I saw this article – “Hop Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us.” – go by this morning and was all set to launch into a tirade about its basic stupidity, to point out that craft beer is in fact quite diverse (duh), even or especially in North America where there has been such an interest of late in the resuscitation of lost or neglected European styles; that if a dislike of strong hops is enough to turn one off any further investigation of craft beer, then one can hardly place the responsibility for one’s own feckless laziness with the brewers; that it was the hops enthusiasts who carved out the craft beer world in the first place, quite literally and metonymically opening up the palates of beer drinkers to a greater variety of styles and expressions.
However, then I actually read the article and was disappointed to discover that the author already knows this and makes several of these points in her piece, mostly mooting my initial indignation, but in the process also providing occasion for entirely other a freak-out that has less (but not nothing) to do with the content of the piece and more with its form and superfice. Specifically, I am truly sick of the hyperbole of attention-grabbing headlines for even the most insignificant of articles. It is bad enough with Buzzfeed and the rest of its clickbait legacy, but I find it particularly obnoxious in the case of ostensibly content-based journalism/non-fiction. Taking the Adrienne So craft beer piece as an example, we find that the article has not one, but three, titles varying somewhat in the degree of their intended provocation, all of which are disingenuous:
First, the tagline as it appears in a facebook share: “Hops Enthusiasts are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us,” which is of course untrue because, as noted above, 1) hops enthusiasts created “Craft Beer”, 2) while hoppy beers remain prominent, and hop-bombs still object of fetishistic appreciation, this has not prevented the explosion of beers in less hop-forward styles (witness the massive expansion in saison-brewing in the past few years), resulting in the availability of a wider variety of beers than in literally any other time in human history – I defy you to go into a beer bar, brew pub, or specialty beer store and be unable to acquire high quality less-hopped beer, and 3) the “Rest of Us” in the title remains unexplicated. As it happens, it does not include the author, who does like hoppy beers, and so in light of points 1 and 2 it can only refer to a complacent, dissatisfied, John Q. Public who is paradoxically presumably interested in “Craft Beer” but unwilling to learn anything at all about it.
Second, the title as it actually appears on Slate: “Against Hoppy Beer: The Craft Beer Industry’s Love Affair with Hops is Alienating People Who Don’t Like Bitter Brews.” Again, the author is not actually against hoppy beer, bla bla bla, and to the extent that the subtitle is accurate, we may see this as the typical conflict involved with the popularization of a niche product, where the level of investment and engagement of the amateur/enthusiast is not matched by the casual consumer, who is by dint of their laziness or non-interest alienated from entering the market.
Finally, the title as it appears in the article URL and consequently in one’s browser tab: “Hoppy Beer is Awful, or at Least its Bitterness is Ruining Craft Beer’s Reputation.” This is my favourite, because it is both the most daring and the most cowardly – not even waiting to be challenged before it retreats from its in-your-digital-face declaration to the softer and more ambiguous position that the bitterness (not the same thing as hoppiness, of course, which is as much or more about aromatics) of craft beer is off-putting. All of which rhetorical surround accompanies an article which ultimately makes no such strong claims. The author opens with an anecdote which highlights their own love for hops, and the realization that they have come to take this for granted, then proceeds to give a potted history of American craft brewing and some of the pros and cons of hops fetishism. It’s actually a pretty decent article in its own right, but the closest it comes to the spirit of any its titles is in the final paragraph:
Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.
Which is fine, I suppose, although it is not as if this conversation isn’t already happening – arguably saisons have become new darlings of the craft world, with an attendant fixation on wild yeasts and lactobacilli and all things Belgian, and one could even make the claim that brettanomyces obsession is following a similar path to that of hops, with the Platonic ideal of a catbox-and-horse-blanket smoothie in a bottle tracing that of the 1000 IBU objet petit a, which everyone realizes is bad but irresistible idea anyway.
The problem is not the article or the argument itself, but that there actually is no argument. It is a type of journalism (or I dunno, “internet writing”) that assumes the form of confrontation but does not ever deliver on the promise of claims-making. On a certain level I can appreciate this as a prosaic tactic – I think it is a fruit of the desconstructionist turn that we may feel confident in a form of writing that draws us into a labyrinthine rhetorical rabbit warren in order to demonstrate or destabilize the impassible, open up other avenues of thinking, without endorsing the (sometimes) trap of “taking a strong position”. More can be said about the dangers of irony being a dominant mode of cultural discourse (I’m for it, frankly, although it is worth trying to make a distinction between the usefully destructive and the pointlessly destructive), but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that is really what is happening here. This is more like that guy at a party who engages one in absurd arguments, making provocatively absolute claims, from which he continually retreats with the defence “Well, I didn’t mean that so much as…” until one is eventually rewarded for one’s resisting the urge to murder him with the evasion “Don’t worry, I don’t even believe in what I’m saying, I just like to argue.” Which is itself a dissimulation – he doesn’t like to argue, he just likes the attention.
And so in the end, like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein I arrive at the insightful conclusion that hyperbolic internet headlines are just clickbait, they’re just trying to get our attention! Stop the figurative presses! Where are my Pulitzers in multiple? But seriously, I bother to get into it as much out of sympathy as annoyance. I’m sure Adrienne So had a nice idea for a piece situating and thinking beyond the stereotype of craft beer as totally hops-dominated, and I don’t blame her for the triteness and cynicism of her titles and taglines (unless she wrote them, of course). This sort of hyperbolic feint-and-switch writing is something I often fall into myself, but as this confrontation becomes more and more mere veneer, a window-dressing applied whether or not there is even a cursory analysis underneath, the more accustomed to and forgiving of sucky journalism we become. We can do better.