Of Stouts and Snobs

By Sam Martin
Photography by Carole Topalian

I was accused of being a beer snob once. It happened in 1996 when I worked at the Gingerman—a New York pub on 36th Street, between 5th and Madison, not far from the Empire State Building. (The bar was owned by the same man who started the Austin G-Man, which he sold to Dick’s Last Resort, which then sold the building to—surprise!—a residential high-rise developer, who set the clock ticking on one of the best beer bars in town.)

Like the Austin G-Man, the New York pub had about 60 different beers on tap and almost 200 others in bottles. The training to work there included a crash course on the differences between ales, lagers, porters and stouts. We learned about raspberry lambics, barley wines and Belgian triples with 9 percent alcohol content. There were taste tests. Lots and lots of taste tests.

Almost every night, the place was crowded, and, although most everyone who came in was completely ignorant of the advanced quality of that year’s crop of Kentish hops, my highly knowledgeable coworkers and I were able to guide them to many an exotic beer. I was supremely confident that I could handle just about any froth-headed curveball.

Then one perfectly normal night, a guy walked into the bar and said, “I’ll have a Bud Light.”

It was pure apostasy. I just stared at the guy and laughed a you’ve-got-to-be-joking kind of laugh. We had Budweiser Budvar, the original Czech pilsner, on tap! Next to that was Kronenbourg 1664, and Samuel Smith’s Organic Ale, and almost 300 other beers to choose from! Pints were going for $5—and that was 12 years ago! There were $20 snorts of single malt scotch and damn-near Cuban cigars for $15! At the very least he could have had a local Brooklyn Lager, but…Bud Light? In that bar? I scoffed at the very suggestion. He just looked at me and said, “Okay. You don’t have to be such a snob about it.” Then he left.

Honestly, when you work with something as earthy and grounded as beer, you never expect to be called a snob. Know-it-all? Maybe. Jerk? Perhaps. But snob?! Beer is one of the planet’s oldest, most humble beverages, spanning every societal, cultural and financial class. There are times in our history when, if you couldn’t find a loaf of bread, you had a stout. They sustain in similar, fundamental, essential ways. Snob just seems so…tuxedoed.

In hindsight, I guess I should have explained to the guy that it boils down to this: There’s a time and a place for a beer served in a can—Bud Light being one of those—and a beer that must be drunk with the weight of a pint glass in your hand. Both are appropriate in certain situations, but the distinction should be made. Tecate, for example, is an essential can beer. Austin’s Live Oak beers only come in kegs, so you don’t get the choice. But if you did, you’d still want the pilz or the pale ale in pint form because, like the hand-pulled cask-conditioned beers of England, there’s something authentic about filling a glass with ale from a barrel.

Who knows, maybe I had it coming to me that night at the Gingerman. The ironic thing is that the next week the manager installed a Bud Light tap. Go figure.

Things changed in many ways for me then, but that’s not why I quit. I left for Sydney, Australia, to chase a girl on one of those decisions that seemed solid at the time but ended up all wrong. “A relationship?” a friend of mine later chided. “With that girl?” Okay, okay. I see his point now, but did he really have to be such a snob about it?