Beer and Pavement

By Definition

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Life, Manifesto by SM on February 8, 2012

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)

Commenter Bill Farr asked me to define indie rock. Has anyone really tried to do this? Actually, some have. AllMusic of course has something to say:

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.

17 Responses

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  1. Bailey said, on February 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    The reason firm definitions of terms like, say, freakbeat aren’t required is because it’s so easy to explain by making a playlist or compilation and saying: “Listen to this, then you’ll get it.” If only there an equivalent way of expressing ‘craft beer’.

    • Zac said, on February 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm

      You can’t give them a mixed six-pack and say “Drink this, then you’ll get it?”

      • Bill Farr said, on February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm

        Not necessarily — they may not like beer, or not like beer that isn’t X. If I don’t like certain genres of music, i can at least get what they are, but if I don’t like how something tastes… I’m not going to get sour beer, or high-end tequila, or madeira no matter how many different types you make me drink.

  2. Martyn Cornell said, on February 8, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    “The ‘session beer’ is a highly controversial term.”

    Only in the US. In the UK you’ll find no arguments at all. Your arguments are the result of trying to import a term from one drinking culture (British) into another (American) which is, in very many ways, completely different.

    • Zac said, on February 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      Oh, agreed, but I see a lot of back and forth over the pond. I find it a silly debate. In the end, if we all sat down with a beer – session or not – we’d probably not waste our time with such trivialities.

  3. carriethewade said, on February 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Good one. Ever since I got out of high school I found it more difficult to define “indie-rock” and still continue to have trouble with the idiom. In a recent conversation with a friend I use indie rock more as a non-definition than a definition. Applying the idiom is based heavily on a developed instinct, like music that can’t really be classified as anything else–typically guitar-based rock that tends to appeal to dudes (many of whom went to college in the 1990s, but not all).
    In some respects it’s like the non-accent midwestern-style speech, plain english of music.

    • Zac said, on February 8, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      For reals. We need shorthand terminology, hence the use of “indie rock” and “craft beer”. However, the good stuff happens when we discuss what it is that we’re shorthanding. (Is that even a word?) And that is why I blog, Carrie.

  4. Bill Farr said, on February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Hey! Hey!! You were the one who says your music posts get no response while your beer posts do! I figured I’d help you out, so the beer guys would know what you were talking about!

  5. Steve said, on February 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I always thought “indie” pretty much just meant music from an independent label, but then saw how that became a little problematic and now appreciate it should have a wider definition. Craft beer is a funny one. Maybe it is a bit like that old definition of pornography “I know it when I see it” – except replacing the word “see” with “hear” or “drink”.

    I’m all for definitions if it makes communication easier and fosters fun discussion. I think the problem is when defining something becomes an excuse for a pissing contest – which the internet is generally great at. I may be generalising here, but it also seems like quite a male phenomenon, but that might be opening some sort of gender-specific can of worms…

    • Zac said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm

      Good points. Of course, I think “craft beer” is a hot topic in the UK. Check Martyn’s and Bailey’s blogs for further details.

  6. Stan Hieronymus said, on February 9, 2012 at 5:07 am

    When do we get to talk about alt-country?

    • Zac said, on February 9, 2012 at 7:59 am

      Whatever that is. 😉 #nodepressionreference

  7. Simon Johnson said, on February 9, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Love the indie analogy. Brings back memories of the eighties when I used to scream at the NME Independent chart because there was no way Kylie was indie, just because the label PWL was…

    ‘Craft beer’ is a phrase used to sell beer. Sometimes it’s used to sell very good, well-made, tasty beer. Regardless of brewery size. Soemtimes it’s used to sell shoddy, ill-conceived, poorly executed beer at a premium. Regardless of brewery size.

    And how about a dash of irony? ‘Craft brewer’ is an established term in the UK – for homebrewers.

    • Zac said, on February 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Gawd! You Brits are always messing up our terminology! 😉

  8. slackermark said, on February 9, 2012 at 8:28 am

    Labels vs. Definitions. I’ve been a lurker (label) of your blog for awhile, Zac and have never considered your use of “indie rock” and “craft beer” as anything other than a brief explanation of the subject. Keep up the good work.

    Btw, maybe you should ask Malkmus what he considers “indie rock” when he visits us next weekend. Can you imagine the response? ha

    • Zac said, on February 9, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      That would be a great conversation killer. I know a guy here who toured with him. Maybe I should arrange a meeting…or just chicken out.

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