Ashley Tobin used to come armed to her family’s house. Bottles of Philadelphia Brewing Co., Victory Brewing, Yards Brewing. If it was craft beer from greater Philadelphia, she’d drive it from her home in Eastern Pennsylvania up to Illinois so she wouldn’t have to drink her relatives’ preferred Bud Light Lime.
“A little Pennsylvania for them, a lot of craft for me,” the 49-year-old non-profit manager would say.
But last summer, she stopped. The longtime craft drinker relaxed into some Bud and found she didn’t mind sipping a few, “like iced tea.”
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Then, home for Independence Day, she purchased something eyebrow-raising: a case of Miller Lite.
“I think I wanted something that tasted like I remembered. I didn’t spend a bunch of time thinking about it. I walked in, grabbed it and left,” she says, following up with phrases like “sensory overload” and “too much IPA/saison/sour/whatever.”
Tobin is what blogger Tierney Pomone calls a “recovering beer snob,” and she joins the ranks of American drinkers — including me, to some extent — who came of craft beer discovery age somewhere around the turn of the decade. At this point, “micro-brewing” truly penetrated the mainstream for the first time in its 40-year history.
Recovered beer snobs, also known as “geeks” or “nerds,” are generally Gen Xers who’ve spent years swirling and sniffing taster-sized samples, waiting in line for Heady Topper, and posting pictures of their beer hauls. They’ve gone through a lupulin threshold shift that carried them from IPAs to 100-IBU imperial IPAs, and then on to sours because their palates had basically grown numb to anything that didn’t blow it to pieces.
But, as observers predicted, they eventually got tired. They overloaded. They grew up. And they stopped wanting to think so hard about beer.
“I just got burned out,” says former beer blogger Ryan Hudak, who admits he used to exclusively down intense beers because he didn’t understand the subtle nuances of a mellow brew. “After learning more about different styles, I started gravitating toward less extreme beers,” he says. “Rather than buy a bomber of a beer I have to split with four friends because it’s 18 percent, I’m much happier drinking two or three cans of a 4 to 5 percent lager.”
Many brewers are making lighter styles, and sales figures show pilsners, blonde ales, and wheat beers are gaining market share (though IPA remains overwhelmingly dominant). U.S. brewers have shifted away, en masse, from bittering alpha hops in favor of more pleasant tropical aroma hops. According to the Hop Growers of America, farmers grew slightly more aroma than alpha hops in 2013. Last year, the gap widened to almost four to one.
What does this indicate? Palate fatigue is real. Also, it’s not cool to be a cliché who derives his sense of self by showing contempt for anyone who orders anything that’s not over-bittered or barrel-aged. The original generation of craft beer obsessives is (hopefully) gaining perspective. And maturity.
“If I think my opinion is so great it’s only because I have trained my palate and had the experiences to be able to make more informed decisions,” says Kyle McHerron, a recovered beer snob. He used to offer poetic evaluations of beer aromas, comparing them to obscure foods and spices. He brought his own beer to parties.
“Now I want to give that to other people as well,” he says. “I usually go the route of politely declining something if I really don’t enjoy it or sometimes not caring at all and enjoying the social aspect of sharing a beer with friends.”
Call it the natural evolution of an explorer. Typically, craft drinkers are the types of people who like to discover things. With that desire for self-education often comes the urge to scoff that they knew that beer before it hit big and it sucks now that it’s sold out to a multi-national brewing outfit.
Rather than generational, this seems to be more of a developmental phenomenon. New craft drinkers (typically but not always younger millennials, whose first beer might come from craft darling Tree House Brewing instead of Budweiser) are still chasing whales and spewing nonsense about shelf turds. And more sophisticated craft drinkers than me probably roll their eyes when I (yes, still) post humble-brag pics of the bottles I lug back from Sonoma County.
But that’s O.K., as long as we eventually grow out of it and refocus on beers that actually, um, taste good. My beer journalism mentor, 59-year-old Lew Bryson, says that, back in the day he and his friends, too, collected beers like so many notches on so many belts.
“Then we got out of it,” he says. “But some people get stuck at a certain point in their personal development, like those who get stuck in the glory days of high school. That happens with beer as well.”
In Bryson’s early drinking days, spotting Sierra Pale at a bar could be a big deal. Chances are the bartender would pour it into a frosty mug or chilled shaker pint. Then a lot of us learned about the impact proper glassware has on the aroma, flavor, and visual appeal of a beer. We might actually leave a bar if it didn’t have the right bell for our wheat beer.
Then came cans and just like that, I sort of stopped caring about the shape of my glasses.
Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at the East Coast’s first canning brewery, Sly Fox Brewing, says cans match the craft brewer attitude that prescribes taking one’s beer seriously but not oneself.
“More and more, as craft beer becomes available everywhere, there are many places where it’s not necessary to have a glass,” O’Reilly says.
Or, as Bryson says, “Glassware is such a first-world problem.”
Another first-world problem to turn off a portion of serious craft drinkers? Big beer buyouts and the battle over the definition of craft. Some gripe that they can no longer track what’s considered craft so they give up and drink what they like. Others simply see through what they perceive as bullshit.
“I feel like I’ve seen too many breweries tug at the heartstrings of the consumer using the craft/little guy angle,” emails Os Cruz, a former New Jersey beer blogger who hosted numerous bottle shares and frequented Vermont’s cultish Hill Farmstead Brewery. “A lot of romantic ideas are/were used to gain a strong base of followers. Then when a brewery is ready to sell, they remind you it’s a business. They play the side they want as long as it benefits their bottom line.”
Whether it’s craft, local, “crafty,” or imported, today’s drinkers can choose from many thousands of excellent beers, a luxury that leaves many standard-bearers overlooked and struggling to stay relevant and/or solvent. (Think of Smuttynose, Magnolia, Sam Adams, and Sierra Nevada.)
In a parallel effort to make noise heard above the din, a few bars look backward to move forward. After tiring of new breweries with bad beer and old breweries with copycat fad beers like wheat wine and sour IPA, veteran Philly craft beer bar owner Mike “Scoats” Scotese decided to be unique at his newest establishment by, well, doing something different.
“At Bonks, we’re trying to pour beers that you forgot how great they are,” he emails. “There’s so much great old-school beer that we can switch it up often.”
Used to their rare and complicated Russian Rivers and Almanacs, Philadelphians might feel unnerved to walk into a beer bar that trades the sought-after element of discovery for an oldie-but-goodie like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. Yet Scoats says almost all of his customers quickly settle comfortably into a surprising night of rediscovery.
As Julia Herz of the Brewers Association says, “A lot of beer drinkers who came of age during the microbrewery movement now look at, ‘Where do I want to land? I want to land in a place that doesn’t stress me out.’”
Drinking beer should be fun, she reminds us. And though the spokeswoman for craft brewers would rather see someone like Tobin pick up Jack’s Abby Munich Helles instead of Miller, she can’t deny Tobin and many of her craft beer colleagues are heeding her advice and remembering that for all of its sophisticated possibilities, to most people, beer represents a simple pleasure.
“Going to see my family, I had a chance to reset and enjoy the moment. It was so freeing to make that choice on my own later in the summer,” Tobin emails. “I’ll still choose a craft nine times out of 10, but I like No. 10, too.”