The Session No. 111: A Beer Midlife Crisis

This month’s Session is hosted by Oliver Gray of Literature and Libation.  To refresh your recollection, the Session is a long running project where beer bloggers and writers from around the world write about a common topic on the first Friday of each month. One writer serves as host, presents a topic, and prepares a summary roundup of everyone’s perspectives.

ad067-session_logo_all_text_200It’s a project that almost died. Creators Jay Brooks and Stan Hieronymus asked last September whether the Session – which they started in 2007 – had run its course. I’ll admit to being part of the problem. For the Session to work, those of us who write about beer (and anyone who wants to write about beer, for that matter) has to support it by . . well . . writing about beer.

The answer, fortunately, was “no” and I promised (to myself) that I would take up regular participation again. Yet, we’ve reached May and I’ve yet to write a Session in 2016.

Which brings me to Oliver’s topic: Surviving a Beer Midlife Crisis. Oliver writes:

Recently, I’ve found my interest in said hobby waning. The brilliant luster of new beers and new breweries looks now, a few pounds heavier and a bunch of dollars lighter, more like dull aluminum oxide.

The thing I have embraced so fully and spent so much time getting to know and love, suddenly seems generally, unequivocally: meh. It’s like I’ve been living a lie, and everything I’ve done is for not. I’m having a beer mid-life crisis, yo.

Maybe it’s the politics of purchasing or selling. Maybe the subculture has peaked. Maybe this is the natural progression of a hobby that has no real tie to the industry behind it. * * *

It’s impossible to see the future, but if my fall from rabid beer fanboy to dude-who-drinks-beer-and-sort-of-wants-to-be-left-alone is indicative of a trend, I’ve got some signs to make a doomsaying to do. * * *

Do you find it hard to muster the same zeal for beer as you did a few years ago? Are you suffering through a beer-life crisis like I am? If so, how do you deal with it?

I had the pleasure of meeting Oliver at the Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference last July in Asheville, NC.  I’d asked Oliver to participate on a panel discussion I led called “Moving Beyond the Beer Review.” Bryan Roth and Jessica Miller rounded out the panel, two other very talented people in the writing and photo journalism world. Our presentation was designed to help beer bloggers and writers think about using their specific talents to communicate about beer in ways far beyond writing beer reviews.

When Oliver’s topic popped up I found it particularly relevant and timely for a multitude of reasons.

Astute readers will notice I’m nearly a week late in writing this. That gives me the opportunity to cheat and see what others wrote about Oliver’s topic.  It’s the beauty of the Session – and a great reminder how what we write (and say) is perceived and processed by each of us differently.  The responses to Oliver’s topic took very different paths.

Not to spoil Oliver’s roundup, but Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting has some very interesting comments about craft beer’s “Old Guard.”  It’s not what you think.

Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog, who has introduced me to more counter-points than many of my law professors, wrote about not needing to join the herd – something he routinely demonstrates.

Oliver writes about getting too caught up in petty twitter squabbles, and the business and politics about all things beer, only to recently reconnect with what he loves best – the process of making beer.

Which brings me to me.

I am not having a beer midlife crisis. I’ve been exploring beer since the early 1990s, well before my fellow panelists were legally allowed to consume.  I’ve been homebrewing since 1997. Moving to all-grain brewing a few years ago rekindled my love of brewing and I’m averaging 14 brews a year.  Fellow homebrewer Matt Miller and I just created a kick-ass Bourbon Barrel-Aged Toasted Coconut Imperial Porter.  Conversely, I continue to struggle getting really good Belgian character in my Belgian-style beers. I’ll happily accept help.

I still enjoy checking out new beers and new breweries as much as I did five years ago. But things have changed. There are not only thousands more beers to choose from since the early 1990s, but literally thousands of new breweries to choose from.

Though I began my exploration well before many (most?) current craft beer drinkers, my recent path has been similar to Oliver’s. Immensely thrilled with the new choices, initially on the bandwagon of “us” versus “them” in the Brewers Association’s quest against Big Beer, and eventually on to the realization that our romanticisation of beer long obscured the fact it’s a business.

Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione is often credited with saying craft beer is 99% asshole free. In my experience, he’s not even close.

That’s not a dig at the craft beer industry. If anything, I’ve noticed the spirit embodied in Calagione’s quote, if not the accuracy. The spirit of cooperation among brewers is high and they are largely a congenial bunch. But go read Michael Kisers’ comments for a little insight into how things are changing. In Montana, the question of how to “fix” Montana’s broken licensing system has created tension for well more than two decades and, more recently, created a troublesome schism among members of ours state’s brewers association. I know. I talk to many of them.

In short, my understanding of “beer” has changed significantly. You can see it in my writing.

It’s a little hard to believe, but Growler Fills, the blog I started in 2009, will hit its seventh anniversary in October. My understanding of the beer industry has changed dramatically in those seven years for one reason. I engaged the industry, listened to it, and learned from it.

It will continue to change. After seven years, I’m just getting to the point of even knowing what questions to ask.

Both my readers know I haven’t written much over the past several months. I’d blame it on a very busy work schedule, but the reality is I needed a break.  Didn’t know it, didn’t plan it, but that’s what I needed. I suspect Oliver reached that point, too.

It’s not so much a midlife crisis as a useful pause. Somewhere in converting from “fan-boy” to knowledgeable, objective observer, there are many choices to be made about how to continue writing about beer.

I recently sat down for an interview with the founders and owners of Missoula’s Big Sky Brewing Co., Neal Leathers and Bjorn Nabozney, for an article I wrote for the upcoming June/July issue of Rocky Mountain Brewing News. It was a fascinating interview. One of my favorites so far and I hope that is reflected in the article (I’ll post it once it runs).

We tend to take for granted the breweries in our back yard who have been around a while. Big Sky got started in 1995 – not the first of the craft breweries in Montana, but well before the current explosion in the U.S. They are by far Montana’s biggest brewery with distribution to twenty four states.

When I was asked by a friend to ship twelve bottles of Moose Drool to Massachusetts, I’ll admit to raising a questionable eyebrow. “Moose Drool?” I asked. “Are you sure that’s the Montana beer you want?”

My question revealed a couple of issues. First, familiarity breeds contempt. I can get Moose Droool any time and have been drinking it since the late 1990s. Second, though brown ales are a personal favorite, the march toward total domination by IPAs has made us lose sight of underappreciated styles. But I digress.

What struck me most about my interview with Neal and Bjorn was that after twenty one years, they still really enjoy making beer. More strikingly, they reached a comfortable size years ago and don’t feel the need to keep expanding. They pride themselves on making balanced beers that, in one sense, serve as an antidote to the hops arms race. That’s an exceptionally refreshing perspective in today’s beer climate.

Honestly, the interview rekindled my interest in writing about beer. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the beer industry.  Though I am more connected as an “outsider” to Montana’s beer industry than most, what you read on Growler Fills is far more a process of discovery than any declaration of fact.

My evolution of enjoying beer continues, too. Most recently I find myself reaching for a smaller variety of favorites rather than an obsessive search for the new. Oh, I love visiting a new brewery, but it’s becoming rarer and rarer to find something that stands out. Over-hyped beers are far too common. Under-appreciated styles are far too disrespected on ratings sites.

After 25 years of exploration, you know it when you taste it. Quality becomes everything. I don’t need another rose hip, taro root, cardamon-infused, cask IPA.  I need an excellent cream ale.  Meadowlark Brewing Co. in middle-of-nowhere Sidney, Montana, has one. So does Missoula’s Draught Works. And Big Sky has an excellent brown ale with a catchy name. Blackfoot River Brewing Co. has been brewing a world-class juicy IPA long before IPAs dominated the market.

I’m now at 1,500 words, far beyond the average interest of modern-day readers’ typical attention span.  So if you’ve made it this far, I extend my sincere thanks. I’ll also buy you a beer (just leave a comment below).  I also thank Oliver for asking an important question at an important time.

Though I took a pause from writing, I’m back in the game. I’d ask you to promise to keep reading if I keep writing, but that doesn’t really fit. This has always been about my exploration of beer, not a quest for page views. I’ll just be pleased if you come along for the ride.

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6 thoughts on “The Session No. 111: A Beer Midlife Crisis

  1. Alan, thanks for writing this. I missed Oliver’s session announcement & post until this; I haven’t been keeping up with anything myself.

    It’s a good piece, and I appreciate it. For me, I’m more enthused than ever about many parts of beer and people. But the rest of it? I’m so fucking tired of. And there’s a lot of it (and them, let’s be honest) that I’m tired of. I don’t know if that will ever get better.

    I might be coming through your state in early June, BTW. If so, I’d love to buy you a beer.

    • What was most timely about Oliver’s question was his request that we honestly take stock in where we are in our exploration of the beer industry. Much like our experience with beer itself, our exploration of the industry has been an evolution and it is refreshing to see more critical thinking.

      And, if you stop in Missoula, I’ll definitely be the one buying you a beer!

  2. Yeah nothing wrong with getting into a rut , just recognizing it for what it is and dealing with it according to your satisfaction is a peaceful way out, I have found (speaking of hobbies). I started an extensive furniture project (hobby) 9 months ago, at 90% completion I hit a wall, I kinda beat myself up after a month of no progress, then I said “just drop it”. Cleared my my mind, started and finished a couple smaller projects, started another project or two and……

    I enjoy brown ales too, one Moose Drool though is a sure headache for me. I talked to one of the brewers about it down at the Rhino 15 years ago, he thought it might have something to do with the residual sugar?? Bitterroot Nut-Brown on tap is AOK. My favorite, something like a Widmer heff on tap or a PBR (or Tecate).

    Thanks and enjoy your thoughtful writing

    You beer I’ll foot the rye chaser. R

  3. I definitely get caught up in trying only new beers. But when a beer is great, I will go back to it for sure. I’ll take a beer too. I see you’re in Bozeman this week. 🙂

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