Last week, as we at SB Nation gathered to spit nonsense about beer, I stumbled upon the idea that beers, as they stand today, bear lots of similarities with baseball cards of the 1990s. Throughout most of their histories, both beer and baseball cards were very very simple things. Then the craft brew revolution/baseball card boom was brought forth, and both industries exploded into a big weird diverse pastiche.
Baseball card companies got carried away by all the "collectability" and gimmickry and price-guide nonsense, and as a consequence, almost none of them make baseball cards today. The craft-brew scene breeds plenty of nonsense in its own right; thankfully, it seems to be doing well.
My point is this: when I was a kid, I collected baseball cards, pored over the stats on the back, and traded with friends. As an adult, I drink beers, pore over lists and reviews, and drink and talk about them with friends. Beers are baseball cards I can drink.
A few days ago, Jamie Mottram suggested the following:
@jon_bois When you get some down time could you compare specific craft brews to baseball card sets? Thanks.— Jamie Mottram (@jamiemottram) May 17, 2013
Yep, that sounds like fun.
Sam Adams Boston Lager.
By the mid-'90s, baseball card collectors began fretting over the concept of "collectability," mostly because card companies told them to. The idea was that a baseball card was more valuable if there were only 50,000 of it in existence. The set that ushered in this mode of thinking, more than any other, was 1991 Donruss. These cards were everywhere. Donruss made 67 trillion billion trillion of them. Trading them with your friends was useless, because every person in North America owned the Lenny Dykstra/Dale Murphy "DR. DIRT AND MR. CLEAN" in quadruplicate.
Pretty much everyone who took baseball cards seriously in the 1990s was a total mark, myself included. If you want to spot the marks in the craft brew world, look for the people who roll their eyes at Sam Adams' Boston Lager. Yes, it's everywhere, and just like 1991 Donruss, you can probably find packs of them hanging from a peg at room temperature in the toy aisle of a Walgreens.
But it's fine! There are better and more interesting beers out there, and hopefully you are in a position to procure those beers. Boston Lager is available in virtually any gas station, though, and if a gas station is all you've got, you'll be happy it's there.
Even in the 1990s heyday of completely inflating arbitrary values for baseball cards, a complete set of 1991 Donruss was only listed at about $12, which meant every card was "worth" an average of 1.5 cents. But just as Boston Lager is not meant for snobs, 1991 Donruss was not made for anyone who gave a damn about the arbitrary space-borne pseudo-values assigned to baseball cards. Sometimes you want to open a bottle and find a perfectly drinkable beer, and sometimes you want to open a pack of cards and find a puzzle piece of Willie Stargell's groin.
1995 Fleer Ultra:
Every bottle of Guinness contains a plastic widget, and at age 19, my friend and I grew so consumed with finding out what a widget looked like that we broke it by throwing it off the balcony. Years earlier I would tear apart packs of 1995 Fleer Ultra, which promised an insert card in every single pack.
I was underwhelmed in both cases, because the widget is plastic and translucent white and looks like a bottle fetus, and the Fleer inserts sort of devalued the nature of an insert card. "Insert" used to mean a special set of cards you'd find once in 2,000 packs, like Donruss' Elite Series. This cheapened them to the point at which we were left with an insert set called "On-Base Leaders." This card is worth negative money.
Nonetheless, I bought tons and tons of Fleer Ultra, just as I've drank tons and tons of Guinness. Both are kind of fake-upscale and hold a special place in my heart. Sometimes I just really wanna drink a Guinness.
Police-issued baseball cards:
Sample cup of beer from the worst stand at the beer festival.
At every beer festival there's one stand manned by a guy who has been brewing in his friend's garage for four months. Your cup either has no head, or is 85% head, depending on how he screwed up, because he definitely did screw up. A half-inch of residue sits at the bottom of the cup. "Heh, I'm kind of a hop-head," he says. You take a gulp. It tastes like he dissolved five bouillon cubes' worth of earwax in some Michelob Ultra.
"Yeah, me and my buddy, we're gonna start up our own brew house on Floyd Street. Just gotta wait for the serving license from the city." He has not and will never mail his application for said license, because he's not really a having-stamps kind of person.
Police-issued baseball cards were also freely distributed, and they were the very worst baseball cards. They look like they were made for prisoners, and they weren't even cut down to standard card size, so they wouldn't fit in any of your sleeves or binders.
They invariably had some sort of "don't do drugs or else you will die and the Earth will explode and kill your dog" message on the back. Back then, our eight-year-old selves would look at them and shudder at the doom that might befall us in the future. Today, we look at this cup with a mouthful of liquefied tree bark, realize we're completely hammered at three in the afternoon, and wonder how the hell we got there.
Both are potentially amazing, unique, and inconsistent. If you, an inexperienced brewmaster, attempt to brew a Belgian three times, you will end up with a Belgian, a Capri Sun, and an offering plate full of fish legs.
You like tilting that Oil Can Boyd card and seeing his pitching motion? Tilt a little more and see the mechanics of his delivery abruptly give way to HIS GIANT FACE. Belgians taste good, and are also liable to taste nothing like you'd expect them to.
1997 Pinnacle Cards in a Can:
Tactical Nuclear Penguin.
We should all thank the sports card industry for collapsing under the weight of its bullshit, because I can't imagine the tomfoolery we'd be experiencing if they kept pushing the envelope. At some point they probably would have started selling giant wooden wagon wheels with "RAUL MONDESI" burnished on the spokes. Before they crashed and burned, Pinnacle did manage to market a thing called "Cards In A Can." That's it. A pack of cards inside of a can. Your stepdad needs somewhere to ash out his GT Ones, and you need some four-buck piece of chintz that will make you feel loved. Two birds, one stone.
My only real question is, "WHYYYYYYYYYYYYY," which is the same question I would ask of Brew Dog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Its ABV is 32%, which is about 2.5 times as strong as wine, and not all that far off from most liquors. I've never had it, because they charge 70 damn dollars for a bottle.
If this beer were steeped in some sort of tradition, or marketed with some air of dignity, I might not be so down on it. Instead it's called Tactical Nuclear Penguin, which is the most craft-beer name. May as well call it Captain Zombie Baconpirate Ninja Stout Webbrowser.
So yes, 2010s craft beer and 1990s baseball cards both suffer from gimmickry, but at least modern beer keeps that grade of bullpucky at the margins. Cards In A Can was front and center. Oh God, and then you'd hear collectors say things like, "you shouldn't open the cans, they'll lose their value." Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God I ****ing hate the baseball card industry so much.
1995 Upper Deck Collector's Choice:
3 Floyds' Gumballhead.
In my estimation, for what it was, Upper Deck's Collector's Choice set was the best card set it could have been. As I recall, they were 99 cents a pack, so kids could actually afford them. And god, it was fun. A lot of companies were too stodgy to make a Michael Jordan card, since he wasn't in the majors, but Collector's Choice did it anyway, because it was a cool thing to do. They also featured what might have been the coolest insert cards ever: if a given player hit a home run on the date posted on the card, you'd mail it in to Upper Deck, and they'd send back this awesome special-edition card.
Collector's Choice managed to embrace the weirdness of 1990s baseball cards while still keeping them super-fun and at a price point that kept it accessible to the kids the hobby was supposed to be for in the first place. 3 Floyds' Gumballhead, similarly, is perfect for what it is. At 5.6%, it's ABV-cheap, and you can drink a couple of them on a Saturday afternoon without getting hammered. It's also one of the tastiest beers I've ever had, and is the ideal to which all summer beers should strive.
I live in a state that 3 Floyds distributes to, but you don't. That is because you are an idiot.