Do you play favorites?
Martyn Cornell, AKA The Zythophile, did this bit praising brown beer. While most in the comments and among the beery blogosphere have chosen to focus on Martyn’s ode to brown bitter, I walked away (virtually) with a different message. Martyn’s post is about how we can’t really claim to like beer if we have favorite beer styles.
What spoke to me was a comparison to music (in a beer blog – I’m partial). One can’t claim to love music if all he likes is one particular genre or artist. We’re limited by favorites and we fail to listen or search out new music if we continually turn back to the same old same old. Granted, I proclaim Pavement as my favorite band of all-time, but I’m not limited by this declaration.
Martyn goes on to demonstrate how he doesn’t have a favorite music or beer, but there are things he could handle over an extended period with one kind of music or beer. He names quite a wide range of music he likes. However, the post is about his love for English bitter, a style that would suit him for a time if that’s all he could drink.
I get this.
Some of you may not be aware that I taught fourth and fifth grades for ten years. When one
teaches facilitates the learning of 9-11 year-olds, it’s easy to pick out favorites. There’s the really bright-but-shy kid who always saves the day with her insights. I always had a soft spot in my heart for the kid who had everything going against him, but he showed up at school everyday, ready to learn. I could go on and on, but the point is that playing favorites limits us. If I had spent all my time and efforts on those few favorites, I wouldn’t have discovered the gifts of my other students. More importantly, I would have done a disservice to those who were not my favorites.
You don’t like beer if you only order one style at the bar. Think of all those other breweries and styles on which you’re missing. I honestly drink a lot of IPA’s and DIPA’s. However, I don’t know that I would truly appreciate these beers had I not begun to branch out into sweeter or more sour territory. In fact, I often have nothing hoppy on-hand since discovering many other styles of beer. (Plus, these beers are best enjoyed fresh. So, they don’t stay around long.) It’s better to not play favorites in this instance as sticking to one beer or style gives one nothing with which to compare.
The same can be said for music. Listening to the same albums and bands over and over only means that you’re not listening to something else, possibly something new. It’s easy to fall into ruts, wondering whether or not you have the energy to pursue new music. We should branch out now and again with our listening habits. Even when I lump all of the music I favor into the category “indie rock”, I fully recognize that there’s an incredible amount of variety, so much variety that it’s silly to name it all using the same ambiguous label. I can say that I love music because I truly love many kinds of music.
Now, all of this love for variety does not necessarily mean that we don’t linger with a few
favorites gems. I still listen to at least one Pavement album a week. Last night, I ordered a double IPA from Six Row followed by a Green Flash Barley Wine at dinner. Insound is sending me an LP by Lee Renaldo and The Shins shortly after. My last beer I brewed was a repeated fav, Big Black. Old habits die hard. Creature comforts are…well…comfortable.
Yes, we’ll say that we have favorites, but by definition, we would consume little or nothing else. That definition?* Preferred before all others of the same kind. So, for my purposes here, I’m looking at how this manifests to the extreme.
If IPA’s and Pavement were my favorites, I wouldn’t be listening to Beach House as I type this, wondering when is the right time to pop open that Lou Pepe. Maybe there should be a better term for what Martyn describes and I’m ripping off, but, for now, let’s not play favorites.
*This is for Bill. Although, I doubt it will satisfy him. I just hope it clarifies from where I’m coming.
Update: Please read the comment thread, particularly Bill’s comments. My intention was not to make music and beer exclusionary, but that’s the message I sent. I’ll leave the post up as is, but you should read the entire discussion.
Folks are really hung up on definitions. Some definitions seem vague and disconnected. Others change depending on the context. Still, certain definitions are there just to create controversy. Whatever the definition, whether it be beer or music, they make for excellent fodder for a blogger in need of a topic to post.
The “session beer” is a highly controversial term. Beer Advocate has their somewhat Americanized version of what most Brits consider to be session beer. Then, there’s the session beer gospel as preached by Lew Bryson at his Session Beer Project. I’m not going to go into the definition of the session beer except to say that whatever you’re drinking over an extended period of time that doesn’t completely drop you beneath the table is close enough to a session beer for me. I’ll let others debate ABV criteria as I rarely choose a beer solely on alcohol level. (Although, I have avoided certain beers that would have rendered me unable to drive home.)
There’s been some talk and disagreement over the origins and definitions of the West Coast IPA. Jeff at Beervana attempted to solicit the help from his readers in order to align his own definition with the masses. This sort of topic borders on debates over terroir and a vain attempt to identify one’s region with a beer style. It’s really no different with the controversy over Cascadian Dark Ales and/or Black IPA’s. Brewers/marketers are trying to tie a beer’s definition with their particular region. Sure, styles originate from and often taste different when brewed in different locales. However, the makeup of the beers are generally similar. I enjoy how an IPA from Michigan tastes as much as I enjoy how one from San Diego tastes. Locale is a factor, but I won’t define a beer style solely based on region. It feels limiting and lazy.
Lately, a couple of definitions have come under fire. It seems there is a crisis over what constitutes craft beer in the UK. I’m not familiar with Simon Johnson’s Reluctant Scooper, but in his post titled “The Craft Beer Manifesto“, he takes a jab at what defines craft beer (in the UK, at least):
1: Only use distilled otter’s tears
2: Use only barley that’s been warmed by the breath of kindly owls
3: Craft beer cares, so only use hops that have been flown halfway around the world
4: You can have it any colour you like, as long as it’s not brown. Unless its an Indian Brown Ale
5: Beards allowed only if they’re ironic
6: It’s not “inconsistent”, it’s “experimental”
7: It’s not “hiding faults”, it’s “barrel-ageing”
I found his list (all twelve) to be pretty funny. However, scrolling through the comments alerted me to some curmudgeon-like attitudes toward beer. I don’t know how everyone defines craft beer, but it seems to me that it’s beer brewed using traditional methods on a relatively small scale. The definition that Johnson hints at – with tongue firmly planted in cheek – is what has been marketed to us in one way or another. Some has been by design as breweries fight for their own unique place in the industry. Some is a creation of the craft beer geek culture where bigger, extreme-er beer is appreciated most. I think it’s a simple thing really, determined by brewing methods and production. Still, the manifesto is a funny list to discuss at the bar. (H/T Stan)
Another blog post has pondered the definition of a brewer. Zak Avery ponders the question perfectly and the proof lies in the responses he generates from his readers. The definitions are all over the place as each commenter has his/her own perspective on what constitutes a brewer. Simply, I’d suggest that a brewer is anyone who brews beer. There are good and bad brewers, ignorant and knowledgeable brewers. If we want to get technical, we could divide brewers between home and commercial, but sometimes there isn’t much difference in this dichotomy. The debate could go on, but that’s why it’s such a great question or rumination. (also H/T Stan)
Indie rock takes its name from “independent,” which describes both the do-it-yourself attitudes of its bands and the small, lower-budget nature of the labels that release the music. The biggest indie labels might strike distribution deals with major corporate labels, but their decision-making processes remain autonomous.
On the surface, that seems easy enough. However, when bands sign with major labels, whether or not they really do make “autonomous” decisions is up for debate. Too often, the idea of indie rock has been assigned to a certain aesthetic. Honestly, I am guilty of limiting this segment of music to the music I like: guitar-centric, rock music preferred by white males who attended college in the mid-90’s. I realize that I’m ignoring a huge amount of music when I proclaim indie rock as my favorite genre of music. Really, what I should do is say that I appreciate indie rock, but I prefer bands like Pavement, Guided By Voice, Sonic Youth, The Walkmen, etc. Luckily, it’s not up to me to define indie rock for you. We have AllMusic and Wikipedia for such trivialities.
Where definitions get interesting in indie rock is where we actually start to define genres and sub-genres. Lo-fi was made popular as an aesthetic where bands recorded in bedrooms on cheap four/eight-track recorders. Riot grrrl defined a generation of punks hellbent on injecting the DIY, punk scene with some estrogen. Baroque pop was the only monicker someone at Spin or Rolling Stone could muster in order to explain what Arcade Fire or Beirut were doing. I could go on and on with genres and subgenres made popular in indie rock circles. The topic of these genres is enough to write a book on its own.
So, what am I getting at?
It seems a great deal of time is spent on blogs and books and whatever media one prefers trying to define everything. The only problem I have with this is that so many of us (myself included) spend a lot of time trying to define it for others. No longer do we listen to (or read) each other and try to meet at an understanding. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. A certain amount of anonymity and/or distance provided by the interwebs does that. I’m trying to get better at this and simply state that what I post here is just my perspective. Sometimes that’s clear. Sometimes it’s not.
I prefer to see these definitions as evolving tools to better understand one another. If you and I have different ideas as to what a session beer is, it might make for a more enjoyable session if we know from where each person is coming. Let’s say that I am a Lew Bryson disciple and will only drink session beers measuring in at 4.5% or less and you’re the type that can’t taste anything below 9% ABV. It would be helpful to know that I can throw back several pints over the course of evening while you may want to limit yourself to sipping one or two beers over the same time period. Without this understanding, one of us comes off looking like a drunk: you for drinking high gravity beers at the same pace as I or me for throwing back five pints in one sitting.
When I talk music with people, the definition discussion is much easier. No one is stuck to one definition for a band or an album. We prefer to delve into what the music is doing for us and what influences it resembles. Conversely, the beer nerd conversation is dependent on the definition of a beer or its style. Thankfully, this grip on definitions is loosening as some in my beer circle would rather talk about tangibles of the moment or how the beer tastes in that particular context. To me, these discussions over definitions are so much more useful and productive rather than one party insisting on whatever is etched in stone while another pontificates that all formal definitions are obsolete.
Thankfully, Martyn Cornell provided some reason to the conversation and yet another term to help describe what we beer enthusiasts like. He used the post to promote the idea of “fine beer”, you know, like “fine wine” or “fine dining”. I’m all for it, but I won’t use this space to go into that. His main point is the same point I’m trying to make. Basically, the labels we use to describe what we like (craft beer, indie rock) are just the words that make it simpler to tell outsiders or newcomers what we like. It’s a way to organize store shelves and record bins. It doesn’t adequately describe all the reasons we like what we like. It’s shorthand. It’s easy, almost lazy. (Martyn didn’t say this exactly. I’m sort of paraphrasing.) So, the energy spent defining lazy terminology is energy wasted.
I will continue to use the terms “craft beer” and “indie rock” to describe my tastes in drink and music. I will probably also try to define these interests with each blog post. However, I am not trying to define these specific terms for you. What I am attempting to do is to define what I like and why. I am trying to make the case – like many have done before me – as to why this is important. I am not attempting to define beer and music for you. I am just trying to engage the conversation, the thing that goes neglected when we have to define everything.