Learning Local Culture, One Airport Bar At a Time

I have a funny habit. When I go to a grocery store, I *have* to look at the beer cooler.

I marvel at the colors and brands, and I comment to myself about each out-of-character beer on the shelf. “Oh, this one sells Nordeast tallboys!” “Oh, this one carries the entire line of Odell!” “Oh, this one is just like every other gas station, except they decided their obligatory craft beer is going to be Fat Tire instead of Blue Moon.”

Am I thirsty? No. Will I buy any beer? No. Why do I do it?

I don’t know. I’m just curious. I love the regional and class affectations each cooler brings. I love thinking about the decisions that led to each marketing decision. I’m weird. Probably.

While grocery stores and gas stations have their own culture of beer selection - they are, ultimately, one of the few places that serve an all-encompassing audience; everyone needs food, everyone needs gas - I’m even more obsessed with viewing beer labels at an even more cold and sterile and all-encompassing facility: Airports.

Airports are weird places. For just a few hours, you’re in what’s the equivalent of a really expensive mall. You make bad decisions. You’re bored, so why wouldn’t you eat a Five Guys burger? You’re stuck, and that lack of mobility subconsciously sends you into a panic. Airport bars are there for you. Apparently.

There are few places where we can be exposed to entire regions of beer as quickly as in an airport. You can go from Chicago to Atlanta in just hours and find the logos of several new breweries all along the way. The standard lineup is always a mix of national light beers, a handful of nationally-distributed craft beers, and two hyper-local craft beers - Surly in Minneapolis, or Goose Island in Chicago, or New Belgium in Denver.

An airport in Philadelphia, where I spent an hour, served Yuengling. An airport in Hartford, where a late flight stranded me for three hours, served two Long Island beers I thought I’d never see again. There are local themed bars - Boston has Sam Adams, Denver has New Belgium - and there are no fewer than a thousand Chili’s Too locations in case you need to find Miller Lite.

Airport bars are weird places, too. I don’t care what time it is, there’s always three people alone at the airport bar, all three of them with an empty glass, all three of them staring into a screen - a television, a phone, a laptop - and all three of them patiently waiting for the regional beer that most closely matches their hometown favorite.

I want to make this clear: I’m cheap, so I rarely go to the airport bar. But I check every major airport bar to see what’s on tap, just as I would in the grocery store. One out of four times, I’ll order a beer with dinner as I’m waiting on my flight. And while I don’t think airports count as part of the regional culture - their sterile walls and cattle-call lines betraying any cultural guideposts they may have installed - those few beers are as close as I can get to knowing what it’s like outside of those walls. Outside of that security. Outside of the difficulties that come with extended travel.

There’s no practical reason that I care about what beer is being sold inside some store or restaurant that I may never see again. But I believe the difference in regional selections from store to store - and from bar to bar - helps prove that, despite our tendency to gravitate toward mass-market products, each of us live in a very different place, with different beers and different people and different lives.

Peeking into the airport bar isn’t practical. But I still do it. It’s what keeps me in my personal rhythm. It’s what reminds me that I’m still a person, not just a ticket and a name.

And sometimes, I stop. Sometimes the loneliness of travelling alone and the frustration of being shuttled around with little regard for humanity leads me to a small bar in the G Concourse of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Sometimes, I pull up the fancy iPad menu and see a rare jewel: Surly Darkness 2013. Sometimes, I have to stop being cheap, press a few buttons, and nod appreciatively as my glass of smooth, dark Surly-style imperial stout is placed in front of me.

Sometimes, I have to give in and relax and understand that while airport bars are weird and desperate, they can also be a beacon in the storm. Sometimes, I find something fantastic in all of that sprawl.

But I’ll never know if I don’t look. And that’s what keeps me looking.

- Corey Vilhauer