Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Beer Enthusiast Life Cycle

Based on my own beer journey, and the countless journeys around me that I've witnessed, it seems to me there are some distinct stages to beer enthusiast life cycle. I was discussing this phenomenon and the various stages with my local beer outfitter last night, and wanted to put my thoughts to digital ink before I lost them

Stage One - The AcoLITE

In this stage, our hero starts down the road of enjoying beer. Most start with your typical macro lagers and light lagers. To be fair, this is initiated more by the effects of the beer, rather than the beer itself, but you have to start somewhere. For the beer enthusiast, they begin to pick up on differences, wonder what's actually gong on in the can (What is this triple hopping I hear so much about?), and begin to branch out a little more.

When I began my drinking career, I started out full-bore with liquor, and mostly ignored beer. After a few too many trips down blackout lane, I turned to the humble light beer as a way to slow my roll. I found pretty quickly that I enjoyed drinking beer quite a lot, and thus my journey of thousands of beers (and even more calories) began.

Stage Two - The Adventurer

Once the enthusiast moves on to more unique pastures, things really take off quickly. In this stage, the enthusiast starts trying what many of us call "gateway beers". These beers are usually pretty straightforward, and may be highly-local. I'd throw the big Euro lagers in here, along with Sam Adams Boston Lager and other non-BMC big brands, along with those local favorites like the Shiner portfolio here in Texas.

The whole world of styles and flavors begins to open up rapidly, and beer knowledge (forums, rating sites, books, etc.) kicks off a new hobby. This is where you usually see a collection of hastily washed-out bottles on the wall, as the enthusiast starts to notch their belt (which is ever-expanding thanks to the calories), but before they realize if they keep every bottle they'll need a bigger apartment. Many hours are spent in the local beer aisle staring in wonder trying to work out the best six-pack on offer.

As the boundaries begin to expand, the enthusiast starts developing their palate, and begins to discover which styles and breweries are best suited for them. Many will lock on to a few brands and dig very deep.

For me, the aforementioned Shiner profile and Guinness Draught is where I started. I defined myself this way. I had the whole Guinness collection: the slippers, the shirts, the bottle-opener hat, the neon, 500 glasses, even the fridge. My family still buys me this stuff.

Stage Three - The Snob

As the enthusiast starts getting into more flavorful, harder to find fare, they inevitably turn their backs on the beers that got them to this point and begin to get snobby. Being into "good" beer becomes a defining characteristic for their personality. Those who enjoy Blue Moon or Shock Top are viewed as unwashed Philistines that would benefit from a winding tirade about the downsides of using adjuncts in beer.

Many times, you'll find this person in the same beer aisles they used to wander with wonder, now talking loudly to friends to impress others with their extensive knowledge and superior taste. We've all seen this guy. We may have all been this guy.

They begin to spend increasing amounts of money on rare beer. They begin to experiment a little with trading to tick rare and far-flung highly-rated beers of their beer rating lists. "Whales" becomes part of their beer lexicon, in a non-ironic way.

This is a phase all beer enthusiasts go through to some degree; it seems unavoidable. The question is how long they stay here. Some stay for a few months, many get stuck here and never progress past it. This is a bad place to be.

At this point I renounced Shiner. I renounced Guinness. I laughed at myself for enjoying such plebeian beers. If it was easy to get, I didn't like it. I made sure everyone around me at a bar or bottle shop knew I was a "heavy hitter" that had tried all of the best beers and knew everything about beer. I'm not proud of who I was, but I'm proud I was able to move on.

Stage Four - The Quasi-Enlightened

Things start to stabilize. They realize the beers they drink don't define them. They realize there's nothing wrong with popular beers. They realize that there are hardly any "bad" beers on the market, just a lot of beers that aren't good to them. Time spent in the beer aisle is more quiet, only providing information and recommendations when asked. The more books that are read, the more they realize how little they know about beer.

The spending, trading, and lining up don't stop. In fact, they get more intense, ramping up to potentially problematic levels. Many hours are spent driving from store to store looking for a score. They might even make their spouse line up on Black Friday in the cold for hours to mule for a release (I certainly have done this).

I like to think I am here. Though I chase the hyped beers with the best of them, I love a High Life on a hot day, and I'm proud to announce it. Though, now that I think about it, maybe there's an annoying side-stage where people go out of their way to not be a snob, and that's where I am. Hmm, best not to think about. Moving on!

Stage Five - The Zen Master

At this point, the enthusiast begins to move past the limited releases. The hype, the effort required, the $25 per bottle prices all get to be too much stress for the marginal increase in quality over well-crafted "shelf beers".

They begin to realize, not everything needs double-digit alcohol percentage, barrel aging, or a fancy label. They turn back to the easily-acquired beers they used to enjoy and focus more on what is local, still dabbling in a few high-priority limited releases from time to time.

To make it very clear, I have not reached this stage. In fact, I'm far from it, still chasing down limited release beers each week, waiting in long lines, refreshing Twitter like a madman each day. However, I'd like to get here one day. Maybe.

So, where are you in your journey?