Consume This! Geek Wave! Driving Scenes from the Fringe

In this month’s blog post, Eli Wilson, Nate Chapman, and J. Slade Lellock introduce us to their recently launched collaborative project on the craft beer scene, and discuss what – and who – drives scenes and shapes tastes, and why we need to take aficionados seriously.

– Michaela DeSoucey (section chair)

Consume This! Geek Wave! Driving Scenes from the Fringe

By Eli R. Wilson, Nate Chapman, J. Slade Lellock

Introduction

You are walking down Manchester Road in St. Louis, home to Side Project Brewing. As one of the highest rated breweries in the world according to leading beer websites such as Beer Advocate and Untappd, Side Project is known for releasing highly coveted small batch, specialty bottles of beer. Today, you notice a line of people wrapping around the block and heading toward the back of a warehouse. The line is full of people, mostly bearded white men, sitting in folding chairs and surrounded by coolers and backpacks full of beer. You ask someone in line, “What’s going on? Are they giving away free beer or something?” “No,” the man scoffs, “Derivation is being released today. Two bottles per person, $40 each. Most of us have been waiting in line for three hours already. It is going to be an instant whale [an extremely rare and valuable beer].”

To many people, craft beer is simply an alcoholic beverage to be consumed socially. The casual imbiber may occasionally go to a taproom with friends, take a brewery tour, or grab a six pack of something made locally at the grocery store. However, for a small subset of craft beer enthusiasts, none of this is sufficient to satisfy their thirst for beers that are rare, unique, and imminently collectable. These beer “geeks” participate in cross-state and international bottle trades brokered via social media apps like Facebook and Instagram. The “whales” they buy and sell, often purchased at the brewery source on the day it is released, go for hundreds of dollars each. Yes, we are still talking about beer.

Three Waves of Craft Beer

Today, the US craft beer scene is in its third “wave” since the mid-twentieth century. The concept of “waves” offers a general framework for understanding changes in how cultural goods are produced and consumed. The coffee industry provides a textbook example of this. As John Manzo (2010) notes, industrial coffee manufacturers like Folger’s and Maxwell House were mainstays of the first wave in that they mass-produced cheap, instant coffee with minimal variety and maximum distribution in the post WWII period. Then came companies like Starbucks and Peet’s in the 1980s, who epitomized coffee’s second wave through their focus on higher-quality ingredients, specialty coffee drinks, and a more elevated coffee shop experience. “Artisanal” coffee roasters such as Intelligentsia from Chicago and Blue Bottle from San Francisco now represent coffee’s third wave. These companies offer consumers an ostensibly unique experience based on carefully-sourced coffee beans, small-scale production, and a well-curated “guest” experience (similar to what Richard Ocejo (2017) describes about modern cocktail bars, distilleries, and butcheries). 

The US craft beer scene mirrors these three waves—just replace the word “coffee” with “beer,” Folgers with Budweiser, Starbucks with Sierra Nevada, and so on. Today’s craft breweries, such as Side Project, make products that push the boundaries of what beer can be while using techniques not typically associated with brewing beer, such as aging, cellaring, and souring. During this third wave of beer, the number of US breweries has swelled to nearly 8,000—over twice the number of breweries that existed prior to prohibition a century ago. Meanwhile, consumer tastes for beer have grown ever more sophisticated, as Michael Ian Borer (2019) has pointed out.

If the idea of “waves” gives us an overview of the changes to a scene and the general direction of this change—from mass-production to specialization to small-batch artisanship—the Production of Culture (POC) perspective helps explain this process more systematically. According to POC, shifts in production reflect changes in technology, laws and regulations, markets, and the industry structure. In the beer industry, brewers innovate by continually adjusting to their environment, including what other brewers and breweries are doing. However, POC tends to neglect how consumers themselves construct meaning and value around cultural objects “from below.” We end up missing how the everyday actions of consumers may bare influence on how objects come to be produced, valued, and circulated in the first place. 

But why would certain types of consumers opt for increasingly expensive, specialized brews in the first place? Bourdieu and other consumption theorists would argue that it comes down to cultural capital. Yes, but only to an extent. Cultural capital offers some explanation as to why social elites may seek out rare or expensive beers while thumbing their noses at inexpensive, corporate-made alternatives. In their mutual distaste for “low-brow” beers, elites and beer “geeks”—whether self-professed or labeled by others—appear to be cut from the same cloth. But only a beer geek would travel thousands of miles to stand in line for hours at a beer release at Side Project, or take part in a prolonged discussion afterward about the rarity of a certain beer in an online forum. Geeks, and their relationship to the scene they are a part of, are something all their own.

Why We Need to Take Geeks Seriously

In fashion, an oft-used expression is that if you want to know where the next trend will come from, look to the streets. Like street fashionistas, geeks infuse value in the objects they consume by producing and circulating specific kinds of knowledge about them. Geeks bring intense interest, specialization, and resources, to a scene. At the same time, the kinds of knowledge that geeks obsess over is not necessarily the same thing that authorities such as trained professionals and credentialed critics recognize. Nor do geeks engage with their objects of interest in the same way that more mainstream, casual consumers do—that’s why they get called “geeks” in the first place and studied for the intensity of their fan culture, as Henry Jenkins has done with bloggers and gamers. What beer geeks covet may have a lot to do with the rarity of the beer or its extreme flavors and esoteric ingredients, none of which translates into mass consumer appeal or critical acclaim — at least not directly.

Consumers today have seemingly endless options from which to make their purchasing decisions. Before buying a beer, they have dozens of potential books or websites to consult to deepen their beer knowledge. They have apps to log their own liquid adventures. Coming across a beer that is “handcrafted” by a local brewery is no longer a novelty. In this context, who, or what, shapes tastes? 

Our research is exploring the idea that beer geeks may be playing a pivotal role in driving trends in the craft beer industry and in postmodern consumer culture itself. They may be co-producing beer trends in specific ways just as they shape consumer perceptions from the fringe. However, we suspect the influence of geeks occurs indirectly: through secondary markets and “hype” that originates in small online forums and in-person bottle shares. What makes this fascinating for us is that geeks are not the same as institutionalized taste makers, or what Bourdieu refers to as cultural intermediaries.

Many beer geeks do not hold formal positions in the beer industry, nor do they have a direct influence on a brewery’s decision-making process. In fact, brewers and brewery employees may have a tenuous relationship with beer geeks that think they know more about beer than them. Geeks, like “otaku” in Japan, are, by definition, fringe players. What geeks say and do—characterized by an intensity of interest, idiosyncratic appeal, or adherence to any number of subcultural norms— may influence emerging industry trends in fitful or partial ways that are never fully embraced by everyday consumers or professional producers.

 All of this raises important questions about the role that a specialized subset of consumers—geeks—play in shaping cultural scenes from the fringe. How do beer geeks, who tend to be overwhelmingly white and male, circulate particular kinds of knowledge within a scene? How might this knowledge flow towards both producers and (non-geek) consumers? Unpacking the influence of geeks in linking other stakeholders together within a scene should be of particular relevance to those of us who study culture and consumption. 

In a society of specialized hyper-consumption, who among us will drive our collective tastes one way or another? Geeks just might.

References

Borer, Michael Ian. 2019. Vegas Brews: Craft Beer and the Birth of a Local Scene. New York: NYU Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Manzo, John. 2010. “Coffee, Connoisseurship, and an Ethnomethodologically-Informed Sociology of Taste. Human Studies, 33: 141-155.

Ocejo, Richard. 2017. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Peterson, Richard. and N. Anand. 2004. “The Production of Culture Perspective.” Annual Review of Sociology, 30: 311-334. 

About the Authors

Eli R. Wilson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. His current research explores labor dynamics, cultural narratives, and social inequality in the U.S. craft beer industry. His first book, Front of the House, Back of the House: Race and Inequality in the Lives of Restaurant Workers is due out in December through NYU Press.

Nathaniel G. Chapman is an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas Tech University. He is co-author of Beer and Racism: How Beer Became White, Why it Matters, and the Movements to Change it (Bristol University Press, 2020). His research examines the intersections of race and gender in craft beer culture. 

J. Slade Lellock is an assistant professor of sociology at Averett University. His work explores the relationship between symbolic and expressive elements of culture and inequality.  

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