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Bad beer and who should be talking about it

You connect the dots.

The conversation

John Harris, whose Ecliptic Brewing should be serving beer soon, was talking about the first months at Deschutes Brewery in 1988, where he wrote the initial recipes and brewed for four years. Batch after batch of beer tasted sour, and he dumped each one. It turned out that there was a design/construction flaw. Fixing that solved the problem.

“These days we could probably have saved the (sour) beer and made money on it.”

He laughed, but he was serious.

The story

Joe Stange’s DRAFT magazine story I mentioned a while back later came on line, leading to discussion here and there, particularly interesting here, about how many breweries is too many breweries. Beyond the matter of variety discussed first time around, there is the one about quality.

“What the industry is afraid of is low quality, and that will taint the quality of craft beer overall,” says Jeff Schrag, owner of Mother’s Brewing, a regional microbrewery that opened in 2011 in Springfield, Mo. “But I don’t know,” he adds, looking thoughtful. “There’s a lot of beer now that’s tainting the image of craft beer.”

Some links

– Brian Yaeger riffs on this at The New School in a post titled, “95% a-hole free?” . . . as opposed to the good old “asshole free” days.

It’s not like this is new. Consider what Ken Grossman had to say in 1981 in Zymurgy magazine (summarized by Maureen Ogle in Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer): “More often than not, he complained, homebrewers tried to go commercial ‘on a shoestring, and with such low technology and understanding of producing a high quality beer’ that they produced foul swill.”

That might come across as a little chippy. Would it be better to be specific, to name names? Last week Charlie Bamforth, the Anheuser-Busch endowed Professor of Brewing Science a the University of California at Davis, was in St. Louis. He spoke a few minutes at a Master Brewers Association of the Americas (MBAA) gathering. I’m told that “back in the day” almost everybody at these meetings worked at Anheuser-Busch and wore a tie. A lot more beards these days. Plenty of young faces, including many people who work at the ABI pilot brewery and students in a brewing class at Washington University. Bamforth was as entertaining as always, shifting quickly from one topic to another. At one point, and I’m not exactly sure why, he said, and I must paraphrase, one thing he can’t abide by is one brewer talking bad about another. So that’s something you learn in beer school.

– Brandon Hernandez pokes a hornet’s nest with “Truth in beer reporting and other novel concepts.”

Yes, the fact that Hernandez derives income from Stone Brewing Co. (as a communications specialist) muddies the water, but lots of interesting insights in the comments. And you’ll want to read what another panelist had to say, and then Alan McLeod’s take.

– Boak & Bailey, starting from an entirely different place (a post by Adrian Tierney-Jones), ask a question: End of the Kid Gloves Era? Maybe this is inside baseball (or cricket), just writers talking to writers, but consider this: “Perhaps it is time for beer writers to accept that conflict with ‘the industry’ is necessary and desirable.”

That way the brewers don’t have to be the a-holes.

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8 Responses to Bad beer and who should be talking about it

  1. Lew Bryson August 16, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    “Maybe this is inside baseball (or cricket), just writers talking to writers, but consider this: “Perhaps it is time for beer writers to accept that conflict with ‘the industry’ is necessary and desirable.””

    I thought that time had come years ago. Truly, not being a prick, but we should have — and I honestly thought we had — taken the gloves off years ago. Because the industry was big enough to take it. My experience with a variety of brewers has proven that they are. Someone inside Magic Hat sent me an internal email back six years ago or so, talking about my reviews of their beers: “doesn’t always like our beers, but he’s honest and makes valid points.” The brewers I respect feel that way. The brewers who don’t, well, I still talk about them, for better or worse.

    This industry has made missteps. It will continue to. It’s our damned JOB to point them out, just as it is to point out when they do it right. That’s what I’ve been doing for over five years with the Session Beer Project — pointing out that craft beer went a bit booze-crazy, and then giving props to the good lower-ABV beers that have started to appear. We need to both, the readers need us to both.

    And honestly? The good writers already are. And ready to welcome more.

    • Stan Hieronymus August 16, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Those still feeling their way in the beer writing space: Listen to Lew. Reading the comments at Boak & Bailey’s place, particularly, and to Brandon’s post indicate there’s a lot of sorting to do.

  2. Pivní Filosof August 16, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    The fact that there is any debate at all about being honest, fair and saying things as you see them is perhaps what is hardest to understand. Though, by the look of most of the comments at B&B, things are quite clear.

  3. Hooper August 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    The comments you point to seem to be mostly bloggers talking about themselves. I don’t care. Have they just run out of interesting beer topics?

  4. Gary Gillman August 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    One of the things I haven’t seen in these discussions is the very nature of the product tends (or IMO) to produce a gloves-on attitude. Alcohol is a social lubricant. It promotes, or should promote, feelings of bonhomie and repose. Who would want to criticize a brewer when tasting his or her products in their company? Very few. It’s just a step away from that to being circumspect when writing an article or blog review.

    So that is one factor. But there is, too, the inherent subjectivity of beer tasting. What one considers weak or ill-brewed might be manna to another. Your story, Stan of the sour beer saga illustrates that perfectly (not to say any old acetic beer would pass muster as a genuine sour specialty, but still).

    By all means opinion should be full and frank but the writers I like best qualify what they say appropriately. When they don’t, they may risk sounding uninformed or at least as wearing blinkers.

    Gary

  5. Gary Gillman August 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Oh gosh sorry, I meant, the very nature of the product tends to produce a gloves-off (not on) attitude. Alcohol promotes friendship and good feelings toward others, so one is naturally disinclined to be strongly critical of those who produce such beneficent products.

    Gary

  6. Stan Hieronymus August 17, 2013 at 8:20 am #

    One other link I might have included:

    Reporting, Beer, Rhetoric

    The nut: “Journalism is poor at expression. It often repeats circulated ideas without much investigation or examination. While this is obvious with politics, it is also obvious elsewhere, such as beer reporting.”

    I can’t totally agree. There’s a difference between quality reporting and mediocre reporting. But it goes to the point that there’s a larger conversation.

    And, Hooper, a tough call. Ethics are important. But perhaps the time would be better spent on the exploration Make Mine Potato suggests.

  7. Stan Hieronymus August 19, 2013 at 4:47 am #

    And this just in . . .

    A related post from Mitch Steele at Stone Brewing: What is quality?

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