People Know Less About Beer Than You Think

Credit: Sports Illustrated
Peter King is a sports writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the three or four most-read authorities on American football in the country.  His "Monday Morning Quarterback" is a sprawling recap of the week's events packed with tons of insider tidbits and random observations--a must-read for millions of die-hard fans.  It's a very bloggy, online-only article, and over the years King has added more an more regular features.  In the past year or so, he's added a comment about craft beer at the tail end.  He travels the country and tries beers in whatever city he happens to be visiting at the time.  But he's a layman.  He doesn't study beer except on the hoof, and what he knows about beer comes to him through tongue and nostril.  In this way, I think he's perfectly typical.  But it leads to semi-gaffes like this one, from yesterday's column:
Beernerdness: Copycat Beer of the Week (and I'm not complaining), straight from the Salt Lake City Airport: Wasatch White Label White Ale. Closest thing to Allagash White that I've tasted, and there's a reason. Wasatch White uses some of the same ingredients as Allagash White, including orange peel and coriander. In this case, copying is very good. That's a fine, fine beer, Wasatch. 
The gaffe is evident to the beer geek: since Pierre Celis rebooted witbier in the sixties, coriander and orange peel have become the standard markers of the style.  They didn't start with his favorite beer, Allagash, and if Wasatch is cloning anything, it's Hoegaarden.  But how would King learn this?  Unless he happened to read the menu of a local brewpub somewhere that gave the accurate history (brewpub histories are generally wildly to slightly inaccurate), he'd never have occasion to know the history of his fave beer.

This weekend, I attended an annual work retreat for my wife's business at the coast.  Perhaps two dozen folks of varied backgrounds, most of them average Americans with no special knowledge of beer.  Someone dropped by Widmer and picked up a keg of kolsch, and I saw bottles of Rogue and Deschutes, and cans of Budweiser and Rainier.  I heard a discussion of what constituted heavy and light beer.  (Color.)  I tasted a homebrewed wit that was tastier than the Winema Wit I had at Pelican earlier in the day.  (Though if you're in Pacific City, have the spectacular Belgian stout Grundy Love--which I understand has nothing to do with Ben.)  I talked to a woman who wondered why all beers can't taste like the kolsches she fell in love with in Cologne.  Someone told me she hated carbonated beverages, including soda, but liked Guinness because it was flat.  That led to one of those painful beer geek reveries where I yammered on about nitrogen as I watched her eyes glaze.  She didn't actually care, she was just trying to chit chat. 

I was put in a mind of all of this when I saw Martyn's latest post about the recent arrival of India Sessions Ales--a topic to which I may devote a whole post.  As craft beer becomes ever more popular, we're going to have to remember that most people don't actually care about it that much.  They may think about beer for five minutes in a pub before they order one, and then not think about it again until their next beer.  The debates geeks have about ISAs and CDAs and IBUs are fairly extraneous to the larger world of craft beer--even among people who like Peter King who are fans.  And guys like Peter King--and another guy I read, James Fallows--are liable to be the ones who actually turn the conversation of beer to good beer.  Good beer will survive or perish based on whether people with a casual interest like it.  If I were a brewer, that would keep me up at nights.  It's easy enough to target the geek--he makes his preferences very clear.  But shooting for the casual drinker who doesn't realize where his favorite style came from?  That seems like a far dicier gamble.