The Uncritical Embrace of Craft Beer?

Act II –– Night. Afterward, dawn. […] The scene represents a forest, and in the forest is a cave. By the cave sits a third actor in tights, representing yet another gnome. […] Enter the god Wotan, again with a spear, and again in the guise of a wanderer. Again his sounds are heard, then new sounds, as bass as can be produced. These sounds signify that a dragon is speaking. Wotan awakens the dragon. […] The dragon first says, “I want to sleep,” but then he crawls out of the cave. The dragon is represented by two men in a sort of green scaly skin, who swing a tail at one end and at the other end open a kind of fastened-on crocodile’s jaw from which the flames of an electric bulb appear. The dragon, who is meant to be frightful, and may appear so to five-year-old children, utters some words in a bellowing basso. This is all so stupid, so like what is done in a booth at a fair, that one wonders how people over seven years of age can witness it seriously; yet thousands of quasi-cultured people sit there, listening and watching attentively, admiring it.    -Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?

RichardWagner (Wiki)Before launching into this sustained invective against Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen, Leo Tolstoy observes that Wagner’s epic opera “has attained such enormous importance in our time, and has such influence on all that professes to be art, that it is necessary for everyone today to have some idea of it.” Despite the importance of Wagner’s work for the “thousands of quasi-cultured people” who sit there attentively, Tolstoy’s final appraisal is damning: “It is a model of counterfeit art, so gross as to be even ridiculous.” His appraisal also evinces a fiercely independent critical streak that largely went against the grain of his times, and his pronouncements have challenged generations of Wagner admirers since.

Tolstoy’s excoriation of The Ring of the Nibelungen makes for entertaining reading, but his view of Wagner’s work never achieved the status of orthodoxy. Other critics, through their championing of certain works of art or literature, are so successful in shaping our understanding of a particular moment in cultural history that their incisive critiques of the status quo in turn become a doxa to be challenged. Clement Greenberg’s affinities for Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism come to mind here. Closer to the world of food and beverage, Robert Parker’s advocacy of rich, ripe, fruit-driven, powerful wines shook up a complacent wine industry. Parker’s tastes were influential enough that they soon became the norm,Robert Parker - Logo (www-erobertparker-com) and many a critic since has come to lament the “parkerization” of untold wine vintages. A renewed appreciation for subtle grape varieties and wine styles has emerged to counter the preference for jammy, heavily oaked wines.

We see a similar narrative trajectory in the craft beer world. We know the broad outlines of the story. Insipid lager washes over North America like a tsunami in the post-war period, itself answering a desire for lighter beers. But then along comes a new generation of beer drinkers not content to drink marketing form over brewing substance. Hops carried the day, the more bitter and aromatic, the better.IMG_1176 Malt occasionally too, although John Barleycorn has taken a bit of a back seat during the craft beer revival. Welcome to the new normal, where bitterness and high alcohol reign supreme, and just about every craft brewery on the continent needs an IPA among its offerings.

And so the wheel turns.

The art world has its Tolstoys and Greenbergs, and the wine world has its Parkers and subsequent critics concerned with the side-effects of “parkerization.” But what of the critical voices in the craft beer world? To whom can the craft beer enthusiast turn for frank and honest assessments of the burgeoning craft beer selection, or for advice about a beer that isn’t an Imperial Stout, barrel-aged beer, or intensely-hopped IPA?

Beer writers, most likely. But who are those beer writers, and how do they envision the role of their craft? Are they advocates, reporters, critics, conveyors of information, storytellers, cheerleaders? When does advocacy shade over into uncritical admiration of anything “craft”?

Not long ago I stumbled upon an article that appeared around the time of the Craft Beer Bloggers’ Conference held in Boston last year. The article’s author, co-founder and marketing director at Somerville Brewing Company (aka Slumbrew), Caitlin Jewell, offered advice to beer bloggers about how best to reach a wide readership. Now, some of the advice is sound, but much of it reads like a rallying cry to the troops steeling them in their missionary zeal to promote the craft beer industry. What struck me about the piece was its stark contrast with concerns expressed less than nine months later by Brewers’ Association director, Paul Gatza. The issue at stake for Gatza?IMG_0514 Quality––especially in light of the rapid pace of craft beer expansion. Jewell slots the beer bloggers she addresses into the role of what I would call “craft beer evangelists,” faithful supporters of the scene and generous bestowers of Untappd stars. Gatza notes that even though craft beer quality is at an all-time high, an alarming number of beers he tasted during a recent festival visit exhibited flaws that were apparently lost on the brewers. Gatza’s concern with the potential for diminishing quality highlights a radically different imperative: the need to reflect more deeply on the state of craft beer criticism.

Regardless of whether beer writers see themselves as journalists, bloggers, promoters, consumers, enthusiasts, cultural commentators, or some combination of all of these, it would seem that the figure of the critical craft beer writer is more important than ever. But herein lies the tension (and the problem) at the heart of craft beer writing: most craft beer writers and bloggers have an interest in promoting the industry as a whole, even as fewer understand that their work involves advocating for craft beer while at the same time maintaining a critical stance vis-à-vis a product about which they are so “passionate.”

*  *  *

In the space that remains, I offer constructive comments directed at brewers and aspiring beer writers alike. Before going any further, though, I want to stress that even if I take Jewell’s article as the starting point for my commentary, this piece is in no way directed at Slumbrew. I have not met the people behind Slumbrew, and nor have I tasted their beers. From what I’ve read, both the brewery and its beers are well received. Jewell’s publicly expressed views on how she envisions the role of the beer blogger is an all together different matter, however. Her article serves as a touchstone for my comments for two main reasons. First, she makes what I find to be startling assumptions and claims regarding the role of the beer blogger or writer. Second, even if Jewell’s views represent a minority position within the craft beer community, I find it preferable to counter these assumptions lest they take root and impede the kind of rigorous critique that should underwrite a thriving craft beer industry.

Caring is Sharing … ?

Jewell begins her advice to beer bloggers by focusing on what makes a blog post or tweet shareable: “You might be surprised to know that any brewing company with a Google Alert on their own name will read your blog post but choose not to write you back, share it or retweet it. If you’re scratching your head as to why here are some things to consider before your next blog.”

As it turns out, what makes a blog or tweet more “shareable” is related to how helpful the post is “to your favorite brewing companies.” Show us the love. IMG_4833

Now, for what it’s worth, I’ve had overwhelmingly positive interactions with the vast majority of brewers I’ve met. But let’s suppose, for a moment, that a brewer may not think it worthwhile to post a beer writer’s article or blog piece on Facebook or on Twitter. Here are a few points for those brewers to consider.

One: How did the beer writer find out about your brewery in the first place? Not all craft breweries are household names in all parts of this continent, after all. North America’s a big place, and even the most plugged-in beer writer cannot keep tabs on the more than three thousand breweries in the U.S. alone. How do I find out about breweries in places many leagues from where I live? That’s right: For the most part, I’ve read about the brewery somewhere.

Two: Posting a beer writer’s article to your Facebook or Twitter network is not necessarily akin to preaching to the choir. For one thing, people like to have their tastes and choices validated, and for another, your fans might even share the article with some of their (local) friends who may not yet have been to your brewery. Beyond that, say someone is passing through Wisconsin, or Indiana, or New York State en route from the Southwest, or from Germany or Japan for that matter. Remember that beer writer/blogger from XYZ who visited your brewery on his or her last road trip and then took the time to write about your brewery? People from all over the U.S. and beyond might be reading his or her blog while passing through your area, and may one day pay your brewery a visit on account of that article.

Everyone Gets a Prize

Jewell continues: “If you say in your untapped comments a glowing review but then are stingy with your stars don’t expect to be retweeted. Sure I’d like to save that fifth star for fresh Pliney (sic) in Santa Rosa but stars are free. I just don’t know how someone can say ‘This is my new favorite beer,’ yet give it three stars. Stars are FREE.Sunflowers - Trevor Bauer - Field_of_sunflowers_Manitoba_Canada (www-trafficmedia-ca) Hey buddy can you spare a star?”

Sorry, I cannot. Why? Integrity. If everyone gets five stars, the whole exercise is meaningless.

As competition within the industry grows, intelligent beer drinkers will seek out experienced and reliable beer writers who offer a frank appraisal of the beer in front of them: not 100 points just because it’s Heady Topper or Pliny the Elder. And not a mere 75 points just because it’s a lager. Let’s face it: craft beer does not equal excellent beer in every instance. And critique can’t help but strengthen the craft beer scene.

This Beer Smells Like a Monkey’s Armpit!

Now, I’m well aware that many beer writers and bloggers spend several hours if not days out of their lives to visit a particular brewery, concentrate on its beers, give the beer and brewery a fair shake, and then write about it all.

But allow me to pivot in a different direction for a moment.

I understand the legitimate concerns and frustrations expressed by the brewers and staff at some breweries and brewpubs I’ve visited. Joe or Jane Six-Pack shows up and announces that he or she writes a blog––and then proceeds to get hammered at the bar and is never heard from again.

I’m also acutely aware that a not insignificant amount of what passes for beer writing is of sub-par quality. A Facebook page or Twitter account does not automatically a writer make. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the loudest, brashest, most media-savvy voices that get heard over the din––and these people aren’t always embodiments of literary genius. As we educate our palates to appreciate more flavourful beer, we would also do well to learn how to spot and promote quality writing about beer.

And yes, writing skill aside, scores of people who check in to Untappd, who blog casually about beer, or who write copious reviews for BeerAdvocate or RateBeer have no real training in evaluating beer.

Beer Flavor Wheel (www-beerflavorwheel-com)Aspiring beer writers: It serves us well to learn about off-flavours before we slam a beer for its ostensible off-flavours. And if the beer is off, let’s be tactful and diplomatic with our appraisal. A discussion of the merits and drawbacks of style categories is something best left for a different article, but suffice it to say that it never hurts to deepen our familiarity with what sets one beer apart from another. Maybe that “off” aroma is meant to be part of the beer’s profile. Even if the BJCP Style Guidelines isn’t the most riveting work of literature out there, a rainy Sunday afternoon flipping through it is time well spent.

Between Advocacy and Adulation

If you’re a brewer, ask yourself what you think the role of the craft beer writer ought to be. If you’re a beer writer or blogger, how do you envision your role? If you’re a craft beer enthusiast, what do you expect from the beer writers and critics to whom you turn?

Jewell raises a valid point in her advice to bloggers: “If you have a passion for craft beer you have the power to HELP our community. Craft beer is only 6.5% of the total market. Wait? Can you believe that!? 93.5% of the beer drunk in America TODAY is big beer macro. If that bums you out, you can help the craft beer world by writing blogs geared to your friends that are just learning about craft beer, might be a little intimidated by the options or love to say broadly‘ I don’t like beer.’ YOU have the power to help introduce new fans to the world of craft beer and I promise your help will be appreciated.”

True enough, and I think we all get it. But our role as advocates should not hinder a healthy critical attitude toward a beer or brewery in particular, and craft beer in general.

More troubling, though, is the relationship with the world of craft beer that Jewell would have beer writers assume: “MIKEY! Say you really like it! No really, I loved this beer because…. This beer is great because…. […] Go ahead, whoop it up! Show some love. It’ll come back to you. Be Awesome […]. When you’re so good you get NATIONALLY Syndicated (sic).”

What would Tolstoy say to this, I wonder? Tolstoy - EfimovichRepin_(1844-1930)_-_Portrait_of_Leo_Tolstoy_(1887) WikiCommons

We’ve come some distance now since we encountered Fafner’s leitmotif in Wagner’s Ring. Some people were and are quite passionate about Wagner. Tolstoy was well aware of Wagner’s stature, but elected to maintain an independent stance that ran counter to much of the prevailing acclaim for Wagner’s work.

Even if we craft beer writers find ourselves more invested in our contemporary craft beer industry than Tolstoy was in the Wagner industry of his time, we can still find plenty to emulate in Tolstoy’s critical stance. Maintaining a similar level of independence when we write about craft beer ensures that our advocacy does not slip into blind adulation.

So let’s all take a step back from the brink and think about how our affective investments in the craft beer scene could, potentially, cloud our judgment. “Passion” is one thing, but an enthusiasm that crosses over into a fetishization of all things craft beer only results in a dulled critical consciousness.

_______________

The opening segment draws from and combines two translations of Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? The first is Aylmer Maude’s translation (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899, p.118). The second is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation (London: Penguin Books, 1995, p.107).

Images

Richard Wagner (1871): Franz Hanfstängl (available on Wiki Commons)

Parker logo: www.erobertparker.com

Fields of barley: F.D. Hofer

Malted barley (FarmHouse Malt): F.D. Hofer

Ampelmann with drink: F.D. Hofer

Field of Sunflowers in Manitoba: Trevor Bauer (www.trafficmedia.ca)

Beer Flavour and Aroma Wheel: www.beerflavorwheel.com

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887): Ilya Efimovich Repin (available on Wiki Commons)

__________________

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Uncritical Embrace of Craft Beer?

  1. Martyn Cornell

    just about every craft brewery on the continent needs an IPA among its offerings.

    Mate, it’s just as bad in the UK. If you don’t have a beer that has tasting notes emphasising “tropical fruit”, “fresh citrus flavours”, “piney”, “passionfruit and mango” and the like, then you’re going to be dismissed as a maker of “boring brown beer”. The problem here is that we’re in danger of losing an appreciation of those subtle, low-gravity session beers, tasty and satisfying without hammering you with a sackload of hops, that have been the glory of British brewing. I’m not sure what role the blogging community plays in this, because I’m not sure how much attention British craft beer” drinkers pay to bloggers, but I’ve not personally seen to many comments over here about how difficult it actually is to make a really good American-style IPA and how easy to do badly.

    1. A Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Martyn,

      It’s been eons now since I’ve been to the UK, so thanks for filling me in on where things are at. If, as you speculate, British beer drinkers aren’t paying much attention to the blogging community, do you have a sense of what kinds of writing/media have contributed to the shift in emphasis? At any rate, sounds like another unfortunate case of brown beers getting no lovin’.

      When I visited the UK a few times in the 90s, I really enjoyed how a typical weekday evening unfolded. My friends would tell me to come meet them at the pub near where they worked. We’d have a few there, and then stop in at the neighbourhood pub for a few more on the way home. Most everyone was able to get up the next day at 6:30 or 7:00 A.M. and head to work, to uni, or what have you.

      I just took my first stab at brewing a Mild. It was okay, but it didn’t quite have that fullness I was aiming for. What continues to impress me is how much flavour and richness the brewers on the British Isles can pack into a beer of between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV without, as you say, hammering us with a sackload of hops. You also mention how difficult it is to make a really good American-style IPA, and I agree with you completely there. Add my personal fave, Hefeweizen, to that “easy to brew, difficult to brew well” list too.

Comments are closed.