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Reclaiming beer snobbery

Snobbery is not intrinsically bad; rather there are bad snobs and good ones.

shutterstock_298210493We live in the Age of the Geek.

Not so long ago, that word had bad connotations. Geeks were outcasts who kept to their own. Odd, often intelligent, but deeply lacking in basic social graces.

These days we view them more positively: Not only are “geeks” known for running multibillion-dollar companies, but the word has come to denote enthusiasm and knowledge on any given topic. Anyone can be a geek about something—beer, for example. So geeks became cool and learned to play well with others.

Now the snobs want in on the action.

Earlier this month New York Times film critic A.O. Scott—“Film Snob? Is That So Wrong?”—declared that he was tired of being called a snob. So instead of continuing to fight it, he proposes that we reclaim it. “If the words nerd and geek can be rehabilitated—if legions of misunderstood enthusiasts can march from the margins of respectability to the heart of the mainstream—then why not snob as well?”

But I didn’t know about Scott’s piece until I read this one at Kotaku, written by my friend Chris. He’s a video game critic. Chris and I met in journalism school and both started out as political reporters. By circuitous routes we both wound up writing about things that we actually enjoy. Now we’re middle-aged journalist-geeks who write about geeky stuff for geeky niche subcultures. And it’s all right, you know?

But what if we’re not geeks? What if we’re snobs?

Chris reviews games, but the more interesting stuff is when he writes about gamer culture. That’s when I tend to see similarities with beer folks. They have similar discussions over there, in their little Venn bubble. If you’re the sort of geek who lives where our bubbles overlap, then you already know that. Maybe you’re a gamer with a taste for fine ales.

So what’s up, gamers?

Go read those articles, but I’ll interpret the proposition: Snobbery is not intrinsically bad; rather there are bad snobs and good ones. The bad ones are condescending jerks. Good snobs are tactful, but they are also proud to be choosy. They are discerning. I’d say they combine the traits of deep knowledge and strong preferences with basic manners. (And this reminds me of Matt Kramer’s definition of a connoisseur: “one who can distinguish between what he or she likes, and what is good.”)

To open the discussion with his readers, Chris laid out nine rules for being a True Video Game Snob. What’s more interesting to me than the semantics of snobbery are the similarities—and the differences—in the discourse among geeky niches. They all say something about this way we have chosen to spend a bit too much of our precious free time. So, they something about me, and about you.

Let’s try them on, to see how they fit:

1. A snob does not care which corporation published a game brewed a beer.

Quality is not a function of brewery size. A snob knows that great beer can come from factories owned by global corporations as well as soulful neighborhood outfits. And it can come in cask, keg, bottle or can.

2. A snob does not care how much it cost to make the game beer, or how many people worked on it.

For beer, these are two separate issues: the cost to brew a beer, and the number of people who work for a brewery. My translation: A snob knows that an elaborately made beer might be great; it might also be undrinkable gimmickry. An efficiently made industrial beer might be technically excellent; it might also be dull as dishwater. A snob knows that there are great beers to be found at price points low and high. We need not buy them all.

3. A snob does not care whether a video game beer is an according-to-Webster “game” “beer.”

A snob is not dogmatic. Is it Reinheitsgebot? Is it real ale? Is it craft? Is it to style? Is it cider? Is it liqueur? Those are the wrong questions. The right ones are, Is it any good? and most importantly, Why?

4. A snob plays old games drinks the classics as well as new ones.

The classics are our old friends. Newcomers ought to get to know them. Our past experiences with them are often our framework for evaluating hype and novelties. Some of them might even become classics, eventually. We take the long view.

5. A snob reads the credits labels.

A snob knows where a beer was actually made, as well as the names of the people who make the beers he or she likes. I’ll add: A snob does not name drop brewers, nor treat them like celebrities, nor put them on pedestals. This is about knowing who makes the products that are to your taste—and, sometimes, knowing when they split off and start a company of their own.

6. A snob does not care about Metacritic Ratebeer or BeerAdvocate or Untappd scores.

Chris Suellentrop: “Taste is not algorithmic, nor is it democratic. C’mon, we’re snobs!”

A.O. Scott: “The world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody’s taste can be better than anyone else’s.”

A snob knows better than that.

7. A snob doesn’t leap to outrage.

Wouldn’t that be nice? A snob knows that this has all happened before, and it will probably happen again tomorrow.

8. A snob looks down on players drinkers who don’t take games beers seriously.

Here we diverge. Video games have a real claim to being a serious art form. Beer can be art (I suppose), but most of the best ones were never meant in that way. Beer might evoke emotions, but it is not social commentary. Put social commentary on the labels and it just becomes marketing; it cheapens it. Beer is a commodity meant to be enjoyed at your own pace, and alongside whatever else you happen to be doing. A snob knows that the very best ones can stand up to aesthetic scrutiny—but they’re also enjoyable when your mind is on other things, or nothing at all. A snob knows that great beers are undemanding, yet they are physically beautiful and as complex as we need them to be.

9. A snob looks down further on people who don’t play games drink beer.

An awkward fit here. Beer is an alcoholic drink, and alcohol has its hazards. If we’re honest, that’s part of the fun. But it would be mean and wrong to look down on recovering alcoholics or anyone who can’t drink for health or religious reasons. Again: basic manners.

But then there are the neo-prohibitionist types, those who view alcohol in feast-or-famine terms, who don’t understand the concept of moderate drinking by mature adults, and who perpetuate the attitude that drinking is only for getting drunk and getting drunk is deadly therefore nobody should drink. We could look down on them safely, but nobody takes them seriously anyway.

On the other hand, we might look down on those who always order wine or cocktails and say, “Ooh, I’m just not a beer person,” when they think nothing of beer and know even less. They’re the ones who have strong preferences yet lack knowledge—which, in my opinion, is more entertaining than the reverse. Those people make for fine sport. They provide the opportunity to show that you can be a civil snob.

We must gentle, if we are to usher in the Age of the Snob.


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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  • John Guenther says:

    Nice idea for a story, Joe.
    The only point I’d make (and make the leap to outrage..er..comment) is that I do care about the corporation if they’re business practices are unsavory and bad for craft beer and craft beer drinkers. If true, the AB Inbev allegations that they’re using recently purchased brands, like Elysian, to push craft brands off of distributor lists to be replaced by their own bottles are an even more important reason I’ll never drink the acquired brands again.
    Nice post, thanks!

  • Curmudgeon says:

    I can’t see how snobbery can ever be regarded as good. A snob by definition looks down on people who don’t share his tastes, or level of interest, in beer or whatever. But surely a true enthusiast recognises that other people have different priorities in life.

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