Why Do So Many Sommeliers Love Crappy Beer?

Mass-market beer seems to be having something of a cultural moment, so much so that it's even infiltrated the most unlikely demographic: the artisanal-loving elite of the wine world. Jennifer Fiedler gets behind the widespread love of crappy beer amongst sommeliers, and asks, simply, "Why?"

wine people and crappy beer illustration

From Anheuser-Busch’s much-dissected “macro beer” Superbowl ad to chef David Chang’s GQ manifesto on why he hates fancy beer to a recent Jezebel article entitled “Shitty Beer Is the Best Beer and Miller High Life Is Best of All,” which racked up 20,000 Facebook likes, it would appear that mass-market beer is having something of a cultural moment.

One of “shitty” beer’s most unlikely allies? Sommeliers and other notables in the wine industry.

In recent years it has become a meme in the wine world—the terroir-obsessed, small-producer loving, single-vineyard hunting wine world—to glamorize bottom-shelf, mass-produced beer. Instagram feeds from tony wine events juxtapose bottle shots of thousand dollars of Roulot next to iced tubs full of Modelo Especial or flights of Krug against cans of Tecate. Dinner service may be filled with magnums of aged riesling and rare Burgundy, but post-shift currency comes in cases of Genesee.

On one hand, this is entirely delightful, like learning about David Foster Wallace’s love for Stephen King (writers: they’re just like us!). But all of this high-low boosterism can also add up to a strange ideological dissonance, akin to a vegetarian who wears leather or local food activist who smokes schwag. If one pursues—and promotes—fluency in one sector of the beverage world, why not all? And given the rise of craft beer and better-brewed imports from Europe, why is it beer that ends up, in this particular equation, as the low? Why aren’t we seeing photos of emptied bottles of Santa Margherita pinot grigio or pre-mixed Mai Tais at these same events?

Part of mass-market beer’s appeal for a wine professional is that it is essentially tasteless, according to Richard Betts, master sommelier and author of The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide To Becoming a Wine Expert. “Tasting wine is taxing,” he says, about not only the toll that tannins and acid take on one’s palate after tasting many wines, but the concentration it takes to seriously evaluate wine. And when it comes to drinking for fun, the refreshing easy-drinking component of cheap beer is its biggest asset. At The Little Nell, in Aspen, Co., where he used to work, he says, “we have this thing where you walk inside the cooler and pound a beer. There’s really no better beer to do that with than Corona because it’s so light and it’s the least bubbly beer you know. You knock it back quick and get back to your table.”

Patrick Cappiello, sommelier and owner of Pearl & Ash and Rebelle in New York City, agrees that mass-market beer works best as a situational beverage. “Some [craft beers] are super complex, super hoppy… [but] for the most part I don’t want to be challenged by the beer I drink,” he says. “With wine, we talk about it, analyze it, and with beer, sometimes you just want to get a buzz on.” Having a go-to beer for after hours drinking (Cappiello’s is Modelo Especial) that will be available at any bar helps alleviate decision fatigue that comes from working within the wine world’s complexities. “Sometimes you just want to escape from what you love,” he says.

When it comes to analogues for Modelo Especial or Tecate in the wine world—the jugs of Gallo or bottles of Barefoot Bubbly—no one in the beverage industry seems particularly interested in knocking back bottom-shelf picks. “There’s definitely a double standard,” says Dustin Wilson, former sommelier at Eleven Madison Park and star of the documentary SOMM. “I will happily drink inexpensive wine, but it’s usually from producers that I like or regions that I like. I’ve never gotten into boxed wine or Yellowtail.”

Could the attraction to watery beer be that, on some level, the most celebrated examples of craft beer and the fine wines now touted by wine’s elite sommeliers are somewhat incompatible tastewise? For Betts, beer and wine operate on different playing fields: “Yes, beer can be complex—I don’t want to say that it can’t be complex—but I don’t think it’s capable of being as complex or nuanced as wine. When people try really hard to make something complicated, it’s just not that interesting. If you’re talking about oak-aging or brettanomyces, wine just wears it better.”

But for other sommeliers, it is more that craft beer has a time and place. Cappiello notes that when it comes to quality beer, some of his peers choose lighter options, such as kölsch, for recreational drinking. He counts Pliny the Elder and the beers of Captain Lawrence among his craft favorites, but says the right situation for upscale beer is at the restaurant table, not at the bar after work. “Craft beers should be looked at like wine—best suited to have with food,” he says.

But then why doesn’t big brand wine get the same treatment? When it comes to analogues for Modelo Especial or Tecate in the wine world—the jugs of Gallo or bottles of Barefoot Bubbly—no one in the beverage industry seems particularly interested in knocking back bottom-shelf picks. “There’s definitely a double standard,” says Dustin Wilson, former sommelier at Eleven Madison Park and star of the documentary SOMM. “I will happily drink inexpensive wine, but it’s usually from producers that I like or regions that I like. I’ve never gotten into boxed wine or Yellowtail.”

Matt Duckor, the Senior Editor of Epicurious who writes frequently on drinks, speculates that perhaps one of the reasons why crappy beer transmits as a socially acceptable lowbrow quirk, and not wine, is our cultural relationship to the two sectors of the alcohol industry. “I think there’s a longer history of mass-produced beer being accessible,” he says. “Wine has a longer history of connoisseurship. People aren’t used to coveting beer.”

But there’s reason to believe that things are changing. Craft beer is on an undeniable ascent, with breweries opening in the United States at an astounding rate of 1.5 per day. The Brewers Association, which promotes craft beer, recently set a goal of capturing 20 percent of the market share by 2020, and some analysts believe that’s a reasonable hurdle. Duckor also notes the rise of the high-end beer bar in New York. Elegant places such as Brooklyn’s Törst, adjacent to Scandinavian hotspot Luksus, are helping to shift away from the idea that quality beer must come in a rowdy beer garden or brewery type atmosphere and that the flavor profile for well-regarded beer only comes in bold and bolder.

“As the beer world develops and more people get exposed to these better beers, it gets harder to go back to Budweiser,” says Duckor, who says that it took him awhile to get into beer only because he had been focusing on learning about wine. Now, though, he has found much to like, in not only the variety of styles available, but also the more accessible price point. “Beer is accessible [pricewise] in the same way that wine is not.” And it’s in this accessibility, he speculates, that craft and quality beer will become more normalized. “Once you take sense memory and nostalgia out of it, I think in a generation, the base layer will have to be forced to be a lot better. People’s tastes evolve.”

That collective nostalgia factor should not be discounted in understanding why mass-market beer both reigns in the wine world and has become such a visible touchstone on social media. For the modern sommelier, untethered from the three-piece suits and leather-bound wine binder conventions of the past, the conspicuous consumption of big-brand beer is one way to shuffle off the stigmas that come from working in a rarified and sometimes stuffy world. Mass-market beer—on par with the likes of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola in terms of recognizability—is the antithesis of the 48-case production Burgundy. It’s a way of signaling “normal” in an otherwise highly specialized arena.

And so, despite the rapid growth in the specialized beer industry, some sommeliers are still skeptical that craft options could substitute for what makes mass-market beers appealing. “They’ll always have a place; I’m always going to try and see what’s new and interesting that’s out there,” says Richard Betts. “But in the end, I’m going to crack a Tecate or Corona.”

MORE BEER & WINE STORIES:

The Rise of the American “Somm”
Can Craft Beer Truly Express a Sense of Place?
We’ll Never Be Royals
The Epic Wine List Is Not Dead
The Next Frontier in Barrel-Aged Craft Beer
Masculinity, Hipsters and the Miller High Life Man
You Don’t Hate IPA, You Just Think You Do
How Shotgunning Got Its Very Own Ambassador

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FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • “Some wines are super complex, super extracted… [but] for the most part I don’t want to be challenged by the wine I drink,” he says. “With beer, we talk about it, analyze it, and with wine, sometimes you just want to get a buzz on.” Having a go-to wine for after hours drinking ([put in a cheaper wine at some random bar]l) that will be available at any bar helps alleviate decision fatigue that comes from working within the beer world’s complexities. “Sometimes you just want to escape from what you love,” he says.

    Blah blah blah! Same fucking thing.

  • sinosoul

    cuz Chang said so? So you punched out 1300 words? That’s the premise of the story? Go jump off a cliff, lemming. SMFH.

  • It’s disappointing to see people that care so much about
    the “craft” of wine completely write off craft beer and go all
    normcore. It’s not difficult to find a quaffable house beer from a local
    brewery that is easy to drink. I get that there are times when all of us (including
    people in the craft beer industry) take down a Budweiser but there is no need
    to wear it like a badge of honor. It would be equal to someone in the beer
    industry saying “yeah… you know… my palate is just so burnt out from
    working on our barrel program. I just want to go home and pop open a bottle of
    2 buck chuck! ” Domaine de Fontsainte on the other hand, that I could get
    behind.

  • Ahli Anggur

    A lot of craft beer resembles the “big flavor” wines that many professionals are tired of – over-hopped instead of over-oaked, too heavy, too alcoholic – but there are fine, refreshing session beers made by craft brewers too. Still, 15+ years ago, the kitchen staff of one of the most innovative restaurants in town used to descend on the bar where I worked every Sunday night, to drink Old Milwaukee in cans and watch South Park (only available on satellite then). Sometimes you need to come down a bit.

  • Homosibaris

    As a sommelier, after read this article I’m shocked! How a profesional could say something so stupid? In my opinion there are just two options ’cause mass market beers pay this people or ’cause they know nothing about beer. “Shitty” beers aren’t tasteless. This sommeliers are trying to say beer is just to refresh your palate and wine is to connect with God or cosmos… please be serious or return your sommelier diploma!!!

  • John Skupny

    I figure that for as long as I have been in the profession, thus drinking, that there are only a finite number of drinks left for me to enjoy – I will stick to craft brewed beer to relish the moment when I most want to enjoy a beer. Mass market beer serves its purpose as they are usually less expensive than bottled water. However, to get it to cost so little one cannot imagine quality ingredients being used. I do however agree that many the trends in craft beer are extreme but the relatively new ‘sessions’ trend is encouraging, beers made from real quality ingredients but styled for more generous consumption. Remember, one man’s kitsch is another coffee table!

  • CharlieD

    terrible story, poorly argued. please don’t quit your day job

  • Francesco Savigni

    Im not a sommelier or a excellent taster, however, my love for wine and beer is on the same level. While I generally love complex beer, I have to admit that I can drink most of cheap and industrial beer, while a cheap wine it’s really unbearable for my palate.

  • justinbhorton

    Perfect example of fallacious logic: the first paragraph, wherein a claim for “cultural revival” is based on a) a reactionary advertisement; and b) a single Facebook post with 20k likes (as if from 20k we can extrapolate a larger statement about “mass” markets. This writer and this publication should be ashamed of themselves. That’s C-grade freshman Composition stuff.

  • StephenBody

    In answer to just the title, it’s really self-explanatory: A somm is someone whose entire reputation and livelihood is invested in maintaining the myth that wine is the ultimate sophisticated beverage. (I know a LOT of Single-Malt Scotch fans who would beg to differ, but that’s another discussion) They’ve put decades into becoming this Ultimate Wine Authority and have, therefore, mostly a sub-standard beer education. I’d venture to guess that most of them have sampled considerably less than .02% of the world’s beer offerings, so what would they think? As someone who has written and tasted VERY extensively in both beverages, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that beer is more complex, varied, and ultimately interesting over the long haul than wine, which conclusion IN NO WAY denigrates or invalidates wine. Add to that deficit in their tasting experience the fact that wine is HUGELY about erecting the facade of exclusivity and uber-sophistication and elegance that makes it so appealing for many upwardly-mobile Americans, in service to their vision of their lifestyle, and their enjoyment of wine MUST involve looking down on anything they consider “lesser”. It’s all nonsense. I and several other wine writers I know have turned down repeated urgings to take the somm exam, not because it’s a bad thing to do but mainly because it’s just irrelevant unless you plan to spend your life working in restaurants and as a buyer or pontificating at wine tastings. I tell my readers at least yearly that anointed wine “experts” – like sommeliers and your “wine-savvy” buddy and ME – are unnecessary, because you have all the equipment you’ll ever need to figure out what’s good and not in wine, for YOU: your lips and tongue. It’s sad that somebody even thinks to put these simple-minded musings from people whose knowledge base does NOT, in any way, translate from wine to **anything** else online and start such an empty-headed debate. Somms, drink your damned wine and shut up about beer. Your opinions there have about as much REAL relevance as those of some drunk on a bar stool.

    • Rocktageous

      “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that beer is more complex, varied, and ultimately interesting over the long haul than wine, which conclusion IN NO WAY denigrates or invalidates wine.”

      Beer doesn’t have terroir anymore. It used to when things like hard water or having somewhere cold or the type of hops that grow nearby effected the styles that were made in a particular region, but now you can change chemistry and import whatever you need. Today, a talented brewer can make a wonderful English Pale Ale in Prague. That’s democratic as fuck, but it’s not of the same level of interest as how Burgundy can taste so different when grown a few miles apart. Or from the same vineyard in a cold, wet year versus a hot, dry one.

      • StephenBody

        To quote the immortal Jeff Lebowski, “That’s…like, just your opinion, man.” If, for you, the terroir characteristics of Burgundy – and let’s not even drink the French Kool Aid that says that terroir is the sole province of France, when wines from Sonoma and Red Mountain, Valle del Uco and Lujan de Cuyo, and Tuscany and Emiligia-Romana are so distinct and discrete – that you are sufficiently fascinated by those differences, then good for you. Have at it. But that doesn’t change the inarguable fact that the range of flavors possible in brewing is LIGHT YEARS broader and more complex than wine. Again, this is not a slam against wine. It IS, absolutely, a statement on our cultural inanity that wine is somehow more sophisticated, elegant, nuanced, or even a better food pairing than beer. The simple fact is that, 95% of the time when I hear from some wine geek that wine if SO much more interesting than beer, what they’re talking about is the standard, watery, insipid, mass-produced American adjunct lagers – the BUdMillerCoorsPabst continuum – that they drank in college, to excess, and wound up bored with. I have a TON of empirical evidence for this, having poured hundreds of tastings of craft beers for people who wandered into my shops saying, “Oh, I only drink wine. I don’t like beer”, only to discover that they DO, in fact, like great craft beer, once I poured them a taste, because it’s not the Same Old Shit and that the beer they “don’t like” is the aforementioned mega-brewer swill.

        I’ve been a reviewer of both for 40 years, now, and a seller of beer, wine, and spirits, and I’ve tasted somewhere north of 25,000 wines and 10,000 beers and this is the only conclusion that it’s possible to come to. If, for you, tasting an endless succession of Burgundy that all has the same core flavors is what cranks your engine, nobody’s stopping you. But unless you have some significant history with modern craft beer and have tasted broadly, your statement about beer not having terroir and the “level of interest” is NOTHING but your own view and is a position that most people who like and drink both have outgrown long ago. Beer is more varied and complex than wine. Fact. And only someone who doesn’t know beer would argue otherwise.

        • Rocktageous

          That was lot of typing (and all-caps) to repeat yourself and sorta vaguely acknowledge my argument. I’m sorry you find wine to be so unimpressive.

          • StephenBody

            I find wine infinitely fascinating, as my profession proves. I just don’t feel like wine must be presumptively elevated above all other beverages. Beer, wine, spirits, they all have their virtues. It’s all apples and oranges and I fail to see why ANYONE would arbitrarily say that they don’t want to drink anything just because they prefer one type. Yes, I sometimes type in all caps, for emphasis. I’m not concerned with that faux-cool baloney about typing in caps being somehow excessive. I’m not cool, never have been cool, and have no desire to be cool. I turn on the caps lock when I feel the need. You seem to have a lot of issues with lifestyle rigidity. If your self-image is so shaky that someone like me expressing an opinion that beer is more complex and interesting than wine compels you to some sort of passionate passive-aggressive defense, think about what that means…because there’s only one thing it can mean: you feel your choices and preferences are being threatened; as though, if somebody believes what I write, your wine preference is called into question…which is childish. Wine doesn’t require your defense and the very worst that might happen with someone reading my statement is that some wine weenie MIGHT just try a craft beer to see if I’m full of crap. In that case, I’ve done them a HUGE favor and vastly expanded the range of pleasures at their disposal. If you don’t want responses to what you write, I suggest you don’t write it. But the idea that ANYONE, on any subject, should just accept your views without question and stand corrected, that’s just really…sad.

  • StephenBody

    “Jennifer Fiedler is the author of The Essential Bar Book: An A-to-Z Guide to Spirits, Cocktails, and Wine, with 115 Recipes for the World’s Great Drinks (Ten Speed Press, Oct. 2014) and a former editor at Wine Spectator magazine. She lives in Haleiwa, Hawaii.”

    “Former editor at Wine Spectator”. Nothing at all in that bio about Ms. Fiedler’s qualifications as a beer connoisseur. Pretty certain, if we had a more extensive bio, we’d find it’s because she’s not one.

    Let me put this simply and categorically: **The days of beer as the blue-collar, Joe Sixpack, low-ambition, low-class beverage are OVER**. People like Ms. Fiedler and her over-reaching somms who provided fodder for this smarmy little mis-step of a blog post are really nothing more than relics of a time when two people standing in line in a liquor store, one with a pricey Bordeaux and one with a sixer of tall-boys, could read that shorthand and KNOW they had nothing in common. Beer, in the US, has already progressed to a point at which the complexity, character, age-worthiness, and flavor are LIGHT years beyond that time when ALL American drinkers had to choose from was a range of slightly more or less skunky variations of cheap, watery, adjunct Pilsners (Google it). Somms promoting the virtues of crap beer is nothing more than a faux-hip version of “Why, in MY day, we…”, just like Grandpa used to growl about those new-fangled horseless carriages. They’d love nothing more than to shove the craft beer culture back into the low-rent district of American beverage commerce, so they can climb back onto the high-horse without any messy suggestions that they’re no longer the Keepers of the Flame on sophistication. Sorry, chums, but your whining merely comes off as quaint and feckless; Grandpa’s yearning for the Golden Past, minus any of Grandpa’s charm and spunk.

    • WadeCollins

      Who gives a shit Stevie?

      • StephenBody

        I give a shit, Wadie! You tend to your asinine comments and I’ll deal with mine. Loser.

  • brunello

    I’ve been a Sommelier for 13 years and the wine list I work with now is around 1,100 labels.
    I think about wine constantly but after work, all I want is a very cold beer and many of them. I LOVE Czechvar from the Czech Republic. This is the original Budweiser…Google it and be ready to be pissed off.
    I refuse to drink shitty, bland, non tasting beer. If you like that style…good for you…I won’t criticize you. What ever makes you happy after a 12 hour shift putting up with bridge and tunnels.
    When I have a day off, I go to local craft brewers and try everything so I don’t have to think and analyze wines. That’s a good day off.