It was once a given in music criticism that pop music, the ear candy of the masses, was not worthy of the same intellectual consideration as rock music, especially that of the auteur or cerebral indie darling. But then, about a decade ago, a new critical paradigm took hold: poptimism. Defined most simply by the critic Jody Rosen in Slate in 2006, it’s the idea that "pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act."
Poptimism has been the default perspective in music for years now, so obvious by this point that it hardly seems to merit articulation, but it’s worth pointing out that it developed in part as a rebuke of "rockism," described most scathingly by the critic Kelefa Sanneh in a New York Times piece that became a defining screed against the tyranny of rockists. Rockists, he wrote, whined about “a pop landscape dominated by big-budget spectacles and high-concept photo shoots” and reminisced “about a time when the charts were packed with people who had something to say, and meant it, even if that time never actually existed,” and guitars. (If this all sounds silly or made up, just read the Wikipedia page.)
More recently, poptimism has come for beer (and coffee and chicken nuggets). Following craft beer’s rapid expansion and largely successful monopolization of the aesthetic qualities of what constitutes “good beer” in critical circles, the industry’s growth is now slowing — amidst possible signs of a bubble — and a backlash to the beer snob has solidified, like the wine aficionado and bean boi before him. One result has been moments like the Boston Globe’s trend piece about how beer snobs are awful and Viceland late-night host The Kid Mero regularly destroying IPA heads on Twitter. The other, more profound one, is that beer geeks are being forced to watch as the embrace of industrial brews expands beyond people who just don’t want to spend eight dollars on a drink called “Arrogant Bastard” or “Palate Wrecker."
What I’ve taken to (reductively) calling beer poptimism is marked by the growing appreciation of malted beverages that are unassailably popular, widely accessible, and highly quaffable, in opposition to the long-running critical supremacy of the remarkably niche, extremely artisan, and powerfully flavored. Put another way, swap out pop stars for mass-market beer companies and rock auteurs for craft brewers, and you get the idea: Bud Light, not Pliny the Younger.
The underlying theoretical arguments of beer poptimism run largely in tandem with its musical counterpart. Much in the way that critic Maura Johnston explained that poptimism is about "understanding that the underlying musical complexities of Britney Spears's 'Toxic' can be as intricate as, say, those lurking within Jellyfish's 'New Mistake,'" a beer poptimist might posit, for instance, that the precise engineering that goes into every can of Coors Light is perhaps as artful as the tang of a prized lambic.
Before it even had wider currency in the beer world, Burkhard Bilger documented the roots of this line of thinking in the New Yorker back in 2008, writing that Budweiser's “sheer consistency, across tens of billions of bottles and cans, is a technical marvel, and even the crankiest craft brewers harbor a secret admiration for it.” Though one might not usually think of beer like we do wine vintages — variable from year to year — beer is also made from things that grow from our fickle, dying earth. So it would be natural to expect the same beer to taste different in 2017 than it will in 2018, but no one really expects that, because Bud is a beer that is almost magically unchanging. Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery and the de facto spokesman for fancy beer, even admitted to Bilger that “Anheuser-Busch’s quality — if quality is consistency — is second to none.”
Calagione’s reluctant respect for the King of Beers ends when it comes to its actual taste; others, however, go further. Bilger found that Jean-Marie Rock — at the time, the brewmaster at Orval, a Trappist brewery in Belgium that produces some of most beloved beer in the world — doesn’t just appreciate Bud’s consistency, he also legitimately enjoys consuming it. “Tell them that the brewer at Orval likes Budweiser!” he said.
The chef David Chang, who could be called a food poptimist (even though his theories about flavor involve mathematical loops), is also in this camp. A couple years ago, in what might have been the breakthrough moment for beer poptimism, he revealed in GQ that there is "no beverage that I’ve drunk more of in my life than Bud Light." Chang offers the argument that "cheap, watery swill," unlike an ultra-high-gravity Belgian or a hop bomb of an IPA, "pairs really well with food. All food. Think about how well champagne pairs with almost anything... Cheap beer is, no joke, the champagne of beers."
No doubt Miller is pleased to see its slogan for High Life touted earnestly and high-mindedly by one of the most influential chefs in the country. But perhaps the real mark of ascendance for poptimism and its respect for the approachability of the macro beers is how shades of it can be found in the beer of some craft brewers. Shaun Hill, of Hill Farmstead in Vermont, is one of the newer stars of American beer — RateBeer.com has named Hill Farmstead the best brewery in the world three times — but in contrast to the super-alcoholic high-concept offerings that breweries like Dogfish Head made famous, most of Hill’s beer will not put off your everyday drinker; there’s an emphasis on balance and drinkability. Although he is a local artisan who makes his farmhouse beers in an actual farmhouse and names them after Nietzsche and Foucault, Shaun Hill is, in some ways, an outright poptimist:
I actually find myself drinking Miller High Life or Budweiser because those beers are perfectly crafted. They’re soft and there are off flavors, but they’re intentional. There are flaws that they intentionally put in the beer in order to continue the flavor profile, but those beers are really easy to drink.
Where things get more complicated for beer poptimism is how class and taste have played out across different cultural domains in and through food in recent years, including beer. In one of the other canonical texts of poptimism, the 2007 monograph Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, the critic Carl Wilson examines why, even though tens of millions of people love Céline Dion, others, particularly music snobs, loathe her. His broader goal was to understand how tastes are determined and expressed, and part of the answer, which he found in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, was that hating Céline Dion at the time was a matter of acquiring “cultural capital,” which is to say (in a grossly oversimplified way), being cooler.
There are clear, easy parallels here in the world of beer, particularly in the headier days of craft beer’s ascendancy, as hop heads and homebrewers continually one-upped each other in the pursuit of the sickest burn on the mega-corporate producers of the bland, insipid piss beers that dominate the market — obviously as a means of demonstrating their own superior taste. In the easy outcome, one might simply wind up like Wilson did after writing his book, becoming “more wary of the critical tendency to describe something seethingly.”
But consider this scene: Somewhere in America, maybe in the heart of a Rust Belt city currently experiencing a form of economic revitalization whereby once-empty downtown storefronts are filled by homey craft stores and small plates restaurants whose produce comes entirely from within a seven-block radius, a group of young creative professionals is grabbing a drink at a new bar. Occupying an old bank building, the bar offers twists on classic cocktails, all named with Industrial Age puns. After someone orders the Steamboat Sling and "whatever rosé you've got," the dude in the band shirt analyzes the not-too-showy collection of local microbrews on tap, then manages to ask for an imperial stout in the midst of making some pronouncement no one pays attention to. Finally, the other, slightly cooler dude in the other, slightly cooler band t-shirt asks, confidently and concisely, for a Budweiser.
Overeducated urbanites with plenty of disposable income, like our cooler friend here, are now drinking a lot more of what a beer geek would call “American adjunct lager” — the adjunct being the corn or rice used in addition to barley — not just because it is highly drinkable, but because beer remains an opportunity for personal-brand-conscious young people to express themselves.
In the aughts, the staples of class irony for the so-called hipster were outright caricature: trucker hats, mustaches, and crappy beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz. Post-normcore — which replaced the co-option of working-class signifiers with softly ironic suburban blandness — buying into the sprawling capitalist apparatus of the most popular macro beers, like Bud Light or High Life, has become the go-to aesthetic choice over PBR’s faded faux-proletarianism. Although the cool kid who orders a mass-produced light beer is much less obnoxious than the trust-fund kid who thought he was a stevedore ten years ago, he's probably still posing for some of Bourdieu’s cultural capital.
The cool kid obviously isn’t the only one capitalizing on the tastes and perception of the average Big Beer drinker. The continued overwhelming market share of the greater beer-industrial complex stems from the fact that, for the majority of Americans, beer is not something to spend a lot of money on. It is a refreshing drug-delivery vehicle that dulls the lingering anxiety of the workday or makes weekend sports-watching and meat-grilling more fun. It should be cheap, available nearby in large quantities, and totally inoffensive. It is enjoyed this way by millions of Americans, some self-consciously performing some kind of identity as an “American,” but most not. Anheuser-Busch InBev has managed to commoditize this in a series of nakedly populist campaigns, from renaming Budweiser “America” during the Olympics to running a series of Super Bowl ads that directly attacked artisanal beer culture and stereotypical beer-geek types, effectively selling its perceived audience an image of itself.
Here’s a thought, though: Maybe if macro brewers dialed back the populist messaging, and if so many craft brewers didn’t lean into the whole flavor-exploding-iconoclast thing so much, the beer world wouldn’t feel so binary. While for some, the newfound currency of macro beers is undoubtedly a resignation of good taste in the service of making things go down easier or the victory of aesthetics over flavor, the beer poptimists like Shaun Hill ultimately present the best way forward. Or maybe all I’m saying is that I just want to be able to quaff a lambic at a rodeo or pound a Coors Banquet with some epicurean dads without getting dragged.
Jake Tuck is a freelance writer who contributes to The New Yorker online, The Awl, Splitsider, and McSweeney’s.
Jessica Garcia is an illustrator based in South Florida.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter