There was a time when quantity reigned supreme in my life; I designate this time in my history by referring to it as “college.” The days of all-you-can-eat dorm food and vast amount of watery beer are now thankfully in the rearview mirror, but why did they occur in the first place? Why did it seem better to drink ten Milwaukee’s Bests that I hated than two Black Butte Porters that actually brought joy? Maybe competition had something to do with it. Though nobody explicitly said as much, it was understood that your social standing seemed to be directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that could you stomach. In a fraternity, legend told of the brother who took 100 beer bongs in a single weekend, thereby joining the Century Club in the most incredible way possible. He was to be revered, as was the person capable of taking the longest pull from a plastic handle of Prestige Vodka, the elixir surely responsible for the greatest number of bad decisions in Westwood Village.
I must reiterate that this is no longer the way I view the world and, while I would like to point to a single eye-opening experience that shook my world like a game of Boggle, the actual change took its course over the length of a Monopoly game, which is to say several months. My first experience drinking a beer and actually enjoying it took place on the sands of Los Cabos, Mexico, when I added a bit of lime to a Negra Modelo and thought “Wow, this beer isn’t just going to get me drunk, it tastes good too!” Back in America, my two gateway beers are probably familiar to many other craft beer drinkers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the aforementioned Black Butte Porter from Deschutes. These beers are exceptionally made for the volume at which they are brewed and lead drinkers down two separate flavor paths (which ultimately lead to Double and Triple IPAs and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, respectively).
For me, however, the impact was much greater and more far-reaching than leading to high-ABV beers that top lists of must-have beers. At a time when Taco Bell constituted a significant portion of my diet, craft beer was the first food or drink that made me actually care about what I was ingesting. Again, the shift from beer pong light lagers to craft beer was a gradual one, but as my worldview towards alcohol adjusted, so did my attitude towards food in general. Maybe others are capable of drinking something made with love and care by a locally-owned brewery one minute and then scarfing down a soulless McDonald’s cheeseburger the next without considering the disparity between the two actions; I am no longer able to. Good craft beer makes you crave authenticity and quality, and sharpens your ability to spot poseurs. Note that I am saying “good” craft beer here: just because a brewery is local or micro does not necessarily mean it produces beer of exceptional quality. I’ve had plenty of beers that would qualify as “drinking local” that I do not plan to have again. Many of them come from young breweries who produce a line-up that reads like the first five recipes in a beginners homebrewing book, with a resulting product that’s not too far off in taste, either.
When I have these uninspired beers, I question why they were brewed to begin with and usually find myself answering the same way: someone with money must have thought a microbrewery would make them more money. The lack of enthusiasm reveals itself in the uninteresting beer. Similarly, I’ve had meals with all the trappings of new wave gourmet or edgy food truck cuisine, but I can tell they exist for the wrong reasons and can cut through the bullshit immediately straight to disappointment. Craft beer has raised this bar for me. “Good enough” no longer suffices. I’ve had hundreds of IPAs, many of which have tasted quite similar, and I can call out from memory the ones that made me pause and reflect before taking a second sip. That is the experience I want. I want a meal from a chef who was born to cook, puts her soul into a meal, and feels crushed if the food isn’t received well. I want to drink beers made by a brewer who would rather see a subpar batch dumped down the drain than passed along to consumers who hopefully won’t notice. There’s no end to almost-upscale gastropubs selling the same $8 fries with house-made ketchup or breweries whose offerings seemed to be designed for your friend who is in the process of graduating past Blue Moon and Shock Top. After a few tastes of the real McCoy, you’ll be digging a little deeper and trying a bit harder to weed out these types of “good enough” establishments.
What I’m suggesting borders on pretension and snobbery; in fact, maybe it skips the border and firmly exists in that realm. But consider this: it’s worth it. Life is too short to settle for quantity over quality, good enough instead of great, or the banal as opposed to the exciting. And for my money, good taste doesn’t become snobby unless you get preachy about it, so keep your head on your shoulders as it rises over mediocrity into the land of authenticity, where passion and originality reign supreme.