Way back when, beer was the common man’s drink. In raucous German rathskellers, secluded Czech monasteries, and the windowless pubs of Dublin, men without land clanked steins together, singing and swigging and drinking away the grim European reality of social immobility. The propertied classes could have wine from their vineyards and liquor from their distilleries, but beer, like democracy, was the populist’s vice.
That’s beer’s romantic history. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Sure! It may have even been true, way back when. But a few centuries forward and an ocean away, in the country whose forefathers allegedly drank tankards of ale while forging its constitution, beer’s egalitarianism is under attack. American craft beer, the great equalizer, the one-time David to the macros’ Goliath, has spawned a fanatical fly in the democratic ointment. Pure of heart and sincere of purpose though they may be, this group challenges the very core of craft beer's ethos. They are to the craft beer-drinking public what the Tea Party is to the GOP.
They are the people who wait in line for rare craft beer.
You know them as "beer snobs," but these are not just your garden-variety hopheads, or even enthusiastic festival-goers. No, I'm talking about the real die-hards. The dIPA fanboys, framboise evangelists, and gose fetishists who willingly queue up to buy super-limited-release stuff. The ones who swap stouts and drain-pour sell-outs. The people who drive 500 miles for a case of Heady Topper or CBS.
They're turning craft beer into something it never was and never should be: unrelatable, unaffordable, and unwelcoming. Beer is inclusive by nature, but lines only exist to exclude. With each line stood and each trophy beer captured, they threaten the community's fundamentally democratic nature.
The idea of lining up for beer is unfamiliar to most people in the US. It may even seem a little stupid. This is good. It means that you're a reasonable person. Reasonable people understand that the only things worth lining up for are items that are critical to human survival -- water, rice, et cetera -- in contexts where they are scarce, such as a famine, or a very severe winter storm.
There's no way Dark Lord is THAT MUCH better than every other imperial stout on the shelves.
In addition to being non-essential to man's evolutionary fitness (and downright detrimental to his actual fitness) craft beer is abundant as fuck. As fuck, I tell you! There are around 4,000 breweries in the country, and every decent city has at least one great beer bar with dozens of taps and bottles galore. But I'm not even talking about specialty outlets. I’m talking about the mainstream retail landscape. From suburban supermarkets, to liquor marts, to rinky-dink bodegas, craft beer is now a staple. Hell, you, can get Sixpoint at Mets games, Dogfish Head on Amtrak trains, and Lagunitas at 30,000ft.
The point is, there’s a lot of craft beer out there, and a lot of it is very good. Whatever bottle you're waiting for simply can’t be that much better than the one you can buy on the shelf. This is no shot at the brewers whose beers have inspired such feverish demand. 3 Floyds, Alchemist, Russian River, Hill Farmstead... these folks make excellent beer. By skill, luck, and maybe fate, they have become cult names in the craft scene. Deservedly so.
Still, not for a single second do I believe that Dark Lord -- award-winning though it is -- could possibly be so transcendent of every other imperial stout that it merits camping out in an Indiana parking lot just for a crack at buying a few bottles of it. Frankly, I can't imagine a product -- beer or otherwise -- that would be.
Tell me I’m wrong. Shout me down, go ahead. I'll be the guy over here drinking a Left Hand Milk Stout I bought at the gas station, laughing at all you clowns waiting for bombers.
This brings us to the actual line-waiters. Let’s talk about them. They're going to be very angry with me when they read this article. That’s OK! We don't see eye-to-eye on this. I have friends who line up for beer releases. Hell, I have colleagues who do it! They're good people, and they'll usually counter my criticism by telling me that the lines aren't "just about the beer." It's about the culture, and the community, and blah blah blah.
Beer-line mentality isn't just stupid, it's intimidating & toxic.
I believe them. (There are people who are just there for bottles to leverage in trades and at auction; that's a different story.) But I also believe that their fandom is inadvertently shaping the community/culture/blah blah blah into an exclusive club.
In other words, I admire their passion, but I don’t agree with -- wait for it -- what they stand for. (Ha! Like, in the line... but also in principle... do you get it? Hello?)
Waiting in line for beer is a divisive force in our community. It rarifies craft beer. It stratifies us into drinking castes. It values the scarcity of a beer over the enjoyment derived from it. Craft culture is separating into two classes, and one of them will only drink beer that's sufficiently scarce and properly cellared.
On one hand, this is good news for the non-fixated majority of craft beer drinkers, who are satisfied with vast, regularly available retail selections, and don’t hunt whales. More great beer (and more easily gotten) for us!
But consider this: though it's growing at a fantastic rate these days, the entire craft community is still an enormous minority (just 11%!) in America's beer scene at large. That means more people than ever are poised to form their very first impression of our hoppy little world who don't know what you & I know. Namely, that there are a bajillion spectacular beers to try, so instead of scheming for a Pliny, they should go forth and enjoy a dozen very good, non-fetishized IPAs first.
There's a good chance that they’ll take one look at the lines (or one listen to the people who stand in 'em) and go somewhere else; into the inviting clutches of corporate "crafty" beers, or even back to the pale-yellow embrace of an adjunct lager. Beer-line mentality isn't just stupid, then -- it's intimidating, and maybe even toxic, to the continued diversity of the craft market.
The brewers! Don't forget about them. Talk to any craft brewer and they'll invariably tell you that their only goal is to make really good beer. (Craft brewers tend to be earnest to a fault.) Most of them do just that. But when craft beer's small, vocal, thought-leading minority spends all its time lining up for the next hyped-up limited release, it creates the perception throughout the marketplace that those beers are "better." This isn't necessarily true, of course, but it doesn't matter. Newcomers learn to venerate a handful of chosen breweries and ignore the rest. That sucks for them, and for the brewers. It sucks for all of us.
In the '80s, craft beer made its name by being bold, brave, and entirely different from the mass-produced, mass-marketed swill on the shelves. It was then, and it still is. But it’s a fine balance being an attainable luxury for the drinking public, and an inaccessible luxury good servicing the vanity of the middle class. (Kind of like wine. Ew.) If you line up for a super-rare beer release, you're complicit in making it the latter.
So where do you go from here? Simple. Drink what you want; drink what your friends & bartenders recommend. Hell, drink a crafty beer, if that's what you like. Just, for God's sake, if you see a long-ass line, please don't get in it with the assumption that the beer at the end is any better than the one you've already got in your fridge.