A pint for your thoughts: SXSW panel muses over culture of craft beer
Budweiser’s third-quarter Super Bowl ad, a decisive volley at craft breweries and the people who love them, drew a line in the sand last month with the proclamation that Budweiser is “proudly a macro beer … not brewed to be fussed over.”
While some craft beer fans reacted angrily, proclaiming they’d never again support any of the so-called craft breweries owned by AB InBev, others stopped to ponder the image of the bearded hipster in the ad who apparently represented them. Is that how they come across to other people? As snobby elitists who sniff their pints of pumpkin peach ale and muse over the mouthfeel and finish of each beer?
A SouthBites panel at South by Southwest, “You Can’t Sit With Us: Craft Beer Subculture,” is debating this question and others surrounding craft beer’s rise in the social media age. Bloggers Chris Sheppard (of Craft Taste), Caroline Wallace (of Bitch Beer, for whom I also write) and Matt McGinnis (of What Are You Drinking?), along with Hops & Grain Brewing founder Josh Hare, have been noticing that as supportive and welcoming as the craft beer community can be, it’s also sometimes perceived as closed off to outsiders and anyone not in the know.
“Nowadays, people prefer small boutique options because big businesses have lost touch with what their customers want,” McGinnis, who is acting as the panel’s moderator, said. “In beer’s case, that’s taste. But when you have these small breweries, that means there isn’t a lot of the special seasonal release kegs to go around, which breeds exclusivity and this ‘I have it and you don’t’ mentality.”
Social media, he said, makes that attitude worse, with people constantly posting pictures of small-batch brews they’ve managed to track down. It doesn’t help that many local breweries don’t distribute much beyond city limits or the state, he said, some of their most limited offerings not even leaving the taproom.
But Facebook and Twitter have also made it easier than ever for just about anyone with a smartphone to get their hands on these rare beers — breweries, bars and stores will alert fans about when and where they can find the latest Saint Arnold Divine Reserve, for example, to spread the enthusiasm and passion that permeates the community.
Unfortunately, the hostile side of the beer scene often comes to the forefront from the vocal minority who “garner a lot of attention for their opinions,” said Sheppard, who came up with the idea for the panel.
These hard-to-please fans, he said, post unabashedly bad beer reviews on heavily trafficked sites like BeerAdvocate, an online forum that can be helpful to visitors of a new city curious about the local beer scene or to brewers wanting constructive criticism to better their beers. One needlessly negative or condescending review, however, can cause some harm — and spread that stereotype of the serious beer drinker as a pretentious snob.
“I think sometimes people give their opinion of a certain beer because they forget there’s an actual human being behind the beer,” he said. The Internet’s “veil of anonymity” makes a negative review easy to give and much harder to take back.
“Craft beer is like anything that becomes popular,” Sheppard said. “You gain elitist factions in the ranks that are driven by social media and an online community. … The growth of craft beer has been parallel to the growth of social media, and they have a symbiotic relationship with both good and bad consequences.”
At least beer is being talked about at all, Hare pointed out at one of the group’s recent SXSW planning meetings. It’s only in the past couple decades, as craft beer has taken off with all of its styles and flavors and fans, that beer has become the subject of conversation, rather than a facilitator of it, he said. And most often, the talk centers on how good a beer is and why.
McGinnis said he hopes panel attendees come away with that conclusion.
“The ultimate premise of our panel is that craft beer doesn’t have too many people saying ‘They won’t let me in,’” he said. “You don’t have to be a cicerone to be involved in the community. You don’t need to have a big collection of super rare beers. You don’t even have to know the difference between ales and lagers. You just have to be a craft beer drinker.”