Novelty and the New Yorker

Unfiltered by | Jan 2009 | Issue #24

Embrace normality, shun the labels

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

A remarkable thing happened in November. One of America’s most respected periodicals, the New Yorker, a great chronicler of popular culture, published a nearly 10,000 word tome on one of craft beer’s brightest lights. And while public response to the energetic and engaging profile of Dogfish Head’s intrepid leader, Sam Calagione, bordered on the euphoric for craft beer enthusiasts, the remarkable piece by Burkhard Bilger left me a little concerned.

A rollicking good read, the article follows a Ken Kesey-esque Calagione through a patchwork of interviews, bawdy hijinks and entertaining stories. Using Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver as an uneasy contrast and unlikely foil, Bilger includes contextual observations about his lead character as the king of extreme, and, to a lesser extent, about the craft beer industry in general. While the article captures Calagione’s spirit (if occasionally portraying him as a barely mitigated eccentric), it’s the lasting impression of the craft beer industry and its association with “extreme” that bothered me.

After first denigrating craft beer as a “fad” and then pronouncing it “dead,” the mainstream media has had a particularly fickle relationship with craft brewers. Despite these slags on the fine efforts of struggling craft brewers, the news media’s subtler approach to craft beer in recent years poses a bigger challenge to the industry. And the New Yorker article’s subhead put the issue front and center in the magazine’s first real foray into the craft beer world: “The rise of extreme beer.”

For the last five years, newspaper editors, magazine writers and television producers have sought to define craft beer as being “extreme.” And for a while, craft brewers were perfectly happy being portrayed as representing a break from the average, tired, mass-produced brands. While a handful of adventurous brewers have been met with success pushing the brewing envelope, the overwhelming majority of craft brewers still run very traditional operations. Beyond obscuring the intent of most craft brewers, such narrow media coverage suggests that the efforts of smaller breweries are unusual in a way that appeals to only a very limited segment of the public.

Craft brewers should be concerned that their efforts and products, which, for mainstream success, must focus on both flavor and accessibility, will become isolated from potential customers by way of inaccurate media coverage. In Bilger’s article, Oliver’s stated concerns over the alienating effects of appealing to such a small demographic, and about Bilger’s equating of craft beer with extreme beer, are understandable. For the majority of craft brewers who are looking to grow their businesses, the notion that they are doing something strange should not be encouraged. Instead, their efforts should be portrayed as a return to normalcy after a long-standing hibernation of taste, a welcome homecoming from a time where bland, flavorless beers and foods reigned. In the same way that the average consumer does not look upon Chinese, Mexican or Thai food as the extreme of eating, craft brewers should be wary of having their efforts defined as “weird” or “strange” by the media.

To be sure, Bilger’s article was a watershed event in the history of the craft brewing renaissance, one that symbolized an arrival on a new stage, a proper introduction to an audience that prides itself on sophistication. As the mainstream media continues to focus its attention on craft brewing, I hope the industry can achieve a balance of coverage and avoid the restrictive, isolating label of novelty.