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When someone tries to insult you by calling you a name, a good defense tactic is just to own the name. When we were kids the word “nerd” was insulting, but then we grew up and realized that smart is sexy, so it’s good to be a nerd. For the same reason, we can be proud to be geeks about beer. Turns out that a lot of insults are like this: they are just accurate descriptions of someone accompanied by a thumbs-down. As long as you can dismiss the thumbs-down, you can keep the description and just not be insulted by it.

When Bellingham was ranked a couple of years ago as the snobbiest beer city in the country, one natural reaction was just to own the title. Hell yeah we’re snobs! And this reaction makes a lot of sense, especially given the article’s definition of a snobby beer city, which was just: unlikely to have macro light beer on local menus. Again, we could just dismiss the thumbs-down, and then own the description. Of course visitors to Bellingham aren’t likely to find those macro beers around town; there’s too much other great stuff! If that makes us snobby, we’re snobby.

But I think this is the wrong reaction. We shouldn’t try to own the word “snob”, because the word “snob” can’t be neatly separated from its insulting meaning. So, it’s actually less like the word “geek” and more like the word “coward” instead. If someone calls you a coward, their thumbs-down is built into the description rather than just added onto it, so you can’t just own it by saying, “Yeah, well, I’m proud of the fact that I get scared and run away too easily from danger!” To call someone a coward is to call into question their character, rather than just their preferences or habits. If you try to own the accusation, then you’ll just end up admitting that you have a character flaw.

Likewise with the accusation of snobbery. Snobbery isn’t about what you like; it’s about how you like it. And perhaps even more importantly, it’s about how you treat those who like different things. To call someone a beer snob is to accuse them of being someone who drinks the beer they do because they are excessively concerned with appearing cool or important or knowledgeable, and it is to accuse them of looking down on those who make different beer choices than they do. In other words: beer snobs are people who make their beer choices based on what will enhance their social status relative to other beer drinkers. That’s not a description we should want to own; it’s a character flaw.

So, really, whether we are a snobby beer city depends on why macro beers are unlikely to be found at local establishments. If it’s because we’re trying to curate a particular image of ourselves as hip and in-the-know, then maybe we are a bunch of snobs. But if, instead, it’s because we know what good beer tastes like and we appreciate buying our light lagers from local establishments rather than international conglomerates, then “snob” isn’t the right word. We’re just a bunch of knowledgeable beer drinkers who happen to love our booming beer city.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any beer snobs in this city, of course. But you can avoid being one of them simply by trying not to let trends and fads and concern about social status influence your drinking decisions. Find what you like; drink what you like.

Careful, though: a paradox lurks. Very often, well-intentioned souls trying to avoid snobbery end up becoming snobs about avoiding snobbery. They end up thinking that people who couldn’t care less about having a high social status deserve a higher social status than those who take part in the allegedly snobby activity, and so they look down on those they perceive as snobs as a way to raise their own social status. So their anti-snobbery becomes its own sort of snobbery.

Take the infamous Budweiser Super Bowl commercial from 2015, for example, in which the company made fun of people who enjoy the taste of flavorful craft beer, saying that Budweiser is “brewed for drinking; not dissecting”. Have you ever seen a clearer example of beer snobbery at work? It’s just harder to spot as snobbery since it’s from a company promoting chugging cheap suds. Snobbery often gets associated with high-society activities and artisanal products, but in reality it can crop up anytime you’ve got one group trying to raise itself higher than another.

In Bellingham I suspect that beer know-it-alls are more common than beer snobs, but they can certainly be equally annoying. Whereas the beer snob looks down on those who make different drinking decisions, the beer know-it-all just can’t resist the temptation to share their beer knowledge, no matter the context or situation. You should avoid trying to be this person, too, but again, don’t run too far in the opposite direction. It’s a good thing to know what glassware is the best fit for the beer you are drinking; that’s not what would make you a know-it-all. (Oddly, knowing it all doesn’t by itself make you a know-it-all.) What would make you a know-it-all is what you do with that knowledge, and how you treat others. Sometimes, people just want to drink a pilsner out of a shaker pint, and they don’t want any commentary from the peanut gallery. An appreciation of context is key.

Turns out that an appreciation of context is key for avoiding snobbery too. I don’t drink Blue Moon, but if I’m sharing a meal with my sister and all she’s got in her fridge is Blue Moon, guess what? I’m going to drink a Blue Moon. Because in my view, the toast is more important than the taste.

 

 

 

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Neal Tognazzini
Neal splits his life between the classroom and the taproom. He has a PhD in philosophy and is an associate professor up at Western, where he teaches courses on ethics and critical thinking, but he is also a homebrewer, BJCP National beer judge, and Certified Cicerone®. When he’s not teaching, brewing, or judging, he’s probably discussing princesses and unicorns with his 6-year-old daughter. You can contact him at nealabram@gmail.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. What is this fascination with Blue Moon? Blue Moon is coriander flavored Zima. Mostly fermented corn syrup, period. Perhaps I am the snob.

  2. Hi Al — thanks for the comment! Let me clarify that I agree with you: I’m not a fan of Blue Moon and I am not at all fascinated by it. In the article I was just trying to make the point that sometimes the context calls for drinking something you don’t like, like when you’re a guest at someone else’s dinner party, for example. To risk embarrassing a host just because what they are serving doesn’t pass my quality threshold is to edge toward the bad kind of snobbery.

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