Monday, July 27, 2015

The Oregon Brewers Festival as an Example of Status Hierarchy Gaming

Two friends recently attended the Oregon Brewers Festival, a favorite of beer lovers, and one of them complained along the following lines: "I'd really just like to try some good IPAs, and this is all weird experimental sh*t." I had noticed the same effect in the San Diego brew scene in the last few years. People can have their wasabi beer and horchata beer and though it's all fun in conception, a lot of it doesn't work in execution; but sometimes it does, and you get an innovation. At the same time, one wonders what drives "innovation" to the point where brewfest attendees are complaining that the brewers, rather than try to make the best (stout, lager, IPA, etc) that they can - they make psilocybin-kim chee beer with yeast exposed to Fukushima radiation (or something). Here I argue that this is in fact a symptom of a broader trend in modern culture and the U.S. in particular.

Note: I came up with kim chee beer off the top of my head, and then realized that if I thought of it that easily, it almost certainly already existed. So then I looked it up. Bingo.

It's hard to make even a marginal improvement on an established type of product, beer or otherwise, and that's true not just for beer but for all commodities, commercial, art, whatever. Why is this happening? 3 possibilities.

1) Brewers do this for rational commercial reasons. That is to say: everyone makes an IPA. No one else makes Fukushima kim chee beer, and people who buy it will remember that. In addition to the branding benefit, right away these brewers have a monopoly on this beer and therefore could seek rents, bestowed (at least temporarily) by a unique product rather than some other type of product protection. However people would have to make a regular habit of the Fukushima kim chee beer, and most of these aren't sustainable, so this mostly reduces to the kim chee beer as a loss-leader getting you to buy their IPA.

2) It's high status for brewers to be seen as making something novel, even if that novelty isn't a beer that people would drink more than once. Similarly I once got garlic ice cream and jalapeno ice cream. I never got it again, but I remember the place where I got both of these, and would go there again for ice cream.

3) Most interesting in terms of cultural criticism - people are (again) seeking high status by gaming the status hierarchy - that is, not by misrepresenting themselves, but by creating a whole NEW status hierarchy, or at least a sub-hierarchy. Consumers do this all the time, defining themselves in multiple overlapping status hierarchies usually based on what they consume (and how that defines their identities, because it's easy) vs what they produce.

The concern for #3 is that if brewers are so desperate to escape being not-#1 that they produce weird beer that no one drinks rather than make a just-as-good IPA (or not even quite as good as their neighbor, but still solid), then one wonders where else in the economy that quality of life and value-production is suffering due to the same effect.

I don't include "boredom" on the list above, because that would imply that these brewers have already mastered a standard type of beer, and I doubt that's the case.