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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Another Lament On The State And Future Of Beer Writing And Blogging…

With April will come the 50th issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Quite a feat for any publication but especially one in the notoriously fickle niche of beer. Over the last decade, we’ve seen beer magazines come and go, some glossy, some very basic. The market remains a difficult place for beer publications (and at least one glossy magazine is currently teetering on the edge of calling it a day), which makes the BeerAdvocate model such an impressive feat. And more good things are set to come, with a substantial expansion of editorial pages planned, something that is nearly unheard of in print publishing these days.

For BA’s 50th issue anniversary, I had originally intended to write about the state of beer writing in the United States but, as often happens, I became sidetracked into a different but related topic area. As the topic corresponded in part to the state and nature of this blog, I figured this was as good a place as any to offer the thoughts.

I often find myself reading books by wine, spirits, and food writers. I have collected hundreds of them and browse a few every month to see how the other half lives, works, and writes. And in truth, despite receiving subscriptions to many of the beer magazines, I rarely do more than quickly flip through them. This is because most of what passes for beer writing in the United States revolves around simply giving the writer’s personal views of a product. Perhaps I am a particular type of media consumer, as I have suggested before, but others’ views of beer at the micro level do not interest me in the slightest. I just don’t have a need for the 1,000th review of Boston Lager or even the 5th review of the latest White Birch offering.

The other type of beer content that we often see, both on-line and especially in the so-called beer rags (Celebrator, Ale Street News, and the bi-monthly Brew Newspapers), is the announcement of upcoming beer releases and events. These offerings aren’t so much writing as calendar additions and press releases set to full sentences. These serve the purpose of alerting consumers, whether they be simple craft beer enthusiasts or more likely beer tickers, to the upcoming availability of a seasonal or special release. It appears that such content, which I’m not sure can properly be classified as beer writing, is growing in popularity (or at least volume) on the web. Too often such announcements simply turn into another episode of “Pining for Pliny” and celebrating rarity for its own sake. In the sub-culture of beer nerds, such content definitely has a place. Again, I’m just not interested in it.

To be fair, product reviews and announcements also constitute a marked portion of wine writing (but oddly not of spirits writing), yet the medium has somehow evolved beyond the limitations of the review and invited a broader investment of time, circumspection, and perspective. The world of wine especially has invited writers, both enthusiasts and professional, to develop their own voices. In the world of beer writing, there is far too little opinion offered (and I don’t mean regarding a particular product’s body or aroma), especially backed by any experience or individual voice. The world of wine writing offers this in spades and captures a great deal more of my reading time even though I probably drink fewer than a half-dozen glasses of wine in the course of a year. I don’t particularly enjoy wine but I have become surprisingly conversant in varietals, producers, and debates over various issues in the industry due to the breadth and quality of wine writing.

A few months ago I got into a fair amount of trouble for some comments I made on the subject and exercise of blogging about beer. And while I had intended the comments to relate to my own experience in the medium and not so much to that of non-professional writers, it struck a particular nerve with these bloggers. Over the last few months I have attempted to spend more time reviewing the work of citizen beer bloggers. The result, sadly, is not a more profound understanding of the medium but a reinforced confidence and parallel to my views on beer writing as a whole. I’ve simply not come across many unique or distinctive voices in this new online community of writers. It tends to be more of the same sort of repetitive and highly personalized content experienced in the wider market of beer writing available to consumers.

With this said, I should highlight a few writers whose sites offer something a little different from the usual beer content.

I have long respected the increasingly professional work of Ron Pattinson over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. If you enjoy reading about beer history, politics, and a lot of old, insider numbers, his site is well worth the time spent digging in to each subject.

I also think that many writers need to take off the beer blinders directing their focus solely to product reviews, the white noise of beer writing. The bottles, cans, and pints we enjoy came from a place run by actual people, but you wouldn’t know it by the writing about the beers. One area in which wine writing (both online and in print) puts beer writing to shame is in its avowed dedication to providing the narratives and back-stories of the vintners, growers, and owners behind the wines. We rarely do this in the world of beer, instead preferring to name-check celebrity brewers or re-interview the ten most familiar names.

This is an area where citizen beer bloggers really have the opportunity to shine and provide a service to the industry they cover/write about/lavish praise over every day. I read every brewer, brewery owner, or publican interview that I come across on the web because I want to get to know the people behind the brands and places whose names I see in press releases, tweets, or on Facebook. For those bloggers who do not have a background in writing or journalism, personality profiles provide the easiest way to get your foot in the door and to develop the skills necessary to provide a beneficial service to your readers. And while brewers may not always be used to telling their stories, they are a near-uniformly friendly lot and would be foolish to turn down any chance to publicize themselves, their brands, and establishments, even to new writers.

The folks at The Full Pint do this well in their Brewmaster Spotlight as does Drink Craft Beer in its Interview section. I wish these sites did more of this type of content. Another creative (and effective promotional) interviewing tactic is the Beer Wench’s Beer Blogger Interview series. People want to read about other people, not just products they don’t have in front of them and may not be able to buy.

For those content to simply regurgitate press releases and new product announcements, I’d suggest looking at the model being developed over at BeerNews.org. If this guy ever figures out what he actually wants to do, I think we could see some exciting things there.

I’ve also enjoyed some quirky blogs, including one dedicated to understanding the science of beer flavor. Appreciating the underlying foundation of beer and flavor is always a challenging and worthwhile pursuit for the dedicated beer enthusiast.

I also continue to worry about the creep of advertorial beer writing. There are now dozens of sites across the Internet that somehow manage to convince breweries to pay to have the site’s owners review their beers. While I have long decried this practice, craft breweries, in some apparent desperation for attention, seem to be supporting this unfortunate beer shill business model.

I remember being genuinely excited when I first experienced the RSS beer heaven that was Real Simple Beer Syndication. Confronted with hundreds of beer blog entries every day, I thought for sure that some distinctive voices would result. Over the years, I find myself coming back to the professional beer writing set (not that its members are all top-notch either) for readable content. Perhaps the retread nature of so much beer writing was initially necessary as beer writing established itself. For whatever reason, the wine world has also long attracted talented writers of literature and non-fiction, daring to try and capture their passion for the grape in a new writing form. But more than 30 years into craft beer movement, the industry is still sorely lacking such commensurate writing talent.

I’ve also lamented that people covering the beer industry, like Minnesotans and clothing store clerks, never deign to offer a critical or constructive word to those around them. Beer writing is often one long, seemingly endless love song to craft brewers despite some obvious age spots appearing in the mirror. Beer writers, especially citizen bloggers, shouldn’t hesitate to fill this void with their own viewpoints, when supported in their content.

It’s time for beer writers (both professional and enthusiasts) to take the training wheels off their pens, pencils, and keyboards. It seems that we have all been content to merely step in the footprints left by the pioneering beer writers, especially Michael Jackson, despite the entirely new world of beer that we inhabit. I am hoping to witness a new era of beer writing because, in part, I believe that it is essential to the broader growth of the beer industry. When done right, such writing should serve as a catalyst for the growth of the industry, both philosophically and production-wise.

I remain thankful for the opportunity to contribute to a publication such as BeerAdvocate Magazine, where dissenting opinions are tolerated if not encouraged. And I hope to continue to offer a hopefully different and distinct perspective to the world of beer.

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A Look at Beer and Food: Recent Events and Upcoming Books…

For Charlie Papazian, founder of the Brewers Association, inspiration struck twice in remarkably similar ways. In the late 1970s, Papazian traveled to London, England, to attend the British Beer Festival. While sampling stouts, porters, and cask conditioned ales from around the United Kingdom, Papazian, an avid home brewer, started thinking about beer in the United States. When Papazian wondered aloud about whether Americans could host a similar festival, famed beer writer Michael Jackson famously quipped, “Yes, but where will you get the beer?� A few years later, Papazian welcomed eight hundred attendees at the first Great American Beer Festival, offering them forty beers from twenty-two breweries.

Fast forward two decades and travel to Italy, where local supporters of the Slow Food movement host several large international events dedicated to “good, clean, and fair food.� Founded in 1986, Slow Food has grown to more than 80,000 members in 120 countries. As part of its mission statement, Slow Food espouses that “everyone has a fundamental right to pleasure and consequently the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture that make this pleasure possible. Our movement is founded upon this concept of eco-gastronomy – a recognition of the strong connections between plate and planet.�

The Birth of SAVOR – Pairing American Craft Beer with Fine Food

It was in this environment, while enjoying wine and cheese pairings, that Papazian began wondering again whether such an event could work in the United States, only with beer. The resulting event, SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, was held May 16 and 17 in Washington D.C at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Tucked just behind the National Museum of American History, just steps from the National Mall, the auditorium provided a fitting and picturesque venue for an event that sought to elevate the public image of beer. Considered one of the finest classical structures in America, the auditorium was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places as part of the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District on October 15, 1996.

The event served several different purposes for the Brewers Association. SAVOR was the cornerstone event for this year’s American Craft Beer Week, which was held from May 12 to 18. Recognized by Congress in House Resolution 753, the event changed to a week long event in 2006. Celebrated annually, the week gives craft brewers a chance to highlight their industry and to promote their efforts. The event also gave craft brewers an opportunity to step up their legislative efforts on Capitol Hill. The Brewers Association, along with many of its top members, spent more than a week in the nation’s capital, where they attended the National Beer Wholesalers Legislative Conference and met with legislators from several states to press issues important to smaller brewers. As the culmination of their efforts, SAVOR gave craft brewers a chance to showcase their products to congressional staffers, many of whom attended the opening session on Friday night.

Beyond politics and legislation advocacy, the event gave the association the opportunity to raise public and media awareness of craft beer by associating it with upscale food. SAVOR offered its 2100 attendees the chance to taste ninety six craft beers from forty eight breweries from around the country. Each beer was specifically paired with a sweet or savory appetizer selected by the brewery and made by Federal City Caterers.

At eighty five dollars per ticket, the event was not an average beer festival for interested consumers. The price tag, which did not fully cover the association’s expenses for even the food portion of the event, was an area of concern for some brewers and attendees. Beer enthusiasts and well-heeled novices slowly roamed around the auditorium, stopping at the center table for the event’s main supporters, which included the Brooklyn Brewery, the Harpoon Brewery, Rogue Ales, and several others. Smaller breweries from around the country offered an eclectic assortment of beers at crescent shaped tables lining the outside walls. Late in 2007, the Brewers Association opened a lottery system for the selection of most of the forty eight slots for the event. While SAVOR offered many familiar names, including Avery Brewing Company and Deschutes Brewery, the association also sought to offer geographic diversity from some smaller names. These participants included the Blacfoot River Brewing Company of Helena, Montana, Free State Brewing of Lawrence, Kansas, and Heiner Brau Microbrewery of Covington, Louisiana.

The pairings, which were offered either at an individual brewer’s table or from passing servers, included a number of interesting options. The Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered its Pub Brown Ale to match pan-seared pilsener sirloin tips with shiitake blue-cheese sauce. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California, suggested its Summerfest Lager and lager steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings. The Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, presented its Ruination IPA with either Peking duck purses or Christopher Elbow citrus spiced artisan chocolates.

Despite the initial bumps and hurdles to be expected at a new event, consumer response to SAVOR has been generally positive. In keeping with the general theme of the event, the Brewers Association asked attendees to “dress to impress,� which resulted in some interesting choices by beer enthusiasts, ranging from tuxedos to tuxedo t-shirts. Some attendees felt that the event was overpriced and complained about the relative scarcity of all the advertised pairing by the end of a session. Other attendees believed that SAVOR was underpriced considering the presence of otherwise difficult to find beers and the opportunity to speak with some of the most recognized small brewers in the country.

One clear failure for the event was its SAVOR Salons, a forum in which brewers, journalists, and other beer luminaries spoke in smaller, tutored tasting sessions to attendees. The Brewers Association designed the salons to “deepen ones [sic] appreciation and understanding of beer and food pairings.� The events included brewer Garrett Oliver pairing American artisan cheeses and craft beers, Boston Beer’s Jim Koch discussing how people can get started with beer and food, and Clipper City Brewing’s Hugh Sisson discussing the nuances of pairing beer with seafood from the Chesapeake Bay.

Limited to approximately seventy people by the venue’s tight space, the salons were poorly marked and proved too popular for the auditorium. Originally advertised as first come, first serve, the association quietly switched to a ticket system. As people approached the forum before it was supposed to start, security had to bar their entrance to the room and explain that the salon was unavailable for attendance. The venue’s limitations, combined with the popularity of the offerings and the lack of communication, left many people disappointed by their inability to attend.

Two years of preparing for the event left the staff of the Brewers Association, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, a bit strung out. The economics of the event are challenging and despite its popularity and its utility in promoting and improving the public image of beer among legislators and media on the East Coast, it is unclear whether SAVOR will be repeated next year. The association’s staff has also discussed the possibility of moving the event from the capital to New York City in future years.

Anheuser-Busch Pushes the Concept of Beer and Food

As part of its efforts to promote the public image of beer, Anheuser-Busch has also seen value in reconnecting beer with food. As part of its Here’s to Beer initiative, A-B hired ‘celebrity chef’ Dave Lieberman of The Food Network to host its Beer Connoisseur segment of its website. In this online video section, Lieberman teaches visitors about beer and about pairing foods with beer. The Here’s to Beer website (www.herestobeer.com) offers an excellent tool for consumers to select the best matches for their particular dishes or drinks. The site allows consumers to pick from dozens upon dozens of entrées, desserts, or cheeses, and the program will then suggest a recommended match, as well as a complementary and a contrasting match. The offered styles are then described in detail and suggest other food pairings. Alternatively, consumers can select the type of beer they are drinking and the program will suggest a suitable dish for pairing.
The Here’s to Beer website also leads consumers on an educational tour of food and beer pairings, with storage and pouring techniques and how to start pairing food with beer.

Anheuser-Busch has also taken its food and beer pairings into the real world. During its recent St. Louis Heritage Festival, a second annual event promoting the local brewers of St. Louis, Missouri, Lieberman also hosted a five course beer pairing dinner, along with brewmasters from the city. Lieberman has hosted similar dinners in cities around the country on Anheuser-Busch’s behalf.

Anheuser-Busch also kicked off the year with the release of its own cookbook, appropriately titled, The Anheuser-Busch Cookbook: Great Food Great Beer. Produced in conjunction with Sunset Books and released in January, the softcover book offers 185 recipes for pairing with specific styles of beer. The brewery worked with brewmaster George Reisch and Brent Wertz, executive chef at Anheuser-Busch’s Kingsmill Resort and Spa, to create the pairings. While the book avoids mention of specific brand pairings, opting instead for generalized styles, it does offer an entry level user the opportunity to progress to a new appreciation of the available possibilities. The recipes include offerings such as Spicy Shrimp Cakes with Corn Salsa, Tuna Ceviche with Cumin and Chile, and Fallen Chocolate Cake with Cherries

“Beer is one of the most versatile, moderate alcohol beverages in the world, and pairs well with a range of cuisines by complementing, and not overpowering, complex flavors,� said Wertz in a press release. “Beer adds pizzazz to any menu and with Great Food Great Beer we want to help provide culinary enthusiasts with a fun, creative twist when preparing dishes. As detailed in the book, beer should be paired carefully with the right dish to bring out the best of both.�

The Future of Beer and Food in America

While in the past most Americans have limited their idea of beer and food pairings to American light lagers and burgers, fries, and nachos, the increasing popularity of better beers, combined with the general consumer trend of trading up, has led to a radical shift in the popular perception of beer. Once cast away from the table and relegated only to life near the grill, flavorful beer is pushing forward to once again regain its place. On any given day in any major city around the country, consumers ranging from beer enthusiasts to complete novices can attend a beer dinner led by a brewer or interested restaurateur. Beer and food events can be found in package stores, where store staff or brewery representatives offer cheese and ale pairings.

The opportunities to mix food and beer are only limited by the mind of the creator. When considering possible matches, try matching beers and foods that enhance one another and call specific attention to one or the other’s particular attributes. Consider the aroma, bouquet, and taste of particular beers and the accompanying flavors found in your selected foods. Great pairings need not always blend seamlessly and strongly contrasting selections can also provide an enjoyable and palate expanding experience.

A number of resources exist for individuals, restaurants, or package stores interested in leading friends or consumers on a tasting tour of food and beer. Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery published his ‘Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food,’ which takes consumers on an upscale journey through world beers and cuisines. For a more literary experience, Chicago based author Bob Skilnik wrote ‘Beer & Food: An American History,’ beer cook Lucy Saunders released ‘Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing & Cooking with Craft Beer,’

2008 will also see the release of several new volumes related to beer and food, including Fiona and Will Beckett’s ‘An Appetite for Ale: 101 Ways to Enjoy Beer With Food.’ Brewer Sam Calagione and wine writer Marnie Old have published ‘He Said Beer, She Said Wine: Impassioned Food Pairings to Debate and Enjoy – From Burgers to Brie and Beyond.’

–Article appeared in June 2008 issue of Beverage Magazine.

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