Yesterday, on the discussion-resistant platform of Twitter, I had a choppy exchange about the nature of the beer geek. I argued that I wasn’t one, and Nick concluded, “Hilarious to think that a guy who writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles denies being [a beer geek].” (New motto!: “Providing inadvertent hilarity since 2006 ™.”) Let’s take it off the Twitter and break this whole thing down. I have lately noticed quite a deviation in my own behavior and that of many other beer fans, and it seems worth a paragraph or seven of exploration.
If “beer geek” is a general category identifying anyone who knows what a session IPA is, then I and anyone reading this fit the bill. I think that’s Nick’s point. Until ten years ago, that was a useful category because the number of people drinking good beer was relatively small. We were already a subculture. But now a majority of beer drinkers are at least sometime “craft” (read: anything but mass market lager) drinkers. Which means this use of beer geek would mean most people who drink beer, and would therefore be drained of any real meaning.
Even more to the point, there’s a big difference behaviorally, and this is where I’ve noticed it. A subculture of super-fans has developed, and they behave in distinctive ways. They spend a lot of time pursuing new beers and are very trend-sensitive. They are the first adopters, lavishing love on beers like “New England IPAs” (right now), kettle-soured beers (last year), or fruit IPAs (2014). They are hugely promiscuous in their fandom, trying to taste as much beer from as many breweries as possible. They have strong opinions about the best breweries and beers and organize them into tiers of coolness, much like music fans. They’ll stand in line for hours to get a bottle of the latest, coolest beer–or even drive to Vermont so they can stand in line for hours to get one. They avidly record their activities on various social media apps and ratings sites. When they travel abroad, they want to drink as many different beers as possible, and may go to six pubs in an evening. This is the person I think of as a beer geek.
It lines up pretty closely with the way people describe geeks in other subcultures, too. In fact, people have drawn a distinction between nerds and geeks to give the term extra valence:
Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer…. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.
We don’t regularly use the phrase “beer nerd,” but I guess it would, in Nick’s words, describe a guy who “writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles.” I’m definitely far more nerdy than geeky. But there’s another dimension here that goes back to the behavior bit, and it’s the one that makes me think I’m not a beer geek–and maybe only nerd-adjacent. Beer is unlike sci-fi or just plain sci in that it has an attendant culture and context of use. And this gets to where my interests lie.
There is a group whose main engagement with beer is social. I’ve wandered into this life of writing about beer, but I don’t objectively like beer more than I like basketball or politics, and had things gone a different way, I might now be writing a post about the difference between a hack and a wonk. I could give up beer, the beverage, more easily than I could coffee. By far. But what I’d find very hard to give up is the simple pleasure of sitting with people in a pub and enjoying a pint. In that context, I like a good beer, but it isn’t the central feature of the outing. This view is far more prevalent in pub-going countries, where people regularly drink a lot of beer over the course of a year. But the term “beer geek” just doesn’t fit. They’re beer drinkers, and surely beer lovers. But not beer geeks.
There are other subgroups within beer fandom (the historians/scholars, the homebrewers, the style nazis, the low-information drinkers), but if I had to identify my tribe, it would be the pub-goers. This has given rise in the past five years to conversations that peter out after I confess I haven’t tried some new beer or been to a newly-opened brewery. (And by newly-opened I mean since 2010.) It means I end up defending low-status beers in conversations with mystified geeks. Weirdly, it also means that some of my beery interests–an old European brewery I’ve visited, some weird technique a brewer told me about–are met with glazed eyes by bored geeks. The rise of this kind of beer geek is fairly recent–super-fans didn’t exist in enough density to coagulate into a subculture until maybe ten years ago. But now beer geekery is a full-fledged subculture, and its rules, values, and membership mystify me. I am not a beer geek.