Monday, July 11, 2016

AFTER THE FIRE: We are dispirited in the post-factual world.

AFTER THE FIRE: We are dispirited in the post-factual world.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

If I’m to judge from the electronic bushel baskets filled to overflowing with social media-borne exclamation marks, the biggest news in Indiana “craft” beer last week was the arrival in Hoosierland of brews from Maui Brewing Company, courtesy of Cavalier Distributing, Inc.

Cursory due diligence reveals that Maui still brews in Hawaii and ships to the mainland, damn the expense. Good for them. This authenticity is commendable, given that I can still remember my befuddlement back in 2006 after being served relatively inexpensive Kona at an eatery in Orlando, yielding shortly to raging annoyance when I learned that it was contract-brewed at Widmer, or maybe Redhook – same thing.

Damned insufferable Craft Beer Alliance. How is it Hawaiian if it isn’t even brewed in Hawaii?

(curmudgeonly grumbling sounds and periodic gnashing of teeth)

Of course, conventional beer geek wisdom has long since overruled me. Sierra Nevada can be brewed in North Carolina, and Stone in Berlin, Germany. Appellations of origin mean almost nothing as “craft” beer crawls steadily forward, toward becoming exactly the same problem a revolution previously was required to rectify.

Note that I don’t exclude overruling myself, having purchased Sierra’s Nooner Pilsner on more than one occasion. In a time when beer appreciation is many miles wide and a scant millimeter deep, who am I to rant and rain on these multi-locational parades of profitability?

Besides, most of the beers I typically drink are locally produced in the metro Louisville area at comfortably small breweries.

I’ve got this localism fetish going for me, if little else.

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Anyway, let’s go back to Maui Brewing’s triumphant arrival into Indiana. It strikes me that I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of similar press releases over the past five years, and on behalf of NABC, I’ve written my fair share of them.

“Finally, your chance to wrap your greedy Rate Advocate-stained fingers around (fill in blank), now coming to (fill in blank) for the very first time.”

I always omitted the exclamation marks, as there are plenty of them floating in the wort-laced ether, sadly homeless. They need loving shelter -- or to be mercilessly slaughtered.

What I’m wondering is how many of these latest, greatest beers remain in circulation two or three years after their arrival. Surely there is an attrition rate, because as endless as those rows of wholesaler SKUs seem already, they’d be even more voluminous if new breweries kept piling on, one atop the other, without a withdrawal now and then.

My suspicion is that when you get past the top tier of biggest sellers at a wholesaler, about as many breweries depart as arrive, which suggests that there’s an informational market niche in need of filling, namely the exit announcement.

“Finally, your chance to say goodbye to (fill in blank), now leaving (fill in second blank) following a period of brave hopefulness and bold optimism, only to be crowded off store shelves by AB-InBev’s pay-to-play mockrobrews – and 145 new “craft” brewery arrivals.”

By the way, any bottles of NABC's Elsa Von Horizon you might happen to see are to be regarded as collector’s items for label art, only.

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Recently while perusing social media, all the while imagining that it would be a better use of my time to be clubbed senseless with a slab of semi-frozen whale blubber, I noticed a blurb from a local eatery with a better-than-average bar program.

“Cheap” beer coming, it trumpeted.

It made me think of all those times I’ve seen breathless announcements for “cheap wine” -- except there’ve never been any of those. Half-price bottles, perhaps, but never the word “cheap.”

Come to think of it, contemporary cocktail-driven bar programs seldom advertise on the basis of “cheap” whiskey, do they?

Verily, it’s top shelf and upscale with wine and spirits, but when it comes to beer, the dumbing-down always lies waiting, just around the corner.

Noting that my observations here are confined primarily to restaurants, and I’m not speaking of specialty beer bars and any other establishment which is eligible for an exception because it evinces signs of willful design … so, disclaimers aside, why does good beer still get treated like bad beer used to?

A possible answer is the weird recurring cultural habit of otherwise intelligent food and drink people to excitedly exonerate the utilitarian adaptability of rank mass-market swill.

“Well, you know, there’s a time and place for Miller High Life.” No there isn’t – not if you’re actually beer literate.

Ah, yes; literacy. Hence, the other possible answer: There is far less beer knowledge lurking behind the typical metro area bar than one might imagine.

As BJCP judge Gomer Pyle once said, “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”

Too many draft selections and bottle lists are what happens when beer “education” is derived from rote readings of Thrillist at 3 a.m. while drinking purely wretched Pabst Blue Ribbon and pretending it’s for a purpose. The only purpose I can see is not being driven to do better.

Pray tell, where the hell are all the Cicerones? Weren’t they supposed to be the beer sommeliers of the future, and the faces of a fresh, factual approach, brimming with stylistic nuggets, and both ready and able to transform beer programs into principled bastions mirroring the typical edgy eatery’s wine and bourbon lists?

The cicerones may be out there somewhere, but I’m wondering if they have any active input into the beer selections I see in metro Louisville. It makes no sense to me that restaurants eager to differentiate themselves in terms of cuisine during these hyper-competitive times seem utterly unable to sort through the beers available to them and to come up with something more distinctive that six IPAs, two wheats, a sour and Coors Banquet.

Silly me.

I thought the revolution was about enabling bar management to eschew passive interpretation of customer demand, the bias of wholesaler reps and the skewing effect of brain-dead swag.

I thought the revolution was about pro-actively creating and nurturing customer demand by offering well-chosen “craft” beers intended to enhance and showcase the talents of the kitchen.

To my way of thinking, it takes only a few “craft” beer fans to justify the more thoughtful approach, and to return the favor with word-of-mouth – still the most cost-efficient means of advertising, and very nearly better than selfies.

In the end, I suppose none of this is possible without a better knowledge base than currently exists, and the knowledge base isn’t likely to improve unless owner and upper management decide it’s a priority. It’s a shame, because lots of wonderful opportunities are being missed.

Then again, maybe I'm completely full of spent grain, in which case this column space is yours, to make the case in rebuttal.

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July 4: AFTER THE FIRE: Euro ’85, Part 34 … The final chapter, in which lessons are learned and bridges burned.

June 27: AFTER THE FIRE: Out and about in America, Europe … and my cups.

June 20: AFTER THE FIRE: Less can be more.

June 13: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: I know I’m gonna change that tune.

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