the point where you’re willing to tolerate paying for shitty beer, so when you enter the store, at least you’re not looking for the special on Corona cases. Rather, you want something with more taste, but you’re not particularly knowledgeable about beer and as such a bit overwhelmed by all of the beer on the shelves. Thus you’re apt to choose something from the shelves that’s on the safer side: Bass, Smithwicks, Red Stripe, Honey Brown, Magic Hat. You’ve heard of it, and it’s not Bud, so you buy it. This is where I was for those 8 years after college.

shelves of beer

Equal parts titillating and blinding for a level 2 visitor to the package store.

Level 2: You’ve caught on to the craft beer movement. You’ve had your first Founders, your first Lagunitas, and you’re completely hooked. Craft beer is now bordering on an addiction for you. You’re still not the most knowledgeable about craft beer, but you don’t really care because you’ve found this new world that you absolutely love. You’re hearing all these amazing things about this brewery and that, and now you want to try everything on the shelf. There’s so much variety on the shelves, you’re just buying beer like crazy, trying to get your hands on as many of these beers as possible. The shelves are still overwhelming to you (“Should I try this? I’ve never heard of this brewery. What’s a Belgian IPA?”). Mostly, you grab anything that you’ve heard of yet never tasted, and you spend more on beer than you ever have in your entire life. This is where I was for a good 14 months.

Level 3: When you enter your local store, you’ve now sampled pretty much all of the year-round offerings they have in stock. You greet your local beermonger (if s/he doesn’t know you by name, then at least s/he recognizes you and you exchange pleasantries). You have come into the store having

Arriving on a shelf near you. Soon.

thought ahead. You have a strategy. You understand that with all of the inventory on the shelves, several of the sixers and bombers have been collecting dust and are probably shells of their former hoppy selves. Therefore, you’re either going to ask your beermonger what’s new to his stock (or you were informed already via the store’s listserv), or because you’ve been there so often, you’re actually going to recognize the new bottles. You’re aware of what seasonals come out this time of year. You’re also going to be more keenly aware of born-on dating for the year-round offerings. Look closely: the un-refrigerated Founders Porter was bottled 6 weeks ago, whereas the Founders Porter in the chiller was bottled 6 months ago. And, when you do make a selection, you’re more likely to grab the bottles that have been sitting in the back of the shelves, farther away from the light than the six-packs closest to the windows. I’m just entering Level 3.

Level 4: You’ve quit your job, and you will begin work at the liquor store next Tuesday.

For me, this is what being an alehead looks like, at least in practice at the package store. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this classification system, fellow aleheads. Does it ring mostly true? Am I missing any descriptors for each of these levels?

P.S. Tomorrow, in order to help those of you who want to know what to look for on the shelves this time of year, I’ll be posting a list of what to watch for. There are some amazing winter/early spring seasonals on the way…

Lord Copperpot

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11 comments

  1. the scary time is between levels 3 and 4. that is the lost zone where weird things can happen.Like selling everything and moving to Central America to open the first Craft Brewery there…

  2. Man, if I had a nickel for every time that happened, Brew Revolution…

    Speaking of which, how is El Salvador?

  3. Good stuff, Mashtun. I also find myself hovering somewhere between 3 and 4, where people just start coming up to you in the beer store and ask you questions because it seems like you work there, or worse when you start to give other customers unsolicited advice… like when the adjacent twenty-something couple reach for the sixer Blue Moon and you let out a noise like a puppy who’s just been kicked before launching into a dissertation about the numerous and superior local Witbiers right in front of them. Totally obnoxious, but you just can’t help yourself.

  4. Pete Bochek · · Reply

    I’m definitely a Level 3, but a drinking associate is going through the permitting process for a new micro-brewery just down the road – Is quitting your job and working at a micro-brewery considered Level 4?

  5. Pete – I think he gets bonus points. That sounds like a level 5. Forget about buying good beer. Forget even about selling good beer. Your associate wants to produce good beer to put on those shelves!

  6. Slouch, I often have to restrain myself from butting into other people’s purchases.

    Incidentally, is that what Naughty by Nature was talking about?

  7. I’ll give people advice in the package store quite often, especially if they’re perusing the “mix a six” rack or with a friend talking about beers and it’s clear they’re a Level 1 or Level 2. Most of them are very appreciative of the help or suggestions. I know I would have been, when I was at that level.

  8. Herr Hordeum · · Reply

    I’d say I’m a solid three. Although I’ve entered new territory where I’m trying to make beer styles I can’t get locally, or are too pricy to drink regularly on my budget.

  9. I think we can all agree that making a significant portion of your living via the brewing of (non-macro-lager) beer can be classified as level 5.

  10. […] I wrote about the levels of craft beer consumerism. The premise was essentially that everyone who walks into a bottle shop looking for beer can be put […]

  11. According to this list I like to think that I’m in between a level 2 and 3. The guys at my local bottle shop see me coming and know that I’m a solid level 2. I’ll buy pretty much anything new or different. So they don’t even say hello to me anymore. They skip the pleasantries and just disappear into the back and emerge with a selection of beers that I’ve never tried before and tell me that I’ve got to try this one and that one. The benefit is that they always save a bottle of something rare or limited for me, but I rarely get out of the store with my wallet in tact. I keep hoping to emerge as a level 3. Until then, I’m enjoying the journey and adjusting my budget to include the unexpected beer finds.

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