The Winding Path Through the Thicket

Here in the awkward moment between seasons, when most of the world has nothing better to do than brace for pumpkin season, there exists a fine moment for think pieces. Into the breach step Boak and Bailey, with one of their typically thought-provoking posts, "Seven Stages of Beer Geek." By B&B's reckoning, those stages proceed from discovery and infatuation through obsession and finally dissipation. (Go read the whole, etc.)

It's an intriguing conceit but one I'm afraid I resist. The stages are conceptually familiar, but not emotionally so. People who take an interest in an activity delve into it with different levels of interest and intensity. Many, many people love beer but are not beer geeks. Except for the folks in the industry, I don't know many people I'd describe as beer geeks--and yet in Portland, anyway, the number of people who love beer are legion. That is to say those people who get excited about new breweries, look out for new beers, talk about beer, and regularly go to fests, events, pubs, and breweries. More or less what Boak and Bailey describe as phase three: "They begin to take an interest in beer beyond social situations and pubs, attending festivals and exploring the bottled range at the supermarket."

Of course, there are other profiles, too. Homebrewers are a unique breed, folks who keep their eye on commercial brewing, but are happier to trade bottles and information with friends. There are the "Norm" drinkers, those who consume far more beer than I, but stick to the brands they enjoy. In places like the Czech Republic and Germany, the brands they stick to may well be world classics, too--not so easily dismissed as the stuff Norm drank. There's a group of traditionalists who are as obsessed with beer as any beer geek, but they focus on German and Czech lagers, say, learning everything about them, from history to manufacture to dispense--sometimes even the language. There are the breweriana guys (they're mostly guys), who really have a unique relationship to beer. And then there's a large tranche of people just teetering on the avid edge of casual, who relish a good pint--or glass of red or dram of whisky.

How to characterize all these expressions into phases of development? There are too many possibilities in the paths we humans take to reduce them to a typical course. In my own case, the interest had co-emergent start points. In my early twenties, I started going to pubs regularly and discovered a wonderful world that I love to this day. It's a different post, but the experience of being in a pub has always felt like a return to home to me. (True in every country I've visited.) I had a simultaneous, dawning awareness that the world of beer was slightly larger than I knew, and I began poking around the import section at stores and looking into this microbrew thing. Those interests led me, a bookish kid, to Michael Jackson and a few other writers, and my knowledge deepened and grew slowly.

Throughout the 90s and into the aughts not a lot changed. Even though I was writing about beer then, my trajectory hadn't really changed, nor had it much deviated from the courses of my friends. I've always been a person of varied tastes (music, literature, film, etc.) and so while some friends stuck with certain styles, I became more promiscuous. But this can hardly be called a different stage, though; it was purely aesthetic. Then something fascinating happened; the world changed.

In 2007, when I launched this blog, there were probably 75 breweries in Oregon, maybe 25 in Portland. Breweries of the day offered a regular lineup of about six beers and three or four seasonals. New releases were expected to fit into that portfolio and stick around, not flit in and out by the dozens. It was therefore possible, just a decade ago, to track every new beer released in the state. It's one of the reasons I launched the blog. Of course, now it's impossible to keep track of every new brewery. (Oregon has 250 breweries now, give or take.)

This changed everyone's relationship to beer. The beer geek as we now define him (or, increasingly, her) is someone who tries to keep tabs on the froth of new beers and knows which are the best. As in any field with a surfeit of information, they become the canaries in the cool mine, staying one step ahead of popular opinion. In 2007 this kind of person didn't exist because she didn't need to. The current circumstances force people to decide how to engage the beer world, and they choose different paths. The beer geek emerged as a response to overwhelming choice, but is no more indicative of a fan than the homebrewer or collector or lager obsessive.

Any category of interest--cuisine, vintage cars, comic books--is something like a dense thicket. It's far too large and wild to ever traverse entirely, so we pick our way through, following individual paths as our interest strikes. Some of us will go a few feet, find a sunny meadow and camp out for good. Others will go deeper, eschewing the sun for the shadowy depths. Some start in, lose interest, and come right back out. I don't think there are any real stages here. Our paths are as particular as our own personalities. Fortunately, the thicket is well-trod, and footpaths weave and crisscross at regular intervals, and at each intersection we find a group who, for a moment or a lifetime, have arrived at the same place. There is no single path through the thicket, but there are, along the way, many shared destinations.

All right, back to your pumpkin-waiting.