Should Beer Writers Stop Writing About History?

There have been a flurry of blog posts this week decrying the recent release of the Oxford Beer Companion, edited by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery. As part of this near-encyclopedic series, the publication is being touted as “[t]he first major reference work to investigate the history and vast scope of beer. The Oxford Companion to Beer features more than 1,100 A-Z entries written by 166 of the world’s most prominent beer experts.”

While much of the initial press has been duly positive, wider distribution of the book has led to a number of grumbles from some influential and consequential circles, including Ron Pattinson, Jeff Alworth, and Martyn Cornell, the latter of which called the book a “dreadful disaster.” Even Alan at A Good Beer Blog has gotten into the criticism game, having gone so far as to set up a wiki to catalog the Oxford Beer Companion’s mistakes. I wonder if he has seen that the Oxford University press is selectively pulling quotes from his website in order to make it seem as if he has positively reviewed the book. It’s also more than a little embarrassing that the Oxford University Press runs a long review quote from one of the contributing authors, which of course, breathlessly praises the book as “[t]he most essential beer book you can buy.”

I haven’t seen the book but for a quick peek at the Great American Beer Festival’s bookstore and am not rushing to dump $65 on the time anytime soon, but the growing criticism of the text is sort of a fascinating old versus new versus old world publishing debate. The criticisms are not insubstantial in their merits, including the continued and unfortunate repetition of pernicious beer myths ranging from the origins of porter to the alcohol levels in IPA’s and several more. Editing a 1100 entry book is certainly no easy task. But some of these cited mistakes would’ve been easy to spot (I tried to avoid them myself in Great American Craft Beer). And the Press really has to stop using that damned fake Ben Franklin beer quote to promote a book that says it likely never happened, except where the book suggests he may have said it.

Putting aside the specific criticisms (as I haven’t read the book), I am left with a thought that has often kicked around in my head in recent years: American beer writers do a terrible job of writing beer history and perhaps have no business doing it. Frankly, nearly every beer writer does a terrible job of writing about the history of the beverage, whether it be generally speaking, the origins and provenance of a style or brand, or even about the development of craft beer in recent years. Because writing about history requires research, not the mere repetition of questionable nuggets from Wikipedia or other beer writers. If you haven’t logged hours digging through dusty newspapers in a library or scoured archives at a brewing academy, it’s probably best to avoid writing about history. As a young beer writer, I certainly participated in my fair share of the reiterative beer writer dark arts. But we didn’t know better and just took the work of our writing elders at face value. Writers such as Ron, Martyn, and others showed us the folly of such poor work.

So while I likely won’t comment much on the Oxford Beer Companion, I wonder what its contributors were thinking in crafting some of these errant passages and whether they thought the book was a good idea in the first place. If the errors keep coming at the quick clip of this week, it’s a question someone clearly didn’t bother to ask along the way. As purveyors of communications about beer, we should strive to do much better in the future.

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The GABF That Was And Wasn’t…

I’ve just returned from my 15th annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. That number still boggles my mind and I’ve seen the fest (from its days at Currigan Hall), the City of Denver, and the attendant brewing and drinking communities change greatly in that time. Taking a cue from another beer writer, I’ve decided to avoid writing another lengthy diatribe on the GABF (like the controversial one from last year) and here’s an only slightly less diatribe-y list of my thoughts on this year’s GABF.

Let’s Start With The Positive…

1. What an electric moment it was when Jack McAuliffe walked onto the stage during the awards presentation. It was great to see him receive the praise he never did during his brief brewing days.

2. Denver is becoming one hell of a city. I’ve been attending the GABF for 15 years and the changes have come fast and furious in that time. The last year has seen a massive amount of new construction and the continued expansion and growing prominence of new neighborhoods, such as the Highlands. No longer are visitors restricted to scouring the same two or three bars in the increasingly seedy LoDo district. By avoiding the usual suspects, I also ate (and largely drank) better than I ever have in Denver during the fest. The potted salted caramel cheesecake at Colt & Gray was reason enough to leave LoDo.

3. It was fantastic to visit a bevy of new breweries of varying sizes that have opened up in Denver in the last week to year. From the unbelievably tiny Wit’s End Brewing to the fantastically communal Denver Beer Company to the excellent Renegade Brewing Company, these new entrants have brought a renewed vitality to a self-proclaimed “Napa Valley of Beer” whose scene was frankly getting a little stale. That several of the new faces also won their first GABF medals was a great celebration of their hard work.

4. The best beer I had at the festival was Remi’s Saison IPA from the Equinox Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. This was apparently (and sadly) a one-off collaboration with a local homebrewer, named Remi Bonnart, who won the National Homebrewer of the Year title in 2010. Tasty and intriguing stuff.

5. Despite some grumbles from attendees regarding floor space, I actually thought recreating the 30th anniversary floor plan with the original brewers was kind of a nice touch.

6. Thank god that Falling Rock finally reopened the lower pit area in front of the bar (if only for one night). I attended one Dogfish Head event and an Oktoberfest style event in this area a long time ago and the extra room makes the difference between being smashed together in a hot assed bar after standing in a half-block long line and having the ability to actually talk and share pints with friends. Let the nerds pack together in the basement. I’ll take the outside pit any day. We almost skipped Falling Rock this year (in part because of Point 2 above) due to the horribly packed environs this central meeting point offers experiences every year. Let’s hope this happens again next year.

The Less Positive Parts Of The Festival…

1. I have no idea what a dozen or so of the awarded beer styles mean. I’m sure you can explain to me what Field or Indigenous Beers are but the categories left folks around me at the awards presentation scratching their heads.

2. I really wasn’t blown away by many of the beers that I tried at the festival. Perhaps it is age, cynicism, or something else, but I thought the overall trend was towards pretty mainstream flavors and without many particularly noteworthy offerings. I did have some solid lager beers and saw more of them at the fest, which was a very positive trend. The IPA’s, however, tasted pretty samey across the board.

3. Considering this was the festival’s 30th anniversary, I expected the Brewers Association to celebrate with more events or to put a greater focus on it. The association really didn’t and it seemed a bit of an afterthought.

The Downright Disappointing Parts Of The Fest

There is only one point to be made here, with a few sub-points:

1. Where did all the brewers go?

1a. Putting the awards presentation aside, I saw or ran into a grand total of 5 brewers at the 2 sessions I attended. I’ve never experienced such a shortage in my years of attending.

1b. Brewers were as scarce at booths as sartorial good taste (paging Garrett) and sober restraint. I lamented this fact last year and called upon the Brewers Association to do something about it. Instead, I saw a lot of booths (even whole aisles) staffed only by volunteers (many of whom knew nothing about the beer–I heard one get both the beer’s style and brewer’s state wrong in one exchange with an inquiring consumer) or by faux-brewery staffers wearing brewery lanyards but who actually were just working as know-nothing stand-ins for their brewer buddies.

1c. A number of brewers either decided not to attend the GABF or were locked out from attending due to the awards and floor space closing up early. I heard several grumbles about some breweries being permitted to enter a large number of beers while others were then shut out entirely. I also heard from several well-known brewers that they were focusing on their local markets instead of attending the more national (or hyper-local, see below) GABF.

1d. It appears that the GABF is no longer vital to the industry nor a must-attend event for many brewers or beer lovers. It is at its essence grown into a company paid vacation (for admittedly hard-working) brewers and a gigantic local beer fest. Without the benefit of numbers, I would imagine that three-quarters of the attendees at minimum hail from within 30 miles of the 80202 area code. And while the hotels and car rentals are booked long in advance, beyond industry folks, the impact of the festival seems largely lost on many of the 49,000 attendees. And I understand why you would be hesitant to attend. If you run a little brewpub in Virginia or even a large craft brewery in Boston, it’s hard to say what value the GABF offers your brand or brewery. (With this said, I need to ask someone like Joe Short why he spends so much time and money on his GABF presentation. I may be missing a whole side to this or maybe he just likes to party). Perhaps the GABF medal is still a coveted commodity and it’s clear that many breweries still want to take a shot and send a few beers to compete. But the festival itself seems much an afterthought. It has simply turned into the world’s largest bar for Denver-ites. Unless you’re trying to sell beer in Colorado, it seems as if the festival has turned into the last place you’ll see a brewer during the last week in September.

Reading over my post from last year on the unfortunate aspects of the Great American Beer Festival, I think most of the criticisms remain true and that the opportunities for beer education and brand building have essentially been lost at the GABF. For next year, I hope the Brewers Association considers the simple point I made last year: breweries that choose to pour beer on the festival floor should be required to have a representative at the booth at all times.

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