The Mountain Times

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Beer shows abound on T.V. today

Are you guys kind of getting sick of the "craft beer scene"?

No? Well, OK, I guess I can respect that; as we all know, America in the midst of a golden age of brewing, and thanks to The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead, the greatest beers in the history of the world are somehow actually being brewed right here in Vermont.

Still, do you ever feel like the "microbrew culture" has reached a level of popularity where, just to keep potential annoyingness in check, it might require some acerbic, well-placed criticism that doesn't derive from the larger faux-populist "hipster bashing" that's already plagued our national conversation for several years? Are you tired of debating which IPA is the best? Does every discussion you have with a male friend become a discussion about beer?

If you're not sick of this stuff, TV networks are now aiming to make you so.

The idea of a television show about beer makes sense in the same way that television shows about food make sense - which means that it makes a great deal of sense or maybe not much at all - but, for whatever reason, neither of the initial two attempts to create one turned into a massive success.

The first, Discovery's short-lived semi-educational "Brew Masters," both chronicled the trials of a middle-sized business and loosely mimicked the celebrity-cooking-challenge format, contriving reasons for its narrator, the founder of Dogfish Head, to create oddball malt beverages from inconvenient ingredients or by complicated methods.

Next came a program called "Beer Geeks," which uses the "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" travel-show format, in which some non-participatory host guy goes around the country providing free advertising to preexisting breweries.

The third and latest beer-focused TV program is called "Brew Dogs," and it airs on Tuesdays on the Esquire Network, which is a thing now. "Brew Dogs" combines the above-mentioned formats. The stars are Scotsmen James Watt and Martin Dickie, who have been making beer under the name BrewDog since 2007, becoming famous as much for their showmanship as for their ales. There has always been an element of deliberate wackiness in the craft beer scene - antics designed to set fun-loving "beer guys" apart from the boring snobs on the wine scene - but BrewDog surely holds the record: in 2010, they made a 55% ABV eisbock and bottled it inside stuffed squirrels.

Their TV show has brought James and Martin to America, where they travel from city to city, visiting breweries and then, drawing inspiration from the local culture and employing native ingredients, creating beers of their own. In the first episode, they fly to San Diego to meet the CEO of Stone Brewing. After a few minutes of conversation, James and Martin set out to create their own quintessential West Coast IPA - containing kelp (self-harvested, via surfboard) and the world's hottest chili peppers. Most inexplicably, they decide to brew it on a moving train. The following episode, set in San Francisco, is roughly the same, with Anchor standing in for Stone and the BrewDog product paying gimmicky homage to the S.F. fog - the beer's water is extracted from the mist over the Marin Headlands, and at the end of brewing process, the beer is converted back into vapor, meaning that the final product is actually inhaled.

It's obvious that "Brew Dogs" is straining for novelty here, and it's equally obvious why that's necessary. Beer comes in a million varieties, but on TV, it varies only according to where it falls on the brown color spectrum. The beer-making process, too, is complex but not particularly visual. With cooking, the food is out in the open, in pans and on cutting boards; with beer, the real action takes place invisibly, inside large vessels over the course of many days.

The reason this show works is the same reason any show works, i.e. the human factor: James and Martin seem to be incredibly likable dudes, almost exactly the way you'd imagine good brewers would be: smart and dedicated but unserious, hip but not hipster - they're guys who like beer. They're also really funny and kind of make me feel like maybe I could become a brewer just by virtue of having a cheeky, irreverent attitude toward life.

"Brew Dogs" is least amusing, however, during segments about James and Martin's attempts to convert "craft beer virgins": it feels as though the producers insisted that the show - which also contains a fair amount of basic information about brewing and beer styles - operate according to the premise that most Americans are not really on board yet with this whole "craft beer revolution" and are slightly suspicious of anything that is not a lager, and although this is probably true, it doesn't feel true.

Even though James and Martin approach these strangers sweetly, the situation unattractively suggests a fantasy of certain beer enthusiasts; they get to demonstrate their sophistication in the face of various plebs who, in the end, are actually grateful for the lesson - they've been happily converted to this superior product and lifestyle, thus validating our sense that we've all "seen the light" and the rest of mankind is still in the dark.

Is that in fact the case? Is craft beer really so wonderful?

If so, why is this show on the "Esquire Network"? Does it ever occur to you, as a beer drinker, that alcohol actually is poison, and what you really want is a life of consuming nothing but raw kale and rainwater? Should TV shows devoted to the supposedly semi-orgasmic pleasure of eating and drinking be forced to admit that food and beverages are never really all that great? In reality, beer tastes good, but not good enough to justify the amount of time we spend talking and thinking about it. Do we do this mostly because it's an easily shareable hobby among bros, not because of any intrinsic merit in the beer itself?

Will a TV show ever grapple with these questions? Will we?