The Role of Star Power in Beer Appreciation

Connoisseurs are a funny bunch. And I mean here connoisseurs of anything--wine, dog breeds, indie rock. Embedded in their identity is a conflict of interest: on the one hand, they believe themselves to be the final arbiters of objectivity in their particular realm; on the other, there's a constant instinct to one-up everyone else by finding the new "best" or the obscurest rarity, but this can only be endorsed by the fellow traveler who is also in the know. Tribal objectivity; an oxymoron, but innate to connoisseurship. A few weeks back, the New Yorker had a wonderful piece on coffee, and writer Kelefa Sanneh captures its essence here:
Batlle resists snobbery, as any good evangelist must; she thinks that coffee salvation should be available to anyone who seeks it. But the coffee community she loves, where everyone knows everyone, wouldn't exist if the number of converts weren't so small. In order for connoisseurs to exist, they must be outnumbered by philistines, and if the connoisseurs are honest they will admit that they enjoy this state of affairs. The citric flavor of a Kenyan coffee might seem unpleasantly sour to a novice, and so loving Kenyan coffee is a way to show you are not a novice.
So it is with beer. Certain breweries have such bullet-proof cred among the geeks that their products enjoy a halo effect. Others are so scorned that everything they make is tarnished. This phenomenon was in play over the weekend at the Holiday Ale Fest--I think. You can weigh in if you think I'm off base.

Even before attending, I knew that the barrel-aged Velvet Merkin from Firestone Walker was going to be a buzz beer. Barrel-aged black ales are always loved, and few breweries enjoy such a solid reputation (an earned one, I'm happy to acknowledge) as Firestone Walker. Indeed, it was the fest's big buzz beer, and it was tasty.

It wasn't, in my mind, a perfect beer. The bourbon was overwhelming on the nose, and on the palate it was pure vanilla. I quite enjoyed it--the brewery describes it as "milk chocolate, smooth dark cherry, vanilla and coconut infused," which sounds absolutely delicious. I'd have preferred a bit more roast and beery balance, less Starbucks treat, personally, but hey, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed it, but.

Then I tried a beer from poor McTarnahan's, a brewery that suffered from years of wandering and neglect before finally finding its groove under some great brewers. Among beer geeks, few breweries have less juice than Mac's.The beer Mac's sent bore much resemblance to the Firestone Walker--a bourbon-barrel aged black beer, their Ink Blot Baltic Porter, steeped in Jack Daniels' barrels for a year. It was also not quite perfect--at 6.3%, it was a bit underpowered and thin. But overall, it was a quite lovely beer--the whiskey was milder and more integrated, the beer rounder and more complex. Of course, it got very little attention, and I, a classically conflicted connoisseur, ignored it most of the time I was at the fest.

Both were crowd-pleasing, tasty, slightly-less-than-perfect beers, and they had a lot in common. My guess is that if Preston Weesner had switched the kegs before the fest, the "Firestone Walker" would still have been the buzz beer. Loving Firestone Walker is a sure mark of the connoisseur, and the Mac's was a fantastic beer, so who wouldn't have been happy to laud it? We'll never know, but that's my guess.

As always, your dissents are welcome.