Thanks to the fact that the Great American Beer Festival is only a few days away, the craft beer social-media galaxy is abuzz with the usual mixture of hype, advertisement and nitpickery. It’s also perhaps the reason why CBS News reached out to comedian Jim Gaffigan for a small op-ed on the state of American beer, to coincide with a time when beer-related Google searching is at its yearly zenith. More unfortunate? The sorry nature of Gaffigan’s essay, which attacks the very idea of any beer style that doesn’t conform to the most basic and pedantic of outlines. In it, Gaffigan proclaims himself a defender of “beer that tastes like beer.”
The Brewers Association, the trade group that lobbies on behalf of the American craft brewing industry, has already responded in the kind of way they must respond, due to the nature of the organization—in a friendly, well-mannered, bridge-building invitation to join them for a beer. This response, on the other hand, will simply call Gaffigan’s essay what it is: The short-sighted and piteous critique of a writer annoyed at the fact that he’s being left behind by the world.
There is a breed of person in the world who becomes personally offended by the idea of people enjoying something that they themselves don’t understand. This is something that Gaffigan often discusses in his comedy, in fact—and we are indeed fans of Gaffigan’s comedy—such as in his segment slagging seafood as a whole, but the difference is that the comedian’s seafood material is delivered within the confines of a stand-up set, and contain a backbone of satire because they’re delivered by Jim Gaffigan, the Crotchety On-Stage Character. THAT Jim Gaffigan is a construction of sorts; a parody of entitled, befuddled middle-aged white men. By contrast, there aren’t any jokes to speak of in the CBS News piece—instead, it’s a genuine venting of apparent frustration from Gaffigan, which suggests he falls into that bracket of people who illogically see themselves as imbued with the sole right to decide the definition of “what beer tastes like.” And that, suffice to say, is an incredibly presumptuous thing to believe. The entire piece comes off like one of Andy Rooney’s fuzzy rants on Sixty Minutes.
I mean really, Jim—how can you stick a line like “a beer preference is personal” into this essay, and then immediately launch into derision of every other person’s taste within the next few paragraphs? How can you describe the picked-upon feeling you have when your brothers say you like “fancy beer,” and then fail to see that you’re doing the exact same thing to anyone who enjoys anything that falls outside your extremely narrow definition of “beer that tastes like beer”? How does your definition of Americans “losing their way” become “enjoying a wide variety of beer,” as opposed to drinking the same thing every day in ant-like conformity? What is it about the concept of choice that makes you angry, exactly?
There are so many easy examples of how this is a fallacious and limited line of thinking, especially if you apply the same line of thinking to any other aspect of lifestyle or taste. For instance: Gaffigan is a well-known lover of steak, something he’s expounded upon many times in his comedy—he talks in the piece below about how much he loves “the steakhouse experience.” If you said to him, “Why do you need dry-aged ribeye? Are you that bored with Applebees sirloin?”, he’d no doubt call it a ridiculous comparison, and say that the two are meant to serve entirely different niches. So it is with beer. One doesn’t berate a person, saying “Why would you need pork, when you’ve got chicken?”, and it’s equally ridiculous to ask someone why they need pale ale when they’ve got Bud Light. One is in no way a substitute for the other. You might as well ask someone why they pursue their chosen hobby: “Are you that bored with books and movies, that you need THIS?”
This isn’t to say that craft beer flavor experimentation doesn’t often go too far, because it sure as hell does. One of the byproducts of there being more than 6,000 craft breweries in the country is that there’s a whole lot of bad beer out there, as brewers are increasingly desperate to differentiate themselves in an ever-more crowded market. But odd experimentation is how we discover exciting new vistas—the only way to discover what improbably works is to first discover what predictably doesn’t. It’s how we discovered how to make delicious beer styles that “taste like chocolate,” as Gaffigan puts it, ‘ala every porter or stout in existence, or “taste like oranges,” as so many pale ales or IPAs do. To many drinkers, flavors like “spicy,” or “piney” or “nutty” or “toasty” or “fruity” are exactly what they think of, when someone says “beer that tastes like beer,” and it’s because these drinkers took the time to bear witness to these experiments in flavor.
That’s why it’s so stupid to double down on such an absolute statement as “and I have to tell you, without exception, they’re all bad,” in conjunction with craft beer. It makes me wish that I could sit Gaffigan down at a Paste blind tasting, and put a variety of Big Beer and craft light lagers in front of him, and watch the guy attempt to work his way through them, determining which are the “without exception bad” craft examples. First-hand experience over the last four years of blind tastings suggests that the results would shake his preconceived notions of “what beer tastes like” to their very core.
And even if Gaffigan never chooses to expand his personal definition of what constitutes beer beyond industrial light lager, it’s not as if the craft-beer market is lacking in those options these days. Light lagers are one of the fastest growing and trendiest segments of craft today, with beers like Founders Solid Gold leading the charge and proving the demand for the niche. Drinkers like Gaffigan, who prefer lighter beer styles and seem to be sedentarily stuck in their ways, are one of the audiences that craft beer is now spending the most effort trying to reach. It’s disheartening to see the guy respond by trashing the entire industry.
But in the end, the dumbest thing in Gaffigan’s essay might be the gallant attitude he wields, as if he’s a white knight standing up for an oppressed segment of the population. Might I remind you, Jim, that the “beer that tastes like beer” segment, by your definition, still constitutes roughly 87 percent of all the beer that’s consumed in this country? That segment hardly needs the help of a famous stand-up comedian to fight a brave battle against thousands of small-business owners. Perhaps you could make a case for McDonald’s next, and their severely underappreciated burgers? You could then stick up for Walmart, which is fighting ever-so-hard against the scourge of independent retailers.
“Oh America,” that piece can begin. “How did we lose our way into supporting individual choice and artistic expression? Can’t we all just trundle down to the Mega Lo Mart and buy 50-pound sacks of white rice to eat unadorned, for every meal, for the next three months?”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve worked up quite a thirst for some beer-flavored beer—by which I mean, beer of any and every flavor. Thankfully, the idea of having options makes me excited, rather than irrationally angry.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.