I don’t need surveys, spreadsheets or analytics to tell me that craft beer is on the rise and that more people than ever are drinking better beer. No, all I need to do is stroll through my neighborhood on Thursday nights, when my neighbors put out their recycling for pickup.
Along with my trusty mutt, Pepper, I meander the streets of Jersey City, NJ, on the final walk of the day, taking my time to unwind and let the dog do her sniffy thing. I don’t go digging through barrels; I just observe whatever is on top of the pile. There, among the crumpled bottles of Poland Spring and familiar cans of brewers with generations of history, are bottles from the likes of Maine Beer Co., Lagunitas, Southern Tier, 21st Amendment, Full Sail and more. As the seasons change, so do the beers. Summer brews turn into pumpkin bottles, followed by winter ale empties.
The first article I wrote on beer appeared in print in 2002. It was a relatively short piece on how the brewing scene in my home state had grown over the previous five years and was poised to grow even more. I had discovered beer through my job as a newspaper journalist. Traveling the country chronicling stories of mayhem and everyday life, I would seek out brewpubs in the evening. There, I could find friendly people, knowledgeable staff and a community spirit that made life on the road a little easier. Through those interactions, I became well-versed in beer and soon racked up quite a list of breweries visited.
At the time I had no idea that beer writing would become my full-time career. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to chronicle the story of American beer for the last decade. I have enjoyed the efforts of skilled brewers, met kindred drinking souls and been able to travel the country to see the business firsthand. It’s an extraordinary privilege.
There are downsides, however. Covering the beer industry means living in a bubble. It’s a realm in which nearly everyone knows about hop varietals or geeks out over barrel aging. Where names of celebrity brewers are batted around casually, and plans for a drink are made not at the local bar, but at large events like SAVOR or the Craft Brewers Conference. It’s a world unto its own, and, often, I feel like it leaves the customers or casual drinkers out of the equation. It’s particularly troubling because as a journalist it’s my job to educate, inform and entertain.
That’s the reason I like recycling night. I’m able to see firsthand what’s popular in my neighborhood, what people stock up on for parties, and occasionally see a bottle that is unfamiliar or is of a vintage that makes me think someone just celebrated a special occasion. These observations take me out of the bubble.
The beer industry has changed significantly in the last five years. The community of craft beer lovers has grown by leaps and bounds. Some high-end restaurants now carry impressive beer lists, better brews are served at ballparks, and even the president is getting in on the action.
Yet, for all that good there is still work to be done. If more newcomers to better beer are going to join the fold, we—the ones who have already seen the light—must be patient yet helpful. Offering light-beer drinkers the latest Brettanomyces-infused stout and acting disappointed when they don’t share our enthusiasm is not useful. Nor is it constructive to scoff at someone who drinks a ubiquitous “Belgian” white, rather than the bottle of Cantillon lambic. Helpful suggestions in an approachable way can do more good in the long run, rather than shaming people or displaying clear frustration.
To take that tack puts us in the dangerous realm of wine snobs. That must be avoided. This is beer. It’s fun. All-inclusive. A good-time social beverage.
All of us who care about this industry or earn a living in one of its branches must foster the new drinkers to get them into the fold. This will take time, and I’ll be interested to see where things are five years from now.
In the meantime, I’m doing my part through articles and patient conversation—and also, a little subliminally, by making sure I put the interesting empties on top of my own recycling pile each week.
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John is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the author of three books, including The American Craft Beer Cookbook. Find him on Twitter @John_Holl.