Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

February 15, 2007

Beer Diary:

Surviving the Axis of Evil

Nigel’s life in a small Midwestern town where shit beer rules.
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
The life of a Beer Dork is simple, yet fulfilling. Enjoying good craft brews is hardly a chore, and if you’ve ever read my reviews, you know that writing about them takes little or no skill (only a good buzz). You would think that someone who makes a career out of enjoying the simple things in life would be right at home in small town middle America, where old school values rule and the entire population bases its life on simplicity. Well my friends, think again. Why does yours truly struggle to get through each and every day in a town seemingly perfect for his laid back, beer-loving persona? It’s because Nigel lives in a town dominated by shit beer. For 99 percent of the population here, “good” beer is considered whatever the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Molson-Coors, and SAB Miller) tell them is good. Personally, I refer to the Big Three as the “Axis of Evil” (hmm … not sure who was the first to utter those words …) since they pose far more of a threat to the craft brewing community than the Iranians or North Koreans do to the international community.

Picture if you can Nigel’s home base, a place he emigrated to about 10 years ago in order to attend the finest of public state universities. It’s a town of approximately 70,000 people in an area that is semi-urban, as there are a number of towns with populations between 15,000 and 100,000 in the metro area. It’s your typical Midwestern blue-collar town, where the people work hard for minimal pay, where manufacturing still rules, and where about 12,000 college students help maintain the economy and the diversity. It’s a town that does have a microbrewery (an average one at best), but where the Axis of Evil is firmly in control. Like any other small Midwestern town, there is a pub—check that, a tavern—on every block, your standard beer-and-a-shot dive where the locals congregate at 3 p.m. and leave totally sloshed by 10. The bar scene consists essentially of these local dives, with a few college and post-college (patrons aged 25-40) bars located near the university. I would estimate that there are easily 75-plus taverns in this town, and there are three—that’s right, THREE—that serve good selections of craft beer (not including the microbrewery).

While I certainly wish it wasn’t the case, I do understand why many of the local establishments fail to offer a good selection of craft brews, as most people, regardless of what city or region you are in, are quite content with their macros and mixers. I wouldn’t expect the college bars to offer much more than your standard domestics and imports, perhaps with an occasional craft offering mixed in, as most of their patrons are on tight budgets and are there to binge drink shots and mixers (something Nigel happily participated in not so long ago). As for the local dives, they typically have an older clientele seeking value, a clientele that has been drinking shit beer for years and is not about to change. What really gets to me is the post-graduate age group, that coveted 25 to 49 year old demographic that the advertisers working for the Axis of Evil target, but also the demographic that should have enough beer I.Q. and enough disposable income to enjoy a few quality brews on an evening out. This is the age when you feel too old to binge drink but too young to stay home on a Saturday night playing checkers and watching Matlock. This demographic helps sustain the budding craft beer industry, and I’m shocked that in a town that is fairly well educated and located near a number of quality regional brewers, so many people here refuse to think outside the box and sample the many fantastic offerings provided by American craft brewers. There is no reason that a town like this can’t support more good beer bars.

Let me further break down the dearth of good beer in my town. Two of the good beer bars are essentially right next to each other on the main strip and sort of feed off of one another. The first is a midsize joint, with a great selection of about 90-100 different domestic and import craft brews, mostly in bottles. It has a small but loyal clientele aged 25 to 40ish, most of who have a fairly high beer I.Q. The second bar offers a selection of about 25-30 different craft brews on tap, but until recently was only a tiny place, with only the bar and a few small tables on the side. After a recent expansion more than doubling its size, this bar saw a drastic downturn in the quality of tap selections offered, and the expanded area had a back bar, complete with pool tables, dart boards, shuffleboard … and shit beer. Why the sudden change? Well, in order to survive in here, you’d better have shit beer to attract more customers and fill up the new addition. If they were to remain strictly a good beer bar, the expansion would have been unnecessary. The final beer bar is located in the most insane location I’ve ever seen, in a half-empty strip mall in a worn-down residential area of town (a town with no public transportation) with virtually no retail, restaurant or tavern business. It struggles to get any business, and will likely be shutting its doors soon. Nice try, but location is everything.

It’s just as pathetic when it comes to retail outlets offering craft beer selections. There are a few liquor stores in town, all of which specialize in providing kegs and cheap booze for the college crowd, with great discounts on the finest macros around for the blue-collar working man. Anyone who wants a 30-pack of Hamms for $6 just let me know and I can easily hook you up. Need a keg of Milwaukee’s Best Ice for your wedding or bar mitzvah? That’ll be $35. The grocery stores aren’t much better. There are six supermarkets, and only one carries any selection of craft beer besides the standard-bearers. The newest and largest supermarket recently expanded their beer and wine section, adding a good number of craft brews. This lasted for three months. They then decided to “reconfigure” the beer section, quickly reducing the number of non-Wisconsin craft brews, though they are still by far the best in town with a fair number of both regional and national offerings, as well as a number of imports. However, the selection is haphazardly taken care of, and many quality brews that should be and could be stocked are nowhere to be found—and you bet your ass, there are far more choices of shit beer than there were when it first opened. After this store expanded, the other store in town that was widely known among us Beer Dorks for its “wall of good beer” suddenly turned that wall into every form of pseudo-shit beer you could imagine; 90 percent of the craft brews and imports quickly disappeared. Again, it’s hard for me to fathom that there would only be room for ONE good beer retailer in a town this size.

So how does Beer Dork Nigel survive in a town so full of beer ignorance? It’s not easy, but you learn to manage. For one, I rarely go out anymore, as sad as that is for someone under the age of 30. Most of my acquaintances are quite happy supporting the Axis of Evil with their continued purchases of shit beer, and I only join them on certain occasions, not because I don’t enjoy their company, but because as a Beer Dork, I have certain standards to uphold. I have a couple of friends who are always willing to join me at one of the beer bars, but for the most part my going out is limited to my trips visiting friends in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, places where its much easier to track down some fine brews without too much trouble. In addition, there are a few good beer retailers within a short driving distance that stock a large selection of craft brews, so I can usually enjoy a quiet evening at home sampling a few quality brews if I’m so inclined. It may not seem as exciting as the bar scene, but I can honestly say staying in and watching a ball game or movie, playing video games, reading, surfing the internet, and writing reviews is far more enjoyable for a Beer Dork than going out and getting loaded on shit beer and shots.

I will not give up, however, as the Beer Dork crusade to educate the world on the virtues of craft beer must continue. Hope springs eternal, and I offer this as an example. This past Saturday night, Nigel and an acquaintance went to a remote local dive to visit a friend who recently got a bartending job there. While I had heard of this bar a few times before and had passed it on a number of occasions, I had never been in. We entered at 8 p.m. to an empty bar, one that was fairly decent inside (as in it was clean, and had been remodeled within the past 20 years), but had all the amenities typical of your small-town dive. On tap was Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Bud Light, Leinenkugel’s, and Michelob. However, much to my surprise, the run-down stand-up coolers behind the bar (one of which actually said “Snapple” on the side) were loaded with about 60 different craft brews and imports. Never in a million years would I have guessed that such an establishment would stock so many good brews. Was it a sign that the regular clientele had an exceptionally good taste in beer? Well … no. I ordered a Red’s Rye, and my selection was met with a look of total confusion by the bartender—I had to point him to where it was, as he had never heard of it, even after having worked there for a month. After about a half hour, the business picked up, but out of the 20 or so people there when we left, many of whom were undoubtedly regulars, not a single one was drinking any of the craft selections offered. It’s a promising sign that the owners and/or managers of such a place had enough beer I.Q. to stock all of these great brews, but it was very frustrating to see that for the most part, they serve merely as a colorful backdrop to an ignorant beer drinking public.

As a Beer Dork, I wish there was more I could do to combat the influence of the Axis of Evil. I’d love to get on my soapbox in the town square, extolling the evils of shit beer, warning people that drinking Bud Light only emboldens the terrorists. I’d love to open my own business, one that is part retail, part tavern, and all good beer. However, I’m sad to say that as of right now, I think such a place would have little chance of survival in a town like this, a town very typical of many throughout the great Midwest. I’d love to show up at a gathering with some craft brews and actually have people willing to sample them with an open mind, so when they taste a fine brew, they actually stop and think about what they’re drinking, enjoying the delicate process that went into brewing a damn fine beverage, rather than instantly cringing because “it’s too strong” and quickly returning to the Miller Lite. I’d love to see Canada annex St. Louis (it has a good French-Canadian name after all), so we can no longer call Anheuser-Busch American (they can have Wal-Mart and Disney too). But alas, I can only do what I do now, which is join my fellow Beer Dorks in the continuous crusade to promote craft beer and try to chip away at the mind-controlling, multi-million dollar influence of the Axis of Evil. It won’t be easy, but every little bit helps.

Today is the feast day of St. Arnold, patron saint of beer.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

Beer Dorks News

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Trying to spin it positive, BA releases end of year graphic. Only 5% growth in the craft sector when nearly 1000 new breweries opened? That's a collapse waiting to happen.
R.I.P. Tallgrass... another casualty as the regional/national craft beer market continues to get squeezed.
Wait... Constellation Brands cut all of the Ballast Point and Funky Buddha sales staff? They merged it with their Corona/Modelo staff?? We're SHOCKED!!!
Pizza Beer founder crying about failure of company, blames everyone else. Reminder, the beer tasted like vomit. Try having better ideas or making better products so you're not a failure.
It's Bud Light so doesn't really matter, but we expect this beer to be sitting around for awhile.
Indiana brewery to open with controversial beer names to "get the conversation going". Translation: taking advantage of serious issues for free publicity.
Hundreds of amazing beers in Wisconsin and the Cubs took back the one everyone drinks just because it exists and people have heard of it. How fitting...