For this edition of the international beer blogging jamboree Josh Weikert at Beer Simple asks us to consider whether the internet is hurting or helping craft beer.
Beer geeks got online early in the life of the internet: nerds gonna nerd.
We’ve sometimes joked that if you produced a Venn diagram of (a) beer geeks, (b) jazz fans, (c) lower division sports obsessives, (d) Whovians, (e) IT professionals, it would be more or less just a single big circle.
Researching Brew Britannia some of our best sources were early online chat rooms archived comprehensively, if clunkily, by Google. The big one, alt.beer, was founded (as far as we can tell) in July of 1991, long before Amazon, or Google itself, or any of our other sinister tech overlords. In fact, before the first website had ever been created — alt.beer existed as threads of text. Here’s the charter posted around the time of its establishment by one Dan Brown:
Alt.beer was created for the purpose of discussing the various aspects of
that fine malted beverage generally referred to as beer. Welcome here are
discussions of rare and interesting beers, reviews of brewpubs and
breweries, suggestions about where to shop for beer, and tips for making
Not welcome are the plethora of tales of drunken stupidity that usually
go something like, ‘I guzzeled 5 cases of X beer, drunkenly made a fool
of myself in front of a large number of people, of whom I was desparately
trying to impress a certain one, and then spent the rest of the night
alternately driving a porceline bus, and looking like road kill on the
bathroom floor.’ Almost everyone has heard or experienced this, or
something similar, at one time or another.
(Does anyone know Mr Brown? It would be interesting to, ahem, chat to him.)
The question we’ve got is, how did appreciating beer ever work without the internet? To some extent enjoying beer in the 21st Century is a job of recording, cataloguing and sharing information, and the internet is better at that than floppy discs in the post, or letters, or CB radio.
We’re not quite digital natives — we remember the internet arriving and struggling to work out what to do with it once we’d looked at the handful of websites that existed in the mid-1990s — but by the time we got into beer we were fully immersed in online culture and looked there for advice and guidance. We’ve written before about some early sources of beer information that no longer exist, notably the Oxford Bottled Beer Database (1996-c.2010). These websites — all text, frames, striped backgrounds and under construction GIFs — told us which pubs to visit in strange towns, which beers to buy from the bewildering selection at Utobeer, and (not always accurately) explained why certain beers tasted the way they did.
The fact is, in 2017, online and offline aren’t distinct spaces — the former is integrated into everyday life. When we go to the pub and see a strange beer on offer, we look it up on our smartphones. We might take a picture and share it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (hint hint) or write it up here. Sometimes, we choose a pub based purely on intel we’ve picked up on the internet — or, rather, that we’ve subconsciously absorbed from the ambient blur of shared information that acts as background noise in our lives. And often, online relationships translate into pints shared in person with people we might otherwise never have known existed.
And, for all the problems with online information — FAKE NEWS! — it’s much harder to be a beer bullshitter now than 40 years ago because if you make a ludicrous claim someone can just look it up.
Has anything been lost? Perhaps insofar as the internet enabled the Global Republic of Craftonia at the expense of the concept of the Local Scene. Martyn Cornell has written about a time in the 1970s when, having tried something like 14 different beers from not only Hertfordshire but also several other counties, he considered himself quite adventurous. Back then, the infrastructure of beer appreciation manifested itself in local festivals, local newsletters, and tips shared in the pub.
But this isn’t just a challenge for the beer world — working out a way to reap the benefits of global connections without the loss of regional cultures is a much bigger human issue.