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Opinion: Beer, Don Draper, and Unbearable Nostalgia

I am an unabashed fan of Mad Men.  I love the stories, the time, the place, and the presentation.  I love the intrigue, the drama, the attention to detail, and the the show’s overall uncanny ability to draw me in with a storyline centered around the ins and outs of what is, in most cases outside of TV-world, decidedly dull: office life.

But I hate the nostalgia it engenders.

I hate the swooning over the past, the idea of a golden age and the idea that things were somehow inherently better in “the before.”  There is nothing more frustrating than the tendency to consider, en masse, that something that happened a certain time ago is better because it simply isn’t what’s happening now – and what’s happening now is nothing short of a slow, shitty decline from what was because hardship still actually exists in some way or another.

I’m not the first person to discuss this topic and I won’t be the last.  Adam Gopnik does a wonderful job of describing it, calling it “The Golden Forty-Year Rule” (the idea that “the prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past”).  It’s pervasive and has been for as long as I can remember and honestly, I find it frustrating to say the least.

Oh wait.  I write for a beer blog.  This must have something to do with beer.  Of course it does.  I promise.

Remember, a while back, when users on BeerAdvocate called Dogfish Head overrated and Sam Calagione was forced to defend his brewery?  I started thinking about this around then and haven’t been able to kick the thought ever since.  One of the pioneers of craft brewing (and say what you want about Dogfish Head – I’ll disagree with you later – but Sam is a pioneer) was forced to defend himself for the expansion of his business.  Many of the complaints surrounding the whole brouhaha centered around the idea that DFH was somehow more “commercial” and had well put-together social media and a somewhat guerrilla marketing campaign, rendering them overrated in some minds.

Basically, they were getting closer to being “the man” in an industry that, in many cases, showcases an image of eschewing increased profitability in favor of community and collaboration.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is something wonderful and inspiring about that fact.  It’s that sort of product-driven, fight-the-man mania that has made craft brewing what it is.  Breweries help one another off the ground knowing full well that they are simply introducing another competitor into the overall landscape.  The greater “enemy” (SABMiller, AB-InBev, etc.) and their massive market share was always ripe for the attack and every craft brewery that popped up appeared as more a thorn in the side of those behemoths than in the side of fellow craft brewers.  Brewing in this day and age is a more a business rooted in the ideal of craftsmanship as opposed to the idea of business itself.

But things are changing.  According to the Brewer’s Association, craft has jumped in market share from 1% to 6% over the past 15 years and is poised to grow at a more rapid rate.  At a certain point in the future, and far be it from me to know when it’s going to come, we may very well come up against a point where collaboration is no longer a viable strategy if you want to pay the rent.

What happens then?  In all likelihood, we’ll talk about the beginning of the reemergence of flavorful beer in the same ways that the Z-boys talk about the early days of skateboarding in drained pools – like some “Golden Age” that we can never really get back and no one else can understand or enjoy.  We’ll cordon off the time period as something that you can’t “get” unless you were there.  Many will become caricatures – the gustatory equivalent of people saying, “yeah, but their old stuff is way better.”

The fact of the matter is, the more that craft beer expands, the less special the enthusiasts of today become.  By growing the market share of craft beer, craft brewers and beer lovers alike become less important as individuals – and when we realize that, a good portion of us will start to bitch. I will try my hardest not to be one of them.

Isn’t this what we want?  Don’t we speak lovingly about the times when breweries were regional, local, and community-driven?  Don’t we want the ability to enjoy flavorful, interesting beers at more locations and have it poured and appreciated  by the people providing it?  Of course we do.  The problem arises when we look back and remember when we, too, were fighting the corn and rice beer demon with his flavorless hop extracts and mega-filtered shenanigans one day in the past.  It felt great to be a part of something that was working, and that felt meaningful.  That’s when the nostalgia creeps in and we do a disservice to the effort expended the craft beer community at large.  Hopefully, one day we’ll arrive and we should be sure to appreciate it when we do.

I find myself slipping into it every now and then (“Remember when La Folie was corked and caged?” or “Raison d’Extra?  That was the best”).  It’s so easy to remember the time when your experiences were more special.  In fact, the remembering itself makes those memories even more special.  The fact the matter is, though, that those memories were predicated on the goal of more people having the opportunity to experience them.  You’d be hard pressed to find a beer fan who wants craft to stop expanding.  Though, I bet you many of those same beer fans, at some point in the future, will remember the “good old days” in a way that negatively qualifies the current days.

The point I’m trying to make in all this is that the idea has always been to have more great beer for more people to enjoy in more places.  There is going to be some baggage that comes along with that, but we should embrace it.  Otherwise, we’ll all be our own little Don Drapers, working so hard to build something only to realize that we’ve lost interest in it simply because it’s not new anymore (and then may or may not rekindle an extramarital affair with a drug addict – that’s neither here nor there, though).  The difference with craft beer is that what all of the innovators in this industry have built something worth sustaining – and no one should belittle that for a hollow, momentary feeling of nostalgia.

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