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Who, or what, do you love?

Love & BeerIf starts with Lew Bryson’s post What We “Owe” the Industry (even if you don’t wade through he comments which weave here and there) then what follows might make more sense. Alan McLeod brought something else to the conversation when he asked Do We Love The Beer Or Brewer?

For me these questions are related because b) I don’t love the beer or the brewer; as a consumer I appreciate the experience and as a journalist I live for the story. And a) the first city editor I worked for, Bill Schmelzle, taught me that nothing else in a story mattered if I didn’t get the facts right (and when I proved I could do that then he introduced the importance of balanced reporting).

Principals in a story could expect this, not because I “owed” it to them but because I worked for the people who bought the paper every day. Is this an old-fashioned notion, irrelevant in these days (of blogs, Fox television, “we media” and specialty magazines)? It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my DNA.

Newspapers should be advocates for the communities which they serve, whether they put the word “advocate” in their masthead or not. Granted, specialty magazines are a step or three away from newspapers. But at my local Borders I only have to walk three feet from DRAFT and All About Beer magazines (Beer Advocate is not on newstands) to pick up the New Yorker or Harpers. That’s pretty close and heady company.

Let’s say the community where I live stinks at the village center because we need some central sewage system instead of a hodge-podge of septic tanks. The local paper isn’t doing a very good job if it writes only about how pretty the new gardens are downtown – while the smell of sewage overwhelms the petunias.

Thus it drives me crazy that Ashton Lewis wrote, “But the way I see it is that a beer magazine boasting to be the ‘Beer Advocate’ should focus on the positive.”

Mr. Bryson puts it more eloquently:

But “advocate” does not mean “worship blindly,” or “defend without judgment.” They stand outside the industry, and they judge it by their own standards. And by those standards, whether you agree with them or not, they believe that they advocate “beer” — not “the craft beer industry”, not “your beer” — by speaking plainly about beers they think fall short, breweries they think engage in bad practices, retailers and wholesalers who don’t measure up to their standards.

That’s actually more likely to take place at BeerAdvocate.com, in a “we media” sort of way. I want to see more of that in the magazine, more in the other beer magazines and more in the non-beer press.

Of course, most of what appears in the media gets written or spoken in the vast territory between reporting bare facts and offering criticism. There must be a balance. While I already answered the question the headline of Alan’s post (“Do we love the beer or the brewer?”) what he’s really writing about is finding that balance for yourself.

Do you want somebody to tell you what beers you should like? Or where you should enjoy them? Is there some other reason you read about beer or talk about it over, of course, beer? He’s asking good questions.

Answer them and you’ll better understand what you want an “advocate” to do for you.

23 Responses to Who, or what, do you love?

  1. Ed February 25, 2007 at 10:04 pm #

    I’m a little surprised that BeerAdvocate.com seems to be on your “love” list.

  2. Stan Hieronymus February 25, 2007 at 11:17 pm #

    That would be an overstatment.

    I’ve written before about how important the many online communities have been in the beer revolution.

    But the tone at the site certainly can be shrill. Todd wrote this after Lew’s post:

    “Bryson is spot on. Unfortunately we’ve been plagued by this ‘ass kissing wannabe friends with everyone in the industry so I don’t upset someone who might wanna advertise or give me free beer’ journalism for decades now. It results in fluffy press. It doesn’t help the industry learn and grow. It’s simply an old attitude that needs to be retired. Honestly. Just because it’s ‘craft beer’ doesn’t mean that it’s ‘good beer.’ People need to hear—constructively—both the good AND the bad, lest they be none the wiser. We’d also be providing a serious disservice to everyone involved, and our credibility as critics would immediately go down the crapper.

    “Welcome to true BeerAdvocacy, Mr. Lewis.”

    Am I offended because he would probably lump me in the “ass kissing wanna be friends”? If so, of course. I’d be even stranger than I already am if I weren’t.

    I’ll be impressed when they a) get all their facts right and b) pull off some of the things Lew mentions in the quote above.

  3. beerinator February 25, 2007 at 11:25 pm #

    I don’t have any problem reading criticism of a beer/brewer on the internet or in a magazine. But there are ways to criticize without being demeaning. You can say a beer is not a success and the recipe should be retired while at the same time being sincere. But from what I have read of BA’s magazine reviews, there are also some crass ways to dish out critiques.

    To use your example; there are ways to state that the city town center stinks or has an off odor and that someone needs to be responsible, without calling anyone names. There are ways to criticize while still following the rule your mother should have taught you, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A constructive criticism should be constructive. Otherwise, it is mostly just negativity in my opinion.

    Back to the magazine: In my opinion it is another matter entirely to review a beer that has been cellared for a while and give it a D+. The owners of BeerAdvocate have stated that they don’t want the users of their website reviewing cellared beers, but it’s okay if they do it in the magazine?

    Regardless, these cellared critiques don’t really hurt informed consumers, but they could hurt the brewer who didn’t expect their bottled product to be reviewed 3 years later. In my opinion, these are needless reviews that end in negativity, rather than informed information for the consumer.

    Hurting a brewer in this sort of way should not be viewed as more valuable than helping the very small number of consumers who might have also cellared this particular beer for the same number of years. The number of people a 3 or 5 year cellared review can help is an extremely small number and in my opinion, it verges on an advocacy of not cellaring beers, which is an entirely different matter all together.

    And I think I have taken the discussion into another direction…

  4. Stan Hieronymus February 25, 2007 at 11:47 pm #

    Another direction is OK.

    We must admit that being willing to assign a low grade (of course I hate the grades) to Sierra Nevada indicates a willingness to speak their minds.

    But as a commercial brewer said Friday when I took by the SN Big Foot in question to see how mine are standing up (fine – at mentioned in comments in Lew’s post): “Maybe they need a better cellar.”

  5. beerinator February 25, 2007 at 11:52 pm #

    Yes. The cellar is totally dependent on YOUR CELLAR. Maybe this is why the BA guys didn’t want their users to review cellared beers?

  6. Lew Bryson February 26, 2007 at 2:54 pm #

    Back in the old direction… My main complaint with Todd’s comment on the BA post — and with many of the responses there and at my blogpost — is this: “…this ‘ass kissing wannabe friends with everyone in the industry so I don’t upset someone who might wanna advertise or give me free beer’ journalism…” It really bothers me that so many people think I might be writing nice things about beers/breweries (especially when it’s one they disagree with…) in hopes of a payoff, particularly a payoff in free beer.

    Let me tell you: I do get paid. By the magazines I write for. It’s not a lot, but it’s keeping us in groceries (my wife’s job covers everything else…). And I don’t do anything for “free beer.” Where most people see “free beer,” I see “samples,” a tool to get my job done. But its freeness doesn’t make it good. As I said elsewhere, my integrity is my main business asset; I’m not about to toss it away for “free beer.”

    No, I think the real problem is not saying negative stuff about the industry for exactly the reasons Ashton Lewis proposed: because it might hurt the industry. That is not good for the industry in the long run, and after 25-odd years…the long run is now. Time to speak plainly.

  7. Steve Beaumont February 26, 2007 at 3:19 pm #

    Here, here, Lew! Well spoken , mon ami.

    As someone who earns his living through writing (and education and speaking and consulting) about beer, I find the idea that I could be bought off by a six-pack of free beer, or a free t-shirt or key chain, phenomenally offensive. In the writing biz, all you have to sell are your skills in putting words together and your reputation, and the thought that I’d risk the latter for a few gratis bottles of pale ale is absurd.

    As for the issue at hand, I again stand with Lew for the idea that this industry is old enough and mature enough to take the good with the bad. If A-B makes and markets a great doppelbock, for example, the craft brewing industry should not complain that the elephant in the room is getting favorable press from a media that’s supposed to be “craft beer friendly,” they should focus on brewing a doppelbock that’s even better and letting the world know they’ve done it!

    I don’t drink a brewery’s name or reputation or size or geographic location, I drink their beer. If in my opinion it’s good, I’ll say so, and if it’s not, I’ll say that, too.

  8. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2007 at 3:48 pm #

    Stephen, Lew, I disagree a bit. People are naturally disposed to like breweries who have brewed other beers they like. Some of it is rational – just how many styles has Victory nailed, for instance – and some emotional.

    That’s a luxury that people who write about beer have to give up. At least when they are “on the job.”

  9. SteveH February 26, 2007 at 3:54 pm #

    t really bothers me that so many people think I might be writing nice things about beers/breweries (especially when it’s one they disagree with…) in hopes of a payoff, particularly a payoff in free beer.

    Let me be the first to apologize to Lew as I’ve often made fun in some of his reviews (“How many cases did you get?”), but that’s honestly all it was, poking fun because I respect his opinion. I’ve never seriously thought Lew was reviewing anything other than on the level and it’s a shame that there’s a perception to the opposite out there.

    Even at RealBeer.com there have been some comments about All About Beer being a “shill” for the industry. Sad respect for a magazine that has weathered the storm of time and often been the only source of news on one of my favorite subjects.

    Sad that they become a “shill” because they stick to the middle of the road (for the most part) and print so many advertisements. Never mind that many of their writers and columnists have much to share and report. I guess if you aren’t making waves (or being extreme) you’re just not stimulating enough.

  10. SteveH February 26, 2007 at 4:00 pm #

    People are naturally disposed to like breweries who have brewed other beers they like. Some of it is rational – just how many styles has Victory nailed, for instance – and some emotional.

    While I agree with this, to a certain point, I have to stand up for those of us who try to remain true to the beer (there’s a Blog title if I ever heard one).

    You point out Victory, I’ll point to my favorite: Capital. Just like Victory, Capital has nailed some great styles – even stepped into the “extreme” realm pretty well. But I’ve never been shy to say that I dislike some of their bows to the non-craft drinkers (Island Wheat, 1900).

    Arguably, you can say that they are doing some good at trying to bridge the gap between macros and micros for the macro drinkers, but when do you draw the line?

  11. Alan February 26, 2007 at 4:14 pm #

    I don’t know, Stan. Unlike Lew or Stephen, I do not make my livelihood from writing about beer – but beer just about pays for itself now care of kind sponsors, ads, the odd article and the rare sample that can get to me through barrier formed by the whacked laws of Ontario.

    As a result, I do not have to worry about my reputation in the same direct way but I do like being a reasonable representation of the avid hobbyist I am. So I do not know how my disposition can be swayed.

    The promise of cases and cases of the one beer someone wants to send me for an ad or the keg drop-offs that I have been offered are useless to me, practically speaking. I can’t resell it and can only consume a small fraction of the the beer offered. Plus I have an interest in making sure that my consuming capacity includes the maximum variety of beers…which may even include spitting and dumping some of them.

    So it boils down to this:
    – even if I could be bought, I really cannot be bought in that way as I can’t consume what is on offer,
    – even if I like one beer by one guy or even just like the guy, what is the incentive to lie about the stuff I do not like? To gain a pal? That is just weird and assumes brewers have a celebrity aspect and I am needy.
    – the thing I could be bought with (sponsorship money) is so hard to come by as a web beer writer that even it has little sway with me given my otherwise sourced financial stability called my life…or Lew calls his wife (drum roll and rim shot, please!)

    As Stephen says, absurd.

  12. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2007 at 4:30 pm #

    Alan, there is an oops in there. I was commenting as much on Chris O’Brien’s note (in another thread) about the importance of who brews a beer, where it’s from, the ingredients. All things I think we should pay attention to.

    And consumers do a lot, which is OK.

    But to Stephen B’s point if you are going to write about beer and make recommendations that have any meaning then you have to consider the beer on its own merits.

    Your approach is no different than other journalists – which is the point in bringing up “we media.”

    Of course you’ve also pointed out that people should be making up their own dang minds.

  13. Alan February 26, 2007 at 4:45 pm #

    A small tangent, then.

    I wonder if I actually “recommend” at all. I sometimes finish with a statement like “go buy this” but usually my tasting notes is about recording my own effort to describe the experience of tasting in words, a mug’s game if ever there was giving the dual skills of paying attention to the sensations and translating that to text. There is the third skill of being aware that the taste element sensations can be reorganized in the mind and more that one set of descriptors be produced for the same taste elements.

    That all being the case, I think my real recommendation is that not only do we each have to make up our own mind but making the effort to do this level of analysis of taste for each of own own pleasure is itself worthwhile for any beer fan. Beer is worth paying attention to in that way.

  14. Steve Beaumont February 26, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

    When I started writing about beer, lo, those many years ago, I made a point of describing the beer as best I was able and leaving the judgment part up to the reader. If said reader was fond of fizzy, yellow liquid with little flavour, then they could gravitate to a beer reviewed thusly, while fans of unbalanced hop bombs could feel free to seek out notes describing that kind of brew.

    Over the years, partly due to demand from readers and partly because the beer market is a much more complex animal than it was sixteen years ago, I’ve modified my stand to include more editorializing. But at the heart of my work, I believe that principle still stands.

    I’ve made friends and I’ve made enemies; I’ve had people offer me kegs in gratitude (never accepted) and I’ve been threatened with lawsuits (never acted upon); I’ve given good reviews to beers brewed by bastards and bad reviews to ones crafted by genuinely passionate, good-hearted people; I’ve written glowingly about beers sampled when my personal world was in shambles and been highly critical of others I’ve tasted when on top of the world. In short, while no one can claim absolute objectivity, I’ve always tried to get as close as possible.

  15. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2007 at 10:55 pm #

    Sorry, Steve H. Your posts got posted after so quickly I overlooked them.

    Even at RealBeer.com there have been some comments about All About Beer being a “shill” for the industry.

    I’ll only address Beer Talk here, since I participate in that. The theory is that we are starting with top-flight beers, not covering a spectrum as they do at beer rating sites. I don’t select the beers, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time defending the selections.

    But for those making analogies to wine, Parker and the Wine Spectator simply don’t bother to publish scores low-rated wines. You don’t know if they tried them or not. Of course I just typed the word “scores” and I’m not a fan of assigning numbers to beers.

    Anyway, in that very long thread at Beer Advocate provoked by Lew’s post I’ve seen several comments that there are never bad reviews in Beer Talk.

    I wrote this about a beer in January: “The beer I received began with only muted hops to balance a nose of fruit and honey butter. It’s slick on the palate, with caramel/butterscotch dominating.”

    OK, it could have written “hints of diacetyl in the aroma, more in the flavor.” But that’s mostly useful if you are a beer judge or homebrewer. Instead, you know what I tasted, and can make your own decision.

    At least if you think I have a clue.

    I’d look at that description and think “not a beer for me,” but I also know a lot of people like diacetyl. So should I be give the beer thumbs up or thumbs down? This goes to Alan’s discussion. (And what others have chimed in with.)

    What you want to do is find writers (critics or not) who provide information useful to you. I get positively giddy when Mr. Beaumont or Garrett Oliver talks about structure, because that makes sense to me. Sometimes they’ll list a variety of flavors I don’t quite get, but structure I understand.

  16. SteveH February 27, 2007 at 6:16 am #

    Stan, can you define structure (perhaps thru example) for us (me?)?

  17. Loren February 27, 2007 at 6:34 am #

    Lew said: “Time to speak plainly.”.

    Since I’ve never been known NOT to…I applaud this direction.

    🙂

    Cheers!

  18. Stan Hieronymus February 27, 2007 at 7:20 am #

    Structure.

    You’re not going to let me off easy, are you Steve?

    I don’t want to put words in Stephen B or Garrett’s mouths, but when I see the word (I don’t use as much as I should) I think of a beer that has a beginning, middle and an end but all those parts are integrated.

    A couple of examples in your neighborhood would be Capital Dark and Goose Island IPA. In fact, most Capital and Goose beers but those two beers stand out for me.

    Not every beer has to have structure for me to like it. Marin’s Star Brew, for instance, is a roller coaster ride. One I quite enjoy.

  19. Stan Hieronymus February 27, 2007 at 7:24 am #

    Loren, what does “speak plainly” mean to you?

  20. Loren February 27, 2007 at 8:38 am #

    “Loren, what does “speak plainly” mean to you?”

    As honest as possible, be it from a positive or negative reaction? While of course *trying* to keep in mind to be constructive.

    Is it at all possible to be completely objective, without even the slightest bit of subjective?

  21. Alan February 27, 2007 at 9:30 am #

    At the risk of quoting Keats to make an obscure association, I will quote Keats to make an obscure association.

  22. SteveH February 27, 2007 at 11:30 am #

    You’re not going to let me off easy, are you Steve?

    Just trying to continue learning! And I like the definition and will keep it in mind as I also continue my sampling.

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