Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Novices, keep an eye on the prize -- and drink Bass if that helps.

My friend and prospective NABC web master Jay has made it one of his missions in life to ensure that I am exposed to thought-provoking items on the Internet that pertain to beer. He understands that I’d otherwise miss them owing to forgetfulness, laziness, the beer in front of me, or a combination of all three.

Naturally, he’s right, and accordingly, he recently pointed me toward this article at Rate Beer:

Oakes Weekly: Ten Beers You Do Not Need to Try.

For the most part, these are beers that are pitched to novice beer drinkers are being somehow representative of better beer, even definitive examples of classic styles. But either they were never worth your time, or their value to the novice beer drinker is greatly overstated. Many of them trade on reputation more than what they actually bring to the drinker. Which is why one of the qualifications I used to determine this list was surprisingly simple – if I brewed this, would you need to try it? Take away the history, the label and the sexy backstory. Do you need to try this beer? For the following beers, no:

Anchor Steam, Bass Ale, Budweiser, Guinness, Negra Modelo, Newcastle Brown, Oktoberfest (all of them), Pilsner Urquell, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Widmer Hefeweizen

Here’s some curmudgeonly full disclosure: All except Budweiser and Widmer Hefeweizen are currently sold in bottles at Rich O’s Public House, my pub in New Albany.

Pilsner Urquell, Guinness and Sierra Nevada are regularly available on draft. I rotate draft German and microbrewed Oktoberfests each autumn. To the best of my recollection, thus far in 2006, I’ve personally consumed only Pilsner Urquell and Sierra Nevada of the ten beers comprising the Oakes list.


I greatly enjoy the Oakes column when I think to read it, and this one has struck a latent chord of classical Marxist theory.

More on that unlikely connection in a moment.

It may seem uncharacteristic for someone as opinionated as I am to undertake the case in opposition to Oakes’s meditations, because in large measure I agree with his assessments of these beers, even if I’d be inclined to go a bit easier on Sierra Pale and Pilsner Urquell – admittedly both of which Oakes accords grudging respect while maintaining that better examples of their respective styles are available.

It would appear that our fundamental point of divergence is one of perspective, stemming from this comment:

Is there the same sense of wide-eyed wonder as when I started? Okay, I’m a bad example because I went from being a dumbass underage beer-hater to beer geek basically in the span of five minutes.

It’s quite admirable to challenge one’s stamina, wallet and liver by locating and tasting hundreds and sometimes thousands of different beers, and to maintain the skills sufficient to objectively rate them. Compared to the sheer number of beer brands and the dazzling diversity of stylistic interpretations available on today’s market, the old standards certainly do taste tired, and for the precise reasons Oakes offers: They may have been diminished, they may have been surpassed, or they may always have been overrated.

But in my world, there’s just more to it than pleasing the discriminating beer aficionados, among whom I count myself (I seldom drink the same beer twice in a week or longer), and this is where the Marxist theory comes into play.

In essence, recall that Karl Marx postulated a series of evolutionary social and economic steps, each following by necessity on the heels of the previous one, and leading to the ultimate victory of the proletariat and pure Communism. It was V. I. Lenin, not Marx, who suggested that a tightly organized cadre of committed revolutionaries could leap past the intermediate conditions and bring about the same result.

In like fashion, and based on my experience, there are necessary steps involved with teaching and guiding beer drinkers to greater understanding about beer ands a willingness to try new beers, and several of the beers on the Oakes “unnecessary” list remain useful for this purpose.

Each and every day, we see new customers, and many of them are all too keenly aware of our reputation for serving beers other than those with which they’re intimately familiar, i.e., mass-produced golden swill. Our job is to peruse a list of 225 bottles and 33 drafts and find those selections best calculated to introduce typically timid starter beer drinkers to the inherent possibilities.

Granted, during the past fifteen years of daily attempts to convince people to drink better beer, I’ve seen miracles of conversion occur before my very eyes. Every now and then, a Coors Light drinker is given a sample of Cantillon Gueuze, and it is love at first horse-hair blanket infused sip.

Sometimes, die-hard Bud Men graduate overnight to become born-again Gravity Heads, and are transformed into Dionysian paragons of Barley Wine revelry.

But far more often than not, the budding (pun intended) disciple travels an evolutionary path to ultimate enlightenment … as I did a thousand or so years ago, long before Southern Indiana knew microbreweries existed, and our lifeline to real beer had names like Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, Paulaner Salvator and anything in the Merchant du Vin portfolio.

Yes, in these wondrous times – and depending on where you reside – it seems rather pointless to sing the praises of starter beers … until you realize that not everyone’s on the same page, or at the same stage.

Oakes is right; Negra Modelo is vastly overrated. But if I can use it to help attain the ultimate goal of enhanced beer consciousness, then it becomes a tool in the arsenal.

Not that I’ve abandoned “permanent revolution” in terms of classic beer theory …

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