And you may find yourself drinking in some overpriced merch
And you may find yourself in a gentrifying part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the tap tower of a large cement bar
And you may find yourself in a beautiful warehouse, with a terrible beer
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
If you’re reading Hop Take, chances are this question has run through your head before, or will soon. (NB: David Byrne croon optional, but encouraged.) It’s an alienating experience, walking into a too-perfect taproom with oversized Connect 4 and Jenga sets, and quippy LED signs that say stuff like “Good For What Ales You” and “Lager? I Barely Know Her!”, and it seems to happen more and more these days. Partly, that’s because there are over 9,000 breweries in this country, which means everybody is walking into more taprooms generally. So what if many of them share a certain je ne sais quoi of beer-focused banality? Like my Talking Heads opener above, they can’t all be winners, right?
Until recently, that was my policy. “Live and let live,” I’d tell myself as I drained a pedestrian pilsner at XYZ Beer Co.’s taproom, the bathroom of which was plastered with posters for brewery yoga and fun runs. “I’m sure they’re working on it,” I’d mutter, coughing up another $9 to Acme Alewerks in hopes that the beer I selected from the hand-lettered chalkboard menu was more potable than the last. I’ve muscled through more Mason jars of mediocre malt juice, more Libbey can-glasses of lousy liquid, than I care to admit. I used to just make a note never to return and move on without comment. The old newspaper adage holds that “dog bites man” isn’t news, and in the U.S., neither is a well-appointed taproom that pours crappy beer.
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I may have carried on this way forever, occasionally running afoul of an infected pale ale at an otherwise beautiful brewhouse. But then I came across Embedded writer Kate Lindsay’s recent account of “get[ting] caught in an Instagram trap,” which she defines as places that have been “haphazardly constructed to resemble a real attraction when it’s actually just a front for people to take pretty photos.” Lindsay’s own bamboozlement took place at a “wellness spa” that turned out to be architecturally unwell. But as I read along with her travails, something clicked. Those reductive, copy-of-a-copy taprooms, the ones that prioritize the aesthetics of brewing over the self-same act? Those are Instagram traps. They exist at the pleasure of the algorithm, not the drinker; they trade in likes, not lagers; they are visual playgrounds first, production breweries second — if at all.
Armed with this lens, I got to thinking. Instagram is the de facto channel for breweries to pitch their wares, but you can’t taste beer through a phone’s screen. Crowdsourced beer rating sites are chaotic and unreliable. There are only a few proper beer critics in the entire country, and craft brewing’s localized nature makes it impossible for any one of them to rule authoritatively on more than a sliver of the beers they produce. Which means… my God… all craft breweries on Instagram are Instagram traps until proven otherwise.
That’s not to say all craft breweries are hacks using curated, copycat decor and slick merch to pass off bad beer. Instagram traps didn’t start trite and transactional. “I think the first iteration of ‘Instagram traps,’ in the early 2010s, were earnest,” Lindsay tells Hop Take in an email. “But now that places are aware they can kind of coast on looking good on Instagram, the more modern iterations of Instagram traps knowingly prioritize that over their actual product or service.” Back in 2017, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster and industry O.G. Garrett Oliver criticized hazy IPAs as “the first beer style based around Instagram culture and based around social media” because the style photographed so well and required so little technical knowledge to brew. The editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer” was onto something then; now, it’s not just beers that are designed to play well on Instagram, but the breweries they come from, too.
Those designs take different forms. The elements that stick out most to me are furniture, glassware, and structural materials. But Brew York’s Chris O’Leary, who has visited nearly 2,800 breweries all over the world (and counting!), sees flat-out branding as the leading indicator. “The more noticeable trend is taprooms are far more branded than they used to be,” he tells Hop Take. “Prominent logos or logo walls are things I see a lot more than I used to, and they’re not there to remind you where you are: they’re there to remind your social media followers where you were.”
That’s not sinister on its face, of course. Breweries are businesses first and foremost, and after two-plus pandemic years, boosting higher-margin, on-premise sales is more important than ever. If some well-placed spray-paint stencils or wing walls (or whatever) elicit the user-generated content that gets more drinkers through the taproom doors, godspeed. But when breweries focus on their aesthetics at the expense of dialing in their portfolio, they become places people go to post for clout, rather than drink for leisure — and the posts lure more posters, beer quality be damned. “There’s the experience you have IRL at the [Instagram trap], which was probably bad, but then the experience it looks like you had on Instagram, which is that you went to this cool place and everyone is really jealous,” explains Lindsay. It’s “[l]ike a money-laundering or [a] drug front, but for Instagram clout.”
Both O’Leary and Lindsay point to the neon-style signage as potential Instagram trap markers. (O’Leary even sent Hop Take photographs of two particularly blatant examples from his travels, snapped at a pair of taprooms in the Southeast that will not be named here.) “To be fair, I think places that are genuinely good can also have those aesthetics because they’re like, ‘Well, we want people to come try our food, it looks like people like funny neon signs, let’s get one of those,” says Embedded’s Lindsay. But as the style reaches saturation on the platform, it goes from benign to malignant. “[I]t can end up being a deterrent.”
The good news for the vast majority of U.S. breweries, the ones that treat brewing as their primary business and taproom design as an important secondary consideration, is that Instagram traps are getting easier to sniff out as the platform ages. Hop Take asked Lindsay what, if anything, good breweries can do to differentiate themselves from the Instagram traps they appear next to in the average drinker’s social feed. She cautions against throwing the app out with the bathwater. “It’s OK to want to look good on Instagram, and you can still successfully attract people with your aesthetic — your service just needs to match up!”
Same as it ever was, dear reader. Same as it ever was.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
Anderson Valley Brewing Co. recently began 6- and 12-packing its pilsner for national distribution from beautiful Boonville, Calif., which is cool! Less cool: Owner Kevin McGee tells Hop Take that as AVBC began the first run for its Winter Solstice Ale earlier this month during the Golden State’s climate change-induced heatwave, the glycol chiller was clocking a 121-degree Fahrenheit ambient outdoor temperature. Talk about a winter warmer.
📉 …and downs
Anheuser-Busch enrages retailers with fall price hikes (curious!)… Philly chops legal urban hop crop… Rail strike averted for now, but not forever… MolsonCoors workers hit the (informational) picket line in Milwaukee… Nathan’s Famous x Coney Island Brewing made a hot-dog beer, don’t make me tap the sign… Sounds like “Greatest Beer Run Ever” simply isn’t…