"Bourdain HATES craft beer!"
This is what I heard about dozen times over the last week. And while that may be the prevailing opinion on the man, based on what I personally saw on Saturday, that's not really true.
Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a Saturday Farm Dinner put on by Hilary and Justin Severino. If you're at all plugged into the local restaurant scene, you MAY have heard of these folks before. (They're kind of a big deal.) They're the duo behind the highly regarded Cure and Morcilla restaurants in Lawrenceville. Justin was inviting about 20-25 of Pittsburgh's awesomest food and drink folks to attend a meal prepared for the guest of honor, Anthony Bourdain, who was rather famously in town filming his CNN Food/Travel show, Parts Unknown. And somehow he also gave me a call.
Social media was all a-flutter last week, with Bourdain sightings, speculations, and people looking for hints so they could make a sighting of their own. So, we had to keep this whole thing hush-hush until he left town. Because… stalkers I guess. "Celebrity" can be a weird thing, which can call for certain measures I suppose.
"Should I bring some beer?" Oh yeah, Justin says. That would be great too. So I grabbed a couple of cases of freshly filled Pedal Pale Ale cans and threw them in a cooler, along with a few cans of Bourbon Barrel Aged Gratitude Barleywine cans, just in case things got silly, and off to the farm we go... a beautiful secluded spot about half an hour or so from the Brewery. After catching up with a bunch of familiar faces that I haven't seen for a while, and poking around a bit of the setup that the film crew has set up, Bourdain arrives and heads straight for the pit where Justin is doing some kind of magical thing with meat hanging over an open fire. It's hot. Did I mention that? It's like blazing hot... even more so in front of that fire.
After a few minutes of deep food talk, they head in to the old barn where a makeshift cocktail/beer/sangria/wine bar is setup, camera crew in close pursuit. Bourdain opts for a beer, and they slap a tall boy of Pedal in his hand. He cracks it, takes a big pull, and says "Ahhh... that's nice."
"There's the guy who made it" says Justin, pointing at me, while I'm trying to surreptitiously get a photo of this famous food guy with our beer in his hand. Without a word from me, Bourdain turns to me and, on camera, immediately launches into what seems like an often offered defensive rant. Note: These are not actual quotes, as I didn't record any of this, and he kinda busted me trying to get a picture... so I was a little rattled. But here's the gist of it:
"I DON'T HATE CRAFT BEER! It's just that when I go into a bar, I go there to sit down, relax, drink something cold, and maybe lose a little bit of myself. And what ruins it for me is the guy sitting next to me with 12 little glasses in front of him with a pen and a notebook, fussing over every little detail, and peppering the bartender with question after question for five minutes."
Again... not actual quotes.
Well, I can't say I've never been that guy (maybe minus the notebook), but I kinda get what he's talking about. As Brewers and fans of GOOD BEER, we are people who are constantly surrounded by discussions of PROCESSES and INGREDIENTS when it comes to a beer we are excited about. We're hungry - sorry, THIRSTY to learn. Learn more about what the Brewer's intent was, to learn about processes and ingredients involved, because if we like them, we can seek them out in other beers and find more of what we like. And in some cases, we can even learn enough to try and recreate them ourselves some day, maybe with our own twist.
It's easy to get lost in all of this detail. It matters. And it matters a lot to us who love beer. But ultimately, I think it's also where our beer culture can sometimes fail.
Sure, our beer quality needs to be the best it can possibly be. And it needs to get better every year. And the decisions we make about what we choose to brew and how we choose to brew it are paramount to our success as brewers, and our industry overall. But we can't focus on this at the expense of the whole point of beer: Enjoyment.
Yeah, we can enjoy beer lots of different ways... sometimes by geeking out on completely deconstructing it, sometimes by brewing it, sometimes by sharing or trading it, and even sometimes by over indulging in it (Yes... it happens sometime. Be safe out there people.) But there are a huge portion of our population out there that just want to enjoy a beer by drinking it. They want to take a sip, say "Ahh... that's nice." and go back to their conversation. That glass (or can) will be patiently waiting for them when they want another sip, not interrupting the conversation, not insisting on telling you about its ingredients, about the way it was made. It's taking the high road and being there for you. Just like a beer should be.
Do we as beer makers, sometime get lost in the David vs Goliath "crusade" of craft beer we've been fighting all these years, missing out on bringing these people into the fold? Probably. Do we sometimes get lost in the minutiae of our beers and sometimes need to step back and just let them stand on their own? Probably. Should we do a better job of making sure Craft Beer is accessible to these people, because we NEED them drinking our beer? Yes. I think we do.
Bourdain is also aware of the role that Big Beer plays in the marketplace - his marketplace. Entertainment. After dinner, after the filming was over, and after a couple more Pedal Pale Ales, he asked me if I had heard of Brew Masters, the show on Discovery Channel featuring the guys at DogfishHead. The way Anthony tells it (yes, I can call him Anthony now, having spoken with him twice at this point in the afternoon), the show was just killing it, fantastic ratings. But then the network got the call from Miller/Coors saying they'd better get it off the air or they were going to pull their advertising. The show was promptly moved to a less desirable time slot, and in another couple of weeks it was off the air completely. (This is not new news, and Eater published this piece over 6 years ago.)
So yeah, there are still these huge, hulking Goliaths out there looking to totally wipe us out, either by corruption from within, acquisition from without, or just a straight up illegal financial beatings en masse in the marketplace (some of which have been well documented). And we, as Brewers might want to consider why we have people coming into our establishments asking us for "a normal beer". It might be more about our own exclusionary beer culture than what's actually in the glass.
Maybe that's what they actually hate?