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The vocabulary of tasting

The tasting of lambics previously promised by the New York Times arrived today. Well worth your time.

Discussions about the article already include many more words than are in it. A few:

Burgundian Baggle Belt.

Rate Beer.

Beer Advocate.

At the Babble Belt there’s also side conversation about the use of wine vocabulary in a beer story, and the question pops ups, “Are we validated by them (wine snobs), or are we secure in what we know to be some of the greatest flavors and complexity of any beverage?”

That’s a fair question. The short answer would be, no, we shouldn’t feel validated just because a wine writer pens something nice about beer.

However, language is another matter. Those who try to describe beer in technical terms reserved for wine – and the Times article certainly does not – should be made fun of. But well used vocabulary is well used vocabulary.

Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson discussed this recently. Firestone Walker is located in Paso Robles, Calif., in the midst of scores of wineries. After the winery tasting rooms close at 5 p.m., wine tourists and winery workers often congregate at the brewery tasting room, which is open until 7 p.m.

“The wine world has an incredible vocabulary,” Brynildson said. “They seem to conjure up more of a food vocabulary.

“A lot of brewers pick it part by just talking about the technical characteristics.”

(I can certainly be guilty of that. The other day a brewer mentioned he was tasting a Belgian-brewed tripel. “Good beer,” I said, “but it could use more hops.” What I should have said is that I would like it better if it were a bit more dry, with a touch of bitterness to balance the beer’s sweetness.)

“I learn a lot when I drink beer with winemakers,” Brynildson said. “They talk about it and look at it from a different angle.”

That’s why even if you already know all you want to about lambics you should be sure to check out Lambics: Beers Gone Wild. You’ll still learn something.

Well done beer and food reporting

OK, if we’re going to pick on newspapers when they don’t do a great job of reporting about beer, it seems fair to also give credit to ones that do.

Cheers to the StatesmanJournal in Salem, Ore.

Rather than settling for a routine advance on the Blooms & Brews Brewfest, reporter Angela Yeager wrotes a story about how to match beer and food, complete with lots of tips.

Beer needs more beat reporters

Sometimes, actually many times, Lew Bryson should call his monthly post The Rant rather than The Buzz. In a piece titled Just Like Wine he tackles the bias food writers/editors’ have toward wine over beer and newspapers’ general “gee whiz” attitude toward beer.

This latter atttidue served breweries well enough a decade ago, when a new brewery was opening somewhere in the United States every few days. “Clark, go down and write a story about the new brewery in town. It’s a national trend. Take Jimmy along for a few photos.” Everybody got full blown feature, but many never saw another.

I’ve read plenty of these stories framed on the walls at brewpubs and brewery tasting rooms. They tend to be formulatic, based on information the reporter could acquire in a short time, a little bit about the brewing process, reciting the figures about how many breweries there once were in America, trying to capture a little of the romance of having a local brewery, etc.

There wasn’t time for the reporter to learn much about the intriguing subject of beer. Newspapers reserve “beats” – the stuff they cover regularly like the local school board, police, city hall, the college athletic teams – for topics of vital community interest.

When a newspaper does offer regular coverage of beer it’s usually because of a passionate reporter on another beat putting in much of his or her own time. For example, Travis Poling in San Antonio.

But to return to where Lew started, with a story in the Philadelphia Inqurier. Large newspapers, and certainly magazines, have the resources to permit reporters to “do the job right.” It’s a win-win situation for newspapers. The simple word beer makes people smile and want to read on, and there are thousands more interesting things to right about in America than there were 10 years ago.

Lew concludes:

Open challenge to Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald: run a beer piece that’s as in-depth and detailed as you would expect a wine piece to be. Give it your best shot. The New York Times’s Eric Asimov is doing it already, and Philly is twice the beer city NYC is. This is the biggest market for Belgian beers in the country, Victory and Dogfish Head are two of the hottest breweries in the country, and what do we hear about it in the Inquirer? We don’t hear diddley. Step up.

You might ask the same of your local newspaper.

How cool are these cool beers?

I think the old saying goes that any publicity is good publicity.

So is an article that first appeared at and then go picked up by Yahoo automatically good because it focused on beers that are not industrial lagers?

Spirited debate erupted on several beer discussion boards about just this.

If you pick just one post to read – and by typing that I’m obviously taking sides in this argument – make it one from Bob Johnston at the Burgundiean Babble belt.

Who owns the beer revolution?

OK, change of plan. Yesterday’s discussion about whether consumers will continue to accept the idea Foster’s is “Australian for beer” when four out of five pints are brewed in the United Kingdom was to be followed with more about the importance of authenticity to both brewers and beer drinkers.

We’ll do that, but instead of starting from conversations during the Craft Brewers Conference in Seattle (the insiders’ view), there’s an outsider’s view worth reading. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov writes in his blog, The Pour:

I always enjoy writing about beer. Occasionally, though, I am mystified by the hard-core beer lovers, who crave respect and recognition for the wonderful artisanal brews that are now available, but sometimes seem intolerant of anyone outside their realm who addresses the subject.

Let’s own up to the fact he’s talking about us. If you’re reading this then you must be hard-core, because this blog is a niche within a niche (the craft beer market). That doesn’t mean you have to be intolerant. On the other hand, perhaps you don’t think intolerant is such a bad idea (sorry, I do).

Hear him out.

I can understand their feelings, I think. Many of them have carried the torch for beer for many years without much recognition, and they naturally feel a certain amount of ownership of the subject. After a while, insularity becomes comforting, especially when the culture as a whole seems so much more interested in industrial swill than great beer.

But the attitude goes deeper than that. Many connoisseurs I’ve spoken with want to see beer given the same sort of cultural obeisance as wine. They want it to be regarded as a complex, delicious, worthy art form, yet they quail at the pretentiousness that trails after wine. In fact, beer lovers are so afraid of anything that even hints of pretension that they ward it off like God-fearing peasants making the signs of the cross at vampires.

Put a bunch of beer-lovers in a room and chances are you will see an utter disregard of fashion: goofy T-shirts, bizarre ties, wild, unruly facial hair and haircuts that could not possibly have been rendered by a professional. In short, you have the same determinedly nonconformist demographic as you would at a science-fiction convention.

Calm down. He admits that at the end he’s having a bit of fun. Back up to the part where he talks about ownership (that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look in the mirror while you read the rest).

Listen to Saint Arnold Brewing founder Brock Wagner, whose customers donated money so the brewery could upgrade its system. “I can’t really say why they did it other than I’ve come to realize I may own the stock, but it’s not my brewery,” he said. “It belongs to everybody who drinks Saint Arnold beer.”

Maybe you don’t find it easy to be so generous. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the American beer revolution has been about reclaiming the soul of beer from industrial producers, and that required a certain brashness.

Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione put it this way in his Craft Brewers Conference keynote address:

“Americans will always vehemently protect their right to create an alternative. Not just an alternative to giant breweries – which is what we represent – but to the increasing corporatization of American culture.

“It’s not outlandish to recognize our boiling kettles as modern day melting pots – the sources of beers as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them. Made by people as diverse and colorful as the people who buy them.”

That’s about as authentic as it gets. It belongs to all of us, and to none of us.

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