QUICK POST: Bourdain Isn’t a Beer Guy

Anthony Bourdain with Nigella Lawson.
SOURCE: CNN, via Eater.com.

Celebrity chef and food opiner Anthony Bourdain has given an interview to Thrillist in which he has harsh words to say about craft beer and its culture:

I would say that the angriest critiques I get from people about shows are when I’m drinking whatever convenient cold beer is available in a particular place, and not drinking the best beer out there. You know, I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to the microbrewery where they’re making some fucking Mumford and Sons IPA…

Now, Thrillist is a frightful den of clickbait, and craft beer types are easily baited, but Mr. Bourdain often has interesting thoughts and in this case, he makes some good points. For example, this…

[The] entire place was filled with people sitting there with five small glasses in front of them, filled with different beers, taking notes. This is not a bar. This is fucking Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is wrong. This is not what a bar is about.

…is probably fair comment if you accept that the ideal bar or pub is a lively, even raucous place, which we do, on the whole. He probably wouldn’t like us much — we do enjoy over-thinking beer — but some places are too church-like and sterile even for us.

Having said that, the kind of bar he describes above hasn’t replaced, and isn’t in competition with, a lively dive bar full of characters. If it didn’t exist, the clientele wouldn’t be tossing back shots and lager and dancing on the tables — they’d probable be at a cafe, or at home watching TV, or in the library. And, just as with the other extreme — the rough pub — it’s perfectly fine to walk in and walk straight out if you don’t like the vibe.

There is something weird, too, about the idea that this kind of establishment, and the kind of beer it sells, is somehow threatening ‘normal’ beer: it’s still really, really, really easy to get standard lager the length and breadth of the UK, for example. A general point: critics of craft beer culture need to make up their minds whether craft beer is a minority diversion enjoyed only by a handful of freaks, or an existential threat — it surely can’t be both, can it?

His comments are prompted by frustration at nagging by craft beer drinkers and we can certainly understand how annoying that must be. When we saw that he’d been to the pub with Nigella Lawson the other week we felt a moment’s irritation that he drank Guinness — there’s so much great stuff in the UK, even before you get into the fancy-pants craft end of the market! — but didn’t feel moved to tell him off about it on social media. Others did. As they do every time he drinks any beer on any of his shows. And as they are doing now in response to this article in which he complains about being berated on social media by beer geeks. We sense that lecturing him might be counter-productive — leave the bloke alone. In fact, leave every one alone: STOP TELLING PEOPLE THE BEER THEY ARE DRINKING IS THE WRONG BEER UNLESS THEY SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU FOR ADVICE!

Finally, this bit of nuts-and-bolts behind-the-scenes info helps explain why there isn’t more beer on TV:

Well, beer — visually speaking, it’s why we generally don’t do winery scenes or brewery scenes. Because no matter how good it is — this might be one of only five remaining bottles left on Earth, Napoleon may have put it in the bottle — but visually, it’s red stuff going into a glass.

This was a light-bulb moment for us, and gives another very good reason why that idea for the Great British Brew Off that gets discussed endlessly in cycles won’t work: ‘Please bring your pint of bitter up to the top table for judging.’ [Music swells. Contestant present four almost identical glasses of brown liquid. Music ceases to swell.] Cakes have visual drama, beer has… less. It’s a fact of life.

33 thoughts on “QUICK POST: Bourdain Isn’t a Beer Guy”

  1. Well put! I think Bourdain gets too much of a bad rap on his disdain for craft beer fans, especially considering throughout his career he’s repeatedly stated that he has no interest in the brewing process, only drinking it. Beer geeks also seem to forget that Bourdain was a source in revealing that big beer threatened to pull ads from Discovery if they didnt stop showing Dogfish Heads show. So it’s not as if he’s opposed to craft beer (he has on various occasions been seen to drink the stuff).

    I think you could make the case that the Foodie scene tends to brush over beer for wine, though (which Bourdain is probably guilty of).

  2. I entirely agree he shouldn’t be nagged, but it hardly reflects well on him. It’s fine to know nothing, and care nothing, about beer but why, as a chef, would you make a big thing about it? It’s still flavour, still gastronomy. Imagine if he said “Seafood? Nah, bollocks… Just get whatever convenient fish fingers you can lay your hands on”. Wouldn’t inspire much confidence in his ability.

    Plus, if he’s doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to make an effort to find good beer, why does he think people should make the much greater effort to find his food?

      1. He is less deserving of this criticism than some others because he consistently champions ‘ordinary’ street food, i.e. the kind of stuff those others chefs would actually turn up their noses at. His love of junk food noodles is completely consistent with his affection for basic lager.

        1. “Just get whatever convenient fish fingers you can lay your hands on”

          Reminds me of the time James Martin had to cook Freddie Flintoff his “Food Heaven” of fish fingers, chips & beans on Saturday Kitchen, very entertaining!

    1. I agree with you.

      Bourdain has made great contributions to food culture, no question of that. That first book is a landmark, an against-the-odds hit that derserved every sale. His tv shows are excellent (generally). But I guess he can`t do it all, few of us can.

      I think he simply never had the time to look at beer closely, and perhaps it`s true of wine too. But if he had, he would have seen the richness of beer`s palate, history, technology. And there is nothing wrong with people studying small amounts of beer, they`re drilling down. People do it over a thousand and one interests in life. Can it be right for cheese and not for beer…

      Once again I cut Bourdain some slack, but if he`s reading, he might take the time to look at beer closely and would see it`s no different than some of the food traditions he`s explored on his trips, where people cherish a particular tradition(s), argue about it, worry about whose is best, and so forth.


  3. I can see AB’s point on a number of levels. In addition to the other points that have been made, cold macro lager is actually a pretty reliable accompaniment for a lot of food – it’s a nice clean palette cleanser, and you don’t have to worry about whether it’s going to clash with bold flavours or overpower subtle ones like you would with a more interesting beer.

    On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that having a pop at fancy beer is at least partly an easy way for food people to assert their straight-talking man-of-the-people credentials despite being in an industry that thinks nothing of charging diners £100 per head plus drinks…

    1. Agree with all this. Though Bourdain is self-aware of his privilege and does from time to time take the piss out of himself for it.

      I do think that it can be intimidating as an unlearned amateur to try and enter the world for craft beer events (or CAMRA events as well). Realising that people standing on the periphery may be doing so because they don’t know what they like, and figuring out ways to bring them in gently would go a long way to helping build out the profile of beer culture.

    2. “cold macro lager is actually a pretty reliable accompaniment for a lot of food”

      This is a good point — there are positive reasons for choosing ‘cold beer’ and this preference doesn’t necessarily represent a failure of Mr. B’s palate or sense of discernment.

  4. I obviously don’t move in the right circles, because until I read your post I’d never heard of Anthony Bourdain, or Thrillist.

    I shan’t lose any sleep over it though!

    1. He’s a world famous best-selling author, Paul — the only rarefied circles you’d have to move in are the Food Network and W.H. Smith!

        1. He’s worth reading / listening to in my experience – he’s honest and perceptive about food and the restaurant trade, and generally as interested in a really good street corner noodle stall as he is in the fancy fine-dining places. Although people will have different tolerances to his shouty, opinionated, speaker-of-truth-to-power persona, I guess.

          The Thrillist article is actually a pretty good read – the craft beer baiting is fairly incidental – and Kitchen Confidential is worth looking out for.

  5. I guess as soon as you create a sub-culture you are defining yourself against the norm, so any sort of labelling, be it “real ale” or “craft beer” or whatever else is as much a description of what it isn’t as a description of what it is.

    And whenever you do that, you’re likely to wind people up and put people off (and at the same time attract a particular subset of drinkers who want to be different). You can see how the likes of Brewdog have identified that and absolutely played on it. I suppose craft beer is at a big of a crossroads now – should it continue to be an alternative or sub-culture, or should it just be “beer”.

  6. I wouldn’t expect a big TV series just about beer. And not really one just about wine either. But to see beer get the same sort of airtime & respect as wine on food shows would be nice. Both drinks suffer the same presentation problems for TV. (As we know there has been some progress in this direction with the likes of Sarah Warman on something.)

    But in reality equality between wine & beer in this regard will come in no hurry, if at all. Our present food culture is deeply steeped in wine. Elevating beer to the same role in a food venue is still very niche. (Albeit most chefs’ drink of choice seems to be lager. My dad was a Corona drinker 🙂

    This Bourdain thing is just some successful click bait. Celebrity chef gets grumpy about something… boohoo. News?

    1. To be fair he’s promoting a show and gave a fairly wide-ranging interview; ‘Bourdain slams craft beer’ is just the angle that’s been pulled out in coverage by other papers. I don’t think we can dismiss any strongly-expressed view as ‘click-bait’ or else everyone ends up as boring as us…

      1. Oh, I’m not blaming Bourdain for the clickbait, that ball’s entirely in Thrillist’s court. They chose to focus on this and present it this way. But this is their M.O. right?

        1. Yes, although we’ve been thinking that the definition of click-bait is too broad at the moment: we think of it as a piece of essentially contentless content (e.g., celebrity eats cake) that lures you in with a mis-representative headline (YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE DISGUSTING THING THIS CELEBRITY ATE!). This is an actual interview, with actual content, from an actually interesting bloke.

  7. read the bit when he makes a guest appearance in Evan Rail’s excellent The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest and you might get an insight into the man behind the public mask, ie a bit me me — love his books and I can empathise with his comments to some degree, having experienced the odd scientologist of zythology butting in my bar space in my time, but it’s just click bait with the aim of getting the craft beer hounds to chase the hare. Where can I get a Mumford IPA btw?

  8. What a sad & boring critic, creation is an art form whether it be within food or beer or others alike. To enjoy in different ways is something that’s great for those that enjoy it. If he’s not one of those people then it’s a shame he chose to get into food and drink and get famous from it :/ . A good restaurant is only as good as its food, service, vibe, and it’s the same for any good bar no? Drink, service, vibe. Anthony Bourdain – Best Before NOV 2016

  9. The biggest annoyance with any activity that becomes even slightly specialised is the disdain that it’s adherents show towards people not in the club. It seems especially so with craft beer, maybe because beer is pretty accessible compared to other similar pursuits. (e.g. I like coffee and was thinking of doing my own espresso but then totted up what it would cost for the kit I’d want and it was about 2k, and that’s before you look at where you need to source your beans and so on). And of course, one of the main ways of people showing that they’re ‘in the club’, particularly if they’re maybe not all that confident of their position, is to knock other people’s choices. Recent example in my mind being on a facebook group where they all started taking the piss out of someone in a supermarket who was talking about how much they liked stella.

  10. I’d be careful transposing the UK and US pub here. Bourdain’s comment is something I bet a large minority of Americans would recognize–including a lot of good-beer fans. We never had the kinds of great pubs you find in the UK, and when craft beer came along, we replaced dive bars (NOTHING like UK pubs) with a range of different kinds of places. What he says about SF could very well be true. The proliferation of hyper-hipster, twee pubs in places like SF is real and worthy of criticism.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. Useful insight and, yes, you’re right, we don’t know the US and made a big assumption there.

      (Related: we did once spend an hour or so in the pub scribbling out a key to how different types of bar/pub equate — the French Bar Tabac seems to equate to a certain type of rough-and-ready ‘wet led’ corner pub in the UK, for example. Maybe we should try again with input from others around the world.)

      1. The US has a fascinating pub history, one that was, fifty years after prohibition, still guided by Puritan norms. I am always shocked when I travel to Europe and find typically American “crafty” pubs, which to my eye were the unfortunate result of our country never having had decent pubs to reference when craft beer came calling.

      2. Some large cities in America always had notable drinking places, even in the dark days of beer. New York had a number, New Orleans, Chicago, Louisville, San Francisco. Washington D.C. had the famous Brickseller. With the pub of England and cafe so to speak of France, Belgium, Germany, these formed the template for the modern bar or pub here. While they all differ, and it depends too on local regulations and cultural practices, most in my experience reflect this diverse history. Probably many still have an element of dive in them, e.g. the dim light still favoured in so many establishment and iconic tv set in the corner or now the flat-screen on the walls.


  11. I love craft beer and recently (today, actually) joined CAMRA Alberta. I typically avoid macro beers because most of them (in Canada & U.S.) are pretty awful. That said, if you’re drinking it and liking it, it’s the right beer to be drinking.

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