Social Beer

As a reply to Liz Losh’s generous blogpost on my passion for beer and coffee culture(s).

virtualpolitik: Strange Brew

My tone is clearly much less formal than Losh’s. Hope it still fits and doesn’t bring down the quality standards expected from her blog.

Quoth Losh’s post:

Doesn’t consigning brewing of coffee and beer in private homes eliminate third spaces for social interactions with a cross-section of people and opportunities for discussions and debates? Isn’t it like putting yourself in a cul-de-sac with a garage door facing the street in that you aren’t participating with neighborhood businesses? Enkerli strongly disagreed, since beer-making involves large quantities, parties, and collective beer making sessions. He thought that it was a powerfully social activity and one that was often situated in specific neighborhoods.

Probably overstated my disagreement about eliminating third spaces. Was mostly trying to describe what I had observed from the beer and coffee world(s). Basically, wanted to emphasise that making coffee or beer at home is just one of several activities done by members of those networks. And those activities often push people to go and consume beer or coffee outside the home.

Actually, discussing this is helpful to me because it reinforces the point that what I’m observing has more to do with “craft beer culture” (or “culinary coffee culture”) than with homebrewing (or making coffee at home).

Haven’t tried to find out whether or not homebrewing and home coffee making might prevent meaningful interactions between coffee/beer geeks and “the rest of the (local) community.” Really, that’s not my type of work. My impression is that those DIY activities might have those “decreased participation” effects in some contexts but such effects haven’t been apparent to me on any occasion during the last few years of observing and participating in beer and coffee geekery.

To be clearer, and specifically focusing on (beer) homebrewers. Making beer at home has become a fairly common activity in North America since the 1980s (when the legal status of homebrewing in the United States was finally cleared up). But my focus isn’t beer making as an activity. It’s a social network which revolves around “handcrafted” beer. This is one network I have been connecting with for several years, now. And, IMHO, it’s the core of the so-called “craft beer revolution.”

Many people brew beer at home for purely financial reasons. While these are technically “home brewers,” they are not taking part in the social and cultural dynamics that I aim to eventually describe academically. In fact, while those “thrifty brewers” are known to the “beergeek” crowd, they are considered as complete outsiders to the “craft beer revolution.” Typically, those who brew for financial reasons use cans of hopped malt extract and dextrose powder to make beer. On the homebrewing side of the craft beer movement, all-grain brewing (making beer from scratch, with the malted barley, hops, yeast, and water) is the normative method.

I guess we could use terms like “casual,” “dedicated,” “careless,” “serious,” “extract,” and “advanced” to make distinctions between those types of “homebrewers.” But we’re talking about such different worlds here that emphasising these distinctions seems irrelevant. So, when I talk about “homebrewers,” I almost always mean “serious, dedicated, advanced brewers who care more about beer quality than about costs.”

(It’s quite interesting that, in OZ, the term “homebrewer” refers to people who make beer at home to save money while “craftbrewer” refers specifically to people who brew beer for “serious” reasons.)

The homebrewers I tend to talk about aren’t casual brewers, they often spend rather large amounts of money on beer and brewing equipment, they frequently send their beers to large competitions, and typically belong to brewing associations (“brewclubs”). In the United States, many of them are card-carrying members of the American Homebrewers Association. AHA membership gives them access to a rather “serious” technical magazine on brewing techniques (Zymurgy) and discounts at local brewpubs all over the United States (and some parts of Canada).

The typical brewclub has monthly meetings as well as a number of beer-related events. In large urban areas, brewclubs can have a very elaborate structure, with annual fees, bulk purchasing accounts, etc.

The keen observer with an eye toward folklore might notice that these sound like the “quilting bees” which were served as a way for North American women to unite and eventually form “grassroots movements.” Given Losh’s political bent, I feel compelled to note this similarity, even though I care fairly little about political involvement on the part of homebrewers.

Interesting that Losh should say that I teach “folklore and ethnomusicology” at Concordia. While I do teach a course in the anthropology of music which is, in fact, labeled “ethnomusicology,” the courses I’ve been teaching at different institutions in the past five years were all in anthropology. However, I did serve as an associate instructor for a large course in folkloristics at Indiana University for three semesters during part of my Ph.D. coursework at that institution. And I do consider “folklore” to be among my fields of specialisation.  Of course, Losh probably got her notion about my teaching from the fact that I’m finishing a Ph.D. at Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. 😉


Some brewclubs also serve as “beer appreciation” groups, similar to wine-tasting (and emphasizing the fact that beer is chemically more complex than wine). While beer-tasting can be a solitary activity, sampling beer with fellow homebrewers (and beergeeks) is common practise for serious beer-lovers. Perhaps more importantly, homebrewers frequently use a set of guidelines while tasting beer. These guidelines, from the Beer Judge Certification Program, often serve as a shared knowledge base for “beer literacy.” The BJCP’s main purpose is to train judges for homebrewing competitions. When I eventually do publish some academic work on craft beer culture, I’ll need to have a rather large section on the BJCP, competitions, and so on. Among homebrewers, I’m known as a vocal opponent to the BJCP guidelines. I do recognise, however, that they serve important functions in the context. (I simply happen to think that there is more to beer than evaluating it through set standards and I see the effects of the BJCP guidelines as broadening the gap between actual beer appreciation and the general public.)

One thing which was already clear to me when I gave a talk on craft beer culture at an surprisingly pleasant food and culture conference,  is that craft beer culture is geek culture. As geek ethnographer Jenny Cool was present during the conversation which triggered Losh’s reaction (Cool and Losh are friends), I actually wanted to steer the conversation toward the issue of geek sociability, using homebrewers as an example.

Homebrewing is social because geeking out is social

(To simplify things a whole lot, someone could say that “geeks” are something of the “somewhat sociable” equivalent of “nerds.” To caricature, the type of sociability involved is that of the stereotypical “basement hacker.” Some of “them” might in fact be antisocial human beings. But “they” become less unfriendly with like-minded people. Especially when “they” feel there is “smartness parity” in terms of intellectual prowess. Going on a limb, someone could say that what has been happening in the last thirty years, thanks to computer-mediated communication, is a steady increase in the opportunities for “basement hacker-type nerds” to interact with one another. These interactions might occasionally lead to meaningful social relationships. In the context of increased social capital given to computer-savvy people, geekness becomes almost cool and geeks are “more social” (according to a broader social group) than the “nerds” who had been stigmatised for so long.)

Homebrewing as an activity was facilitated by changes in its legal status (and by the alcohol regulations in general). Beer geekery is embedded in the increased prominence of online communication. Pre-Internet beer people were pretty much just “beer nerds.” Today’s beergeeks are almost all Internet-savvy and many beer-related activities happen through mailing-lists and websites. (Usenet newsgroups used to be fairly important but, since 1994 or so, mailing-lists and websites have pretty much taken over.)

As is the case with many other groups, online interactions give way to face-to-face interactions, friendships, and elaborate support systems. Meeting at brewpubs to sample beer and “talk shop,” beergeeks are bonding. And this type of bonding often creates strong… bonds. I personally have a large number of anecdotes which reveal the strength of the bonds among beergeeks. And, as a social scientist, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon.

Going back to Losh’s points(!), I might say that beergeeks are connecting more with broader social groups than the homebrewers she seems to have had in mind. Using the “think global, drink local” motto, beergeeks (including homebrewers) are situating themselves in complex social systems. They/we talk about important social and political issue.

And we do drink good beer.

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