This post contains a number of firsts. It is the first time I have participated in The Session, “a monthly beer blogging get together founded by Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin and Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer” as my friend and Session idea adviser Heather Vandenengel noted. This project has been going on for years, with 86 derivations, but I’ve never actually participated for a variety of reasons.
This post also marks my first substantive return to the BeerScribe website in more than a year. Perhaps my absence is due to Twitter and the draw of its brevity and ease of use, the allure of paid work, or that the medium of blogging about beer just strikes me as dated. In any event, time to address Heather’s selected topic: beer journalism.
I have written about beer journalism or beer writing many, many times in the past. Most of my posts have addressed a variety of ethical issues, including the old Beer Journalism Awards, the ethics of paid travel, beer blogger conferences, and more macro reviews of beer writing and journalism generally. I’m not sure whether I’ve written more than anyone else on these subjects of little interest (it took 86 Sessions to get here, of course), but I’ve written more than 20 posts on the subject totaling more than 10,000 words. I actually suggested that The Session take on the subject of beer writing and ethics more than two years ago. So I’m pleased to participate.
So suffice it to say I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already written. So with that in mind, let’s look to Heather’s questions for new direction.
It starts with an issue, posed by Jacob McKean of the Modern Times Brewery in San Diego, as sort of a throwaway comment in an article in which he opined: “In an industry with an almost total absence of real journalism, the cheerleading is virtually indistinguishable from the “reporting.’” Followed up by some guy named Gregg on a website who with uncommon restraint added:
“I absolutely hate beer journalism. And I hate beer journalists – subhumans all of them, no matter how well-written their sanctimonious brown-nosing fluff is, beer journalism has almost always been a tepid affair; a moribund endeavor due to its singular objective to flatter and promote, without ever scratching beneath the surface.”
Let’s begin with the underlying premise here: that beer journalism actually exists. I’m not sure I agree that it does or that it is practiced by a sufficient number of individuals as to constitute a substantial and meaningful entity. Perhaps semantic in its nature, some understanding of the terms that we are trying to use in parsing this subject is required.
When discussing the subjects underlying this edition of The Session, participants often toss around terms such as journalist, critic, reporter, and blogger interchangeably. And I think this is where a lot of the trouble starts. For ease of use, I’ve consulted Wikipedia for its definitions of a few key terms. For journalists and journalism, Wikipedia suggests:
A journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information. A journalist’s work is referred to as journalism.
For a reporter, Wikipedia adds:
A reporter is a type of journalist who researches, writes, and reports on information to present in sources, conduct interviews, engage in research, and make reports. The information-gathering part of a journalist’s job is sometimes called reporting, in contrast to the production part of the job such as writing articles. Reporters may split their time between working in a newsroom and going out to witness events or interview people. Reporters may be assigned a specific beat or area of coverage.
Depending on the context, the term journalist may include various types of editors, editorial writers, columnists, and visual journalists, such as photojournalists (journalists who use the medium of photography).
Let’s process these terms separately from that of a blogger or hobbyist or amateur writer. I understand that in this new Internet age that many may chafe at suggesting that bloggers or hobbyist writers can’t be journalists and that is a debate worth having…in another Session.
I am a journalist and reporter by education and training. In college, I studied in a journalism school and graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communication, with a major in magazine writing. During school, we were required to take courses related to professional ethics and legal obligations and limitations. One of the subjects that we discussed involved a long running debate over whether the ultimate goal of journalism and reporting is to seek the truth and to publish it (as my college newspaper editor used to tell us) or to strive to be objective and show “both sides” of a story. These debates raise very difficult and crucial questions for individuals who are concerned with either presenting or receiving information and news. And these topics are certainly germane to the concept and practice of beer journalism.
I make my living as a writer (both in covering the beer industry and as an attorney). In my freelance writing, I wear many hats. Depending on the assignment and market, I work as a critic, journalist, or reporter. Regardless of my role, the information I provide in my articles, columns, or posts has to be true. That is the core principle. In my writing as a monthly columnist for BeerAdvocate, my job is to (hopefully) write thought provoking pieces, sometimes against conventional wisdom, about the craft beer industry. I often take controversial stands (keeping in mind the context that this is beer writing and not war reporting) and frequently criticize players, subjects, or things that many people celebrate. In the fourteen years I have been professionally writing about beer, I have had scores of people disagree with my positions or opinions. I am proud to never have had anyone question my facts. I work hard to spell the brewery’s name correctly (is it Brewery or Brewing Company?). I seek out information from the people involved, understanding that there is rarely only two sides to any story. I travel widely and frequently to capture the full picture of a brewery, brewer, or beer. I try not to be too steadfast in my opinions, recognizing that circumstances (and even my palate) change and evolve over time. I also always try to offer constructive criticism as opposed to just lobbing anonymous rhetorical bombs. I also take the subject seriously. I do not use the word ‘brew’ to refer to beer, only to an act.
The lines of journalism, reporting, and ethics, however, blur when it comes to the subject of blogging and writing in less professionally structured settings or as amateurs and hobbyists. And Wikipedia again comes to the rescue:
Journalism has developed a variety of ethics and standards. While objectivity and a lack of bias are of primary concern and importance, more liberal types of journalism, such as advocacy journalism and activism, intentionally adopt a non-objective viewpoint. This has become more prevalent with the advent of social media and blogs, as well as other platforms that are used to manipulate or sway social and political opinions and policies. These platforms often project extreme bias, as “sources” are not always held accountable or considered necessary in order to produce a written, televised or otherwise “published” end product.
In the early days of beer journalism, there was Michael Jackson. There was Fred Eckhardt. And there were a few others. They were symbols, loud voices shouting over and trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic and emerging band of (what would eventually come to be called) craft brewers. The times were heady, all over the place, and a lot of fun. As craft brewing grew, a second generation of writers emerged, including Stan Hieronymus, Lisa Morrison, Lew Bryson, Stephen Beaumont, James Robertson, Alan Eames, Lucy Saunders, Ray Daniels, Randy Mosher, Jay Brooks, Will Anderson, Vince Cottone, and many, many others. Some of these individuals practiced journalism. Others wrote encyclopedic tomes of tasting notes or regional travel guides. Some were industry based writers, others professional writers, and the remaining were enthusiasts. These individuals helped broaden and deepen writing about American (and foreign) craft brewing.
Since their emergence, a few other generations of writers have developed, including myself. For those of us in these early generations, we frequently looked back to our more experienced peers for direction and to some extent thinking on beer, for better or worse. This provided some easy measure of knowledge (good), but led to some measure of homogeneity of thought (not so good), and to the recounting of many incorrect facts and even myths about beer (really not good).
In the era of the Internet, with the advent of blogging, beer website forums, and Twitter, few beer writers (whether they be professional or amateur, journalists or bloggers) seem to understand or appreciate these earlier generations of writers, where every last detail was not available at the flick of a finger. I intend this with no measure of curmudgeonly complaint. Every era begets this way of thinking, an ever recurring lament of those who come after you and yours. It’s just different, no better or worse.
In this new era of beer writing, with all of its advances in technology and information, we are still left with some very old and unanswered questions. And to my mind these questions strike at the core of Heather’s Session topic and to the future success of beer writing and to the industry it seeks to cover. These questions largely relate back to those raised by our guides, Jacob McKean and the elusive Gregg as interpreted by Heather: what is the role that beer writers should play in the culture and advancement of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers?
Despite all I have said and written on the subject in the past, I can only speak for myself and the principles that I attempt to follow in my writing. Whether as a columnist for BeerAdvocate Magazine or in writing a 3000 word article on trademark law and disputes in the craft beer industry as a journalist/reporter for All About Beer Magazine or on Twitter, I seek to be correct about my facts. I do this because I want my readers to be confident in the information that I provide to them and because I know my editors both expect this of me and will check them before publishing.
I have opinions and I often express them in my writing. If I’m writing a column for BeerAdvocate or a post for my website, I will report some facts and then base and draw my opinions from them. In some markets, such as the reporting piece I wrote recently for All About Beer, my opinions have no place. I then go to sources and ask their thoughts. There is of course no small measure of my own personal selectivity in choosing which voices to include. As there is never a mere set of only two sides to a story, such editing will always be required. It is called editorial decisionmaking. That is a subject, however, entirely separate from the issue of bias.
And this is where the real trouble resides in my opinion. With all of the above in mind, and regardless of whether you’re an amateur blogger or a professional journalist, one point remains true: it is crucial to understand the relationship between a writer or communicator and his subject. This is true for every participant in the process, whether an editor, writer, brewer, or reader. If everyone involved remains on equal footing in terms of this understanding, a lot of the headaches would be more easily resolved.
The solution here is an obvious one but one rarely employed: sunshine. Light. Disclosure. Putting your audience on notice of possible conflicts of interest, bias, or more importantly, a perceived possibility of such. The test is not subjective. It is not whether you believe you are biased for or against something. It is whether your readers, listeners, audience, or any other participant would want to know a particular detail about yourself, your involvement, or the story that might color or inform their view of your presentation of what are hopefully facts.
Almost six years ago, I wrote about the subject of the nature of the relationship between beer writers and the industry they cover, and the concerns raised thereby:
It is my belief that this lack of ethical guidelines has caused beer writing to lack professionalism. This state of affairs contributes to a general absence of respect for the trade of beer writing. And where beer writing is not respected, the subject of coverage, namely the business of brewing, suffers. For a long time, it seems as if writers and brewers didn’t quite know what to make of one another. Sometimes hesitant to interact, brewers expected positive coverage from the writers. In return, writers quietly expected special treatment, be it the occasional free beer, meal, or access to events. The relationship eventually grew quite cozy, with the two groups serving each other’s interests quite well. The problem with this incestuous relationship is that the consumers never figured into the equation.
For journalists, one professional organization has advised that “[j]ournalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” A pretty amorphous pronouncement to be sure. To clarify, the code of the Society of Professional Journalists explains:
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
In an earlier version of the North American Guild of Beer Writers ethical guidelines, it asked members to avoid conflicts of interest.
Examples of conflicts of interest include (but are not limited to) the following: a) Writers, while employed in a public relations or spokesperson capacity, also writing about clients, client’s products, client’s competitors, or sponsoring organizations, in an editorial capacity, without also disclosing current employment;
These issues frequently arise in modern beer writing, whether it be in the form of a beer writer taking undisclosed PR side gigs with breweries or having the president of the Brewers Association, an importer, and a brewer reviewing beers from other breweries in All About Beer Magazine. While these are obvious conflicts and it would be wise to replace them with less obviously conflicted parties, at a minimum disclosure of the obvious conflicts should be provided to the audience. Providing such information allows the consumer to contextualize the information he or she is being provided by the conflicted source.
That would be the ideal standard. In the real world, we usually end up with no acknowledgment of the conflict. That is a problem and until resolved will continue to depreciate the value that beer writers seek to offer. Plain and simple.
The same goes for freebies, whether in the form of a beer sample or a paid trip. It would be ideal if we lived in a world that so respected beer writing that publications and media outlets were willing to underwrite the expenses of reporters. That is largely not the world in which we operate so we are left with the only key to a solution that we have: disclosure. If you receive a beer sample and write about it, ‘fess up (“Sample provided by brewery.”) If a brewery, distributor, or importer flies you and a group of other writers to Belgium, pays for your travel and hotels, drives you from brewery to brewery and bar to bar, all the while plying you with beer (let alone multiple times in a few months), you damned better well make sure to disclose that to your readers. If we don’t achieve disclosure in these more serious, later examples—and we often don’t—then I’m not sure how we expect that to trickle down to less professional outlets.
In 2008, the late Bill Brand commented on a story I wrote on ethics in the beer writing community as it relates to disclosure and I think his words maintain their weight today on a wide swath of what I’ve tried to address here:
I started writing about beer in the late 1980s and watched other people who wrote about beer get free trips everywhere. It harkened (is there really such a word?) back to the days when journalists weren’t paid very well and everything was furnished by concerned companies.)
But my company, in those days the Oakland Tribune under editor Bob Maynard, had a strict no freebies policy. I also wrote for the New York Times and once had a story on whale watching killed because I took a free two hour whale watching trip. Didn’t want that to happen again. So I stayed rooted in Oakland, traveling only to the GABF always paying my own way. I turned down my share of offers. Then about 10 years ago, Interbrew offered me a trip to Belgium. I dithered and dithered and finally decided, what the hell, I’ve never been to Belgium and took ‘em up on the trip. I didn’t consult anyone at my company (Bob Maynard was dead and a mega-corporation owned the paper). When I got back — I wrote a big piece on a great beer dinner in Bruges. We published a note on the story that the dinner was part of a trip to Belgium paid for by Interbrew and the Belgian Tourist Board. Since then, I’ve taken a handful of free trips and each time when I write something, I simply say: Full Disclosure. This trip was underwritted by blah-blah. Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable. Yes, it can put one in a compromising position and if you say it doesn’t, I say, hmmm. But when the alternative is not going, and it’s a really big deal, I’ll do it. And you know what, these days no editor has ever complained. About the New York Times, I dunno. Their pay was mostly in prestige and a bit short in the cash department, like most print outlets. Let’s face the facts. You’ve got to have an independent source of income and badly need a tax deduction, if you’re always going to pay your own way. In the newspaper world, with the net crashing down on us, the chances of getting a travel advance for a beer junket are remote, indeed. It’s a lousy situation and the danger for beer writers is we can become kind of house pets for the big breweries, etc. I don’t know the economics of the beer brewspapers and magazines, but it would be nice if they could pay more, wouldn’t it.
In terms of non-professional journalists, I think disclosure is an important thing as well. We are starting to see an increase in brand strategists and paid brand storytellers and although their content is often interesting and even compelling, the audience rarely understands the nature of the financial relationships and conflicts of interest underlying such presentations.
In terms of what I would like to see for the future it would have to be the expansion of thoughtful, fact based criticism of the craft beer industry. I don’t mean bitching about everything you don’t like. Instead, I enjoy reading works by thoughtful individuals who spend time contemplating how the industry can provide better flavors, better information, better customer experiences, to expand its reach and to generally be better. Despite what is often said, people in an around the craft beer industry do not always have to stand in lockstep agreement on every subject or otherwise hold their tongues when even mild disagreements arise. In my view, advancement and betterment come through thoughtful reflection, consideration, and debate, not through passivity, head nodding, and thoughtless uniformity.
For professional writers, we should certainly not acquiesce to becoming mere cheerleaders or fluffers for the industry we cover. We may be friends with some or many of the people we cover (this is a convivial industry to be sure) but sometimes hard truths are inevitable. We also shouldn’t strive to select only positive stories. There is no shortage of important (context again noted) issues facing craft beer and our responsibility is to our respective audiences, not to the people we write about.
For amateur writers, criticism is about expressing opinion that is based in some underlying basis of fact and experience. If you don’t like dark beers, don’t castigate every porter you come across as crap. That’s not criticism. You just don’t like the style. And that’s fine. If you hated baseball, you wouldn’t keep going to Mariners games and complaining about every pitch. That’s tedious madness. If you have an issue with a particular brewery or beer, get your facts straight and then present them in a thoughtful and constructive manner. Just saying something sucks sucks.
As to the final bits of the Session topic, I wrote a few years ago about the types of beer writing that I enjoy reading. And I’m happy to say we’re starting to see a decline in beer reviews as the medium, and an uptick in longer form writing and interviews. In terms of actual writers, I certainly respect a large stable of professionals and amateurs alike. In recent weeks, I have particularly enjoyed the thoughts of Jason Notte and my buddies Joe Stange and our host Heather (see, disclosure there).
I’m also looking forward to a new era of beer book and magazine writing. Longer form, more narrative in nature, and with elements of storytelling as opposed to the same encyclopedic tomes that writers have been regurgitating for the better part of thirty years. Can we agree to not write any more books with tasting notes or descriptions of beers? (As someone who has somewhat recently written one, I will take the pledge). It’s time to tell stories, to dig deep, to root out new information, to expose new voices, and to report it in fun and innovative ways. Only then will beer journalism help broaden the appeal of the subject about which we all care so deeply.
A few months back I was a guest on the NPR show On Point Radio, produced here in Boston. It was a fun hour of talking about craft beer, both from a flavor and business perspective. The show is about an hour in length and you can listen here.
Fresh back from the annual Craft Brewers Conference in Washington DC, I am struck by the looming tension and sense of anxiety presently bubbling to the surface in this industry. The conference played host to a number of interesting seminars and a few fairly repetitive ones. Mixed among the nearly 100 offerings were multiple courses on how to deal with trademark and intellectual property related issues, including litigation, and a panel on why attendee should not open a brewery (in reality, it seemed pretty pro-brewery opening if you ask me). One refrain that continued throughout the event was the anxiety over the continued and seemingly unmitigated growth of craft brewers, specifically in the number of breweries at offer. Forecasts of shelf space fights and tap tussles seem apt and the established brewers are starting to let their protectionist and curmudgeonly ways show. I heard a lot of “Get off my lawn” comments from craft brewers, both on panels and in bars, a lot of analogies to poorly rooted trees and less charitably to Third World buses. The common takeaway was the growing sense of unease at the caliber and intent of these aspiring and new brewers and what impact their entrance might have on craft beer generally.
Closer to home, the issue came to the forefront today in the post of Cambridge Brewing Company’s brewmaster, Will Meyers, who added an entry to the brewpub’s blog celebrating his 20 year anniversary at my hometown brewpub. Before I get into the story, I wanted to first say two things. I want to wish Will (and his wily boss Phil Bannatyne) a hearty congratulations at this impressive achievement. Cambridge has built an impressive name for itself and largely due to Will’s hard work and dedication, along again with the continued guidance and presence of Phil and the rest of the team. For my second point, I want to note that I consider myself friends with every person appearing in this story. While loyal readers may not believe this, I actually don’t really have a position on the issues involved here, which I suppose I may later discuss.
In any event, Will’s post on topics including contract brewing lays out his history and the pub’s achievements before, as is relevant here, laying out a position on some of the issues described above from the conference. The important thing to note here for purposes of context is that the Boston area has not seen the explosion of growth that you are likely witnessing in your hometowns. Rents are incredibly expensive and available industrial spaces nearly non-existent. Instead, Boston and its environs has seen a pretty substantial number of individuals and companies bringing beers to market that are made in breweries that they do not own. Historically, this practice was called contract brewing. In the early days of craft brewing, that became a bit of a pejorative, often cast in the direction of the Boston Beer Company. Today, the practice can be called resident brewing, alternating proprietorship, or somewhat offensively, ‘gypsy’ brewing. Whatever phrasing you choose, the practice is again becoming increasingly controversial, sometimes for reasons I can’t quite grasp. And it’s hard to say exactly who qualifies under which of these offered monikers.
In the modern craft era (say the last seven years), this practice appeared to start with the appearance of the eclectic Danish brewer Mikkeller, that, depending on the account you hear, would travel to breweries around Europe and beyond to produce beers on other people’s systems. Using excess capacity built into the global brewing system has a certain understated and elegant efficiency about it. If there is space available, why not use it to go in a very different direction than that of the host brewery? The practice gained some traction, resulting in similar approaches by Stillwater, Evil Twin (from Jeppe, brother of the individual behind Mikkeller), and others.
In New England, we have seen everyone from stalwart industry vets to individuals with absolutely no experience try their hand at the brewing game. Whether this involved participation in recipe formulation, brand and media direction, involvement in the brewing process, or actually directing the brewing and cellaring, each individual and company appears to fall into this hard to define categories of contract / gypsy / resident / altprop.
Getting to back to Will Meyers, his post touched on his personal feelings about this trend in New England, which is likely to grow with the addition of a massive new brewery operation in Connecticut and another planned operation by a local beer bar owner. I found his piece to be interesting for a number of reasons, none the least of which is his not-so-veiled shots at some people in the local industry. I am including Will’s piece here in full.
Following his piece, Jeff Leiter (note, as I said above, that he is also a friend of mine), of the local Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew,” provided me with his response. As I noted, I haven’t really developed much of a position here, though I have historically focused more on the quality of beer than where its made and by whom (if my thoughts on Blue Moon weren’t proof enough). These pieces provide for interesting reads and it’s the kind of discussion that I would like to see more of in this sometimes too-chummy industry.
First, here is the relevant excerpt from Will Meyers, brewmaster of the Cambridge Brewing Company.
By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work. And I truly believe that there is no such thing as a gypsy brewer. In fact I know of only one couple, our friends at Pretty Things, who “reside” at another brewery but who actively create every drop of their own beer, each and every brewday. There’s a big difference between having that level of commitment and integrity, and claiming to be a “gypsy” because you occasionally show up at a brewery on days your beer is being made for you. If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simply not a brewer in my book. It’s more than just cutting open some bags of grain or making a ceremonious addition of hops or cacao nibs or some other exotic ingredient and Tweeting about it. I’m sorry if that offends some folks, but this is something that our industry – producers, retailers, consumers, everybody – will need to struggle with as time goes on. The Brewers Association made a valiant effort over the past year with their Craft Vs. Crafty campaign, exposing to the general public the lengths to which the international macro-industrial brewers are going to obfuscate the origins behind “fake craft” beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, etc. Unfortunately we are always reticent to take a look at the fingers pointing back upon ourselves, so we fail to give the consumer the opportunity to understand the differences among us – those who make beer, and those who just place orders for “their” beer, and the inevitable grey-ish line of separation.
Here is Jeff Leiter, Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew, “Somerville, Massachusetts, and his “Response to contract brewing critics.”
Something about springtime makes brewers maybe a little more introspective than they should be. I remember 20 years ago I was thinking about leaving my Somerville apartment for a new adventure. Before I could leave, I got into graduate school at MIT which secured another two years and, well; it got hard to leave a place I called home. My wife Caitlin and I both have entrepreneurial upbringings, so it was a natural fit back then for us to set out on our own to build our first company that is, in its broadest sense described as “marketing”, nearly 14 years ago now. We learned a great deal about business, running a company, managing a staff of over 15 people at times and developing brands for other businesses. But perhaps the most rewarding part of those years was the ability to travel and observe something we were passionate about: the creation of small batch beer as an artisanal product in this country.
I just got back from attending the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC last week. Things look dramatically different today than they did when visiting breweries a decade or so ago. There has been a near exponential rise in the number of breweries opened in 2012 and now an unprecedented number of breweries-in-planning for 2013. The leadership of the national organization of craft brewers, the Brewers Association, is cautiously exuberant over the growth: Finally, their constituents are earning a recognizable share of overall beer sales in a market long dominated by macro brands! The tradeshow floor had more vendors selling raw ingredients, stainless steel, kegs and beer packaging than I can remember at any previous conference. All is good, except, for some, it’s set against a background voice saying this is all too good to be true, and the industry, as a whole, can’t sustain this kind of growth. Maybe, Maybe not – but this is certainly uncharted territory for the craft beer biz.
The business of making American craft beer, especially in the last 5 years or so, has often been veiled in a mystique of the brewer’s art. This is partly for the benefit of consumers as they take satisfaction in knowing the liquid they are drinking is a product of complex processes guided by a skillful hand(s). But in a few unfortunate cases, the veil is more refined by some individuals and developed mostly to protect the fragile ego of someone who has come to rely on the title of “brewer”. My role at Somerville Brewing Company is quite a bit more sober. It would be an envious job if my responsibilities provided for dedication to just the brewing aspects of the business. Indeed, as a small company, I have an enormous range of obligations from finance, managing wholesaler logistics, inventory, and ingredient procurement all the way down to arranging who might attend what bottle shop tasting. Thankfully, we have a great team and wonderful group of supporters we call Slumbassadors to rely on for much needed help. However, the best part of my job is still doing what I initially got into this for – to produce beers that I develop from concept, ingredient selection, test batches in my small pilot brewery to their final production at Mercury Brewing Company.
Certainly one side effect of the recent surge in new breweries is there is more product available. This is a boon for consumers who can now sample a different style or approach every day of every week and never have the same beer twice. With the exception of flavored water and candy, I can’t think of any other consumer products that offer that opportunity. The down side is that many brewers feel a pinch in market share they once dominated, or thought they could dominate. Whereas a few years ago, one brewer may have been the only game in town, they now find themselves among other bottles on a retail shelf. To those of us with a more mature perspective on business, we call this friendly competition. Some of the best advice I’ve received has been from people you might call “competitors”. When the entire segment of craft beer is only approaching 7% of the US beer market, it’s almost absurd to describe other folks in the industry as a threat. Sadly, other brewers internalize the presence of other brands in their local area or the arrival of new brands by people that did not chose the same career lifestyle 20 years ago as an attack on their “brewer” sovereignty. And so, instead of stepping up to lead in a time of exciting expansion, they resort to embarrassing public infighting and attacking members of their own industry.
Some of this is being played out with the recent, yet perennial debate over contract brewing. The latest thinking goes that contract brewers are less genuine versions of a true brewer and are merely engaged in covering up mediocre beer with marketing shtick. A simple beer marketing company has a lack of “skin in the game” over brick and mortar breweries, and don’t want to invest their own capital. As one of the leading grandstanders of this position recently said, “This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work.” Although I will never question the integrity of those who choose to earn a paycheck over setting out on their own, the irony of this coming from someone who achieved their entire status in the brewing world as an employee is overwhelming. It’s also astounding to call other brewing businesses as disingenuous for their lack of capital resources from the safety of a weekly paycheck and staff payroll/equipment financed by someone else. Although, we at Somerville Brewing currently rely on what is technically defined as a contract brewing relationship, it’s downright laughable to think we have neglected to smack down any skin for the “game”. From the personal guarantees and cash outlays to achieve our float of over 1,000 kegs in the market, to the near 90 hour work weeks we spend building our business without a paycheck every Friday – it’s a story that resonates all too well for anyone starting a business in craft beer. The ultimate irony comes from the fact that one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, Jim Koch, started his business in nearly the exact same fashion; as did our friends at Brooklyn Brewery and many other breweries both now and in the early years of craft beer.
Others have tried to stratify real brewers from less-real brewers as well; though consistently these attempts seem to originate from those who have been in the industry a while or actually own a brewery that might need to work harder to maintain market share. And, a recent (outrageous & pathetic) attempt to tie contract brewing with the crafty side of the Craft vs. Crafty commotion put out by the Brewers Association ended with the accusation that contract brewers just ‘place orders for beer’. No doubt, with an industry seeing the current levels of growth, some individuals see opportunity and, albeit misguided, paths to a quick buck in a hot business. Those that helped shape the industry over the past ten or even twenty years see the newcomers as just opportunistic. In some cases, this is a rightfully deserved perspective. At other times this is simply a deviant and undignified brand strategy to promote their own products over others; a strategy beneath even the marketing companies.
In the end, do the actual people that like our beer and buy our bottles or draught make their decision to support us by whether I checked the gravity on the 2nd day of fermentation at 10:30am? If I am personally not present to transfer our Flagraiser IPA from primary fermentation to a brite tank, will it taste less genuine? I am overseeing the production of our beer on nearly every brew day and key points in the production process to meet my quality standards, but like my other colleagues, I value the care and contribution of the talented staff at Mercury Brewing that work with their equipment to achieve my results. How is that different than virtually every other brewery, including the little local pub that employs a division of labor for the day-to-day production of beer? One old-timer recently put it as follows, “If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simplyff not a brewer in my book.” Not only is this statement outrageously myopic, but contradicts his own process. Whether I brewed our beer entirely with my own hands, worked as a tenant brewer to use someone else’s capital investments or worked with the brewers and cellarmen at Mercury to produce Slumbrew, my goal is to produce the same quality product. I depend on that so my customers continue to buy our product and support our brand.
It’s been no secret that we are actively working towards setting up our own small brewery in Somerville. With this endeavor, we will surely sign more promissory notes and personal guarantees that are so highly acclaimed as a badge of honor to some brewers. Our sights are set way above the pettiness of critics though, who in the absence of genuinely positive contribution to the growth of our industry, choose to base their product marketing strategy on consumer confusion, industry division and false definitions of “Craft Beer”. Instead, our goal is to continue our strategy of producing inventive and ingredient-driven beers our customers like to drink. And as for the brand strategy coming out of our little marketing company: we continue to be focused on making good liquids, spreading goodwill, embracing our charities and making people happy. Our new facility will only strengthen this mission by enabling us to produce even more inventive and esoteric beers while serving as a destination for our customers on a regular basis. This is what it’s all about for us.
The ominous day of 12/12/12 is upon us and it brings to the world of better beer a flurry of special events, including the final release in Stone Brewing Company’s Vertical Epic series. Stone’s ten year aging project will however likely find itself overshadowed by the highly anticipated release of Westvleteren XII, the widely touted and much sought after flagship of the Sint Sixtus Abbey. Located in the western Belgian hop region, near the town of Poperinge, Sint Sixtus was established in 1831 and thereafter began brewing beer to support the monastery. Today, Sint Sixtus produces three beers for public consumption, including Westvleteren 12, often referred to as the World’s Best Beer.
Except that it is not.
As any beer geek would, I sought out this holy grail beer to bask in its presence. I have had the beer in small beer cafes and from bottle shops in various Belgian towns, in the kitchens of friends here in the states, at beer festivals both here and abroad, and while seated at the monastery’s very pleasant outdoor cafe. After getting over the initial novelty, I was at first surprised and then disappointed with the beer. Saving for the wide differences in personal tastes, Westvleteren XII/12 is not a particularly drinkable or even enjoyable beer. I will long carry the memory of drinking the beer while surrounded by hop fields growing skywards in the abbey’s pastoral setting, but I remain surprised at the depth of my disappointment with the 12′s flavor. It’s not even near the top ten or fifteen quadrupels that I’ve had. Of that style, this is what I wrote in my book, Great American Craft Beer:
A curious style inspired and influenced by Belgium’s Trappist monk brewers, the Quadrupel is a potent, herbal, and bready style that boasts considerable alcoholic warmth and fruit complexity. American versions are often modeled on the classic Belgian versions, including the legendary Westvleteren 12. Dark amber to deep brown in hue, boozy alcohol notes swarm the nose, mixed with rich, phenolic yeast notes and dark fruit hints, including plums, cherries, and figs. Often aided by the addition of Belgian candi sugar, which ferments quickly, Quadrupels reach soaring alcohol heights of 8 to 12-percent. Despite these numbers, the style is surprisingly dry, as is common among other Belgian beer styles and a high carbonation level keeps everything in check. The texture is unusually light and medium-bodied, especially compared to the more cloying Winter Warmer and Barleywine styles, and the multiple fermentation cycles fight against flabbiness. Creamy and bready sweet at times, the nuanced phenolics and fruit flavors result in a particularly challenging slow sipper.
When even relatively young, Westvleteren XII is surprisingly sharp. It can be mildly phenolic and there is an underlying wash of malt sweetness that fights to come through. But it is all pummeled into submission by a lurking and quickly invidious yeast bite and bitterness that overwhelm the beer and destroy the finish. On my last visit to the monastery cafe, I ordered the Blond, the 8, and the 12. Of these beers, I personally believe the Blond is the unheralded star of the lineup, managing a beautiful balance of bitterness and malt character. The 8 is a pleasant sipper. And the 12′s for my companion and I sat half-consumed, abandoned castoffs.
The release of the Westvleteren XII today, at a cost to consumers of at least $85 per six pack, will certainly spark mad fervor among beer geeks, and that is understandable. There will be lines out the door of local liquor stores until the clock strikes the opening hour. Hype and novelty drive excitement and prices and that is understandable. And while you can quibble with how the beer is being allocated or sold, or decry how it will be hoarded and then likely resold, it remains a beer geek merit badge of a beer. For that reason, the exercise of experiencing a holy grail beer, it may be worth going in on a six pack with friends. But if you’re looking for an excellent quadrupel, a beer to really enjoy, you already have dozens of better and considerably less expensive options close to home.
With all of this said, I’d recommend you try or revisit Rochefort 10 or St. Bernardus Abt 12, which are much better values and remain eminently drinkable examples of the style. In terms of local options, several American breweries make solid versions of the style, including the Abbot 12 from Southampton Publick House, the Grand Cru from Green Flash Brewing Company, Baby Tree from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, Quadfather from Iron Hill Brewery, FOUR from Allagash Brewing Company, and The Sixth Glass from Boulevard Brewing Company.
My advice: save your money, head to Belgium one day, and try the beers for yourself at a fraction of the price.
We often hear about the three tier system in the beer business, often castigated as a post-Prohibition relic or as a needless by consumers and some small brewers. But there is a new caste system developing in an increasingly stratified craft beer world. On the low end is the rise of the small brewery, including hundreds and even thousands of new entrants. Often working with extraordinarily diminutive batch sizes and producing only an infinitesimal amount of beer, these small brewers inject some excitement, energy, and even confusion into an otherwise maturing, stable, and staid marketplace. Capturing much of the media and blog attention, these small brewers and nanos have upset the tenuous balance, causing bottle prices to skew beyond existing price models and larger craft concerns to scoff at their gumption, pluck, and naiveté. Their novelty aside, these minor players are largely inconsequential in the wider industry picture where the true class division drama is playing out.
At the other end of the pyramid is the all too familiar story of massive global conglomerates battling for control of markets in hundreds of countries around the world. Largely stuck in an increasingly outmoded business model, one focused on fighting volume with volume instead of flavor or style, these large breweries look with a measure of detached concern over the growing characterful beer sphere of influence. While some corporations, such as MillerCoors with its Tenth & Blake division, appear to have change in mind, these companies remain focused on their core product line, often blindly promoting the fading light beer model.
Playing in the shallow end of the big kids’ pool are the top tier craft brewers, including Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and a growing class of long-standing crafts, including breweries such as Dogfish, Brooklyn, Harpoon, and two dozen others. These large regional or even national crafts often seem to have more in common, especially going into the future, with their large macro counterparts than they do with the tiny nano-breweries fledgling for inclusion in the craft beer club.
What we do not hear much about is a middle class, those mainly local brewers slogging it out in the trenches day after day, often with little to no distributor support. These midsized brewers are the bishops and knights of the craft beer chess game, not gathering as much attention as other breweries yet crucial to the industry’s performance. They are steady growers, not in the sense of showy, explosive, or flashy growth, just solid and dependable. You won’t see press releases touting multi-million dollar expansion projects or tweets about extravagant barrel aged offerings. Instead they make reliable, dependable beers for every day drinking.
These middle class brewers haven’t experienced the growth of their regional counterparts, for a host of reasons, and have often become distracted by the every day business of running a brewery to the loss of creative spirit. It’s in this reliability that consumers mistake predictability for unoriginality. For craft beer to continue its strong evolution, this oft-neglected tier of breweries requires additional support from consumers and a rededication of effort on their own parts. In need of a slight touch up and make-over, a new image, a reboot, these workhorse breweries can move to the next level with some new thinking. Focused on day to day operations, passion often seems to have unexpectedly seeped out of these mid-sized breweries. For those interested in doing more than surviving, updating old recipes, retooling stagnant product lines, or reconnecting with consumers in new ways. As strong and stable operations, they needn’t abandon the characteristics that served them well to date. But taking a cue from the dynamism of the nano trend will help rejuvenate craft beer passion across the industry.
-Article appeared in Issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.