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Closing the Knowledge Gap: Pretentiousness and the #DCBrews Scene

In 2009, the Coen Brothers released A Serious Man, a fairly low budget drama-comedy about the painful, downwardly spiraling life of a Jewish mathematics professor in the late 1960s. Being a fan of their movies and of the darker side of the comedic spectrum, I watched the film with my then-girlfriend-now-wife and found it hilarious and poignant – one of my favorite movies. Naturally, as one does, I wanted to share the movie with my friends. That went…interestingly.

One friend didn’t laugh during the entire movie, remarking “I just don’t get it” when the credits rolled. Another friend who had maybe chuckled once or twice said, “I think I get it.” A third said, most interestingly, “Some parts were funny for me, but I think I see why you think it’s so funny.”

And therein lies the rub of the whole thing. While not a practicing Jew myself, I grew up in a South Florida household with a (culturally, not practicing) Jewish mother and attended elementary, middle,  and high schools where the majority of the students were Jewish. My now-wife had a parallel experience (her father is Jewish and she has a large, somewhat religiously invested set of Jewish family members).

My experience with that subject matter – that is,  what it means to interact with some variation of the culture and religious amalgam of American Judaism – informed my perspective on the film’s humor. My wife always says, “A Serious Man is funny because my family has those characters, too.” That’s what it came down to – content knowledge. We were insiders when it came to that type of humor and that type of experience, and that’s what made it so damn funny for us. The lack of that knowledge is what made it merely confusing for our friends.

***

In December, DCBeer published an interview with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s inimitable Greg Engert. Reading through those posts (part 1, 2, 3, 4), I was struck by the number of times that Greg mentioned his desire to build a craft beer bar without pretentiousness. He said things like, “The last thing I will ever have somebody say is that we're pretentious. If anybody ever called ChurchKey or Birch & Barley pretentious, they are mistaken, and I will stand by that. That's our biggest, biggest success and something I'm most proud of.”

This topic comes up in a few other parts in the interview as well, and it raises the question, “How do you build a craft beer bar without pretentiousness?” Moreover, “How do you build a craft beer scene without pretentiousness?”

The answer isn’t easy to come by, and it varies depending on whom you ask. Fortunately or unfortunately for you, I have a keyboard and opinions, and I’ll be damned if I won’t use the former to put the latter on the Internet.

Conceptually, pretentiousness is difficult to nail down. For the sake of argument, let’s think of it as the affectation of greater knowledge and importance with regard to a specific subject (in this case, beer). Working with this definition, pretentiousness in the beer world takes practical shape as an entity (a bar, a bartender, a beer nerd) acting with an air of (typically) undeserved intellectual superiority resulting from a supposed greater knowledge of beer.

That isn’t to say that pretentiousness and condescension are the same thing, though they can exist in parallel. The critical point when it comes to pretentiousness is that its existence depends much more on the perceptions of a third party (e.g., a bar patron) Condescension, on the other hand, can exist in a vacuum without the feelings of the third party being taken into consideration (i.e., some people are just jerks). The point here is that pretentiousness is very much a two-way street.

Having been to ChurchKey more times than I can count, and having interacted with a multitude of the staff members over the years, I can say confidently that I have never found any part of my experience to be aligned with this definition of pretentiousness. Greg has executed on his vision of creating a comfortable space to explore the world of craft beer on one hand, or just enjoy hanging out at a bar on the other. However, ask a few angry Yelp’ers, for example, and they’ll feel quite differently about it.

So what gives? How can two people walk into the same place, interact with the same people, and walk away with such different experiences? Having turned this over in my head again and again, a few issues rise to the top of the heap.

The Sy Ableman Problem – Content Knowledge

Sy Ableman: Do you drink wine? Because this is an incredible bottle. This is not Mogen David. This is a – heh heh – a wine, Larry. A Bordeaux.
Larry Gopnik: You know, Sy…
Sy Ableman: Open it. Let it breathe. Ten minutes. Letting it breathe, so important.

Beer doesn’t have a language. Beer is a liquid and it doesn’t say anything. Beer drinkers, on the other hand, have described the drink they love with an Enigma machine’s worth of words: hoppy, funky, dank, barnyardy, malty, spicy, fruity, drinkable, estery, tart…the list goes on. Beer drinkers have also given it endless categorizations and sub-categorizations to the extent that those categorizations have created their own controversies (see: IPA, white). Beer can’t fight back against these classifications and descriptions because beer is a liquid in a container.

Learning a language is difficult and time-consuming. The thing with the language being created around craft beer is that it often seems necessary to learn that language to interact with beer and the people who love it. Unfortunately, trying out a new language when you first learn it is a trying experience that can sometimes end in embarrassment (take it from me – while in Mexico in November, I said something like “I only speak a little Spaniard” instead of “I only speak a little Spanish” to the sandwich-maker at a torta shop).

No matter how friendly a bar’s staff, nor how delicious the beer in the glass, there’s a fear of embarrassment that comes with testing out your beer competency in an environment where the information asymmetry is so apparent. Sure, the bartender seems nice (and likely is nice), but there’s something inherently unnerving about being a new entrant into the world of craft beer and offering up for display your knowledge to someone who you know to be more well-versed than you.

As the craft beer novice in this scenario, you have two choices: 1) abandon all pretense of knowledge and offer yourself up as someone who knows not what they drink or 2) speak with what knowledge you have and have to deal with the potential awkwardness when you realize that this beer bar doesn’t serve Blue Moon since it’s owned by MillerCoors and didn’t you know that, oh you didn’t, well now you do. Of course, a nice bartender is going to let you down easy, but I have to challenge the notion that there’s nothing inherently discomforting about being made publicly aware of your lack of knowledge, particularly at a bar.

On top of that, you’re likely surrounded by people who are at these establishments because they do know a lot about beer. There’s a guy at the end of the bar who’s checking into every taster on Untappd and the lady who just pulled her Moleskine of tasting notes out of her purse. They all speak the language and carry the markers of being insiders.

So as the novice, you aren’t one of them. Even if you can order a vodka-soda at ChurchKey (and if you have ever been there on a weekend you know that people order lots of them), how does it make you feel to do so when you stumble in during a Surly tap takeover and everyone is talking about the vinous notes in this year’s Pentagram?

The Interactivity Problem – Crowds and Chatter

Rabbi Marshak's Secretary: The rabbi is busy.
Larry Gopnik: He didn't look busy!
Marshak's Secretary: He's thinking.

My favorite time to go to ChurchKey is Saturday around 2-3PM. The blinds are about halfway lowered, and the afternoon sun is filtering through. The bar is maybe 30-40% full and most tables are open, and the beer is pouring just as well as it always is. I can take my time looking over the menu and maybe ask a few questions about beers with which I’m a bit less familiar. The bartenders are happy to chat about the beers, offer their impressions, and make comparisons to other beers. It’s one of the best, least pretentious beer experiences you can have in one of the best beer bars in the entire country.

Six hours later, at 10PM, the experience is a bit different. If you walk into ChurchKey at that time, as someone unfamiliar with the world of craft beer, it will be a bit of a struggle for you to make sense of the scene unfolding in front of you. Greg and his team have made it as easy as possible to find flavors that you like on their beer menu by dividing it up into flavor categories, but is it really the best time to ask multiple questions of a bartender who’s trying to serve a bar that’s packed three deep?

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it can be a bit overwhelming. You don’t have the chance to learn that language of craft beer, to gain the words to describe what you’re drinking in a manner that allows you to track down “beers like that” when you’re out on future nights. If you’re surrounded by people making quick orders of beers that they know using words that they’ve learned but you have not, it’s easy to feel like you’re on the outside looking in.

The Perception Problem – Craft Beer’s ‘Everyman’ Paradox

Larry Gopnik: What happened to Sussman?
Rabbi Nachtner: What would happen? Not much. He went back to work. For a while he checked every patient's teeth for new messages. He didn't find any. In time, he found he'd stopped checking. He returned to life. These questions that are bothering you, Larry – maybe they're like a toothache. We feel them for a while, then they go away.
Larry Gopnik: I don't want it to just go away! I want an answer!
Rabbi Nachtner: Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn't owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.
Larry Gopnik: Why does he make us feel the questions if he's not gonna give us any answers?
Rabbi Nachtner: He hasn't told me.

I like beer a lot, but I also like whiskey. I like wine less than I like beer and whiskey, but I also like wine. Luckily for me, there are places I can go to drink all three of these different types of tasty beverages while surrounded by people who know more about them than I do and are willing to share their knowledge with me.

With each of these different non-beer beverages comes the same problem that I discussed earlier: the problem of insider knowledge. Whiskey and wine are both as nuanced as beer, with histories stretching back for centuries and complexities that make them subjects of lifelong investigation by committed individuals. Now, I’m sure when people have gone to whiskey-mecca Jack Rose to sample their whiskey or to wine bars like Vinoteca to sip their wines, some have come away calling it pretentious for the same reasons that others have called ChurchKey the same.

But beer is different.

Beer is that drink you TOTALLY CRUSHED with your bros in college. Beer is that drink you sipped casually at a baseball game. Beer is that drink you watched your dad pull out of the fridge when it was hot out or when you were at the beach. Beer was probably your first drink.  

In short, beer is the Everyman drink. American craft beer is simultaneously fighting with and embracing that trope and trying to find a way to marry up the desire to give beer the respect it deserves while not losing that feeling of commonality that unites drinkers of all stripes.

That feeling of unity that beer brings, though, is also what pulls it apart. Wine and high-end whiskey have long been assumed to be the realm of the connoisseur, with large format bottles as the norm and large price ceilings to go along with them. There is an expectation of some degree or pretense associated with anything that falls that squarely in the realm of luxury, but the same cannot be said for beer.

High-end beer bars rather abruptly shatter the notion that beer is only the Everyman drink, and not something that is to be cared for, catalogued, discussed, and investigated in the same manner as its alcohol-delivering brethren. Suddenly, ordering a beer isn’t enough; you need to know what style of beer, what level of ABV, what brewery, what glassware. The list goes on.

Of course, just because something can be complicated, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be. Some of my greatest beer memories are more High Life than Cantillon, more Natty Boh than Pliny the Elder. The challenge remains to marry up those two worlds for those new to craft beer, to show that just because beer has more dimensions than you realized, that it doesn’t mean that it isn’t the simple and enjoyable drink you remember.

***

So where does that leave Greg Engert’s desire that ChurchKey not be pretentious? Where does it leave the idea that craft beer evangelism, that bringing more people ‘into the fold,’ is a positive effort?

In all honesty, Greg does everything he can to provide a top-notch beer experience while making the environment as unpretentious as possible. Similarly, there are tons of average craft beer drinkers  out in the world, especially in DC, who are working to bring the concept of approachable craft beer to the masses. That being said, it isn’t about what they do or don’t do, but how and when and with what attitude people choose to experience a product that requires new knowledge. Plenty of people ‘just drink’ craft beer without thinking about it, but that becomes harder in venues where the options and information have expanded to two page tap lists and bottle menus the size of novellas (tasty, tasty novellas).

At the end of the day, it’s just beer…except for when it’s not. Not unlike A Serious Man (I had to tie it in eventually, right?), getting ‘into’ craft beer requires that you take the time to learn something new, develop a new frame of reference, and accept that something can be multidimensional when viewed through that new reference.

Beer has evolved from a drink into a beer culture or a beer scene or a beer lifestyle or whatever you choose to call it. Given all that becoming a “culture” implies, it’s likely impossible to remove entirely the notion that craft beer is pretentious when it, by its nature, creates an environment of exclusivity. Nonetheless, we applaud all of those in our #DCBrews scene who continue to make beer more accessible for those willing to do their part by pulling up a bar stool and trying something new.

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