What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Nudnick Out of Me
On the Fine Line Between Connoisseurship and Nudnickery
Most of us rely on, or at least appreciate, knowledgeable guidance that might connect us with the best examples of the things that give us pleasure — food, art, music, movies, whatever. So here’s a rule of thumb that I find useful in navigating advice about matters involving subjective taste: “You’ll probably like what an enthusiast recommends. You might like what a nerd recommends. You probably won’t like what a nudnick recommends.”
My experience is that an enthusiast will enjoy a thing in itself, in the moment, without too many prejudgments. A nerd may collect more information and perhaps appreciate something he enjoys more profoundly, but that enjoyment is likely to be particular, circumscribed, and defined in opposition to many things he does not care for. In contrast, a nudnick — defined in The Joy of Yiddish as “a nuisance; a pest; a monumental bore” — delights largely in the expertise and jargon he has painstakingly amassed, to the point where the thing to be enjoyed is itself almost irrelevant.
I had this insight after an encounter with the resident Beer Nudnick at the local booze emporium I patronize, an amiable fellow who was going on about Tree House Brewing, which has often been cited as the best craft brewery in New England and whose beers I had not yet tried. So I asked the Beer Nudnick if the store had any Tree House beers in stock, and he responded, “Oh no, that it is only sold at the brewery near Sturbridge, and it would be seriously illegal to sell them elsewhere.” And though I am experienced enough around nudnicks to know better than to ask why it might be seriously illegal to sell Tree House beers any place other than the brewery — because he would tell me — I did inquire if he’d ever been to their taproom. I’d heard that people drive for hours to Tree House and wait on long lines to buy their beers, that it’s a real scene and a lot of fun.
The Beer Nudnick answered that he used to go the Tree House brewery all the time when they just opened, before anyone had heard of it.
With the phrase “before anyone had heard of it,” I understood I had blundered into a nudnick’s maw. Steeling myself, I persisted in asking him what he thought of their offerings. Well, he said, the beer used to be really first-rate, but since they started producing it in bigger batches, it had lost something, that it was now “thin.” To my mind, “thin” seemed a specific and weird word to use about beer. I can’t imagine even the most obscurant aficionados ever using the description “a ketchup-like mouth feel” in their tasting notes (though I suppose I probably shouldn’t be so sure about that).
So I asked the Beer Nudnick which of the local beers in the coolers he would recommend. Not many of them, he answered — most of them were “thin” — but he suggested (after correcting me about the salient characteristics of a New England IPA versus other kinds of IPAs) a couple that made the grade, none of which cost less than $18.99 for a four-pack. I bought one can for $5.50, kind of a high rental fee for 16 ounces of suds, because I’m a boundlessly curious beer enthusiast.
It tasted like, I don’t know, a chilled concoction of all the cleaning stuff under your kitchen sink, with a splash of club soda.
I no longer ask the Beer Nudnick for advice, and even feel a little self-conscious if he’s hovering around the cooler, to the point of sometimes waiting until he walks away before taking out the six-pack I’ve made up my mind to buy. I thought that at my age I might be past feeling insecure about my tastes, but such is the power of the nudnick — to make you feel as if the experience you are enjoying is not as good as you, in your lamentable ignorance, believe it to be. That’s the nudnick’s only power, in fact, but it is a superpower.
I eventually summoned the courage to reconnect with the Beer Nudnick, however, on the day after I returned from a visit to San Diego, home to one of the most vibrant brewing scenes in the country — scores and scores of microbreweries, seemingly a sot’s paradise. I had stumbled upon a map of the county’s craft brewers and eagerly visited the one closest to my hotel, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, which operates three popular brewpubs in the area. The beers I tried were fantastic.
When I spotted the Beer Nudnick, I said to him: “Hey, you know where I just came back from — San Diego! They have a huge craft brewing scene. I mean, they have over 150 breweries there.”
“Well,” the Beer Nudnick said, “too bad only four or five of them are any good.”
Channeling Homer Simpson, I thought: I would kill everyone in this room for one drop of sweet beer. But the nudnick first.
He launched into an explanation of how the breweries out there were mostly producing West Coast IPAs, most of them not particularly well-done or at least not first-rate, and he’d had a great many of them because he participates in a community of trade people who share beers from around the country, and anyway, he is most interested in sours, and there are a…few, very few…decent sours coming out of San Diego, so…yeah.
I don’t know how many of you have tried a sour beer, but if the brew the Beer Nudnick had previously recommended tasted like blended cleaning products, a sour tastes like…so have you ever had two bowls of water out for your dogs and noticed that your dogs are only drinking out of one of them, and then checked out the water in the bowl they aren’t drinking out of and started to gag? Sour beers taste like that.
So which breweries did I visit, the Beer Nudnick asked me, reeling off a list of those he preferred.
“Uh…um, just one,” I said, “and none of those I think you just mentioned. I was only there for a couple of days, and was…um, kind of busy. Um…I went to the Karl Strauss brewpub.”
He responded with a look of great pity. You may have noticed that, a few paragraphs back, I mentioned that Karl Strauss had three locations. This may have seemed like an insignificant detail, but one that I mentioned quite purposefully to create dramatic tension, signaling to the nudnick-savvy among you that I was about to be steamrollered by nudnickery. Because to a nudnick, a brewery that only three people know about is good. A brewer with three bustling locations serving delicious beers to thirsty, appreciative throngs can ONLY be, for lack of a better word, “thin.”
“I had, uh, a kind of hazy IPA,” I said, “and…and what they called a…a ‘San Diego-style’ IPA, which I didn’t like as much as the, uh, hazy one. But it was pretty good, too.”
The pity that had marked his visage gave way to a stoic expression of distaste, as if I’d just told him that sure, Bud Light Lime-a-Rita is good, but not as good as the Bud Light Raz-Ber-Rita.
“And…and, they gave me some sample glasses of some other beers,” I said. “I thought they were pretty good, too.”
“Which kind,” he asked.
“I…I don’t know,” I answered, unable to look him in the eye.
The Beer Nudnick said nothing.
“And my hosts shared some other San Diego beers that I liked,” I said.
“Which ones?” the Beer Nudnick asked, perking up and repeating the names of the brewers he approved of.
“I…I don’t recall,” I said.
“You should always take a picture of the label,” counseled the Beer Nudnick. “So you’ll remember what you drank.”
I asked him if he actually did that.
He hauled his iPhone out of his pocket and held it up.
Alarmed that he might start scrolling through his photos, I hastily bid him a good afternoon, and, fully in his gaze, reached into the cooler and took out a six-pack of Troegs Perpetual IPA, which I imagine is deliciously beneath his contempt.
My tasting notes: “Troegs Perpetual IPA is a smooth Imperial ale with a subtly hoppy finish absent the cloying sweetness typical of too many double IPAs. It packs a punch (7.5% ABV) that makes it perfect for a chilly night spent indoors, a nice bonus being that three or four of them are enough to banish all feelings of inadequacy and (almost) all thoughts of nudnicks.”