Thoughts on San Diego Comic-Con from a safe distance: Of Beer and Geek Culture

In what has become an annual ritual for the worldwide geekosphere, all eyes are on the West Coast this weekend for San Diego Comic-Con 2016. I’ve never actually been to SDCC personally, having always preferred smaller conventions (such as SDCC’s little sister WonderCon, which I used to attend every year in San Francisco before it moved to Anaheim in 2012). Most of my geekier friends say SDCC has gotten too big for its own good: it’s been taken over by mainstream entertainment, the lines are too long, the space too tight, the “leet” swag and events too hard to get. But it’s the con everyone knows about, so it’s the one I’m often asked about by casual acquaintances: Am I going? Have I been? Would I be going if I didn’t have small children? No, no, and no … cons this big are a young man’s game, and unless they shrink it down for an old fogey like me, I probably won’t brave the travel or the crowds until the day my children beg me to.

But even though I’m not in San Diego for the con, I was in San Diego last week for something a bit less exciting: a business meeting (ooh. ahh.). While I was there, I stopped into a couple of local tap rooms, and I managed to get an early taste of SDCC at the Stone Brewing Tap Room at Petco Park, by tasting this year’s Stone Farking Wheaton W00tstout, an annual collaboration between the brewery’s Greg Koch, founder Drew Curtis, and beer-geek-cum-regular-geek-icon Wil Wheaton.

The service at Stone was fantastic; the bartenders were friendly and had real conversations with me, and they let me taste whatever I wanted. And perhaps seeing my hipster glasses and the look in my eyes that said “I can’t wait to go back to my hotel and read,” one bartender recommended I try the W00tstout.

Stone’s website panderingly calls this beer a “whopping, complex superhero version of an imperial stout with a profound complexity” and panderingly states that “we can’t say this beer bestows jedi powers”. Wow! It’s like it’s made just for me … a geek! And of course it must be perfect for a guy like me, because it’s got Wil Wheaton’s name on it!

So I ordered it, and what I got was a half-pint of a pretty ordinary bourbon-tinged imperial stout with a little bit of pecan and a lot of booziness. It was fine, but it was only “fine”. And it wasn’t very different from any other  bourbon imperial stout I’ve ever had (and there are hundreds of them), except that it was a lot harder to drink.

Again, I cannot stress enough how great the bartenders were at Stone, and I’m not knocking them at all. The guy who poured me the W00tstout asked me how I liked it, and I noncommittally said it was “good” … but a little boozy. His response was knowing and apologetic: “Yeah,  but we’re gonna sell a ton of it next week at Comic-Con.” His tone was clear. He wasn’t the biggest fan himself, but he knew that it would sell on the basis of its geek cred alone. Geek cred, I might add, which extended no further than the names attached to it and the word w00t on the tap handle.

I much preferred Stone Mocha IPA, an odd but delicious little IPA with mocha (exactly what it says on the tin, really … but such a surprising combination that a Lyft driver who talked to me about craft beer the next morning refused to believe it existed). I much preferred Ballast Point’s Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager, a refreshing bit of creamsicle in a glass I drank at the Ballast Point Tasting Room with my dinner earlier that evening (though my wife and friends made funny, good-natured “yuck” comments when I bragged about it on Facebook). I even preferred the smooth, rich Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout I drank at the airport the next day, which was served to me through tap lines that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the Bush administration by a waitress in her sixties who didn’t know the difference between milk stout and cream ale.

And so I wonder, what gives one beer more geek cred than another? What makes one beer … or one anything … “geekier” than any other?

Being a geek used to mean being obsessively passionate about something weird, some oddity of pop culture that mainstream culture didn’t really get. We all know comic book geeks, sci-fi geeks, fantasy geeks, gamer geeks. But a couple of things have happened to that word that have changed its meaning. One is good, one is bad.

The good: The term “geek”now can apply to an extreme or even alienating obsession with other pursuits outside of that general sci-fi/fantasy/comic continuum. I’ve heard friends describe themselves as snake geeks, football geeks, bike geeks, and yes … beer geeks. Some of these things would have been unheard of when I was a kid and first began to identify myself with the “geek” label. Football geeks? Weren’t football people the guys who used to beat us up and rip the covers off our Robert Heinlein paperbacks? But there are those guys who love football so much – with their fantasy leagues and their stats – that casual sports fans like myself can’t begin to understand. Those people are football geeks, and I’m cool with that.

The bad: The original brand of geek culture has become commoditized. The sci-fi and fantasy properties that used to get us ostracized have gone mainstream. And as that has happened, the little divisions between geek cultures have started to erode. It’s not enough anymore to be geeky about Star Wars, or Marvel Comics, or Tolkien. Geek is truly an identity now, and if you’re a “geek”, you’re supposed to be geeky about everything from video games to Game of Thrones. That’s a big expanse of a lot of different kinds of popular entertainment, and so while it seems obvious to me that no one is going to like everything in that category, still it’s shocking to so many people when (for example) I say I hate The Walking Dead, or I complain that there are too many comic book movies. “Aren’t you a geek?” the unspoken question goes, “Aren’t you supposed to love all that stuff?”

This also seems to me to be the same mentality that says that hordes of SDCC attendees should float keg after keg of a mediocre imperial stout just because it’s got Wil Wheaton’s name on it.

Any one of the beers I drank in San Diego that I actually liked seems more “geeky” to me than the W00tstout. Being a geek used to mean knowing more than others about a mysterious topic (like the vast difference between a cream ale and a peanut butter milk stout). It used to mean even people who tried to understand you didn’t always understand you (like the Lyft driver who swore there was no such thing as a mocha IPA, and it must have been a mocha stout). It used to mean loving something so much that even your friends thought you were a little weird (creamsicle IPL).

It used to mean being misunderstood, a little uncool. It didn’t mean talking about the one movie or TV show that everyone else was talking about. It didn’t mean drinking the same thing as everyone else, whether they were “geeks” also or not. W00tstout, I have to say, is commoditized geek beer. It’s geek-pandering beer. It’s the Walking Dead of beers. It’s a beer for SDCC, which has gotten too big, and consequently appeals primarily to the most identity-conscious geeks, and to the corporations who want to sell them things.

Again, no offense to Stone. I loved every other beer I had at their tap room that day, and again their bartenders are the best I met in San Diego. They have a business to run, and that means brewing beers that will sell. The best thing I can say about Stone is that they are still doing the really geeky stuff, and doing it well.

But they also are doing the other thing, and for some reason, that other thing is getting all the attention.




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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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