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The Evolution of the Craft Beer Drinker

Richard Hefter, June 18, 2013 -   

You are a teenager and have been bombarded with beer commercials your whole life, watching your dad and his friends have some cold ones during the game – every game. You hear over and over in school and on TV that you have to wait until you’re 21. Well, sometimes rules are meant to be broken. 

When you are 15 and your parents Fourth of July party contains coolers and coolers of beer, sometimes the right thing to do, in that juvenile head of yours, is to steal a few and run out back away from adult supervision. You may think you’re ready, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for that first sip. 

My experience is probably a little different than most, my dad wasn’t a huge beer drinker. Wine was his passion. But his friends, well, they were before their time.  They would bring six packs of this strange, interesting stuff called Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Most of what I had seen was the typical BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) and the malty swills that were the rage at the time: Killian’s Irish Red, Red Dog and Rolling Rock. Needless to say my journey into beer drinking started off with a little speed bump. Why would anyone drink this bitter, bitter drink I would say? Little did I know, in 15 years I would be laughing at the bitterness in SNPA. It would take me a while to get there, but it was a fun ride.

High school is the time most kids in America have their first taste of beer and, more than likely, the first time they get drunk. To these kids it really doesn’t matter how they got drunk, just that they have a vehicle to get them there. The most popular kid at the party was the kid with the fake ID or the one with the college age brother that would buy beer for everyone. The sad thing for American beer drinkers, is so many get stuck that this stage. Their palates get used to the taste of these almost water beers. They get used to pounding beers to get drunk, and equating $$/ABV to value.

The rationale goes like this:

“Why should I buy this 6-pack of 5.5% ABV craft beer for $10 when I can buy a 24-pack of 4.2% Bud Light for $14?” 

“I’m just trying to get drunk. I don’t care what my beer taste like.”

“I don’t like dark beer, they are all too heavy.”

This is exactly why BMC has to spend millions and millions of dollars on ads every year and keep coming up with gimmick after gimmick for their products. They have to separate the brand from the product and keep you, the consumer, from focusing on the actual beer. Who cares about the beer inside when the can has an extreme bow tie pop-top exhaust vent? (Note: the extreme bow tie pop-top exhaust vent may or may not actually exist yet. If not, I want the royalty fees.) 

The next step, assuming your journey has not already ended, is college, the first taste of independence. And what do you do with this newfound independence? Go out and buy the cheapest beer you can stomach. This is the land of Busch Light, Natural Light, and Milwaukee’s Best. This is a land I never want to return to. The memories will stay with you forever, but the beer is more forgettable. Once your body starts rejecting these beers, as it should, it is time to graduate into the real world. You are a grown up now.

After college there is the great adjustment period: your first job, your first place, your first bills! You also, hopefully, have some extra money in your pocket at the end of the week. 

For me, the summer after I graduated, I went on my typical weekend beer run and there it was, this seasonal beer, Sam Adams Summer Ale. Well it’s summer, I thought, might as well give it a spin.

Maybe for you it was something else, maybe Oberon if you live in the Midwest or Sierra Nevada Kellerweis if you live on the West coast. Whatever it was, you remember it. And with that one sixer you opened up your horizons to a whole new world of beer.  

This beer actually tastes good, not too bitter, not too sweet and a nice citrus kick. Then your mind starts to wander and you think to yourself: what else have I been missing? 

This is the point that every craft enthusiast gets to. Some get there earlier, some later, but it just takes one beer to do it. I might not enjoy Sam Adams Summer Ale as much as I used to, but it still holds a place in my heart, if not always in my bar. 

Once you hit the tipping point, there is no turning back; now, you’re a craft beer snob. You’re done with fizzy yellow swill, only something bourbon barreled, cave aged, triple dry-hopped, will do. You start bringing your own beer to every party out of fear the host is going to be serving red Solo cups of Bud Light. You hate yourself at sporting events for having to pay $9 for a beer that you would normally pay not to have (this is slowly but surely changing). You friends start making cracks at the bar when you ask them to order you the local IPA they have on draft. You’ve begun making side trips to breweries on your vacations to see where you favorite beers come from (I’ll always miss you San Diego!). The friendly bearded guy at your neighborhood bottle shop knows you by name and holds the new special releases for you in the back.

This all slowly begins to spiral out of control until you become the whale hunter, the Ishmael of beer.

After wasting spending approximately 100 hours (+ or - a few hours) stalking beer message boards, searching for this whale of a beer, it breaches just ahead of you. A 750 ML bottle can be all yours for only $25! So, logically, you buy two -- one to trade for other whales and one to sit in your cellar for a “special occasion.” At this point the top-notch beers being brewed less than 30 miles from you are fleeting; no, you’re a whale hunter, a trophy hunter after exotic prizes.

I’ll admit it takes a while to get out of this phase. One day you’ll wake up to a miniature refrigerator full of expensive beer, almost all high ABV (remember ABV=value!) and you’d give it all up for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or that simply great IPA your local brewery has been pumping out since day one (shout out to DC Brau), and it hits you like a ton of bricks, the juice is not worth the squeeze. 

The final phase (I hope…) is something I like to call Craft Beer Enlightenment. You, our craft beer drinker, reach a point where you’re open to try any and all types of beer. You appreciate the value in a low ABV Berliner Weisse and yet, still know when to pull out the big guns to split that whale with a group of friends. You laugh to yourself in embarrassment as you help the poor soul trying to find a new beer to try at the bottle shop or the local watering hole. You try to get some craft beers in the fridge that your BMC friends might enjoy (future article alert). 

Now, you are a guru, an ambassador of craft beer to the uninformed. You never know when you might suggest a beer that opens up their mind and their palate to the wonderful world of craft beer. And that in and of itself is as satisfying as any Bourbon Barrel Stout ever was. 

Sam Calagione (who is one of the great craft beer ambassadors in my opinion) once stated, “I'm a beer geek, not a beer snob. And all beer is good. And there's a time and place for any kind of beer.” This attitude is what the craft beer movement needs.  Don’t put down others for what they are drinking. Try to suggest some beers you think they would like and maybe put your money where your mouth is and buy them a pint of that great local beer. You never know, that could be just the spark that was needed to create the next craft beer ambassador. Cheers!

Follow me on twitter @rhefter and on untappd: rhefter 

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