Over the last twenty-five years, the amount of craft breweries in this country has risen from 100 in 1988 to almost 2500 in 2013. The staggering expansion of craft beer has been fueled by, supplied by, and produced by a constantly growing community of beer nerds. Forget about the cliché: the nerds will inherit the earth – they have been far too focused on growing the popularity of craft beer to have time for that. A prime example of being able to do anything if you put your mind to it; beer nerds have successfully launched craft beer into a mainstream market. As a result, more and more people are becoming fans of beers they previously would never have fathomed.
So, the next time you are out and order a beer that utilizes its taste to promote sales rather than a label that lets you know that is cold, thank a beer nerd. And, the next time you are chastised for not being able to identify the specific hop used in your IPA, thank a beer nerd. Wait. Chastised? That doesn’t sound right. It seems a mulligan is in order. The next time that you are out and a beer nerd corrects you for confusing malty and hoppy in front of your friends with an unsolicited dissertation on the difference, thank a beer nerd. Sound strange? Perhaps because there is such a dichotomous interpretation of what a beer nerd is.
Just the name itself, beer nerd, in theory, sounds light-hearted and fun—a reflection of what the whole craft beer movement was founded on; fun. However, should the jovial and disarming title of beer nerd lead one to believe that it is a welcoming society? There seems to be a schismamongst not only beer drinkers, but specifically, craft beer drinkers, as to what connotation is attached to the term beer nerd. Call one person a beer nerd, they may be flattered—another might take offense. Why then has the term beer nerd entered such a state of ambiguity? Is it because there is a problem in the attachment of one encompassing title to the masses that appreciate craft beer, or maybe, beer nerds cannot stay out of their own way. How can they? They’re everywhere.
Craft beer has been growing increasingly inescapable. In addition to specialty beer bars sprouting up all over, bars once considered “low hanging fruit” have adjusted their offerings to include numerous craft products. Furthermore, chain restaurants to high-end cuisine establishments and every imaginable ethnic restaurant in-between have boarded the craft beer bandwagon. Because of the multitude of bars and restaurants that now offer craft beer, more and more people are trying craft beer, and beginning to call themselves “beer nerds.”
Theoretically, it should be great news for the craft beer community. In just a short time, craft beer has gone from the occasional specialty ale house to, well, everywhere. So much so that according to USA Today , Jim Koch, owner of Sam Adams, became craft beer’s first billionaire this year. For the craft beer community to produce a billionaire is quite the validation on the movement as a whole. This would lead one to believe that all is well in the craft beer community, but there is still one thing amiss; are beer nerds poised to burst the craft beer bubble?
Beer nerds, like any nerds, are passionate about their beer. They want to learn as much as they can about the product, its ingredients, and the process by which it is made. The learning process is part of the fun—or at least, it should be. Joanna Manzo of Smuttynose describes them as, “being synonymous with a beer enthusiast. Someone that seeks out new beer. Like a foodie, but for beer.” The increasing amount of beer drinkers that have sought out new styles previously unfamiliar to them has greatly impacted the popularity of craft beer. Of course, just seeking out new beers and enjoying them may not always be enough. Manzo has been extensively educated in craft beer. She did so because, “it made sense professionally, but I also looked at it as a defense course so when I had to deal with more of the beer snob types, I wouldn’t be intimidated by them.” If there is an intimidating faction of beer nerds/snobs, then not all beer nerds would seem too interested in having craft beer enter a mainstream market.
Like anything foreign, there is a learning curve that needs to be considered when discussing beer with newcomers to the craft market. To keep the beer community fun and interesting, there should be a willingness to discuss beer with them and to help them learn about the styles they like. Sean Hallion, bar manager of Barcade in Philadelphia describes himself as “a student of beer in general. At work, a student and educator, depending on the situation.” Hallion details a necessity to work with and educate newcomers because if it was not an inviting community, “Monk’s would still be the only one’s doing it [craft beer] and we’d all still be drinking Budweiser.” Though Hallion enjoys educating new beer drinkers as well as learning from more seasoned ones, this isn’t the case for everyone. Regarding newcomers to the craft beer community, he says, “It’s inviting but intimidating. The purity can be diluted a little by newcomers, but to grow, you need them…it is subjective though, so keep in mind, there is no right or wrong.”
Unfortunately, as beer snobs are blanketed under the term beer nerds, there are some that believe taste is not subjective and that there is a right or wrong. Manzo feels that these “snobs” exist, “mostly on the internet, primarily on Beer Advocate. It’s kind of like Yelp and these people can really affect someone’s business anonymously.” Here, hidden behind clever usernames, many beer nerds criticize certain beers because they don’t appreciate them. These reviews may deter people from trying them in the first place, as well as bars from carrying the product.
Though there are a large amount of beer snobs found on the internet, if they only resided there, they would be easy to ignore. Have you ever been out and overheard someone at a bar unconstructively criticize another customer’s selection in beer? How about a bartender doing it to a customer? In all likeliness, at some point, you have. This is a major problem with trying to continue the growth and popularity of craft beer. Many times, people that are trying a new beer or a new style of beer would love to discuss it and learn about it. There is a big difference between inquiring about the beer and being lambasted for either using incorrect terminology or, worse yet, just for ordering it. Instances like these are jeopardizing the inclusion of a new audience to craft beer.
Perhaps the biggest reason this is all cause for concern is the fragility that separates a fad from a trend. If beer nerds aren’t willing to welcome and accept newcomers, it will lose its sustainability. This concern was mirrored by Chris Barnes, managing partner of Lucky’s Last Chance. When asked about any reservations he had when opening a craft beer bar, he said, “Was it [craft beer] a fad? Were we too early, too late in the arc?” To ensure this is not a fad, beer nerds need to embrace and educate those who are interested in joining the craft beer community. If not, this could all be a fad that is on borrowed time.
Sean Hallion stressed the importance of being a “student of beer” to continue learning, as well as an educator to those who want to learn about beer. Chris Barnes also stressed the importance of being willing to welcome newcomers saying, “I think anyone who really wants to be considered a beer nerd should only be able to do so if they have a passion for helping a newcomer find their niche. I feel most nerds are that way.” Both agree that a welcoming approach to newcomers, as well as a willingness to help educate those eager to learn, is the way the beer nerd community should be.
Unfortunately, there are a number of beer nerds that don’t feel this way, that want to preserve the “purity” of craft beer and opening it up to newcomers who aren’t as educated is something they are not interested in doing. It is this mentality that is more than capable of being the undoing of beer nerds and the craft beer community as a whole. If you truly love craft beer, as well as its accessibility, why wouldn’t you want to see a continuously growing market, as it would ensure its preservation, evolution, and keep it from being a giant fad?
Considering everything, are beer nerds bad for craft beer? Not necessarily, but that depends on you. Are you a beer nerd? A snob? An enthusiast? An aficionado? Does it matter which label you place on yourself ? With the term as subjective as the flavor of beer, it seems that trying to constantly label a craft beer drinker’s status within the beer community is asinine. Amongst all of the aforementioned labels, there is, or should be, a common theme: despite how they classify themselves, the goals among beer nerds are the same—to appreciate, educate, and enjoy beer. What appears to be the problem, as Chris Barnes stated, is regarding newcomers being welcomed in, “I’m gonna say yes, emphatically, yes 60% of the time.” Is there really any reason to not welcome new beer nerds into the community? Unfortunately, the reason for this appears to simply be human nature. Like in anything, there will always be those that want to alienate others that they don’t want in a group.
So, ask yourself, where do you fit into all of this? If you enjoy offering an unsolicited dissertation about beer to those that don’t know as much about beer as you, or, if you like creating an online handle to use a thesaurus and a plethora of adjectives to discredit someone’s work unconstructively— whether you are called a beer nerd, beer snob, or whatever, the fact is, you are probably just ignorant. If you enjoy trying new beer, experimenting with new flavors, and educating those interested in learning about beer, regardless of what you call yourself, you’re part of the success craft beer has experienced. This whole movement was born out of being fun and different. For the most part, it has been able to maintain that. So try to keep it fun, keep it inviting, and keep in mind, at one point, everyone knew nothing about beer.