Why Can’t I Taste Beer Online Yet?

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by Jacob Ciocci

 

Last summer I tasted a beer whose name I did not learn, but that I thought was delicious. To me it tasted like an Orange Julius, but in beer form. It was not gross or too “gimmicky,” and it didn’t make you sick the way an Orange Julius makes you sick—it wasn’t like they added orange juice and sugar and milk into the beer. It’s just that that’s what the beer reminded me of. I thought it was the only beer of its kind, an experimental one-off.

 

Later in the fall I moved to Chicago, and found myself inside a beer store. I walked into a room filled with many brightly-colored four-packs of beers I had never heard of. Most of them seemed to be made near Chicago, aka “local,” and most of the artwork on the labels featured some derivation or combination of the following visual tropes: Heavy Metal or Punk Graphix, Super Hero/Comic Book/Monster Graphix, or Psychedelic Graphix. The aesthetic of these beer cans paired perfectly with a consumer vibe I had been noticing since moving here: nostalgia for a childhood rooted in video games, action figures, and superhero comic books, combined with nostalgia for an adolescence dominated by underground rock music, all catered towards the contemporary professional, salaried adult with enough extra money to spend on artisanal food and beer. To put it another way: there are lots of bars in Chicago themed like video game arcades, with lots of long lists of beer names written in chalk behind the bar, that all sound like video games or comic book character names. Also of note: at the Whole Foods here there is an arcade with free old school games and beer shelves made out of old skateboards.

 

It struck me that all three of these stages of consumer obsession: comic books, underground music, and now beer, all have one thing in common: at their heyday, at the peak of their frenzy, it was/is hard to learn about these things: you had/have to go to the store and ask questions like a NOOB to get answers. If you were a dumb suburban kid (me) and literally knew NO cool people, the only way to find out about this secret world was to ask The Person Behind the Desk. This was embarrassing at first, and probably stayed awkward for many months until you earned The Person Behind the Desk’s respect. There was also a heavy Boy vibe in these kinds of stores. (Is that why they are called “Cloudy Boyz” and not “Cloudy People?”)

 

I remember that eventually, if you kept hanging out in these stores you got to know what day the shipments arrived, and you began to get on lists to get your stuff. Maybe if you started to feel really safe, you would share YOUR comics or YOUR music with The Person Behind the Desk (that never happened).

 

Back to the Beer Store: I asked the Beer Salesman if they had any “Cloudy Boyz.” The Person Behind the Desk launched into a very lengthy and opinionated explanation of a style of beer I had never heard of: a relatively new style which many people were unsuccessfully imitating, one with a lot of hype and often not a lot of substance. While The Person Behind the Desk was explaining this complex story to me, I started to drift off and found myself tapping into a very specific feeling from my past. It’s a special feeling I have only ever gotten in two different places in my life: in the comic book store in the early 90s and in the record store in the mid-late 90s. I thought it was a feeling that died in the early 2000s, due to the Internet’s stranglehold on information. It’s a magical quasi-spiritual feeling related to being in an actual store talking to a knowledgeable gatekeeper, trying to understand a new craze that one is late to learning about. In my case, throughout my life this “lateness” somehow always fueled my obsession rather than thwarted it. I got this same feeling when I became obsessed with Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefield Comics when I was twelve. This era of superhero comics was reaching unprecedented levels of hype, popularity, and collectability before crashing hard. I also got this feeling a few years later when I moved to Chapel Hill and would go to the local record store asking for “any indie rock.” Same situation: a scene that was changed forever by the hype, aka when little kids come into the record store with their parents asking for “local music” you know the scene is dead.

 

So is there something specific about the Cloudy Boy that makes it especially like comic books or underground music? Not really. Real beer enthusiasts are probably really sick of Cloudy Boyz and could probably point me to other styles of beer that mimic comics and beer in a more intellectually interesting way. But for the outsider: I do think the Cloudy Boy represents simultaneously the peak of the craze and the cheapening of the medium, in much the same way McFarlane peaked and then cheapened comics, or the way the catchphrase “Indie Rock” peaked and then cheapened underground music. This is where I start to get excited: it’s when things get interesting. What is going to happen next? Will the bubble burst? Do any of these people actually have talent? Or is it just all in our heads? In three years, will I taste a Cloudy Boy and spit it out while screaming “I was brainwashed!!!” ??????

 

The technology that builds and reinforces our desire for these liquid objects in 2019 is of course the internet. The Cloudy Boy uses the Internet’s Power to leverage this Insanity to new levels. By the time it hits the big stores the Cloudy Boy is no longer fresh, so you have to find it on the right day at the right time in the small stores. Social Media really helps ratchet up the excitement of that process.

 

The Comic Book Craze and Indie Rock Craze both happened without the internet. There was no easily accessible centralized database for discovery at your fingertips to cross-check if your purchase was wise. You had to walk around cluelessly in the store for a long time. You had to buy lots of records because the covers looked cool, and then sell them back to the same store in shame because they sounded like country music instead of cool angular distorted sad boy songs. I went to the beer store recently and watched a person with great confidence stride quickly to just the right spot in the store and make a consumer decision that would have taken me a half-hour to ponder. The person made the decision without looking at his phone for reviews of the beer, or without asking The Person Behind the Counter for Advice. Later, when I was home and decided that I had made the wrong consumer choice: I researched the beer this Person had chosen and realized it was superior to the beer I purchased, considering the timing of the purchase. This doubled my desire to go back and to try and get what that Person had got. When I went back, they were sold out. This kind of Insanity has not happened inside my mind since I was fourteen years old.

 

When you are waiting in line to buy a twenty-dollar four-pack of Cloudy Boyz, you are experiencing the Cloudy Boy Experience as much as when are sipping the Cloudy Boy. The experience is not just the beer: it’s the whole process of learning about the beer, finding the beer, and then when and how you drink the beer. A lot of this, even with beer, happens online, in a weird nebulous space that defies media categorization. You are looking at pictures, reading text, and at the same time you are checking email and commuting to work. Are you “drinking” a “beer” at that moment???

 

One of the most interesting things about the time we live in is how blurry the borders between mediums and “media experience” gets, once we start to think about it. When I was younger, it was much easier to say “This is a record” or “This is a comic book.” But now many, many forms of media aren’t really consumed as discreet experiences with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends: they exist instead in relation to one another, in a kind of amorphous digital soup that starts and stops at the speed of one’s scroll in a browser, or based on a phone’s battery power. Even though I keep listening to the same chapter of Kill All Normies over and over as I fall asleep I still tell people I am “Reading” that “Book.” If I listen to a tiny excerpt of a highly compressed MP3 rip of an album on Youtube that has been pitched down to avoid copyright laws, I still say I have heard that album. Sometimes I say I have heard an album even if I have only seen a picture of the artwork for the album.

 

On the other hand, Artisanal Consumable Liquids and Solids stand in contrast to this: they still have to be bought. Or maybe we are just too scared to steal Artisanal Consumable Liquids and Solids? When you swallow a sip of a Cloudy Boy it feels like you are consuming one “thing” rather than a network of “mildly interesting things I recently heard about that I might remember to research/watch/read/listen to later.” It feels satisfying in a way that listening to a record on Spotify is not satisfying. I am sure this is related to the fact that I have to pay for the Cloudy Boy and thus have to “stand behind” my consumer/aesthetic decision. I have had many dead-end conversations over the years, theorizing about how young adult culture after Social Media is secretly rooted in the consumption of Consumable Liquids and Solids (rather than being rooted in the old triumvirate of Fashion, Art, and Music, as it perhaps was in previous decades). If we had the technology to look at where “the heat” of any given culture really is, like an infrared gun that showed you where the true energy hot spots really are: I’m pretty sure it would be in Liquids and Solids, and not Fashion, Art, and Music. On the other hand, in the 70s the Heat probably really was in Fashion, Art, and Music, and food probably just tasted “bad.” Patti Smith probably did not care what food she ate, but she probably really cared what clothes she wore, what records she bought, and what art she looked at.

 

I know I’m talking in circles here, and that this next point is just an attempt to wrap this up with an interesting idea, but here goes: maybe the Cloudy Boy craze is the closest we have gotten to blurring this line between Internet Experience Beer and Actual Beer. Is the Craze getting so wild with this style of beer that the taste is becoming more virtual than actual? That’s how it feels sometimes, when I take a sip. I know ultimately this is a dumb question, and I am ten years late to this whole actual-versus networked-object think-piece debate anyway. I apologize if you read this whole thing to the end and have now come to this unsatisfying anti-climactic end.

 

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