Beer isn't beer
Lily Waite explores beer’s strange knack of always pulling us back in
Tuesday 29 September 2020
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What is beer? Beyond the liquid, beyond its component parts – water, malt, hops, and yeast – and beyond its refreshment, relaxation, and inebriation: is it a product, a religion, an identity? Is it social lubricant, social glue, social change, or social escape? It’s made by people, and for people, and so is inherently personal – in terms of craft beer, you may come to know the brewers’ technical preferences or skills by repetition of enjoyment, and you get to know your local bottle shop staff’s personalities, and beyond the familiarities of craft beer, you may become known in your local by your regular pint.
It is, too, inherently political, by virtue of the people tirelessly heaving malt and slinging kegs, and due to class, economics, geography, identity, and much more. But is craft beer a community, as is so often claimed online, or the illusion of one? Is online beer community real, or is it simply shouting into a digital void? Why do I keep returning to it, despite feeling exhausted by it? Is it the ease of proximity, comfort, social network, or more?
I’ve been working in beer in one way or another for five years, behind bars, in bottle shops, behind social media accounts, and now as a writer and pseudo-brewer. Beer is woven into much of the fabric of my life: brewery stickers are smattered across the computer upon which I type, and the chair upon which I sit; much of my wardrobe is made up of merch from one brewery or another; and upon visiting my parents, my dad will text me to ask which beers I’d like him to get in. At home, like so many of us in the beer world, my fridge plays host to beers from numerous countries, of varying styles, and mentally earmarked for a range of occasions. Beer’s not just my work, but one of the most enduring and consuming hobbies I’ve ever dedicated myself to.
But, increasingly, I’ve found myself growing tired of keeping up with the latest trends, breweries, or releases. I’ve found it hard to write about beer in the abstract, charting exciting fashions and ‘Which Beers You Should Be Drinking This Summer!’ Against the backdrop of a brutal pandemic that has ripped through the world – and continues to do so – international uprisings against systemic racism and police brutality, and so much more injustice, beer simply seems trivial.
Familiarity breeds contempt
It can be easy, if you’re not careful, to fall out of love with something. It happens to me with disconcerting regularity, such is my impulsive personality. My sourdough starter is currently languishing in the back of my fridge, my flowerbeds are certainly worse for wear, and aside from the one still life completed three months ago, I haven’t painted in years, despite having a bachelor’s degree in, well, painting.
I fell out of love with beer around Christmas last year. I’d done the same a few months before, and a number of months before that. My interest simply waned, and my tastebuds forgot what I liked, and why I liked it. Beers that had been years-long favourites and trusty stalwarts faded into apparent insignificance, and some were outright disinteresting. I turned to cider and wine instead, and, ever-prone to all-or-nothing thinking, began to lament my failed beer career, and longed to one day simply enjoy a whole pint of lager once more.
Obviously, this is the case: I’ve been enjoying cold, crisp lagers replete with glorious mounds of foamy head and the perfect marriage between bready malts and snappy hops, gently zesty and spicy wits, and subtle but singing grisettes with great aplomb of late. I have, to all intents and purposes, fallen back in love with that which consumes so much of my life. And so, in a fair swap, I consume all that I can.
For many of us, that first beer is enough to spark an interest that can last a lifetime
Inevitably, so much of what I, and we all, enjoy so much about beer is the liquid itself. For many of us, we remember that ‘gateway’ beer so clearly that it still holds a place in our hearts – some of us may still remember the moment we took that first sip. Mine was a bottled Punk IPA at last call in a Wetherspoons in Cheltenham circa 2013, a beer that I incognizantly and drunkenly described to my friend as “peachy, with biscuit-y malts”. For many of us, that first beer is enough to spark an interest that can last a lifetime, and can literally change the trajectory of our lives.
It certainly has mine. But, if it weren’t for the dynamism, breadth, and joyous abundance of flavour, would I keep returning? What else comprises beer’s steadfast grip over me?
Come for the beer, stay for the community
Much of beer’s appeal to many of those within its universe is the sense of kinship and community. Though at risk of being cliquey at times, the feeling of being privy to an exciting world of flavour and intrigue can be intoxicating at first, like falling down a rabbit hole you never knew existed. For those working in the industry, events and festivals mean you can easily form fast friendships with all sorts of people, and for those who don’t, you can quickly build a like-minded group of friends by hanging out at the same taproom, week in and week out.
For some, especially in the light of the Covid-19-induced lockdown, this has been a lifeline. With pubs closed and in-person contact and socialisation hampered by this, the online beer community stepped up, and grew more connected than ever, with virtual pubs springing up overnight, and Zoom quizzes, meetups, hangouts, and more flooding the event calendar. With the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on the 25th May, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that took place across the U.S. and then the world, however, the whiteness of the beer industry was thrown into stark relief, and continues to be questioned. Whilst diversity was an important topic before, it’s now become ever-more so.
By virtue of my identity, I don’t always feel welcome in the beer world, though forthright sentiments of exclusion and hostility are, now, rare; I’m a queer trans woman existing in a world predominantly populated by people who aren’t like me. Though the craft beer world is often described as a community, it can sometimes feel like a community of other people; a community to which I’m not always invited. And I’m white, middle class, and able-bodied, and am afforded the privileges of those positions. Beer is certainly not as welcoming as it could be for those who are not.
Beer is inclusionary: it seems obvious to say that beer has no race, gender, sexuality, or other identity, but it bears repeating. It is, as it has long been said, for everyone. You only have to look from the bars of neighbourhood pubs where mass-produced lager is enjoyed often indiscriminately, to rural Zimbabwe, where opaque Chibuku comes in cardboard cartons, to see that beer is universal and commonly utilitarian. But looking to the premiumised craft beer world, it’s plain to see that it’s those who surround beer who are exclusionary. Everyone from brewers to bartenders, and drinkers too, become gatekeepers, whether intentionally or not.
Beer is inclusionary... Beer has no race, gender, sexuality, or other identity
The work being done to combat this, to some extent by myself through Queer Brewing, Out and About in Sheffield, GLOW in Denmark, and others like Queers Makin’ Beers, Beer Kulture, Craft x EDU, and the Michael Jackson Foundation all in the US, and innumerable individuals certainly more tireless and tenacious than myself, is perhaps what draws me back despite feeling alienated.
It’s this point about beer’s ubiquity and utility that I think I think I most often overlook. All too often, I catch myself in the trap of believing the trope that beer is a luxury, perhaps confusing craft beer for, well, beer writ large. Though there are points to be raised and questions to be asked about craft beer’s accessibility given its pricing, placement, and promotion, well-made, delicious beer is very much not an elite goal. Here, too, lies beer’s power: in something so universally enjoyed and so ubiquitous lies enormous potential for social change, both within the concentric circles of craft beer and ‘macro’ beer, and the world beyond.
I think the reason I keep coming back to beer is because, in essence, I believe in beer. I believe in its power to do good, and to bring people together. I believe in the potential it has to open up to more communities and welcome people from beyond its seemingly steadfast bubble. If I only cared about the product itself, and how much I enjoy drinking it, then I wouldn’t devote so much of myself to telling its stories, and working to make space for people like me.
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