Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nerd Elitism

When I was in high school last century (snicker), we had an open campus policy, which meant you could leave the school grounds to eat lunch, for example. There were a few businesses in the immediate neighborhood (besides Flame-N-Burger and Blimpie's) that we frequented, including a high-end home audio store in the next block. Home of the $1200 turntable, the $700-a-piece QUADROPHONIC speakers ("You can really blast your Bachman-Turner Overdrive, man!"), and your home plate, a receiver/equalizer combination, often the size of an expedition piece of American Tourister luggage. Remember kids, daddy didn't have any digital toys back then.

This is where I first became aware of the phenomenon of nerd elitism. You not only needed the finest turntable, you needed the needle that went with it--usually something constructed from the dew claw of a Tasmanian lemur. Sure, you can play your albums with that store-bought cartridge, but listen to the quality of the sound you get with that lemur claw--it's awesome! What . . . you can't hear the 17.5 dB difference in the mid-range?

I was reminded of this phenomenon as I read "A Better Brew,", an article on extreme beer brewing, a topic that makes the Trekkie experience look positively uninvolved. The extreme brewers of the world are those posers who like to concoct their beer from obscure and/or rare ingredients. Because . . . because . . . well, like the dew claw above, obscure is better, right?

The article profiles one Sam Calagione, owner of the Dogfish Head brewery of Delaware (motto: “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People”), regarded as one of the best by extreme beer geeks. Here's a description of one of DH's more interesting brews, aged in barrels constructed of some bizarre species of Paraguayan wood:

. . . he had filled the barrel with a strong brown beer. It was made with three kinds of hops, five kinds of wheat and barley, a dose of unrefined cane sugar, and a sturdy Scottish ale yeast. It had a creamy head when poured, like a Guinness stout, and contained about twelve per cent alcohol—two and a half times as much as a Budweiser. Calagione called it Palo Santo Marron. . . There were hints of tobacco and molasses in it, black cherries and dark chocolate, all interlaced with the wood’s spicy resin.

"It was an extreme beer, he said, but to most people it wouldn’t have tasted like beer at all." Gee--you think so? The combination of molasses, Vick's Formula 44 cough syrup, chocolate, pine sap and Skoal probably would not, I repeat, would NOT taste like beer. To anyone.


No matter--Calagione pushes the envelope ever farther, the goal being to to make beers so potent and unique that they can’t be judged by ordinary standards (much less called beer). Hence, he uses ingredients like fresh oysters, arctic cloudberries, curry, coriander and lemongrass. He has in the past concocted a medieval gruit brewed with yarrow root and grains of paradise; an African tej made with bitter gesho bark and raw honey(yes, I was also ashamed that I did not know what a gruit or a tej was); there was even a green colored brew for St. Patrick's day that derived its hue from--mmmmm, blue-green algae. Why? Just because!

What is it that bugs me about this? I think it's the Emperor's New Clothes thing that smells it up for me (rather than the gesho bark and algae). It's the idea that if you throw a bunch of stuff in with the fermented barley, you're making some kind of tasty masterpiece. Maybe you're really just making a gag-inducing elixir that packs a liver-shattering wallop (many of Calagione's brews have a lot of alcohol) that you can charge your suckers--I mean, patrons, 20 bucks a snifter. And hey, if you can get 'em to belly up for your cleverly labelled swill again and again (Goatkiller, Hog's Vomit), why, then you can be a beer hero and pocket lots of money.

It's like a talking with a wine snob, but somehow seems worse. Or watching a Quentin Tarantino movie, and feeling small for not being in on the all the references to obscure 1970's Hong Kong martial arts movies. Or . . .

. . . in my teens, I could play a halfway decent game of tennis (suprising even to me). This one kid hung around the public courts, and always had the most expensive racquet, the vacuum-packed tennis balls, matching head and wrist bands, etc., etc. Challenging me to a game once, he snickered disdainfully at my beat-up wooden racquet and my Keds.

I mopped the court with his silly posing ass.

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