Re-thinking the Rare

Joe Stange, co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium, muses on mania, hoarders and tickers — and offers some widely available beauties to assuage the fear of missing out.

My buddies and I collected comic books when we were kids.

It started, I’m sure, because we liked the cool stories. But eventually the culture of comic shops and collecting infected us. Before long we were using mylar bags and backing boards, checking the buyers’ guide for current values, and fussing about whether this rare comic is in ‘mint’ or ‘near-mint’ condition. The habit reaches the height of absurdity when children stop reading the stories because they’re afraid of crinkling their books.

Photo Credit: Rob Mitchell

The culture of collecting suits some people well, and on others it can make a lasting impression. I imagine it is the same with collectors of football cards, stamps, coins, figurines and so on.

I know it is the same with collectors of beer.

Today, I wonder how the presence of social media would have affected our comics habit. Surely, we would have sent each other shots of our latest buys, neatly packaged in plastic bags. Nothing wrong with a little boasting among friends, right?

Here is a rhetorical question, akin to the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear: If you buy or drink a rare beer without snapping a pic and sharing it online, was that beer ever really enjoyed?

Lots of us do it. What’s the point of being an enthusiast if you can’t enthuse? But when I see serial posts from those who appear to do it compulsively, I shrug and repeat the mantra: “Well… I guess everyone needs a hobby.”

It’s all relative, anyway, our special interest in this special beverage. For most folks beer is just another drink—there if they need it, no need to spare it much thought. So, to make a pastime out of it, let alone devote whole magazines to the stuff… maybe that’s a bit weird already. (Yesterday, incidentally, my in-laws gave me a kitchen towel that says in big letters, “Thank you, craft beer breweries, for making my drinking problem seem like a neat hobby.”)

We can use hobbies to dress up all sorts of habits and profligacies. When others do it we repeat that mantra—”everyone needs a hobby”—even as the neighbour’s growing population of garden gnomes begins to frighten the children. “To each their own,” we say, while shrugging about the uncle who collects antique guns and Nazi memorabilia.

Photo Credit: Rob Mitchell

Hobbies are personal, is the thing. Maybe they also help to keep us sane and out of trouble. Thus society tends to tolerate and forgive them—which, if you think about it, is a rather uncharacteristic thing for society to do.

The fact of the matter is that rare beers are a hobby for some people. Can we find it in our hearts to forgive them for it? It won’t be as easy as it sounds. Just think what the collectors and speculators have done to the prices of our favourite gueuzes.

But, you know, to each their own.

Speaking of obsessions and compulsions: We know today that autism and Asperger syndrome are not diseases. Most psychologists now view them as differences that exist on a spectrum. Some hobbies lend themselves well to people who are relatively antisocial, and relatively detail-oriented. Meanwhile even the most sociable people, and even the messiest, most right-brained slobs among us, can still find satisfaction in a large, orderly, carefully tended hoard of something we enjoy—alcoholic beverages, for example, meant to be consumed in buzzy, blissful moderation.

So it can be with a few thousand beer ratings, or a cellar stacked full of interesting ales and lambics.

These are the things I think about when I see the tables full of laptops at the beer festivals. Often they hide familiar faces, people I have been seeing at these events for years. Some of them are friends, but I wouldn’t seriously expect them to get up and make the rounds with me, gossipping (and conducting the occasional interview) while trying to find a beer that’s worth drinking in multiples. That’s my holy grail at any festival—even if it’s a beer I’ve had a hundred times before.

I have my kind of fun, they have theirs. After all, everyone needs a hobby—I’m certain of that. I’m less certain that it needs to be expensive, or that it needs to be broadcast all over the Internet.

The advice I would give to my 10-year-old self is, “Don’t forget to read the comics, kid.” The advice I would give to tickers and hoarders is, “Don’t forget to enjoy the beer.”

But, you know, to each their own.