If you want to find the most average beers in America, all you have to do is walk into a restaurant kitchen—any restaurant kitchen. It could be the local sports bar or a nationally acclaimed temple of haute cuisine. Behind those swinging doors, when the last orders are fired, the bottle caps come off: Budweiser. Miller High Life. Tecate.
We’ve explored this phenomenon before, and it makes a lot of sense. No matter how venerable the dining room, the kitchen is a blue-collar zone where chefs, dishwashers, prep cooks, and a whole cast other characters bust their asses through long, sweaty services. When the exhausting marathon is finally done, often at some ungodly hour of the night, reaching for the closest thing to alcoholic ice water is both natural and democratic. A bucket of Coronas is good for camaraderie, it’s cheap for the restaurant, and when you’ve spent an entire evening tasting sauces and overthinking food, it can provide a blissful release into nothingness.
It’s difficult to reconcile the championing of adjunct-brewed lager among the fooderati, not to mention the undercurrent of perverse pride that comes along with it.
As a craft-beer nerd whose hands are baby-soft from lack of physical labor, I accept the kitchen culture of drinking terrible beer. What I find difficult to reconcile is the championing of this preference among chefs and other fooderati, and the undercurrent of perverse pride that comes along with it. To say, “I love Big Macs, this frou-frou French cuisine is cute though,” would get you laughed out the establishment, yet somehow the equivalent statement about beer elicits rousing cheers from the crowd.
The latest food-world heavyweight to come out in support of conglomerate-owned adjunct lagers is Momofuku boss David Chang, whose latest GQ column
To be fair, his position is based mostly on personal preference, and he doesn’t run the fool’s errand of suggesting that the Singhas and PBRs of the world are actually good. “This is something that I genuinely feel,” he writes. “I do not want a tasty beer.”
Dear chefs: Step away from the High Life and have a Founders All Day IPA!
But there are elements of Chang’s argument that reflect a deeper (and surprisingly common) orientation against ‘good beer.’ Firstly, he groups the beer nerds with the coffee obsessives (damn, homie!): “Coffee snobbery is just foreign to me; I don’t drink much coffee, because there is this great stuff called Diet Coke that has plenty of caffeine. It’s really refreshing, and I don’t need any tattoos to make it or fake Italian words to order it.” The suggestion is that anything delivering alcohol/caffeine/drugs doesn’t need to be anything special. If Chang’s into edibles, he’s probably a fan of ones that taste like Chips Ahoy! instead of Milk Bar cookies.
His penchant for bottom-of-the-barrel suds isn’t limited to the post-service scrum, either: “When a waiter asks me what I want to drink, I respond, ‘What is your lightest, crappiest beer?’ I’m very direct about my preference.” That is actually hilarious, but also slightly worrisome. And while he says he has one “iron-clad argument for shitty beer: It pairs really well with food,” I’d argue that all the adjuncts and sweeteners make macro-lagers too cloying for a lot of foods. Moreover, the fact that ice-cold lagers go great with spicy dishes has everything to do with the fact that capsaicin is alcohol-soluble and your palate is already blown, not any other mystical virtues of the suds.
Despite the work of chefs who have made an effort to join forces with small breweries, it’s glaringly obvious that craft beer is still not in the DNA of the food world.
To be very clear, I’m of the firm believe that Dave Chang can do whatever the hell he wants, and I’m not offended by him preferring Miller to Mikkeller most nights out of the year. But this whole anti-“fancy beer” rant is a reminder of the broader disinterest in craft beer that I see time and again from the food world. Chefs and cocktail bartenders constantly talk about drinking cheap, mass-market lagers as if it’s a mark of honor. Countless restaurants with high-minded cocktail lists and deep wine cellars shit the bed when it comes to picking a handful of interesting beers in different styles. And the otherwise-tasteful dude-itors at Bon Appétit have been outspoken about their swill-sipping ways: Andrew Knowlton reps his Miller High Life, and Adam Rapoport drinks a ton of Bud—on ice, no less.
Despite the work of chefs who have made an effort to join forces with small breweries, it’s glaringly obvious that craft beer is still not in the DNA of the food world. No one is proudly repping Yellowtail, or claiming they’d prefer a well shot over a pour of Pappy Van Winkle. But somehow craft beer gets shrugged off all too easily. Something about this flippant attitude feels off. Maybe it’s just a deep-seeded frattiness that runs through the life-blood culinary world. Or maybe it’s just a last ditch effort to hold onto some everyman cred amid a lifestyle of uni and grower Champagnes.
The frustrating part is that craft beer can provide all the so-called virtues of macro-brewed beer. I completely agree that there’s a time and a place for bourbon barrel-aged stouts and Double IPAs, and it’s almost never at a restaurant. But diversity of styles is what makes beer so incredible. There are kölsch that are every bit as bubbly, bracing, and refreshing as Coors (without having an aftertaste of a bathroom floor). There are super-low alcohol Berliner weisses that go down like lemonade. As we speak, independent breweries across the U.S. are training their sights on the next generation of easygoing, delicious lagers.
Celebrating low-brow food is also common in food crowds—chefs love In-N-Out cheeseburgers and Popeyes fried chicken as much as the rest of us. The difference is, those things are actually delicious. What’s weird about the “shitty beer” stance is that almost no one suggests that it tastes good; it’s simply beloved for its inoffensive mindlessness. Perhaps a bucket of Buds has become the last-ditch “get me the fuck out of here!” escape for people exhausted by the foodie revolution that they’ve built.
(And by the way, not that everything has to be about soap-boxing or some overarching philosophy that ignores the fact that we’re all a little hypocritical, but repping Big Beer while condemning corporate agriculture and other anti-competitive mega corporations that run our food system seems like falling at the last hurdle.)
Momofuku serves Founders All Day IPA, one of the absolute best American session beers on the market—it’s got the same poundable sub-%5 ABV as Budweiser, but it packs the body and hoppiness of a Fancy Beer. I hope someone will offer some to Dave Chang tonight.