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A (beer) critic’s job? Demolishing the bad?

“A critic’s job, nine-tenths of it, is to make way for the good by demolishing the bad.”
                    - Kenneth Tynan

I tend to scribble things I come across — could be in a magazine, a book, on a menu — on scraps of paper. This one I’ve been carrying around on a breakfast receipt since last May. I’m still not sure what to do with the thought, but it’s time to put it somewhere so I can throw out the receipt. I’m filing it here.

There are a million amusing quotes about criticism, so I don’t know why I’ve kept this one around so long.

When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

(But also, to be clear, this not a call to arms. Here I can lean on H.L. Mencken, who said: “A critic is a man who writes about things he doesn’t like.”)

97 Responses to A (beer) critic’s job? Demolishing the bad?

  1. Stonch March 20, 2008 at 1:01 pm #

    Sometimes I suppose a critic’s job can be like that. One of my best pals is a theatre critic (although he’s about to move to LA to produce a sitcom for your lot). I used to often go along with him as his plus one. I saw some truly dreadful shows – written, directed and/or performed by people who really don’t have anything to add to the world of performing arts. Writing a very negative review was the only correct thing to do, and if it drives them from the business and back to the day job – good.

    With beer, I think it’s a bit different. A brewer is only as good or bad as the beer they’re serving right now. Absolutely trashing someone who might come up with an absolute corker next week isn’t a good idea. You can express your despair about what’s in your glass without writing an entirely negative piece.

  2. Shawn, the Beer Philosopher March 20, 2008 at 1:56 pm #

    Oh, if beer were not so subjective a subject … the only problem with “demolishing the bad” is that it is, likely, someone else’s good.

  3. Stan Hieronymus March 20, 2008 at 2:40 pm #

    Shawn,

    I agree there is a wide range in what people like/dislike, but technical flaws are technical flaws. And bad ideas are bad ideas.

  4. Andy Crouch March 20, 2008 at 5:28 pm #

    Put me firmly in Tynan’s camp. I think, and have written many times before, that I think ‘beer writing’ is plagued by too many yes men and women and too few critics. And while Mencken may also have been on to something (I for one find it much easier to criticize something I don’t like, but it also tends to draw your attention for more concentrated reflection), I don’t think that writers do the industry (both beer and journalism, actually) any favors by ignoring problems or just highlighting things they like. We’re writers, at best journalists, not public relations hacks. For a long time, beer writers thought being critical meant saying that Young’s Old Nick Barley Wine was actually more of an old ale than a barley wine (and self-gratifyingly thinking that this was a radical and brave opinion).

    Five years ago, Dan Shelton told me in an interview the following tidbit, that Lew Bryson then highlighted on his website.

    “If you look at wine writing, it is quite cutting and acerbic sometimes. They say, “This is good, this is bad.” But beer people aren’t willing to say, “This is bad.” I think until we do, the business is not going to be looked at like a serious one, like wine. Even Michael Jackson, I think he is a great writer and I like him a lot, but he seems more and more unwilling to criticize breweries that are…dumbing down their beers…and I think it is the wrong way to go. In the end, the beer business is going to suffer for it.”

    While I may not agree with Dan on what is good or bad (and the subjective nature of such discussions), technical flaws, changed recipes, poor business practices, and the like are all fair game for writers. I’d go a step further and say that if you’re not willing to be critical to the face of some brewers, then you’re just a hack looking for a handout (as many so-called ‘beer writers’ are). How’s that for an opinion…

    Good quotes nonetheless,

    Cheers

    Andy

  5. Stan Hieronymus March 20, 2008 at 5:50 pm #

    Gee, Andy, why don’t you say what you mean?

    I agree, but I’d be writing more if I had a suggestion of what substantive criticism would be. It’s not just typing, “This beer sucks.”

    Not that I have a man crush on Tynan, but here’s another from him:

    “A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.”

  6. Boak March 20, 2008 at 6:07 pm #

    I’m definitely a “yes woman”, at least when it comes to microbreweries. Particularly with real ale, when so much is dependent on the condition of the beer – it just seems really unfair to slag off a beer from a small brewery when you really don’t know if it’s supposed to taste like that.

    Also, there is always the potential for a brewer to get better…a bad play /production is more difficult to turn around!

  7. Alan March 20, 2008 at 6:48 pm #

    As you can imagine, Stan, I am with Andy. But with a caveat – you have to be fair. I mean that in the sense that if one beer is out of line with the quality of a brewer’s production you have to inquire as to the anomaly. But if a brewer is consistently poor or unimaginative that needs to be called out. Being fair for me means giving due process – but one out of which failures can be noted. But if I am honest, in my reviews, I am not actually particularly harsh. If I do not like something, I never mention the beer. If a brewer bores me, I am not going to give them space. And I can be charmed by a brew pub’s town, food and friendliness into thinking the beer is good enough for me…because it really was at that time on that day.

    Yet if a beer writer is not honest and praises the unpraiseworthy, I think I am more inclined to put my oar in as that is where broader reputation is made and can be made falsely. Along with that, we have to watch for false claims by brewers. I have ratted on a brewer – that claims medals they never one – to the institution that supposedly gave out the awards. That communication may do more in the end to harm the bottom line than anything I would think to write about, again, pouring out an infected beer from a brewer that gets a bizarre amount of shelf space at Ontario’s LCBO. BTW, I have done the same sort of thing with my other vocation, law, so I don’t see any issue with that.

    The real question, though, is am I really a critic to the degree that the aphorism applies to me? That is part of being fair. If I am honest, I really only observe on my personal pleasures in things beery – my writings are more of a diary as anything and I allow that I may be a sop, a sap and even a putz in matters purely personal. My blog is a magazine about me. But if I held myself out or aspired to actually be a journalist it might be a different matter. I might have to be much more as Andy describes – someone who will speak truth if not to power at least to porter…or whatever else lays (and sometimes lies) in the glass. If anyone is going to hold themselves out as that I expect the required rigor.

  8. Eric Delia March 21, 2008 at 6:13 am #

    Sit me somewhere next to Alan and Andy. Although I’m not an actual beer writer per se, I write about beer (if that makes any sense), and I do feel that there’s a bit too much coddling going on at times. Still, I find it refreshing to read positive reviews about better beer, leaving the sub-par stuff in the shadows of obscurity. But I think there’s also a valid place for criticism.

    I try not to get too harsh in my reviews, but will express disappointment, and always try to articulate my thoughts on a particular beer. A fair-handed review at least grasps at some good aspect of the product, but if there’s none to be found, then there’s simply nothing to include on the positive side. Ergo, I may right a negative review, but maybe not a scathing one, and I try not to critique beers that have already received much disdain from the better beer community.

    I try to be respectful of the product because of the time and effort put into some of these beers, many by small breweries. And the life of a microbrewer is not always a glamorous one, so I try to keep that in mind and offer constructive feedback.

    Besides, I’m no real respected authority on the matter anyway, just a blogger who likes to record my beery experiences. “But if I held myself out or aspired to actually be a journalist it might be a different matter.” You hit the nail on the head, Alan.

  9. Andy Crouch March 21, 2008 at 7:00 am #

    “[S]omeone who will speak truth if not to power at least to porter…”

    Great line Alan.

    In terms of how I handle criticism (and as a lawyer like Alan, I agree due process is required — a single visit or sip cannot sustain thorough criticism), I don’t personally write many tasting notes for publication. My writing tends to focus more on the business side of the industry, or at least on big picture issues (freshness dating, price creep, the stupidity of American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations). Here, it is easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. But in writing my book, I had to be critical at times in reviews. The response to that criticism varied from quiet praise to outright hostility (and these weren’t even the people I was necessarily writing about). As Shelton noted, there is in this industry a real aversion to any self-reflection and a near absolute prohibition on critical words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “why don’t you just write positive things, you’re hurting the industry.” I think most craft brewers feel this way (to the extent their busy schedules have given them even a moment to think about it) and I think it prevents them from improving in certain areas.

  10. Mark Tichenor March 21, 2008 at 8:36 am #

    I haven’t established beer writer cred to the extent of many of you guys, but I totally agree. It takes guts to be a proper critic. If you work for print media, every time you pan someone’s product, they’[re on the phone to the publisher threatening to pull their advertising. And freelance guys (especially small frys like me) have to fight that desire to be liked and ‘let inside’ by brewery reps in our effort to make a name.

    I try to do a regular “overrated beer” series to keep myself sharp on this point.

  11. Stan Hieronymus March 21, 2008 at 8:49 am #

    Good points, all. I’d love to jump in, but we’ve showing East Coast flatlanders the mountains and headed out.

    Andy, I definitely want to address your point about self-reflection.

  12. Stonch March 21, 2008 at 2:12 pm #

    [Andy quoting Dan Shelton]: “But beer people aren’t willing to say, “This is bad.” I think until we do, the business is not going to be looked at like a serious one, like wine.”

    Think carefully about that, and what Shelton’s motivations might be. Think about the rest of us. Why do we stress about the beer business being “looked at as a serious one, like wine”?

    Just a question.

  13. Stan Hieronymus March 21, 2008 at 7:56 pm #

    Andy, you wrote: “there is in this industry a real aversion to any self-reflection and a near absolute prohibition on critical words” and you also wrote about the importance of freshness dating.

    I would argue there are a lot of quality control issues that need to be dealt with before freshness dating becomes a valid measure. And more breweries are doing just that. I guess that would be self reflection.

    They may also talk among themselves about breweries that aren’t keeping up, but here you are correct – breweries are loathe to see anything bad written about the brethren. Call it a combination of friendship and the feeling anything bad written about the industry is also bad for them.

    I would love it if the beer press had the resources to monitor QC. To see how well New Glarus beer travels went sent to California. Or Firestone Walker was went bought off shelves in Florida. (You’ll notice these are hypothetical – these breweries don’t ship to those destinations.)

    But given that won’t happen, what are the alternatives?

  14. Alan March 21, 2008 at 8:40 pm #

    Bloggers on the ground?

  15. Stan Hieronymus March 22, 2008 at 7:24 am #

    Bloggers on the ground?

    You mean to report on QC? Nice in theory, but . . .

    Don’t you think it would be fair that contributors be as trained as employees at Summit Brewing (in Minnesota)? Everybody who works at Summit (I haven’t checked in a couple of years to see if this is still true, but I expect so) takes a sensory evaluation class at Siebel in Chicago.

    Then they are all responsible for tasting Summit beers “in the field.”

    So maybe a fair question for beer journalists to ask brewers is, “Are you doing what Summit does?”

    Obviously, this is not criticism, per se. So it would seem we have wandered quite a distance from the Tynan quote that started this.

    And I haven’t addressed the issue of why why don’t read “This is bad” more often.

  16. Andy Crouch March 22, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    Hi Stonch-

    “[Andy quoting Dan Shelton]: “But beer people aren’t willing to say, “This is bad.” I think until we do, the business is not going to be looked at like a serious one, like wine.”

    Think carefully about that, and what Shelton’s motivations might be. Think about the rest of us. Why do we stress about the beer business being “looked at as a serious one, like wine”?”

    I always take Dan with a grain of salt and in this case, I derive from his rant a much larger point. I’m not talking about debating the merits of Lindemans versus Cantillon, as Dan was/is (and understanding he clearly has a dog in that fight). His point, as I take it, is much broader about the industry at large, about the topics we’ve been discussing, namely a flat refusal to criticize that which we view as being wrong (however you define that). I’m not saying that Dan is objective, I’m saying that many beer writers don’t bother either way. As to the wine issue, that was an ancillary part of his quote in my mind and is a different debate I’m happy to have in a different thread.

    And Stan, thanks for playing host to this discussion. I for one think ‘beer writers (again however that is defined — I’ve been trying to convince Alan for a year that his blog is not a personal diary but is actually viewed as beer writing, with the attendant ethical issues) need to have a place and time to debate these issues as I think that many don’t even bother to ponder them.

    The QC issue is an interesting one and very difficult to flush out. I love the Summit example (and the renaissance brewery for other reasons) and have toured its QC lab and watched the tasting panels. I think a lot of the problems come from breweries sending beer too far from home in too little quantities to justify any salesperson support. A big issue to be sure.

  17. Alan March 22, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    “…Everybody who works at Summit (I haven’t checked in a couple of years to see if this is still true, but I expect so) takes a sensory evaluation class at Siebel in Chicago…”

    That would be useful if the market for craft beer were only craft beer brewers. Compare this question to radio nerdism, that hobby I never quite mentioned to my wife when we were dating. While few listeners are radio engineers, there are standards for reporting the quality of transmission. There is no reason for a similar process to be acknowledged where experienced craft beer drinkers can report on their experiences so that the brewers can add that to their understanding. After all, it is only in the act of drinking that beer is fulfilled. No play is only measured by the response of fellow playwrights. If anything, they can simply serve as canaries in a coal mine showing through their geographic distribution that same point Andy makes – distance poses a risk in itself. I don’t need a course to understand that, just a map.

    And, Andy, I am quite content being called a beer “writer” as that what a diarist is – the writer of a serial personal essays. I am simply not really in that part of the range of beer writers who is a journalist. I might even suggest that confusing the role one plays within all the various sorts of beer writer is itself an ethical question. If I am a diarist, I have something of an obligation of displaying my lack of understanding sometimes. This is a bit of a no-no for a proper journalist who must not only seek factual truth but also objectify and remove his or her self from the story.

  18. Thomas March 22, 2008 at 9:59 pm #

    I think there is a validity in calling out breweries that aren’t meeting quality, but otherwise I try to remain pretty positive, but then I don’t see myself as a critic in my writing.

    But I do back Stonch’s comment about not wanting to take things too seriously. I think the approach we take says something about how we live our lives.

  19. Stan Hieronymus March 23, 2008 at 8:12 am #

    This conversation has taken many twists and turns.

    You might want to answer the question Alan poses in his blog (with a comment there).

    “Do you think it is the equivalent of a critic’s column in the arts section – or is it front page journalism..or personal essay or diary…or what?”

  20. Jack Curtin March 23, 2008 at 8:55 am #

    My approach is to be as honest as possible in person and especially if asked my opinion directly by the brewer or owner and to, as much as possible, just not write about bad beers or bad places at all in print or (to a lesser degree) online. I consider myself a journalist writing about beer, not a critic per se. Also, since the preponderance of what I write appears in the trade press (in which I include the “brewspapers”), I see my role as essentially an observer and reporter, with the added duties of being a guide toward the “good” rather than a crusader against the “bad.”

    As I tell those who ask when I am in a pontificating mood: I can tell you what I taste and think, I can tell you what the “experts” say they taste and think and I can tell you what the brewers say they taste and think, but only you know what you taste and think.

    I was a “real” critic for years as a book reviewer, often with anonymous reviews in trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews where reviews can affect what books chains and stores choose to stock. When I was assigned a third book by a relatively popular author whose work I just didn’t care for, I realized I had to turn down the assignment because my single viewpoint was becoming too prevalent and it wasn’t clear that it all was coming from one source. Given that so many of us who write about beer express our opinions in so many of the same venues, I have the same concerns about the “conventional wisdom” growing out of very few voice. I suppose it’s only fair to note that such is also the case with many beers and venues being anointed good or great.

    When offering some brewers even a mild criticism on a one-to-one basis, on the other hand, I am often reminded of the bestselling author who complained, after I mentioned in passing in a NY Times Book Review piece that her latest book wasn’t quite as good as her previous ones, that my comment was “the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” If that was true, I figure she had a a pretty damned good life going.

  21. Stonch March 23, 2008 at 3:36 pm #

    JACK CURTIN: “I see my role as essentially an observer and reporter, with the added duties of being a guide toward the “good” rather than a crusader against the “bad.””

    I feel the same way. I tend not to write about places I go to that I don’t like, unless there’s a wider point to be made. After all, why would I?

    The kind of beer I prefer lacks publicity, and more often than not needs to be brought to people’s attention. There’s only a limited amount of words I have time or inclination to write about on my blog, so I’ll use those to promote what I like, not attack what I don’t.

  22. Lew Bryson March 23, 2008 at 4:59 pm #

    I don’t really see criticism of a beer or place I don’t like as an attack, or as negative. I see it as saying what’s on my mind. I like to think that a bad review — or a review of something I see as flawed — may lead to a better product…but come on: how likely is it that I’ll have any real effect?

    I’ve taken a fair number of shots for being too soft on places in my …Breweries guidebooks; screw it, that was never the intent of those books, and I said that up front, so criticizing that is kind of missing the point. I have made plenty of critical comments on places and beers — and whiskeys, for that matter — in various writings, and I see that as part of the job.

    I have said for years that the craft brewing industry is mature enough and big enough for us to take the kid gloves off and say what needs to be said. My only problem with that is the paucity of experienced, broadly experienced critics. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read negative reviews of beers, brewpubs, and beer bars that showed more about the reviewer’s prejudices and ignorance than they did about the reviewee’s. Of course, the same goes for positive reviews.

    What do reviews, good or bad, do for the readers? I hope that what they do is not just give them a capsule of the beer in question, but that they lead the reader to think about what it is they want from a beer, why they’d be drinking it, why the brewery decided to make it, where it fits in the bigger beer scene. As far as saying what I taste — green peppers, fresh-cracked granite, stale matzoh — well, I find that of limited use. My mouth is not your mouth.

    I like the attitude of Magic Hat on critiques. Someone forwarded me an internal memo about my reviews of their beers. Read this guy, it said: he likes some of our stuff. No complaints about the stuff I didn’t like. Adult attitude.

    Do we have a responsibility to our readers to tell the truth? Absolutely, whether you’re a blogger or a full-time journalist. Do we have an obligation to write and present honest reviews of products or places we don’t like? Yes, within the restraints of space: because if I’ve only got space or time to review four things, and I’ve had three things I thought were excellent, and three things I thought were poorly planned or executed, I’m going to review three good things and one shite thing. That’s just how it is: the good things deserve the ink more than the bad ones.

    Good conversation, but…how much self-examination do we need? As in, does anyone but us (and Dan Shelton, maybe) really give a damn?

  23. Dr. Joel March 24, 2008 at 4:42 am #

    I think both Jack and Lew are starting to take this in a direction that continues discussion of where Andy was going early on: There’s a time and place.

    I think about the beer publications that I read and think about how varied they are and what purposes they serve. Seeing bad beer or bad brewery reviews just wouldn’t fit in certain places, but that speaks to the publication as a whole. Some are more or less a very helpful (almost necessary) cog in the works as breweries and beer bars themselves in supporting the interests of those beer drinkers just starting to ‘get it’. I speak in this way most specifically of the brewspapers.

    Others dig deeper, others serve up information for the beer drinker who has gone and is going deeper. I think of All About Beer’s Buying Guide for example. I mean now we’re talking about scientific reporting. Controlled environment, blind (i beleive, i’d have to check back to be sure), focusing on one style or subset at a time and being very comprehensive.

    Then i think about the Allstrom Brothers. Know what i mean?

    I think there is a huge difference between these two styles of single beer reporting. Granted, maybe the Buying Guide is a bit less of what we’re actually talking about here (single writing entities, ego’s/lack of, experience/lack off, goals, intentions) but still it isn’t very hard to decipher which may be a bit closer to the core of the industry, the product and damnit, the liquid itself.

    Does that make the Brothers, their efforts, their mag and their site unimportant? Obviously not. Does that show that there are far different levels of critical review and a space and audience for all of them? I hope so.

    A lot of my education was based on critique and what i learned first and foremost is to always question people with big opinions. It doesn’t take much reading or listening for me to know whose opinion is worth my while and whose opinion would make for much more interesting conversation than in-print reading.

  24. Stan Hieronymus March 24, 2008 at 5:47 am #

    Good conversation, but…how much self-examination do we need? As in, does anyone but us (and Dan Shelton, maybe) really give a damn?

    An important perspective to remember, less anybody – magazine reporter, blogger, Rate Beer or Beer Advocate regular – think their words have the power of, for instance, a New York Times food critic on the success of a restaurant.

    However, breweries (and bars) are using blurbs (positive ones, obviously) from blogs and RB/BA posts in advertising and press releases. That’s got to frustrate the Dan Shelton’s (and to be fair to him he isn’t alone) even more.

  25. Jack Curtin March 24, 2008 at 5:58 am #

    “The unexamined life is not worth drinking” is what Socrates should have said, given how it turned out when he did take a drink.

    And the examined life leads to drinking, so I rest my case. We have to buy beer by the case here in Pennsylvania…

  26. Dr. Joel March 24, 2008 at 6:04 am #

    “We have to buy beer by the case here in Pennsylvania…”

    So we should really be pro’s at critiquing a beer, we’re forced into familiarity!

  27. very part time beer writer in midwest March 24, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    I wrote two critical sentences about a rather green beer that a new, popular brewpub in my area released at a big summer festival a couple years ago and almost got lynched for it. The brewer banned me from his pub and sent me some nasty emails. People were writing me left and right defending the beer and telling me that I didn’t know anything about anything. The problem was, the beer was green. It just needed some more time. It went on to win a medal at the GABF, some months later, July was just too early. But nobody else seemed to notice. I suppose the brewer noticed, but wanted this brand new brew to make a splash at the biggest beer event in the state and he figured nobody would notice. Maybe the real explanation is different, but I was pretty confident in my assessment of that beer even in a festival context.

    The backlash certainly made me a bit shell shocked and now my policy is: if I don’t have anything nice to say about a beer/brewpub etc. I just don’t say anything at all (at least when I’m saying it in a place where a lot of people will read it, i.e., not my personal blog). I just don’t want to get lynched again.

    Yeah, if I was a salaried writer at the NY Times maybe I’d be a bit more confident, but as it stands now the benefits I get from writing about beer are things like free beer, free trips, free food etc. (the wages ain’t so good for this very part time job) and if I don’t say nice things about beer and brewpubs I imagine I’d stop getting those things. So there’s an element of that going on. And I maintain some sort of journalistic integrity by only writing about the things I really like so I don’t feel like I’m lying. And I imagine that’s pretty much the problem with a lot of beer writing. It hasn’t quite graduated to the level of salaried critics whose benefits are insulated from critical backlash.

    Now luckily there is a lot of good beer out there so there’s a lot of good things to write. But I agree that craft beer would probably be better if writers were more critical. While there is a lot of good beer out there, there’s a hefty portion of bad beer too and I certainly wish I could help make it better but right now I am not in the position to do that I would imagine the vast majority of people who write about beer are not in a position to do that either.

  28. Andy Crouch March 24, 2008 at 1:44 pm #

    Briefly in response to Lew and others:

    “Good conversation, but…how much self-examination do we need? As in, does anyone but us (and Dan Shelton, maybe) really give a damn?”

    I think this goes beyond navel gazing and into the realm of some necessary self-reflection. While the average and even above-average consumer might not ever take a moment to think of the ethics or critical skills of those whose reportage they are reading, that doesn’t t mean that those souls providing the reporting shouldn’t consider the issues themselves. I think that one of the things that hurts beer writing (and at some point we should address what this phrase means; Alan uses the phrase beer journalist or reporter versus a diarist or a mere blogger. For my purposes here, I’m referring to professional to semi-professional individuals who get paid to write for newspapers, magazines, or websites) is the complete lack of any widely agreed upon standards for ethics. Despite the dozens upon dozens of beer niche based publications that we have, America has no beer journalism/writing/reporting group or association where people can discuss these issues. Our counterparts in Britain indeed do have such an organization (or organisation) and it has a set of agreed-upon ethical rules that it expects members to follow. Once these basic standards are in place (and I’ve heard rumblings of such a group seeking to form since the death of the NAGBW), perhaps then we can have a discussion about the balance of and need for criticism in our trade.

    I think the comment by our recent, unnamed writer in the Midwest lays out the exact problems I’m trying to raise:

    “Yeah, if I was a salaried writer at the NY Times maybe I’d be a bit more confident, but as it stands now the benefits I get from writing about beer are things like free beer, free trips, free food etc. (the wages ain’t so good for this very part time job) and if I don’t say nice things about beer and brewpubs I imagine I’d stop getting those things. So there’s an element of that going on. And I maintain some sort of journalistic integrity by only writing about the things I really like so I don’t feel like I’m lying. And I imagine that’s pretty much the problem with a lot of beer writing. It hasn’t quite graduated to the level of salaried critics whose benefits are insulated from critical backlash.”

    The ethics and the criticism problems, in my mind, go hand in hand because, as I perceive it, so many writers are or feel beholden to the brewers they cover. By only writing about the things you like, you are explicitly not writing about the things you don’t like. You are avoiding criticism because you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you (beer or whatever). And I view that as a problem. With this, I’m not trying to cast any stones at any other person (for I am too not without sin on these issues), but for me, as does this whole debate, this refocuses my mind on the need for such a group and some ethical standards.

    The inevitable argument here (and this post is already getting too long, I know), is that beer writers do not make enough money/don’t get paid properly/aren’t treated professionally by publications so they need to rely upon these freebies. I think this is a classic chicken and egg problem (as put by Shelton). And this brings me back around to Lew’s point about how much consideration we should give to this topic. I believe that without proper ethical guidelines, beer writing will always be largely populated by
    handout seeking hacks ready to write good, kind, uncritical words in return for free beers and membership in the cool kids beer club. And when the profession is populated by such types, it is understandable why publications do not take them seriously, thus perpetuating the endless cycle. In the end, the readers and media consumers are done a great disservice by this bad “journalism/writing/reporting” as they generally have no clue about the underlying shenanigans at play.

    If nothing else, I think we need an organization so I can stop ranting about this stuff on-line…

  29. Alan March 24, 2008 at 2:11 pm #

    I agree completely with that, Andy. And I do not suggest that being a personal essayist or blogger (as opposed to a mere journalist) is a preoccupation that is less troubled by ethical issues, just that the ethics may be different. [And I say "may" as I am not entirely certain and would happy to learn more.] That is why the phrase “beer writer” is best as it includes the whole range.

    Besides, what is lost by the examination of these ethical questions? Generally, it’s an opportunity for at least thoughtfulness with the real possibility of improvement thrown in. Whether it’s a website or an organization or…imagine…an organization with a website, discussion is a good thing in itself. In the meantime I, for one, vote that this thread continue – especially as Stan is heading out on his trip and we may be able to figure out how to raid his stash in his absence.

  30. Stan Hieronymus March 24, 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    Andy, when I noted Lew’s comment added perspective I didn’t mean I don’t think this is an important topic – just that we shouldn’t sound too self important while discussing it. It’s only beer.

    There is a move afoot to rekindle a beer writers guild, and as I know more I will be glad to e-mail you (and anybody else who has an interest) details.

    Making things work right always seems to worthwhile. Yesterday we were up in Santa Fe and a group has camped out on the plaza, conducting a hunger strike against the genocide in Tibet.

    “How is a hunger strike in Santa Fe going to change that?” our daughter asked. Try explaining that to an 11-year-old.

    Again, a disclaimer. I don’t mean to equate writing about beer and what’s going on in Tibet.

  31. Dr Joel March 24, 2008 at 3:02 pm #

    What Alan steps into in his second paragraph here is exactly what was running through my mind reading Andy’s post.

    First off, i think Andy is exactly correct. The cycle allows itself (somewhat innocently in many cases) to keep on running over and over again. Most brewers are cool people, they appreciate the interest and free press and they want to show that appreciation. Guys who write for the love of beer and the love of writing are happy to be rewarded, happy to build that relationship, etc. And both will continue to do so forever.

    So then.

    Why not an organization of some sort? A group with a name and an agreed set of ethics. If you’re in, you’re in, be you blogging or freelancing for Time Magazine. A lot of people in this discussion are on both sides of that, some aren’t, i’d say we have a wide variety of voices and opinions here…so let’s organize. A simple seal denotes membership to this group with clearly stated ethics, it gets planted right on sites or blogs, people choose to either be in or out.

    This shows people from brewers to consumers to media that there is a seperation, that there are people in this on a serious level and that they should be taken, read, and hired as such.

  32. Andy Crouch March 24, 2008 at 3:10 pm #

    “I don’t mean to equate writing about beer and what’s going on in Tibet.”

    And neither would I. Beer is a pleasure product and I don’t often mistake it for more serious efforts (in my case, the representation of indigent criminal defendants). And while I won’t comment on the efficacy of a plaza protest thousands of miles away from the source of the troubles, our discussion of ethics in writing has a far more tangible connection to the source of it focus, namely the topic of beer. While we don’t want to take beer too seriously, I also don’t think we want to undercut the responsibility professional and semi-professional beer writers have in plying their trade. Are we covering global politics? No. But craft beer is a multi-billion dollar a year business and it’s probably time those who cover it started acting the part.

  33. Alan March 24, 2008 at 3:23 pm #

    Quite right. A few years ago I did some comparisons and noted that, among other things, the value of all charitable giving in Canada only constituted 71% of the economic footprint of beer. So while it is just beer, beer is not without its own heft.

  34. Loren March 25, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    I’ve found more and more brewers who actually don’t mind criticism, good or bad…positive or negative, so long as the person critiquing actually sounds like they know what they’re talking about (amateur or pro). It also helps a brewer if any flaw noted can be attributed to a mistake made by the brewer, which they can appreciate and tweak to fix, and not just a “personal distaste” for said offering. Anyone can taste something and say “Boy this ‘effing sucks!”.

    Honestly though…is anyone’s 2 cents worth more than anyone else’s?

  35. Andy Crouch March 25, 2008 at 9:34 am #

    Is this a start?

    http://www.beerwritersguild.org/

  36. Stan Hieronymus March 25, 2008 at 10:21 am #

    Andy, yes that is it. Progress has been slow.

    Loren – One thing I think brewers can be held accountable for starts with the question: “Is this how you intended it to taste?” If the answer is no the next question is “Why not?”

  37. Anonymous March 25, 2008 at 12:36 pm #

    You don’t need to worry about the New York Times or the better beverage publications; they hold themselves to high editorial standards, which means reviewing beverages/restaurants/etc. both good and bad, separate editorial and advertising departments that don’t influence one another, and enough clout to not care about a brewer upset that they got a bad review. Bloggers, etc. get free stuff simply because they’re not required to write by any rules; most “real journalists” know not to accept free stuff (and if they did, they’d be fired). For instance, you’d never see a Travel + Leisure writer accepting a free trip. This is all why you don’t see bloggers used as legitimate sources… because they don’t adhere to formal ethical and writing standards, nobody knows what blogs (if any) are trustworthy. As to why you don’t see negative beer reviews in print: They’re not failing to be reviewed, there’s just no point in running a bunch of crappy reviews when print mediums have so little space. Why not promote the industry and get other people to drink different beers that are good, rather than trying to get novices to drink bad beer? It’s about putting a positive spin on an industry that could use it.

  38. Lew Bryson March 25, 2008 at 2:30 pm #

    Anonymous: “real journalists” at major publications DO get free samples of beer/wine/spirits all the time. Yeah, they do. Been there, seen it, talked about it many times. And it doesn’t matter at all, because there are so MANY samples coming in, pissing off one lousy brewer (or even an important one) just wouldn’t matter…even if they were so pathetically morally crippled as to be corrupted by the wonders of a free sixpack.

    I get so damned many samples in the mail that I have a three-month backlog that’s getting bigger all the time (and that’s just the beer: I get so much booze I give it away: no brag, just facts). I really don’t worry about “biting the hand that feeds me,” because they ain’t feeding my family: the money I make by writing does. Let me tell you: I’m just one guy, just a damned “beer writer,” and I don’t “care about a brewer upset that they got a bad review.” That comes with the territory. If you don’t want to take the consequences of writing a critical review…don’t start writing.

    I truly disagree with your last point, too: the craft brewing industry does NOT need “a positive spin.” They need our honest opinions. They need our recognition of their good products, they need our ink/electrons about their pubs/bars/restaurants, and yeah, they need us to speak the truth to their power — such as it is.

    Implying that a beer writer can be bought, that their soul and integrity can be had for the price of a drink, is insulting.

  39. Lew Bryson March 25, 2008 at 2:32 pm #

    Loren,

    Yes, of course some people’s 2 cents is worth more than another’s. If someone’s been drinking a wide variety of beer, talking to brewers, studying brewing and beer for years and has an opinion, are you saying that’s no more valuable than some fella who just got their first bottle of Blue Moon and is “WHOOOO-HOOO!!!”-ing all over the bar? You’re either kidding, or trying to start something.

  40. Stan Hieronymus March 25, 2008 at 3:29 pm #

    Anonymous, you wrote: “For instance, you’d never see a Travel + Leisure writer accepting a free trip. This is all why you don’t see bloggers used as legitimate sources… because they don’t adhere to formal ethical and writing standards, nobody knows what blogs (if any) are trustworthy.”

    I don’t know about T+L but there are tons of travel junkets that lead to stories in glossy magazines. But who cares? Helping somebody choose between this $5,000 a night villa and that $5,000 a night villa is not journalism.

    The important stories are about what is happening to the quality of travel in economy class. You’ll see those in the NY Times, but sometimes after bloggers took the lead.

    “Citizen journalism” is real, and bloggers are legitimate sources and reporters.

    Is this related to a critic “demolishing the bad?” Maybe not directly, but yes.

  41. Christopher March 26, 2008 at 12:00 am #

    I discovered craft beer recently (about 6 months now). I have been surprised at the level of “descriptive” writing and the lack of criticism. It is a consumer reports kind of world now, and all of us are so over-exposed to the “testimony” I honestly wondered to myself if all this (typical beer descriptions found in mags, rating sites, etc.) could be real – or was it some sort of cult? There seems to be not one bad beer in the whole darn industry!

    I would encourage you folks whose lives are somehow importantly tied to beer to get some backbone and pass on some negative criticism. I know it’s possible. What am I (or someone like me who is a “consumer” of good beer) to do, except find as many examples of differing beers and try them myself. About 1/2 were “bad”, 1/4 were “passable”, and another 1/4 I would (do) purchase again.

    Now why is it that everyone writing about beer can’t come to such an honest conclusion? Michael Jackson and gang helped me discover all the various styles, but did nothing to help me actually find good beer. I would return the book if I could…

  42. Loren March 26, 2008 at 4:10 am #

    Me trying to start something? Never!

    :-)

    I guess I meant at an “equal” experience level and not comparing a rookie to a pro? Or even an amateur pro to someone who does this for a living.

    Not sure. I do know that at any level of experience if you can’t admit you’re still learning, all the while enjoying of course, then what’s the point of it anymore?

  43. Lew Bryson March 26, 2008 at 5:26 am #

    Christopher,

    Not sure where you’re writing from, but if half the beers I got were “bad,” I’d sure as hell think about moving. I couldn’t write that many negative reviews if I was getting paid enough for them to drop all my other work: I simply don’t get that many bad beers. I’ve done some downcheck reviews on my blog: Otter Creek White Sail, the Miller Lite Craft beers, Maui Bikini Blonde, Stegmaier Midsummer White, Miller Chill (okay, that one was a fish in a barrel), and the beers at the Italian Oasis brewpub. But most of the beers I got — and reviewed — in the past year were pretty damned good, or at least well-made.

    Are you saying that beers you’ve seen good reviews of were not good, or that the bad beers you’ve had simply weren’t reviewed in them?

    Loren, with that “equal” experience level qualifier, you at least have a viable argument! The only way to know if someone’s reviews are “better” or more reliable, or more in line with your personal tastes is to read a lot of them over a period of time. Taste the beers yourself, and see if you agree, or at least understand. If reviewers disagree, try to figure out why, and see who’s bringing prejudice to the tasting table. Er, that is… if you really care enough about it. But I definitely agree on your last question.

  44. Christopher March 26, 2008 at 8:42 am #

    “Not sure where you’re writing from, but if half the beers I got were “bad,” I’d sure as hell think about moving.”

    At the local “Wine Mart”, they literally have a wall of beer. Not that I have counted, but I would hazard easily 150 different breweries (a bit more US micro than imports), with easily an average of 3 or 4 styles from each.

    “I simply don’t get that many bad beers. ”

    Yes, “bad” is too strong perhaps. What word would you use to describe all the “bad” movies you have seen, or food, or small kitchen appliances that don’t work very well?

    “Are you saying that beers you’ve seen good reviews of were not good,”

    Yes. At “Beer Advocate” and other similar rating sites, there is not a bad beer in the bunch. Most are B or higher. I easily give half the beers I have tried a “C-” or a “D”. Even a minority an “F”. Grade inflation is rampant. In the mags, books, etc. it is all “descriptive” – which helps (a little – but not as much as most of the writers seem to think) but does nothing to help you narrow down the bewildering number of choices.

    The modern world is not in want of “information” or “choice”. What a beer “consumer”, even (especially) craft beer or “reel” beer consumers like myself need is not more “journalism” but more guidance – help narrowing the field. Most of beer writer community seems to argue it is all “personal”. What else in your life is like that? When you go down to the local multi-plex to take in a movie do you simply “try” every movie there? What about when you buy a kitchen appliance, or an insurance policy, or you-fill-in-the-blank? To the argument that food is different why is it I can find good critical (not merely “informational”) reviews on wine, restaurants etc. but not beer?

  45. Alan March 26, 2008 at 10:13 am #

    Maybe if kitchen appliances came with an organic chemical that gave you a mild sense of euphoria when you operated it your comparison would be better. Beer has the decks stacked a bit in its favour in that respect. Add to that most reviews of beer are by beer fans – omnivores (or rather omnibibes) for the most part – and that beers offer an almost infinite experience of degrees of taste combination and complexity, it is pretty hard to come up with that simple scale of 0 to 5 you may be seeking.

    And how does it help you that I liked Arbor Brewing’s alt better than the IPA this week? I can’t say that one was better than the other – I just liked one more. Isn’t all that one can really do is be informational, just say that the first was full of date flavours while the second was a bit too minerally for my taste? When Lew points out that idea of “more in line with your taste” I think that is a big part of why someone like this reviewer or that one. Pithy anecdotes and median grade point average only gets you so far.

    And who ever said critical reviews of wine or restaurants are all that great anyway. I love to read AA Gill of The Times for giggles but I would hate to have to eat with his cynicism. For my two cents, I wish there was more investigative journalism on the business side of brewing but on the experience of taste I would rather have the poet tell me what is what than either the statistician or journalist.

  46. Lew Bryson March 26, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    I’d say different models of criticism, Christopher. But otherwise, hey, you’re pretty much dead on with the comments on grade inflation, and I don’t think “descriptive” is all that great either. But I find the numbers-based “ratings” get used as mindless shortcuts all too often, and I disagree with reviewers of film, food, and beer often.

    So I do tend to try things myself. That’s how I’m learning about wine: I go in the store, and I look at things I know I’ve liked, and I’ll buy another bottle nearby in provenance and price, and see how I like it. Kinda like going to movies based on cast and director, or screenwriter.

  47. Lew Bryson March 26, 2008 at 2:20 pm #

    Oh, and I forgot one thing, Christopher:

    About 1/2 were “bad”, 1/4 were “passable”, and another 1/4 I would (do) purchase again. Now why is it that everyone writing about beer can’t come to such an honest conclusion?

    Ever considered the possibility that we “honestly” don’t agree with your conclusions? Beer “goodness” is not something you “can” put on a meter or a “scale.” What am I supposed to think when people who don’t agree with my review of a beer assume — and state — I’m “liking” it or “dissing” it because of some reason other than the beer itself.

    When I write tasting notes on a beer, that is my honest opinion. Strictly as one beer drinker to another…why do you think I am lying if I like more than 25% of the beers I drink?

  48. Swordboarder March 27, 2008 at 9:48 am #

    Christopher,
    If you want, you can make every brewery equivalent to a a restaurant and rate them. The problem is that beer flavors are more stable than food flavors and textures, so you can make a whole lot more of it and ship it to everyone. The big brewers shipped out the cheapest, easiest eating burgers and every restaurant only served burgers. We’re finally getting a variety on the menu again and you want to limit it because there isn’t a dumbed down way of picking good and bad anymore.

    And the brewing industry is critical. GABF and World Beer Cup rate every beer style for the best.

  49. Christopher March 28, 2008 at 6:48 pm #

    “it is pretty hard to come up with that simple scale of 0 to 5 you may be seeking.”

    Come on, really? What else in your life is like that? You like some things, you don’t like others. I think this is a story, a “paradigm” that you good folks have been telling yourselves for so long you are true believers.

    If a food critic can call something bad, or a sommelier, why can’t a beer critic?

    Really, just try it. Rate beers on a scale of 0 to 5 – somehow without coming up with all 4 or 5′s…

    “I disagree with reviewers of film, food, and beer often”

    Yes true, but they did help you narrow the field, especially the ones that have earned your trust and have properly guided you before, no? You put up with the occasional miss for all that the reviewer gets right. Where are such people in the beer writing community? Do they exist?

    “why do you think I am lying if I like more than 25% of the beers I drink?”

    Well, your then writing for yourself, and not as a critic (which you admit). You may truly like most of the beers you drink, but most folks are not like that. They may not “dislike” it strongly, but it’s not something they would reach for again, given a choice of something better. What beers are in this class, this top 25%, this that is worth purchasing again?

    You make a life around beer. I don’t, and neither do most of your readers I hope – or you are writing for an elite and chubby fraternity and not most beer drinkers. If you were an appliance salesman, you would make your life around that, and might have trouble understanding why some would simply want the best toaster they could buy for a reasonable price, without “trying” every darn one.

    I am making a bold assertion that might at first offend but I hope you will consider it – you folks have a narrow and frankly introverted view of all this. Most folks don’t view beer as you do, and don’t want to. I don’t. I have found this a problem in the “beer press”. Where are the critics?

  50. Lew Bryson March 28, 2008 at 10:29 pm #

    “Most folks don’t view beer as you do, and don’t want to.”

    How do you think I view beer, and how do most folks view it? I “view” beer as something to drink and enjoy. I don’t “view” it as a film or restaurant. You say you’re new to craft beer, perhaps you don’t like 75% of beers you try because you haven’t developed a taste for them. Plenty of people don’t like lambics; I do — not all of them, but I don’t reject them as a class. There are people who don’t like hoppy beers, people who don’t like lagers, and so on.

    You’re making an issue where none exists; I think Andy is, too. There are negative reviews of beers out there; I know, I’ve written some of them. I’ve read them in the beer press.

    I’ve also been told by people that beer writers are out of line “telling us what’s good and bad!” They tell me they’re capable of making up their own minds. Fine, suits me, and I agree, they certainly are. Then there are people like you who want us to tell you which beers you should have because they’re “da best”, so you won’t have to waste time and money on the ones you won’t like. News flash: for reasons enumerated above, I don’t know what you won’t like. If I write a glowing review of a pilsner I really liked, and you think all pilsners are dreck…have I failed you?

    Wine Spectator and Robert Parker make tons of money by giving wines numeric ratings. Should we ape that? Why? So beer drinkers, like too many wine drinkers, can focus on getting only the best, and never develop their own taste, their own idea of what’s best? Sorry, I don’t like that model. I have philosophical problems with it.

  51. Andy Crouch March 29, 2008 at 6:27 am #

    Now now Lew, I think it’s a bit of a straw man to lump me in with Christopher where we’re making two very different points (actually, I’ve made a series of different points in my comments, including a need for ethical guidelines for writers and a better definition of beer writer; if you address these individually, I’ll respond). As I made clear earlier, I’m not talking about individual beer reviews, of which I could frankly care less when it comes to most beer writers. I think the popular beer ratings websites do a much better job, on the whole, of analyzing and then numerically breaking down beers into scores. Among those sites, I follow the reviews of a small subset of users whose palates I trust. The rest is just kinding of like scouting Tripadvisor or other sites for reviews of hotels: so long as there are a sufficient number of reviews and the numbers aren’t crap, I feel relatively safe.

    So no, I think we’re making very different points as my “issue” relates to a beer writer’s broader role in critical analysis, not just whether he or she liked a better beer. As I noted above, when there is something more than A 5 word aside, I’ll respond in kind…

    Best,

    Andy

  52. Christopher March 29, 2008 at 9:08 am #

    To clarify: I am not saying stouts = bad where as IPA = good. I am saying that within IPA (or even more narrowly) there are good beers, and yes there are bad beers. Not all are B+ or A-.

    I am also saying that beer writers are NOT saying what is good or bad (contra what you say some of your feedback has been). I am looking for the beer writer who says what is good or bad. You say you have written a few negative reviews. Anyone know of a writer who gives negatives to at least half of the beers he drinks? This to me would signify a “critic” (as “opposed to a “journalist”).

    “News flash: for reasons enumerated above, I don’t know what you won’t like. ”

    Well DUH! Of course. News flash: tell me what you don’t like. Rate beers (and cars and appliances and foods and women & everything else) honestly, giving your top 25% or so. Why mess with the bottom 75%. Write at least 50% negative. Then, if after comparing my tastes with yours, and after earning my trust, then you will be a help to me in narrowing the choice down. Well, you don’t have to of course but I am looking for the person who does, as this person is a “critic” (as opposed to a “journalist”)

    “never develop their own taste, their own idea of what’s best? Sorry, I don’t like that model. I have philosophical problems with it.”

    I don’t think people (well most) are such push overs. They eventually come around and their own taste asserts itself. Then, they ignore the critics who don’t help them and read the ones who do. In any case, I understand your philosophical problem – what I am asserting is that there is an in balance in the beer writing world. Too many folks with your philosophy and none (that I can find) with a different philosophy…

  53. Stan Hieronymus March 30, 2008 at 9:53 am #

    Gee. I wander off for a few days and I return to a great conversation I wish I’d taken part in. Although much of it has passed me by, a couple of thoughts:

    - Christopher, I’m more interested in the journalist side than the critic side, so I’m probably not serving you. However I appreciate you stretching the discussion this way.

    You wrote: “You like some things, you don’t like others.”

    Yes, but let’s say I’m telling you about a place in Taos with good food, but insipid green chile (pretty standard for Taos). It’s two stars for me, but it may be four for you. Meanwhile, Horseman’s Haven is Santa Fe is five stars for me. It might be zero for you because the chile is hotter than heck and you wouldn’t be pooping straight for a week.

    I learned long ago that if you invested in what I like – food, music, beer – you could get poor fast. So while it’s pretty easy for me to write descriptors on a BJCP scoresheet because there is a shared language and an agreed set of standards, I recognize the real world doesn’t work that way.

    While I agree that more honesty is needed (if a beer sucks we shouldn’t say it is good) and that grade inflation is a problem, but I find it ludicrous to suggest that a critic should write “at least 50% negative.” Isn’t that going to the extreme in the other direction?

    - Andy, this could be a mistake because I don’t have the time to hang out at the beer rating sites and I mess up a detail and I could get lambasted. First, although I don’t care for assigning numbers to beers I see that it works for some people, and I’m fine with them keeping personal logs, even using the convenience of online sites. But when those scores are aggregated and press releases follow I have a problem.

    Beyond the big flavor bias – can’t a helles get a break? – if a beer changes, like the flat 2006 Panil Barrique, is that reflected? Less than careful research indicates not.

    But perhaps that information was passed on in the discussion areas. It can be treacherous to praise those – when brewers complain about “stupid bloggers” they often mean something that appeared on the boards – but right now it is on those boards and in blogs that you are most likely to see the issues you mentioned maybe 50 posts ago addressed.

    But now we are back at journalism . . .

  54. Christopher March 30, 2008 at 1:00 pm #

    “insipid green chile”

    Try NC. My wife and I will be moving to Las Cruces in three months. I am very much looking forward to not pooping straight for a week!

    “I find it ludicrous to suggest that a critic should write “at least 50% negative.” Isn’t that going to the extreme in the other direction?”

    I don’t find it ludicrous at all. It is about what I would expect, if the person is a “critic” that is. A critic is a relativist (at least in part). Given 10 good beers relative to miller light, it’s easy to give all B+’s to a selection of craft beers, as they are that good relative to the miller. But what about to each other, or to 10 other decent craft beers?

    Let’s say I have 100 decent (relative to macro) craft beers on a wall in front of me at Wine Mart. How do I decide? According to the beer journalist press, they all have something to offer. I however, don’t make my life around beer. I simply want the 10 best. I don’t really have the time or energy or money or desire to “try” all of them. For this I need the critic – someone who is willing to say that at least half are not worth reaching for.

    Again to be bold and assertive and thus offending your sensibilities (hopefully not in a crude way) I find it amazing so many of you find a basic critical attitude towards beer “ludicrous”. It’s what is expected in any decent market, of any sort of product (from cars to food to insurance polices) that is self sustaining and mature.

    As to the percentage, sure, it depends. If not 50%, how about 40%? You get much below that you are not really selecting, but merely “commenting” on the beer. In fact, I would say it is “ludicrous” to say all 100 beers are more or less equal, all having something to offer everyone and anyone, and all worth reaching for.

    Just before reading your post I was reading the latest Car & Driver magazine. Now these guys are critics. At least half the cars they test are described this way:

    “This car raises a single question over and over: What are they thinking”

    “Asian-shop-girl driving position, annoying steering, flexy on impacts”

    “Inhuman driving position, clunky shifter, infuriating center armrest”

    I subscribe to Car & Driver, but I do not subscribe to any beer magazine simply because they are all “cheer leader” scribes (at least the ones I have seen). They have substance, but no critics.

    Does anyone out there know of a beer writer who is “ludicrous” enough to use words like “what are they thinking” when writing about craft beer?

  55. Christopher March 30, 2008 at 1:06 pm #

    Just a thought, but IMO describing most of the beer writing community as “cheer leaders” really nails it. It reminds me of those SNL skits where Will Ferrell and company are rooting for the chess team. What sort of outfits do you guys have in your closet?….just kidding…..:) :) :)

  56. Dr Joel March 30, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    “Let’s say I have 100 decent (relative to macro) craft beers on a wall in front of me at Wine Mart. How do I decide? According to the beer journalist press, they all have something to offer. I however, don’t make my life around beer. I simply want the 10 best. I don’t really have the time or energy or money or desire to “try” all of them. For this I need the critic – someone who is willing to say that at least half are not worth reaching for.”

    I don’t understand this line of thinking at all. You need to be told what the absolute best 10 beers are out of the lot? Why? I don’t get the logic in that..if you don’t have the time, energy, money, or desire to try new things or at least bring something to the table that’s going to wittle that 100 down to a much smaller number right off the bat, then i would have to operate on the assumption that you’re standing in Wine Mart for one of these reasons in the first place:

    -So you can feel like you are drinking really good beer?
    -So you can show other people that you have good beer in your fridge?
    -So you can have the feeling of buying really good beer?

    Is a critics job to tell you what to drink? And if so, for what reason? I mean in this instance you are one reader. If his guidance appeases your drinking sensibilities how many others drinkers is it going to alienate? I do understand where your example is coming from, these guys get paid to (or are supposed to or should) drink all of this beer so you don’t have to.

    But how many people does that really work for? Have you met anyone who really likes craft beer? We like to find out for ourselves.

    There are a few companies out there that spend a lot of money telling people what they should drink, what they are supposed to drink. They all have commercials on TV. Maybe theirs is the guidance you seek?

    So fo me, this brings up a question for the writers, the ones who get paid and printed frequently:

    How do you guage the assumed knowledge of the reader when you set out on an assignment? I’m sure it varies, but you guys write for publications whose readerships run the gamut of beer knowledge. So would you say that sometimes you are writing for the Christophers of the drinking world and sometimes you’re writing for those discriminating beer geeks? If so, is it possible for one writer to serve all ends of that spectrum?

    As someone mentioned much earlier in this discussion, we like to find critics who we trust…so if i trust Lew Bryson in Beer Advocate Magazine am i going to trust him in Portfolio? Just an off the top of the head example of course, hopefully is an example of my point though.

  57. Andy Crouch March 30, 2008 at 5:20 pm #

    Hi Stan-

    The big beer websites are what they are. They represent a fairly unusual movement in consumer circles, where the drinkers gets to review the product. The process at best is empowering, at worst hysteric and subject to the influences of fads and niche biases (high alcohol for one). I think the uniqueness of this new consumer voice irks a lot of people, from brewers (for honest if sometimes ill founded criticism) to professional writers (a sense of competition maybe?) I guess I have less disdain for them than most others in these two groups. On the whole, I find some utility in the ratings even if I don’t believe wholeheartedly in the underlying theory.

    In any event, this has all been a very good discussion but I’d like to see it gain more permanence and continue to evolve. I hope to see an organization develop in the US/North America to address these issues and others.

  58. Dr Joel March 30, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    On the subject of the sites, i’ll share something that i found interesting recently. The Brewing News brewspapers held their IPA madness thing recently where they lined up March Madness style brackets pitting IPA vs IPA where pro brewers tasted blind and voted on what they thought was best. Those beers would move on until ultimately Green Flash’s West Coast IPA beat out its competition to take 1st place.

    Out of curiousity i looked up all of the beers on both BA and Rate Beer and filled out brackets based purely on each sites ratings of the beers. The biggest difference between those rating from home on the internet and professional brewers tasting beers blind? Well, the beer that both Beer Advocate.com and Ratebeer.com’s users had given the highest rating out of all the beers in competition didn’t make it past the first round.

    Anytime people are allowed to enter data in such a way as they are with the rating sites, unrestrained, then there will be a bit of inflation and deflation. Personally, i think its good because it creates a community of drinkers who are learning to pay close attention to what they drink. But i also think there has to be a realization of what these ratings are and where they come from.

  59. Lew Bryson March 30, 2008 at 7:38 pm #

    Andy,

    I don’t see your issue. I see discussion of issues in brewing and beer and the business of both, with both sides being taken. The issue of extreme beer, for instance, prompted a lot of discussion about why brewers were making so many questionably large beers, and plenty of critical discussion. Cans, the same thing; price increases, the general disrespect of American beer ‘enthusiasts’ for lagers.

    I know I’ve written about American brewers not getting the idea of British ale yeast character, about what “American style” means and whether or not that’s valid, whether beer festivals are ripping off brewers, and the questionable tendency of American brewers to brew higher-gravity brews. I damn near got banned from the Brewers Association Forum for a discussion I touched off about what the industry is “owed” by the drinkers and the beer press. I am not alone: Jay questions the industry, Steve Beaumont questions the industry, Stan questions the industry, you certainly do.

    So I guess I don’t see the issue…except maybe that where these things get written about are not the biggest forums, not under the most noses. Well, hell, if I could interest a high-paying market in that kind of thing, I would certainly write it there, but when I pitch stories like this, I’m usually told something like “That’s too insider for us.” So I wind up writing them on my blog, or on my website, or in BA Mag, or in American Brewer. If you see that as an issue, yes, I agree. But people are writing about these issues, and not just semi-anonymous raters on websites.

    I don’t feel threatened by website beer ratings. I did, for about two months, about three years ago, and then I spent some time thinking and got over it. They do what they do, I do what I do, and there’s not really a lot of crossover.

    On ethical guidelines: show me a set that are already in place for “critics” (movies, restaurants, cars, etc.), and I’ll be willing to move forward from that.

    Definition of a beer writer? Yes, by all means, let’s follow the excellent example of the Brewers Association and “define” ourselves to include those we approve of and exclude those we don’t. Why do we need to “define” this; who benefits? I can see a benefit to the reader (and the editor, though it’s not as clear) from ethical guidelines, but with those in place, what’s a definition of “beer writer” do for the reader?

    Christopher,

    In my last column in Malt Advocate I wrote about the issue of people who just want to know what “the best” bourbons are, so they can buy them and leave the rest. I thoroughly resist that increasing trend in American consumers. If you want to know what’s “the best,” find some source that will tell you, in black and white, and use it. They’re out there already.

    I write tasting notes when I feel like it, on my blog. If something sucks, fine, say so, and I do. People don’t always agree with me, I do get hate mail that tells me I’m doing small businesses a disservice, but that’s part of the job.

    But to have a requirement that 50% (or 40%, or 25%) of the beers that I taste in a given period get bad reviews? That’s paint-by-number criticism, and I want nothing to do with it. I judged at GABF in 2006, and one of the categories I judged was helles. We got 14 in that round, I think, and we immediately tossed two that were clearly wrong (and we said so in our notes)…and then we had a dozen beers that were all pretty damned good. We resolved it by splitting hairs, finding personal favorites and arguing them down to three to send on, but they weren’t head-and-shoulders above the others; it was a matter of small degree. If that was me, just writing reviews for my own…what, my own beer newsletter that I sell by subscription to people who only want to buy the very best…what should I have done? Make stuff up to slag 6 of them?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, or that some lively, entertaining writing wouldn’t come out of what you suggest. But there’s more to writing about beer than just sipping it and writing tasting notes. A lot more.

  60. Stan Hieronymus March 31, 2008 at 10:19 am #

    Dr Joel,

    You asked: How do you gauge the assumed knowledge of the reader when you set out on an assignment?

    The subject matter may be as important as the audience. Certainly it is different writing for New Brewer, which goes to Brewers Association members, and Player, which targets gamblers.

    But most of the drinks publications are interested broadening their audiences, so I’m going to write with that in mind.

    And to the Brewing News IPA Madness vs. the rating sites . . . So which one does this make right? Perhaps neither. But I love Green Flash West Coast IPA.

  61. Dr. Joel April 1, 2008 at 4:07 am #

    “But most of the drinks publications are interested broadening their audiences, so I’m going to write with that in mind.”

    And i think that’s a pretty important part of the discussion, not because of that whole thing from the beginning of this where there was a lot of talk about showing the industry in a good light, but because as writers the market for work dictates the stories you write….right?

    Of course you guys pitch stories, of course you can have some influence, but where are the publications ready to print those reviews of beers that aren’t so great? Where are the ones ready to print insider stories that don’t have a positive spin?

    Are we necessarily there yet?

    I feel like the beer publications i read do plenty to honestly cover both industry issues and beer reviews both good & bad. But as far as something further, as far as straight criticism through and through, i personally don’t think we’re going to see it for a while. Reason being, i don’t think the craft beer drinking mass is ready for it. Some are, of course, some can handle it…but i think it’s still honeymoon time in a lot of ways.

    I mean really, who wants to become the villain right now?

    A brewer i interviewed recently told me, “You don’t get in this business to make a lot of money. You get in it to turn your hobby into a profession, to do what you love.” I think that’s very true and i think in turn we actually see a lot of good businessmen come out of it as well. I can think of a lot of breweries that do a great job of marketing themselves honestly, sticking to their standards of quality, have faithful workforces, and do something for their communities.

    So i guess to come back to the original question:

    In the mind of those reading and those buying beer…do they feel there is enough bad to demolish to get to the good? Do i? Do you?

  62. Christopher April 1, 2008 at 6:12 am #

    Dr. Joel,

    I believe I answer your objections in the previous posts so I won’t rehash them again. Again, it comes down to the acceptance of the critic’s job in the craft beer world.

    in your last post you say “I feel like the beer publications i read do plenty to honestly cover both industry issues and beer reviews both good & bad. ”

    Can you point me to these publications that give critical reviews? Perhaps I have simply missed them…

  63. Dr. Joel April 1, 2008 at 6:31 am #

    Sure thing Christoper, and i agree, no need to rehash.

    For some contrast I’ll give you two that are of different approaches, the two i’ve mentioned already:

    All About Beer’s Buying Guide in each issue is more than thorough. The reviewers are in a controlled environment and they look at one category of beer (with subsets of styles) in each issue. If you are looking to be told what to drink, this is pretty definitive.

    Beer Advocate Magazine. Two brothers tasting beer and giving it a letter grade. I’ve seen everything from A+ to F. Each is accompanied by a paragraph of description.

  64. Andy Crouch April 1, 2008 at 7:02 am #

    AAB’s buying guide has been brought up a few times and I think it’s a good place to draw out one of the specific ethical issues I’ve been raising (insofar as you will all allow me to jump beyond the original topic, from which this debate has often devolved). AAB’s buying guide is actually run by the Beverage Testing Institute and no the magazine itself. AAB licenses the content from AAB and then charges brewers to put the labels into the guide. Now I have my own problems with BTI’s methods, and by extension AAB’s republishing of the results (and it’s not just that the testers gave Michelob’s excellent Porter an 83 in this issue, the lowest recorded score). It’s actually that 82 is the lowest recorded score and that BTI, among other things, is simply not in the business of giving low scores. I won’t rehash what I’ve written online and for BA Mag on this topic: http://www.beerscribe.com/2007/08/02/judging-beer-what-is-a-medal-really-worth/

    What I really wanted to discuss was AAB’s Beer Talk section, which includes reviews from beer luminaries across the globe. For some time, the list has been comprised on John Hansell (editor), Steve Beaumont (writer/restaurateur), Charles Finkel (importer/distributor), Stan of this site, Charlie Papazian (president of Brewers Association), Jeff Evans (British author), Roger Protz (British author), and Garrett Oliver (brewer). Each writer does four reviews per issue for a total of sixteen beers covered. Now, stop for a second and ask if there is anything wrong with this picture in terms of ethics.

    In both journalism, the law, and other professions, the standard one is held to is not an actual conflict but the appearance of a conflict of interest. It’s not that someone is inherently biased but that their position or particular situation might create the appearance of bias. As such, most publications (outside of the beer world) have stern rules about such conflicts.

    Here’s a lengthy read on that topic: http://www.nytco.com/pdf/NYT_Ethical_Journalism_0904.pdf

    I’m not disputing that these eight men are not qualified to write reviews (we couldn’t throw in one of dozens of similarly qualified women?), but that several of them have at bare minimum a clear conflict of interest in reviewing the products. Of those listed, I would suggest that Finkel, Papazian, and Oliver shouldn’t be writing reviews due to their professional situations (Papazian as the professional organization leader of all of the small brewers) and Finkel and Oliver because they are reviewing the products of their competitors (or their own products if so assigned it is possible). These gentlemen may be good souls who can put aside any possible bias or conflict, but again, that is not the proper standard to be applied. The appearance of conflict is clear. We certainly have enough beer writers who could fill these spots, conflict free.

    Along other lines, a mere ten pages later I came across another curiosity, in the book review section. Contrary to my above comments on the lack of criticism, I’m reading a review that is pretty much hammering Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer. Some of the points seem pretty petty, which surprised me, until I see who wrote the review: Maureen Ogle. Now, I would imagine that most readers have no idea who Ms. Ogle is. And the review doesn’t tell you either, which bothers me. Many here probably know that Ms. Ogle wrote Ambitious Brew, the Story of American Beer. Brewing Battles is certainly a competitor product and the conflict here is again clear, with no disclosure, which compounds it.

    Those are a few areas of ethical difficulty that I see in an industry that has several more. I think many of us are aware of them but don’t want to discuss them because of the insular, friendly community that we all enjoy. I’m not sure that is a healthy way to conduct journalism (and for Lew, this is in part why I see the need for some definitions of this and other terms as applied to beer writers. Some bloggers have suggested they are not bound by any ethical rules because they are just bloggers, not writers. I think the audience should be able to tell whether the writer whose work they are reading is tethered by ethical rules of is just flailing wildly at every free beer or book tossed his or her way. The snarky Brewers Association example was inapt here, I think).

    Best to all again,

    Andy

  65. Stan Hieronymus April 1, 2008 at 10:35 am #

    Christopher – A question on the Car & Driver analogy.

    Are you saying they claim half the cars are bad or that they wouldn’t buy half of them?

    It is one thing to be critical of half, or more, but another to declare them “bad.”

    If I did critique beer on a regular basis – and I would argue that AABM Beer Talk is not crticism – then it would be fair to expect that.

    When Daria and I compiled “The Beer Lovers Guide to the USA” we did assign stars. Not something we were always comfortable with, but something the publisher expected. Sometimes I look at those and note a place got one star and think “gee, that was kind of hard.”

    But it bothers me more to visit a place we gave 3 and feel that vastly overrates it.

  66. Stan Hieronymus April 1, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    Andy,

    Thanks for explaining the AABM/BTI relationship, so I don’t have to. In a way I feel I should recuse (you can tell me if I used that term correctly) myself from any discussion about AABM.

    We’ve written for them since 1993, I designed their first website, Daniel and Julie are friends, etc.

    But that’s where you started the ethics discussion and I want to add to that . . .

    Before, let’s note that I wouldn’t call those 80 or so words for AABM a review. Certainly not in a “thumbs up, thumbs down” manner.

    On the ethics front you are certainly correct that the appearance of a conflict of interest may be as damning as an actual conflict. And this is something every writer should be aware of. And something the overall blogsphere is sorting out.

    Before I get too windy, a few random thoughts:

    - If Charles Finkel (we’re paired in AABM Beer Talk) and I are writing about a beer from Penn Brewing that is not available in either of our markets then we can’t go out and buy it. Penn is going to ship it to us. Does it matter if I paid for the beer?

    - If I am traveling and might eventually want to sell a story to the New York Times or Washington Post or Boston Globe I know full well what will be in the contract. They can make those demands of freelancers because they pay for the right. I think a certain responsibility falls on publishers.

    - Your mention of Garrett Oliver illustrates this isn’t particularly simple. when the NYTimes reviewed (and this included assinging stars) wheat beers he sat on the panel and his beer was one of those commended. It was a blind tasting, but you might think his preferences influenced the others and he brews to those preferences.

    Personally, I have no problem in this instance. In part because it is the Times and in part because of my respect for Oliver.

    I’m clearly not alone. He is serving as editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer.

  67. Alan April 1, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    I am voting for this as the most interesting thread in the history of beerblogdom.

  68. Andy Crouch April 1, 2008 at 12:04 pm #

    Stan, a point of ignorance on my part: do you guys ever go out and buy the beers you review/write/pontificate about in 80 words from the shelves or does the magazine simply send them to you or arrange for such delivery? I assumed it would be the latter points, although I don’t think it matters one way or another. My points do not have to do with soliciting samples and the ethics of doing that (I personally don’t solicit samples as I travel widely enough to find plenty to write about, but I don’t really have a problem with those who choose to do so). My points are more about the actual or apparent conflicts.

    I agree Garrett proves to be an interesting test case on many fronts. It appears to me that the Times is not following its own ethical rules, likely due to Eric’s relationship with Garrett (and of course Oliver’s deserved reputation). The Times’s rules appear pretty clear to me and it’s similarly clear that having a brewer sit in on a panel tasting, blind or not, is an apparent conflict (especially where his beer is taking part).

    Perhaps another analogy would be helpful here. Having brewers sit on tasting panels or allowing them to write articles in magazines/newspapers is a little like letting the VP of design for the Ford Motor Company write reviews of the newest line of Chevy’s in the pages of Car and Driver or the Detroit Free Press. The VP might really love the Chevy but if s/he criticizes it, you’ll never know whether their position influenced the opinion. Accordingly, why should beer magazines wade into questionable ethical waters when there are more than enough qualified writers to cover their places? Add Lisa Morrison, Lew, Alan, or anyone of countless other writers and there disappears the conflict.

    For whatever reason, I am less bothered on the ethical front by brewers who write books (add Sam Calagione to Garrett’s company). The same issues apply but for some reason the ethical issues seem more diffuse when the prose appears in book rather than magazine/newspaper/online form.

    And no worries on the recusal (correct word), we’re all aware in this context of your relationship with AABM. Sunshine brings a lot of things out of the darkness…

  69. Lew Bryson April 1, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    I stand by the BA comparison, Andy, “snarky” or not. This is, at the bottom, about business and money, just as the BA definition of a craft brewer is. If a writer’s association were to form, and gain any kind of presence, and promulgate a set of standards, that seal of approval becomes worth something. Once it becomes worth something, there’s money involved, and someone, somewhere, is making money off it, either directly or indirectly.

    I don’t like guilds, and I don’t like business associations, and I don’t like the rules and licenses they impose. Because at the base of it, under all the foofaraw about quality and honesty and ethics, all too often it’s about “we belong to this, and you don’t, so we get the work/money/position and you don’t.” I don’t like that kind of exclusion.

  70. Alan April 1, 2008 at 4:40 pm #

    Then what is this?

  71. Alan April 1, 2008 at 4:41 pm #

    [I immediately add the cheeky emoticon: ;-)]

  72. Andy Crouch April 1, 2008 at 7:57 pm #

    Alan’s point hits home but no need to belabor it. Libertarianism aside, I’m not advocating a prior restraint society. I just think it’s a good idea for beer writers (the BA analogy remains inapt; that definition is about politics, not money; the beer writer definition is about being bound by ethics or being untethered; you can pretend that’s about politics, but it’s really not), especially those of us with any public profile, to ascribe to some set of standard ethical rules. Along these lines, and because the debate here has to eventually end, I’m working on a small list of what I consider to be incontrovertible ethical rules. Beer writers can feel free to join them, define their own, or reject all ethical binds outright and cast themselves as prose outlaws.

    At its heart, this has nothing to do with money or exclusionary politics. The ethics of journalism, while debatable at the fringes, possess some hard-to-argue truths. At my core, I believe that the viewing public deserves to know the rules its writers play by. If a writer believes it’s ok to have a financial interest in a brand, let alone not disclose that, then the public should know (either through the sunshine of the writer’s own disclosure or through contemptuous disclosure by other writers and editors). We have enough undisclosed conflicts (as defined by the NYT or basic journalistic ethics) in our industry that the tipping point is quickly approaching. Better that it be an organization, however loosely defined, democratic at its core, that sets the standards than a single writer or two having to call out his or her peers for their breaches. One way or another, the sun will eventually shine in.

    Thanks for the excellent discussion,

    Andy Crouch

  73. Stan Hieronymus April 2, 2008 at 7:09 am #

    Do you guys ever go out and buy the beers you review/write/pontificate about in 80 words from the shelves or does the magazine simply send them to you or arrange for such delivery?

    They are shipped. Presumably it means we are getting beer in the same condition, hopefully fresh. Although not long ago a brewery sent me beer that was beyond its freshness date.

    It would be interesting – and this is something organized bloggers could do – to compare beer fresh from the brewery and beer purchased in a store thousands of miles away.

    A couple of things I failed to address earlier:

    - I agree that having a woman among the Beer Talkers would be good. I suggested one three years ago (when, instead, they recruited me). And I am again, since the next round is my last.

    - I disagree about Maureen Ogle’s review of Amy Mittleman’s book. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in her review, but if you expect a review to include criticism this one did. Publications often have an expert in the field review a book. Certainly AABM should have explained who Maureen is.

    And if you want see petty – note the shot Bob Skilnik took at Ogle in his customer review of Mittelman’s book.

  74. Alan April 2, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    That is hardly petty or a shot in my reading. Those are among the deficiencies of that book. At least Bob put his name and his context as a writer of other beer histories into his review.

  75. Matt Dunn April 2, 2008 at 10:53 am #

    Fly Fishing writing is another area I know a bit about and the same issues are at play there (lack of criticism of products for fear of losing handouts and a professional ethic that some think is lacking). But it’s funny because contemporary writers seem to think there was a golden age of fishing writing in the middle parts of this century and everything has gone down hill from there while in beer writing nobody seems to think there was a golden age. Anyway, I thought this April fools post was kind of relevant:

    “Dude, you live for schwag!”

    http://www.midcurrent.com/news/2008/04/fly_fishing_bloggers_convene_r_1.html

  76. Lew Bryson April 2, 2008 at 12:31 pm #

    Sure I’m in: I’m in at the beginning and making my positions known. I don’t want it to go the way the NAGBW did. If it does, I’ll quit this one, too.

    The BA’s definition of ‘craft brewer’ is political, not economic? That’s a rather academic viewpoint, and I don’t buy it for a minute.

    Bring out your code. Let’s have a look. I’m certainly not against ethical journalism.

  77. Lew Bryson April 2, 2008 at 2:45 pm #

    Hey, here’s a code of ethics for critics:

    http://www.canadiantheatrecritics.ca/history.html

    Here are a whole bunch for newspaper reporters/journalists:

    http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?id=387

  78. Alan April 2, 2008 at 4:33 pm #

    The critic should attend the entire performance reviewed. If a critic must leave a performance early because of a deadline, this should be mentioned in the review.

    Hmmm…how would that work with beer:

    “Sorry that it’s 1 am, honey, but I had to see the whole cask through…[urp!]…need to…[hmphfft]…attend whole performance…[zzbttph]

    [wife exits]

    Curtain.

  79. Bob Skilnik April 22, 2008 at 6:47 am #

    I don’t like beer reviews for the simple fact that taste is subjective. If there’s a technical problem with a beer, that’s a different story, and I have the Siebel background to do that. As for the AB…When they start qualifying what a “craft brewer” is and pull good breweries out from the mix, they don’t help the industry a bit. I’ve heard from some brewers what they think of the AB and this move, and it ain’t pretty.

    But try criticizing an industry trend or practice and watch the e-mails come in. Awhile back, Bryson questioned the move towards “extreme” beers. The same thing happened upon Repeal. In a move to find a market, brewers back in the ’30s did the same thing, something that a few well-respected crtics of the time focused on. (Personally, I think he’s right.)

    I’ve been critical about the epiphany of craft brewers moving to canning. To read some articles about this 70 something year-old practice, you’d swear craft brewers were the first to realize some of the advantages of canning.

    I look at the current state of the brewing industry through the eyes of history. If you go back and look at the brewing trade journals of the 1930s, you’ll see that a lot of the revelations now being experienced happened years ago. Canning wasn’t invented last week. Craft brewers have been making excuses for not canning, coming up with red-herrings, when, I think, the real reason has been costs and a bit of industrial haughtiness.

    Remember freshness-dating? The cries from the craft sector were deafening. Jim Koch was putting too much pressure of them, the practice was confusing, blah, blah, blah. It’s actually a move that was common in smaller markets during the ’40s when real draft beer first went into bottles. Rather than blame the distributors or ship beyond their own backyard, breweries had reps out in the field to check on retailers an pull out-of-date beers. Don’t have the people, money or time to check on beers, especially if they’ve been shipped to a market 1,000 miles away? Then don’t bottle (and please, don’t can) unfiltered and/or non-pasteurized beers and then moan about the pressures of freshness-dating.

    Once again, make that observation and watch the e-mails.

    The same thing happened years ago when retailers often wouldn’t stock big bottles because they couldn’t fit them on their shelves. Some craft brewers insisted on continuing the practice. The same battle was played out decades ago when beer made its way to supermarkets and convenience stores. If they wanted shelf space, beer containers had to conform to the demands of retailers. This demand is one of the things that brought about canning and “steinies”…stackability in displays and shelves.

    So why battle windmills today? But God forbid that I would make these observations.

    I’ve written about the lack of business maturity of the craft beer industry. I realize that 30 years or so is not a long time and mistakes will be made. The current problems of high hops costs are well-documented, but once again, go back through U.S. brewing history and you’ll see that this has happened before. Few in the craft beer industry, however, were listening. Buying in to hop futures, a one-hundred year old practice, might have alleviated some of the current problems.

    I have no doubt that for every mistake, every trip-and-fall that the industry makes, there will be a learning experience, and that’s good. More craft brewers are now looking at buying into hops futures, a sign that the industry is maturing and wiping away some of the gauzy romance that’s been wrapped around this Business.

    But don’t criticize the industry…not unless you want to be criticized in return. I’m not trying to be a pr*ck, but I level criticisms based on what has happened decades ago in the general brewing industry, and believe that it’s good practice to look back before looking forward. There’s a lot of precedence in the beer industry that’s been ignored. I don’t make criticisms based on the hopping rate of some brewpub beer that didn’t meet some silly style guideline. Leave that to the Alstroem brothers and their following.

    As for journalistic standards for “beer writers?” Forget it. Most of us freelance and when you’re not writing a book or getting paid for an article, are technically “unemployed.” If someone wants to send me a few samples, so be it, but don’t expect me to criticize the beer, to work off of some ratio of “good” vs. “bad” criticisms. Once again, I think taste is subjective, but I will pass along to the reader the information that was provided by the brewery, and do that in a objective manner.

    Lew’s right when he says that samples, for instance, are part of the territory for a drink writer. Sometimes that’s the only way to get hold of a beer. I recently turned down a steady newspaper gig, one of the problems being no reimbursement for beer purchases, the thing that I was to write about. Hell, if I did a round up of some Belgian imports for a future article and used my pay against the cost, I would have been writing for free. Samples might have been the answer.

    The drink industry—looking at importers, distributors, retailers and brewers—needs unbiased critical eyes to make observations, give opinions, even legitimate criticisms where warranted. It doesn’t need a bunch of industry talking heads making public criticisms of rival products or breweries, under the guise of impartial experts, when they might be going head-to-head with those same products or breweries in the marketplace.

    Flame away.

  80. Stan Hieronymus April 22, 2008 at 9:35 am #

    Bob – I find much to disagree with here (such as the simplification of the canning issue) but instead I’ll agree with you about the importance of history.

    That means we should heed the words of the late Henry King (who for those who don’t know was instrumental in getting small brewers tax differential enacted).

    “My belief is that many microbrewers lack institutional memory.”

    I would say that is true of consumers as well.

    Not quite sure what this has to do with where this discussion started tens of thousands of words ago . . .

  81. Lew Bryson April 22, 2008 at 9:42 am #

    As for journalistic standards for “beer writers?” Forget it. Most of us freelance and when you’re not writing a book or getting paid for an article, are technically “unemployed.” (…) I recently turned down a steady newspaper gig, one of the problems being no reimbursement for beer purchases, the thing that I was to write about.

    Glad someone said it. I’d be much happier about going to the strict ethical standards some folks are pushing for if freelancers start getting some respect from publishers. Newspaper rates are low to begin with, and when you throw in no reimbursement for travel or even the food and drink you’re supposed to be reviewing…you kinda start thinking: exactly who’s being unethical here?

    Thanks, Bob; for the comments, and for the forthrightness. I’m old enough and experienced enough that I reserve the right to judge those who would stand in judgment of me.

  82. Alan April 22, 2008 at 10:00 am #

    On that note about respect, I was reminded of that today when I got the check in the mail for 100 bucks for the chapter in Beer and Philosophy – 16 months after I wrote the thing. Reminded me also why I am not eagerly pursuing the pro career path you guys have chosen – it is a tough old haul so a raised glass to all of you from one semi.

    I am still in a flux myself about these ethics points of view even with my own grouchiness from time to time. Maybe it was just winter? Maybe it goes back to the first email question I likely ever sent Lew: “why the hell is there so little money in beer given all the money there is in beer?”

  83. Andy Crouch April 22, 2008 at 1:34 pm #

    I’m mostly with Stan on Bob’s scatter shot post, not sure there is much new here to rehash. I do disagree with Bob and Lew on the journalistic standards issue, but again, nothing new to report except to say that samples are not the issue. And I’d be happy to start with the ethical foibles of professional beer writers (i.e. those who make at least some living plying their trade) as opposed to the “unemployed” (or unemployable) amateurs.

    In response to Alan’s question, originally posed to Lew, I again point out that it is not a question of ethics following money. As has been stated before, I think that without ethics, money will never follow. So maybe that is my answer to Alan’s question. If you’re looking to hire someone and see nothing but a field full of hacks, what price would you put on the lot?

  84. Lew Bryson April 22, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

    …nothing but a field full of hacks…

    What’s a hack, Andy? Anyone who writes for money? Is it someone who only writes for the money? How much money? Or is it someone who writes about beer mainly for free beer, meals, and trips? Define your terms, if you don’t mind. Are there any beer writers in the field who aren’t hacks, then, in your opinion?

    I didn’t stop writing for major dailies because they were ethically demanding, or because they had high quality standards. I could handle that, and did for a time, until I started looking at the work I was doing and the compensation I was getting for it. I stopped writing for them because their pay scale was pathetic. Does that make me a hack?

    Please don’t dismiss this. I think after that last comment, you owe me — all of us — an answer.

  85. Andy Crouch April 22, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    Don’t know about owing but am happy to oblige. My use of the word hack in this situation refers to the writers, in my view a large number of which populate the beer trade, who “writes about beer mainly for free beer, meals, and trips,” to adopt your definition. I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate that a lot of beer writers, professional, semi-professional, and amateur, don’t follow even the most basic ethical rules. And your choice not to write for bad money doesn’t make you a hack, but a smart business person. It’s when people make the choice to write for the non-monetary perks (mentioned above), fail to disclose them (to the extent sunshine can fix ethical problems), and think nothing of it that I have a problem.

    My point has been and continues to be that the excuse that writers covering beer cannot follow ethical rules because of low pay is simply a cover for unprofessional behavior. And I think it begets bad pay due to unprofessionalism and a degradation in respect. Do I think people writing about beer, whether for magazines, newspapers, blogs, or other mediums are underpaid, certainly. Does that give them free license to act unprofessionally (i.e. against even the most basic ethical guidelines), I’m sorry, I don’t. Perhaps this is where we all disagree. And that’s fine, so long as I as a consumer know which writers follow ethical guidelines and which don’t. Because I believe that if a writer is receiving money or benefits from someone/something that they are covering and they don’t disclose it, that’s unprofessional, unethical, and something worth knowing.
    A lack of good pay is no excuse. It means you should be writing only part-time or only in your free time (which, ironically, I think is probably the case already for most “beer writers”) in terms of business sense or journalistic ethics. Again, the part timers and amateurs may not even know about journalistic ethics. That’s why I think it’s probably more important to lean on the editors and publishers in the beer trade to enforce these rules (calling Tony Forder, Tom Dalldorf, Julie Johnson Bradford, et al). I don’t see it happening in these publications and I think it should be.

    I know this subject rubs you the wrong way but uncomfortable as it may be (for all of us, as I said, none of us are without sin on these issues), I still think it’s a worthwhile endeavor for the future.

  86. Lew Bryson April 22, 2008 at 7:21 pm #

    The subject does not rub me the wrong way, any more than it does you. Creating a more professional atmosphere for beer writing is most definitely in my interests, in the readers’ interests, and whether they like it or not, the publishers’ interests. It means better writing and, hopefully and to follow your chain of thought, better pay, though I’ll believe that when I see it.

    What rubs me the wrong way is this: “It means you should be writing only part-time or only in your free time (which, ironically, I think is probably the case already for most “beer writers”) in terms of business sense or journalistic ethics.”

    Speaking as one of the few full-timers in the field, I struggle continually with the debris left by the passage of the ‘free-beer-and-a-byline’ writers — who I consider to be a large part of the low-pay problem — but also with the issues brought on by wine writers who have the relationships with food editors to get the assignments and then turn out crap beer articles, by staff writers who just get the assignment because they’re there (“I don’t know much about beer, but…” is one of the most infuriating sentences in journalism for me).

    I do see bad pay leading to questionable ethical practices, because of the way I see editors purposely turning a blind eye to them so they can get the story they want without paying what they should for it. If editors won’t pay me what a story should be worth, won’t negotiate, and then won’t pay for additional use of a story — which is flat-out wrong — what the hell am I supposed to think of them? Lack of honor begets a lack of honor, in either direction.

    What rubs me the wrong way is that I’ve chosen to leap into this full-time, to take the risk, to try to do this while writing fairly and accurately and without fear — as much as my editors will allow, which gets to be more and more each year, happily — and then someone who has not had to make that leap comes along and tells me I need better ethical standards… Yeah, that rubs. If I infer too much, if I seem defensive, well, I say it because I’ve already been through this with the NAGBW ten years ago, and I watched the fight over ethics, this very same fight, destroy that organization.

    Are you willing to discuss ethics? Or only to prescribe them?

  87. Stan Hieronymus April 22, 2008 at 7:55 pm #

    Lew, Andy -

    I love this conversation, although I don’t want to see it go a direction that causes readers here (if there are any) to think any less of either of you.

    Andy, I agree that publications should pay better (well, that was self serving) and demand more (again, egotistical enough to think I could manage that). But I’m not optimistic about seeing that happen.

    More transparency? Great idea. But most bloggers and regular contributors to the beer discussion sites are paying for their own beer. Does that make them better writers? Of course not. Also doesn’t make them worse.

    I’ve lived in the world of journalism for more than 40 years and – at the risk of appearing paranoid – I know that readers expect the worst of you. When I was a sports writer, for instance, they always thought I was rooting for the other team.

    So, in that way, Andy is correct about the importance of appearances.

    On the other side, Lew is correct about credibility being earned. That’s both credibility with readers and with editors. So Lew gains that with Portfolio. Evan Rail earns that with the NY Times. Greg Kitsock with the Washington Post.

    Meahwile, as I typed this – and twittered and emailed in a variety of conversations about tonight’s pirmary – Lew chimed back in with an important point. We need more reporters fulltime on the beer beat.

    I’ll leave it at that other than to say hey, Bob, I’m not sure I should say thanks or not for poking this conversation back to life.

  88. Andy Crouch April 22, 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    Nicely done Lew, truly. I agree with almost all of your well-paced vent. Now as to that last paragraph (and hopefully the therapeutic part). To draw the personal from this debate (and in case I’ve misread this, than forgive what follows), I think I’ve been pretty clear that I acknowledge not having to make this entire leap due to an outside, full time job. And I’ve acknowledged that said full-time job allows me the fiscal freedom to follow a certain set of guidelines that I have described here and elsewhere. To those who say they cannot make a full-time living without crossing some ethical lines, I’m sorry to say, you should not be writing full time. Just as a lawyer (to take my trade) who cannot fiscally operate a solo practice without breaching a few conflict of interest rules should get a different job (either with a larger firm, a non-profit, or out of the legal trade). I think its better practice to write part-time and get a second or different job rather than cross certain standardized ethical guidelines in order to make an extra few bucks.

    I’ve been writing professionally (i.e. for pay) about beer for a little over 8 years, and about other topics for a little over a decade. In that time, Lew and I have written side by side for at least one publication for the better part of that eight year term. I’ve probably published a couple hundred articles on beer (not including my website) during that term and one book. With that said, and as much inside baseball stuff as I know, I have never heard the tale of the NAGBW’s demise having involved ethics. I’d like to hear it (either on or off this site) to help inform my opinions about the past and future. Until I do, I can say that it’s not about having a centralized code of conduct. I think each writer should (although I believe that few do) have their own code and that editors and publishers should detail and promulgate such a code for their writers (I know none in the beer trade that do).

    In all honesty, I guess in some respects I’ve been pulling punches on this subject, both in this debate and in others. While I take occasional shots at the ‘hacks’ ‘amateurs’ or whatever you want to call the dozens upon dozens of writers who write for little or no money (usually love of trade is enough for their simple efforts) and see nothing but free beer and schwag for remuneration, they aren’t the true focus of my ire. It’s actually the more well-known beer writers who draw the sharpest ethical spear for me. Names we all know and who readers outside of our niche would be familiar with. People who play by rules that not only do I not agree with, but the most basic ethical guidelines would not allow. To Stan’s concern about this getting a bit too hot under the collar, it has not been my purpose to name call. That’s why I’ve said we are all sinners (myself included for the third time), it’s about setting some basic rules, pledging or not to follow them, and then moving forward for the betterment of our writing trade and the industry we all love to cover (and enjoy).

    I’m not sure what you mean by a willingness to discuss ethics; I’ve been under the presumption that this is what I’ve been doing all along and well before this. I’ve laid out some basic prescriptions on my website. The NAGBW had others, as do countless other organizations and publishers.

    I’ll leave it at this. A week or so back I posted some basic guidelines from the NAGBW and the Society of Professional Journalists.

    I’ll leave the link and would be interested in discussing and debating the particularities of these basic tenets with anyone who so chooses.

    http://www.beerscribe.com/2008/04/09/media-draft-ethics-and-beer-writing-continued/

    With respect to all who have contributed so far, including the very respect worthy Lew Bryson,

    Andy Crouch

  89. Alan April 23, 2008 at 4:29 am #

    I’ve not jumped in to this because I really do not consider myself in the game in the same way but I am in the realm of ethics not just as my job, like Andy’s, is that of a lawyer but because I advise on ethics. For the last year I have been leading my client, a level of government, through a wide ranging discussion working towards a comprehensive code of conflict and it has gone some way to inform my thoughts about the ethics of writing about beer as writing about a business – as opposed to just the personal pleasure aspect.

    The only thing I see missing in the discussion is appropriate application of an ethical code. In government, ethical guidelines are measured by the degree of authority you are given. The rules are the same but they are pressed more firmly, more comprehensively when you make policy decisions or even made quasi-judicial decisions. For those who only advise or participate, the rules are less strict.

    I see underlying this discourse levels of dedication to beer writing. When I say I am a writer but not a journalist, I think that covers most bloggers. But I do get ads unlike most bloggers so my beer and travel is pretty much covered. When I dipped my toe into writing for journals, I got pay but had less control and the money wasn’t that good – so I had less interest in it and maybe was less concerned with the quality of the output. When I think about writing a book, I think about how I would swing that on my own nickle and I think about how much I like snoozing and it never happens. Is it possible that the idea of a one-for-all code is the problem, that Lew’s complaint that it is divisive is because it does not categorize?

    I hope that makes some sense as I have yet to have my coffee this morning.

  90. Bob Skilnik April 30, 2008 at 2:59 pm #

    “To those who say they cannot make a full-time living without crossing some ethical lines, I’m sorry to say, you should not be writing full time.”

    I’ve gone through this entire thread and have to ask; Who said the above?

  91. Stan Hieronymus April 30, 2008 at 3:30 pm #

    Bob – I also am not finding it in the thread, although it seems familiar.

    This discussion broke out elsewhere so it may have come from one of those posts, or comments are even from earlier offline conversations.

    I am sending Andy an e-mail to see if he was paraphrasing or quoting.

  92. Lew Bryson April 30, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    Guys: go up about two comments. It’s in Andy’s post of April 22, halfway through the first paragraph.

  93. Alan April 30, 2008 at 7:15 pm #

    …dear old dear…am I the only Gen-Xer among Boomers who knows how to use a little HTML?

  94. Lew Bryson April 30, 2008 at 7:17 pm #

    Show-off.

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