According to internet legend, the term “geek” originated from the traveling carnivals of the early 1900s where, among other bizarre spectacles, the “geek” was infamous for biting the heads off of live chickens. The term has evolved since then to embody a nearly universally embraced, largely popular, distinct subculture of modern society.
But the road to the cool table wasn’t always paved with smiley face emoticons and unicorn farts. Much like any movement, geeks didn’t wind up at the epicenter of the new cool without their share of social bullying and ostracization. (By the way, because there’s so much crossover, I’m basically using the words “geeks” and “nerds” interchangeably. I acknowledge there can be some differences, so please don’t get your glow-in-the-dark Superman underwear in a knot.)
Since the days of their carny past, and up until about the end of the 1900s, geeks in the U.S. were ridiculed, harassed and generally cast as social pariahs- the very antithesis of cool. Geeks struggled. They gathered in quiet circles, incubated, grew, banded together, discreetly made inroads, endured and eventually came to dominate nearly every facet of modern life. These were the geeks that were geeks before it was cool to be one. Rebels of the mainstream. Brainy, nerdy punks, who instead of sporting some variation of a Mohawk and spike studded black leather jackets with stitched on patches promoting anarchy and the Ramones, these geeks rocked the iconic nerd classes, mismatched outfits, and highwaters.
More so than punk, the geek subculture of old has been so Borgly assimilated into the modern cool that most people can’t go a minute without updating their fb status, snubbing non-wifi establishments, gorging themselves on bandwidth, or showing off that shiny new i-whatever. The forefathers of geekdom have undeniably spawned this reeling sci-fi world we find ourselves in today. And in an epic twist of fate, it’s the OGs (original geeks) who can stand tall with their bloodied badges of honor and deliver a smoldering hot “Frak you” to the world. Without question it’s the modern-day geek who owes a teraflop of gratitude to the geeks who came before them and helped pave the road to the mainstream.
So on behalf of all the geeks who’ve had it easy, to those OGs, I say: Qapla’.
A Geek is As a Geek Does
While it’s probably more subculturally sensitive to say that the modern usage of “geek” has come to mean someone who is passionate or unabashedly enthusiastic about something (hence “sports geeks”), it seems, however, that on the whole, geeks tend to gravitate towards a certain specific set of subject matter… subject matter that’s just, well, geeky. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
Call me a generalist geek, but for the most part a geek can be identified by their above average to clinically obsessive interest in any combination of the following: Star Wars, cosplay, MMORPGs, nerdcore, fighting robots, Ren Fest, Linux, Battlestar Galactica, board games, Star Trek, hacking, MST3K, leetspeak, fantasy, collectables, LARPing, Stargate, Rubik’s cubes, conventions, D&D, Anime, Doctor Who, comics, sci-fi, gaming, Monty Python, geek rock, action figures, LOTR, LAN parties, and now… craft beer.
But why craft beer? Hold on to your coke bag Freud, it’s time for some psychoanalyzing.
Like geeks, at one time brewers of beer, including craft beer, were ostracized and bullied in the U.S and abroad. Back in the U.S. though, it wasn’t the jocks administering those character building wedgies and swirlies. No, this time it was the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, American Temperance Society, and all the other teetotaling, hatchet wielding maniacs the likes of Carrie Nation who blissfully dunked the heads of craft brewers in the swirling toilet that was Prohibition. Such groups applied so much social pressure upon anyone who had anything to do with the production or consumption of alcohol that, to a degree, the entire industry (brewers included) became social outcasts.
Even worse, because the Prohibition movement was at its peak during and just after the First World War, propagandists would spew fallacious arguments insinuating that beer was the drink of “the German enemy”, and somehow money spent on beer went to aid the enemy. So now not only was it unpatriotic to drink beer, it was an act of financial terrorism. (Just thinking about that makes me hungry for some Freedom Fries…)
From 1920 to 1933, people in the U.S. witnessed as the once-thriving craft beer industry was recklessly flushed into near extinction. Prior to the so-called “Great Experiment” of Prohibition, nearly 4,000 breweries were in operation in the U.S. But by 1932, that number had dwindled to fewer than 200. And though one might think the 21st Amendment, responsible for repealing Prohibition in 1933, was the end of the plight of the brewer, a critical oversight occurred which severely stunted the growth of the craft beer movement in America for nearly forty-five more years.
You see, much like the origin stories of so many of the greats of modern geekery, brewing beer is a hobby that often originates in the garages, basements, and college dorm rooms across the United States. Without homebrewers, the craft beer revolution probably would have never taken place, at least not as we know it today.
And while it’s true that the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition and allowed for the legalization of home wine making, in an epic fail of our legislative system, home beer making was mistakenly left out of the law. Take a second to imagine where we’d be today if there was a law that said “NO ONE is allowed to build computers or software UNLESS done so on the premises of a commercial computer or software business”. At the very least, you could kiss Apple, Microsoft, Google, and yes, even our beloved Facebook goodbye. Is it any wonder that for generations only the mega corporations of brewing were the ones defining what American beer was?
Thankfully though, it seems that we’re finally starting to shake that fizzy, watery, yellow, flavorless hangover. A credit which in large part goes to the patron president of homebrewing, Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 signed H.R. 1337 into law, effectively legalizing the brewing of beer at home. But for some 58 years, and certainly during the early days of Prohibition, homebrewers were outcasts, at least legally, and it’s partly in this sense that both brewers and geeks share a common heritage. And since most craft beer brewers started out as homebrewers, without the legalization and acceptance of homebrewing, there would be very little craft beer culture in America today.
Takes One to Know One
The whole “underdog overcoming adversity/minority civil rights subtext” story aside, the more obvious truth about why geeks are attracted to craft beer culture is this: Most homebrewers are geeks (or nerds, or nerdy geeks, or geeky nerds…). Ever attend a homebrew club meeting, and you’ll know what I mean. The vast majority of homebrewers who eventually become pro brewers are usually some kind of engineer (software, electrical, mechanical), and we all know that in order to graduate with a degree in engineering, you have to be able to speak at least some Klingon. In fact, even Charlie Papazian, father of modern homebrewing and author of the homebrewer’s bible, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, was a professional nuclear engineer before he led the homebrew revolution in America. And like a lot of other geeky clubs, most homebrew clubs are pretty heavily skewed towards the Y end of the chromosome spectrum; but in defense of homebrew clubs, beer is technically the traditional beverage of choice served at a sausage fest… Bazinga!
But unlike some of the quasi-chauvinistic dynamics of geek culture that sometimes crop up, homebrewers seem to readily welcome females into the tribe— most likely so as not to incur the wrath of Ninkasi, Sumerian Goddess of Brewing. (And therein lies the remedy to geek chauvinism: Spread the word that the supreme deity of Geekdom is the vengeful goddess Binaria, a female, and problem solved.)
Despite brewing’s pagan past, modern day homebrewing and craft beer have literally come down to a science: brewing and fermentation science to be more precise. And with core subjects consisting of physics (thermodynamics, mechanics and process control), biology (biochem, cellular and micro) and chemistry (organic and inorganic), we’re about two leptons away from the next World Beer Cup being hosted at CERN. As most professional brewers started out as homebrewers who left their careers in science and engineering to try to make a career out of their hobby, it should come as little surprise that geeks and nerds have fully infiltrated the craft beer scene like Cylons on Galactica.
Free Association (#freud)
You may have seen the infographic created by self-proclaimed geek-nerd Burr Settles where he attempts to settle (yes I did) the age-old “difference between geeks and nerds” dispute. Using data from Twitter, Settles looked at hashtags and words from tweets and matched them up with how often they were found accompanied by the words “geek” or “nerd”. He then plotted that data on a chart showing the strength of those correlations. For example, the hashtag “#Apple” [computers] was used in combination with the word “geek” about five times more than it was with “nerd”, thus implying that Apple is more geeky than nerdy.
Although Settles didn’t enter “#beer” as a data point on his scatterplot chart, he did provide his raw data which had “#beer” being slightly more associated with “geek” than “nerd”, though “geek” and “nerd” both showed a fair association with “#beer”. Just the word “beer” by itself (no hashtag) yielded results favoring a stronger correlation between “beer and geek” than “beer and nerd”, but it gets better.
When it came to “#craftbeer”, “geek” blew it out of the water with a correlation score of 3.65 as compared to the dismal “nerd” score of 0, giving support to the idea that craft beer seems to belong squarely in the geek camp. (I’m sorry. I promise, that’s the last pun of that sentence.)
But not so fast. Remember that all this data came from people (or tweetbots) who tweet. And according to Settle’s data, the word “tweet” was more strongly associated with geeky than nerdy, so maybe we have to take all this geek VS nerd talk with a nerdy grain of beer salt, or at least come up with a snappy way to normalize the scores. Sorry Settles, this age old debate ain’t settled yet. #Oops!…IDidItAgain
Charts and hashtags aside, the overlap between geeks and nerds is huge, and Settles admits that the two aren’t two distinct personalities as much as different aspects of personality, and concluded that “the distinction is that geeks are fans of their subjects, and nerds are practitioners of them.” So what aspect about the geek’s personality is it that draws them to craft beer culture? (Segway = #bfskinner)
Sure, geeks might have a stronger correlation to craft beer than nerds, but that correlation doesn’t just exist in the vacuum of cyberspace. I submit for your consideration that there are certain geeky behavioral traits that lend themselves to the craft beer culture, inducing the geek to pull up a stool at the craft beer bar.
Exhibit number one: the geek’s inherent desire to collect things surfaces in beer culture in the form of collecting and trading rare, or hard to acquire beers, or collecting any type of beeraphernalia.
Exhibit number two: The geek’s compulsion to know every detail about an in-depth, multi-layered, often technical subject with obscure backstories flourishes in the world of craft beer with its 80 “officially recognized” sub-styles of beer listed by the BJCP, in addition to ever-emerging new and rediscovered styles. Each style of beer comes with its own, sometimes esoteric and controversial, story of origin inviting the geek to debate the merits of these possible backstories similar to the debates that arose over the actual origin of James Howlett, a.k.a. Wolverine.
Exhibit number 3.14159: Geeks tend to be obsessed with the newest, coolest thing that their subject of interest has to offer, and with more and more microbreweries, craft breweries and brew pubs popping up every year, there seems to be an endless supply of new things to know and acquire in order to better secure the geek’s place in the pecking order of geekdom as the eternal pissing match of who is the bigger fan rages on.
Exhibit number four: Geeks also love conventions, and there is absolutely no shortage of conventions within the craft beer scene. From the Great American Beer Festival (the mecca of beercons), to the more traditional notch-on-the-belt Oktoberfest, and all the hundreds of other beerfests scattered throughout the U.S., there are so many beer conventions today that the hardcore con-fan geek stepping into beer culture for the first time will feel like they’ve died and gone to Sha Ka Ree.
Exhibit number Babylon five: Whether via cosplay or otherwise, geeks like to imagine they are the fictional heroes over which they obsess, and with a little booze in the system, I can see where one might start to confuse one’s BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) with one’s MCC (midi-chlorian count).
Finally, exhibit number six and a half: Deep in their hearts, geeks want to be accepted, and no matter how geeky or nerdy one may be, with a craft beer in your hand, you instantly gain + 5 cool points. Not to mention that like Raj’s character on The Big Bang Theory, a little buzz helps the geek lose some of that cliché social awkwardness and/or selective mutism.
Why is geek culture attracted to the craft beer culture? Simple: Craft beer is dominated by geeks, so much so they should rename craft beer geek juice. From homebrewers, to pro brewers, to craft beer enthusiasts, it seems more and more that a “beer geek” is not just someone who’s a really big fan of beer, but rather someone who’s already a geek but also a really big fan of craft beer. The two subcultures have come to embrace each other so closely that it’s getting harder to detect that gray line that divides them.
And standing there with a big fat gray marker in his hand is Wil Wheaton, the hardest working man in Geekdom. Yes, the same Wil Wheaton of Star Trek TNG and The Big Bang Theory fame recently graced the cover of none other than BeerAdvocate magazine. Not only is Whil Wheaton the emissary of geek culture, he’s also a homebrewer. (Please don’t tell me you’re surprised at this point.) And if that’s not proof enough of these colliding cultures, not long after Wil’s featured article in the Alström Brothers’ beer mag, Stone Brewing Co. released Stone Farking Wheaton w00tstout, a geek-themed collaboration brew from Wil Wheaton, Fark creator Drew Curtis and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, further blurring the already blurry lines between the craft beer culture and geek culture.
Ladies and gentlemen of the digital jury, I leave you with this: As long as the internet, video games, and Apple products are still part of the mainstream, the geek will always have a seat reserved at the cool table, and their geek drink of choice will until further notice remain craft beer. (Or Romulan Ale.)
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Hi, I’m Dan: Beer Editor for Beer Syndicate, Beer and Drinking Blogger, Gold Medal-Winning Homebrewer, Beer Reviewer, AHA Member, Beer Judge, Shameless Beer Promoter, and Beer Traveler. Interests? Beer.