Maibock Season is a Beautiful Thing…

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Beer lovers often debate which time of the year has the best seasonal releases. Is it the influx of lighter, Kolsch-style beers in the summer, Octoberfest season in autumn, or the return of strong, dark beers in winter? Or perhaps you prefer the inverse, like the summer release of Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout? While all of these bring a smile, my favorite time of the beer year is spring and if you cannot find yourself in Germany, the place to be is in the Midwest. I was in Minneapolis last weekend at a time that fortuitously coincided with the availability of the spring Maibock. While I spent time getting acquainted with the interesting range of Surly’s beers at the Blue Nile Restaurant and met up with old pals from Summit Brewing (including a better than I remember Extra Pale Ale), it was the surprise visit from the bock beers that made the trip beerwise. The first bock beer I can recall having (besides the cheap Huber Bock available in Chicago’s dicier bars) is the excellent Heimertingen Maibock from Summit. I can remember how that first pint tasted, big body, strong alcohol notes, substantial malt sweetness tempered by a powerful but not overwhelming dosage of hops (mainly Czech Saaz). Summit dropped the Heimertingen name a while back but this beer remains a delightful seasonal brand. On the trip, I also had a chance to revisit what I consider to be the best Maibock available in the United States, Capital Brewing’s Maibock. This is a potent beer, packed with strong malt sweetness. While I also enjoyed the excellent Blonde Doppelbock, I think the Maibock may be the best offering in Capital’s well-considered lineup. The trip also provided an opportunity to sample a relative unknown for me, August Schell’s Maifest. I was surprised at the body and flavor and was quite happy that America’s second oldest brewery is keeping the lager tradition alive in southern Minnesota. Now if we could only get these beers in Boston…

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Japan Wins Big at 2008 World Beer Cup…

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Amidst the stream of recent posts elsewhere about the results of the bi-annual World Beer Cup, held in conjunction this year with the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego, California, was a little reported story about how big craft beer is growing on an international scale. About a year ago, I spent a few weeks traveling around Japan, seeing the country and trying its beers. I was impressed with the relatively young craft beer scene across the country, with its pockets of excellent breweries.

The competition has grown quite international since its early days, with 58 countries competing this year. Breweries from 21 countries took home medals. When the Brewers Association announced its recent awards, American brewers, as expected, pretty well cleaned house with 158 awards. From there, you’d expect traditional brewing countries, such as German, Belgium, and the Czech Republic to have dominated the rest. While German brewers took home a respectable 25 medals, Japanese breweries nearly outlasted their Belgian counterparts with 10 medals to the Belgian’s 11. Here’s the interesting part: German breweries, as expected, won medals in German styles and Belgian brewers won medals in Belgian styles. Japanese brewers, like their American counterparts, won medals across a broad swath of international styles, from hefeweizen to cream ale to Scottish ale and even in the experimental category. That is an impressive achievement. Brewer Bryan Baird of the Baird Brewing Company won two medals as did the producers of the Swan Lake brands. My congratulations go out to the Japanese brewers for their impressive performance.

-Baird Brewing Co, Big Red Machine Fall Classic Ale, Cellar or Unfiltered Beer, Bronze
-Baird Brewing Co, Nide Beer – The Ale, American-Style Cream Ale or Lager, Bronze
-Fujikankokaihatsu co., LTD, Fujizakura kogen Beer “Weizen”, South German-Style Hefeweizen/Hefeweissbier, Silver
-Hyokoyashikinomori Brewery Tentyokaku Co., Inc., Swan Lake Beer Amber Swan Ale, American-Style Amber/Red Ale, Silver
-Hyokoyashikinomori Brewery Tentyokaku Co., Inc., Swan Lake Beer Porter, Robust Porter, Bronze
-Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest Beer, Espresso Stout, Coffee Flavored Beer, Bronze
-Kumazawa Brewing Co., Shounan Liebe, German-Style Schwarzbier, Gold
-Nasu Kohgen Beer., Ltd., Scottish Ale, Scottish-Style Ale, Bronze
-Sekinoichi Shuzo Co. Ltd, Iwate Kura Beer Oyster Stout, Experimental Beer (Lager or Ale), Silver
-Shimono Co., LTD, Kaorino Nama, German-Style Kölsch/Köln-Style Kölsch, Bronze

Congratulations are also due to Molson Coors for its strong showing with the Blue Moon Brands, culminating in a win for the Blue Moon Brewing Company and brewer Warren Quilliam in the Large Brewing Company category.

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Media Draft: Anheuser Busch, Paid Travel, and the Ethics of Beer Writers…

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Perhaps with the idea that no horse is too dead to beat (an unfortunate reverse of the idiom to be sure), an upcoming event (and another debate over at Appellation Beer) has me thinking about the ethics of beer writing. Beyond mere samples and the occasional free meal, the food/beverage/tourism writer’s bread and butter is free travel. Trips paid for by an interested business, be it a brewery, importer, hotelier, or restaurateur, are an effective way of securing coverage of an event or a location. Writers, who otherwise might not be able to afford to visit the location or attend the event, of course welcome the opportunity to attend these events, where they enjoy free airfare, transportation, hotel rooms, and are plied with free drinks and meals. The free trip has long been a part of the marketing arsenal for larger companies seeking to secure coverage. Travel writing has an especially long and seedy history with paid trips, as does the wine writing trade.

In a little over two weeks, America’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, will again engage in this time honored marketing tactic by ‘inviting’ a dozen or more beer media members from around the country to attend the second annual St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival in Anheuser-Busch’s hometown. Sponsored in part by Anheuser-Busch’s public relations offshoot, Here’s To Beer, this is the second year the brewery has paid for the presence of beer writers. Held May 8-10 at Lindell Pavilion in Forest Park, the event brings together “big and small brewers from the St. Louis area” including Schlafly Beer, Allandale Brewery, Augusta Brewery, Square One Brewery, Anheuser-Busch, O’Fallon Brewery, and Morgan Street Brewery. This year’s VIP media attendees will include magazine publishers and writers, podcasters, website publishers, and a host of freelance writers.

While I applaud with a light golf clap Anheuser-Busch’s efforts with Here’s To Beer and with trying to promote better beer in its hometown (louder applause is reserved for how this signals the continued strength of craft beer), I’m troubled by the free trips the brewery sponsors, the range of which have been written about elsewhere. As part of a continuing series, I’d be interested in soliciting the thoughts of others on the appropriateness of paid travel in beer writing and whether disclosure (or sunshine as it is sometimes called), is enough to overcome the appearance of bias. I have to admit being particularly taken by Ray Daniels’ surprisingly honest preface to this All About Beer Magazine article from maybe a decade ago.

Advanced Warning: While researching this article, the author received from Anheuser-Busch complimentary travel, accommodations, food, drink and general camaraderie with his fellow beer writers. If you think this compromises objectivity, you may be right. If you think that beer writing pays enough for anyone to bring you this kind of information without brewer support then your perception of the beer world is twisted like some M.C. Escher block print. Either that or Mad Cow disease has finally become manifest in America. In either case, you need to have a beer, read the piece and then decide for yourself what you actually think. Jumps to conclusion, knee jerk reactions and other un-pondered perspectives need not apply.

If sunshine is enough to clear the ethical clouds, Ray’s is pretty bright. But is disclosure enough? When a writer acknowledges that a trip is paid, and then says the following, how is a consumer/reader supposed to respond?

Did I just say that Anheuser-Busch is “a stench in the nostrils of the Beer Gods?? I know I did. I went and looked, and sure enough, I actually said it.

I take it all back. Last week, A-B’s beer makers flew me and a dozen other beer writers to their Elk Mountain hop farm in northern Idaho for the hop harvest. (Those are hop flowers in the photo right here. They sure are purty, aren’t they? Like little pine cones filled with beer flavor and aroma.)

I spent two days in the company of the brewers and their beers, where they hit me upside the head with a 20-pound sledgehammer called the Cold, Hard Beer Facts.

I now regret having said such viciously foolish things. These guys are keeping the flame in St. Louis, no matter what the marketing department makes them do with fruit and sugar and horny goat weed. (Just kidding; there is no horny goat weed in Anheuser-Busch products that I know of…I just like saying it.) They trotted out some new specialty beers that are simply fantastic, and they were proud of them.

So were the beers actually that good or were the big portions of the salmon lunch, cooked three ways, that made the writer, Lew Bryson, “moan” the clincher? In this case, it’s assuredly the former in my opinion, but the appearance of bias is clearly a problem (even with proper disclosure).

So in the wake of Anheuser-Busch’s upcoming Heritage Festival, expect to see a lot of coverage in the beer press, on blogs, and over the airwaves about how the brewery is up to great things. Keep an eye and an ear out for whether the writer or speaker discloses that he or she received a slew of free stuff before sharing their thoughts with you. The disclosure should be right upfront. And if it’s there, when you’re done reading or listening, ask yourself this question, “Are you absolutely convinced the person wasn’t influenced by the free plane ride, shuttles, hotel room, day trips, beer, meals, and other activities?” If the answer is yes, then worry no more. If the answer is no, we all have some worrying to do. All, that is, except Anheuser-Busch…

Editor’s Note: Lew’s name was added at his request. The article in question appears on former beer writer Kerry Byrne’s football website, Cold Hard Football Facts

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Goose Island’s Clybourn Brewpub To Close…

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A sad day for Chicago beer lovers as the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Goose Island’s first brewpub, located on Clybourn Street in Chicago, will close at the end of the year due to an inability to renew its lease. Although Goose Island’s production brewery and Wrigleyville pub will remain open, this is a bad day for beer in Chicago. Chicago remains one of the biggest American cities to have so few brewpubs, and this is yet another loss. As the location also houses some of the Siebel Institute’s activities, it will likely see change as well. I’ve spent some time in the pub enjoying GI’s beers and will have to make a return trip before it closes for good.

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Media Draft – Ethics and Beer Writing Continued…

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For the last several weeks, Stan Hieronymus’s website, Appellation Beer, has played host to a bit of a rarity, a debate over journalistic ethics. What started as a few riffs on the notion and purpose of criticism quickly devolved (in part my own fault) into a larger debate on the proper role of writers in the beer trade. I’ve written and spoken a number of times in the past about my concerns over what I perceive to be a serious lack of professional ethics in the area of beer writing. The recent debate among a number of well-known professional beer writers, amateur writers, and consumers has started me on the project of trying to delineate a set of guidelines for ethical beer writing that I hope will (or should) garner some acceptance.

Before I suggest some protective measures, I thought it prudent to first raise a few of the ethical quandaries that I see in our industry in order to illustrate the need for some guidelines. Like any other industry, beer writing’s ranks include amateur hobbyists who pen the occasional article or column for their local ‘brewspaper,’ full time reporters who either cover beer as a beat for major newspaper or magazine, and professional writers who focus exclusively on covering beer and brewing. These different groups of writers have very different interests, restrictions, and levels of training. While your average journalism school graduate will have to take and pass a class involving a discussion of journalistic ethics, and the professional newspaper reporter is bound by his or her employer’s code of conduct, the hobbyist writer lacks any true ethical guideposts beyond their own creation or adoption.

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.

Positive coverage has so long been the expected standard in beer writing that what little inclination towards criticism or coverage aimed at bettering the consumer’s experience was quickly lost. For a long time, beer writers have believed that criticism means writing that Young’s Old Nick Barley Wine is actually more an old ale than a barley wine (and self-gratifyingly thinking that this is a radical and brave opinion).

While the average and even above-average consumer might never take a moment to think of the ethics or critical skills of those whose reportage they are reading, that doesn’t mean that those souls providing the reporting shouldn’t consider the issues themselves. Despite the dozens upon dozens of beer niche based publications that we have, America has no beer journalism/writing/reporting group or association where people can discuss these issues. Our counterparts in Britain indeed do have such an organization and it has a set of agreed-upon ethical rules that it expects members to follow.

AABWhile the debate over the proper principles of ethical writing should address the dozens of thorny issues, my interest in this subject was recently revived by an old issue of All About Beer Magazine that randomly (or serendipitously) crossed my path. While recently sipping a 2007 Alaskan Smoked Porter at the beer friendly bar at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma, I pulled a dusty, old January 1996 issue of All About Beer off the shelves. Turning to the letters section, I was pretty surprised by its contents. But first, please permit me a brief aside in order to provide some context.

As part of the Appellation Beer debate, I offered one obvious example of an ethical quandary relating to All About Beer’s Beer Talk section, which includes reviews from beer luminaries across the globe. For some time, the list has been comprised on John Hansell (editor of Malt Advocate Magazine), Steve Beaumont (beer writer/restaurateur), Charles Finkel (beer importer/distributor, brewery owner), Stan Hieronymus (beer writer/Appellation Beer), Charlie Papazian (president of Brewers Association), Jeff Evans (British beer writer), Roger Protz (British beer writer), and Garrett Oliver (brewer at Brooklyn Brewery). Each writer reviews four beers per issue for a total of sixteen products covered.

While there are many ethical guides and policies available for journalists to review, perhaps aspiring (and present) beer writers should review two basic sets. As one of the oldest organizations dedicated to representing the interests of a broad range of journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has created a straightforward and accessible Code of Conduct. Formed in 1909 and boasting nearly 10,000 members, I think it’s pretty safe turf on which to start a discussion of journalistic ethics. At the hear of SPJ’s code is the principle that “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.? Now what exactly does this mean? The code goes on to explain that:

Journalists should:
—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 its brief tenure, the now defunct North American Guild of Beer Writers existed “to encourage writing that is informed, accurate and fair-minded on the subject of beer.? The NAGBW promulgated its own ethical code and asked members to “uphold professional standards through conduct that is legal, fair and honorable.? The NAGBW’s code, in part, suggested that members should:

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;

Each of the SPJ and NAGBW points raise some red flags for many beer writers but let’s stick for the moment with the All About Beer Magazine example. In journalism, the law, and other professions, the standard one is held to is not an actual conflict but the appearance of a conflict of interest. It’s not that someone is inherently biased but that their position or particular situation might create the appearance of bias. As such, most publications (outside of the beer world) have stern rules about such conflicts. While I do not dispute that the eight men who participate in All About Beer Magazine’s Beer Talk section are not qualified to write reviews (I do question why the panel lacks one of dozens of similarly qualified women writers), that several of the panelists have at minimum a clear conflict of interest in reviewing the products is problematic. Of those listed, it appears to me that Finkel, Papazian, and Oliver probably should not be writing reviews due to their professional situations (Papazian as the professional organization leader of all small brewers) and Finkel and Oliver because they are reviewing the products of their competitors (or their own products if so assigned it is possible). To my mind, while these gentlemen might very well be good souls who can put aside any possible bias or conflict, this is not the applicable journalistic standard. Having brewers sit on tasting panels or allowing them to write articles in magazines and newspapers is a little like letting the vice-president of design for the Ford Motor Company write reviews of the newest line of Chevy’s in the pages of Car and Driver or the Detroit Free Press. The VP might really love the Chevy but if s/he criticizes it, you’ll never know whether their position influenced the opinion.

This has all been a very, very long-winded way of getting to that January 1996 issue. From its pages, I learned that the Beer Talk section gained some new members in the previous issues. Of these members, several of the above-named individuals joined the panel’s ranks. The response by consumers and members of the trade was surprisingly hostile, especially to Finkel’s participation. Here follows the text of some of the comments.

“Perhaps the AAB panels should be composed exclusively of non-partisan reviewers, like Fred Eckhardt and Charlie Papazian. Surely Daniel Bradford must feel confident about the panels, but there is obviously a potential for conflict of interest.? — Jim Dorsch

“Has anyone noticed that the prez of Merchant du Vin always trashes the best examples of his competition in All About Beer reviews. This month he spews about how Piraat (grand champion at this year’s California Beer Festival and heartily recommended by the other panelists) is a disgrace to Belgium and smells like rotten potatoes. Come on, this is not a matter of differing opinion but a commercial vendetta.? — Robert Rogness

“You might consider using judges that are not competing with the beers they are tasting.? — John Thomas, Gourmet Beer Society, Temecula, California

To his credit, Finkel was not shocked by the response. Allowed to respond, Finkel crafted a smart and honest defense.

“As you recall, when you first invited me to be a reviewer, I explained that I might not be the best choice since some readers might question my sincerity in reviewing competitive beers. I further explained that, no matter one’s commercial interest and level of expertise, a review of taste in which the critic sees the labels is never as good as a “blind review. We are all influenced, like it or not, by commercialism.

…I apologize if I have caused any ill feeling. That is never my intention. I refuse to be influenced by commercial greed… — Charles Finkel.

Daniel Bradford, editor and publisher of All About Beer Magazine, also added his thoughts on the conflict issue.

“Ed Note: When we purchased the magazine two years ago one of the biggest complaints about AABM was the lack of strong criticism by the reviewers. Most are writers and, contrary to popular opinion, writers are not universally disinterested. We invited Charles on board, fully familiar with his take-no-prisoners approach to beer reviewing, to balance out the other reviewers… — Daniel Bradford.

In terms of avoiding conflicts of interest, All About Beer Magazine’s Beer Talk section does a poor job. As the beer world is presently inhabited by a number of talented, independent writers, it would be quite easy to find suitable and experienced replacements. Beer Talk is a case where even disclosure of the conflict fails to alleviate the perception of bias, especially where the perception is entirely unnecessary (and well known, since at least January 1996). The conflict, perceived or real, is further puzzling and ironic as All About Beer Magazine’s publisher, Daniel Bradford, founded and administered the North American Guild of Beer Writers and likely had a hand in writing that organization’s ethical code.

I find it interesting that while All About Beer Magazine initially experienced some resistance to the conflict inherent in having a business person review the products of his competitors in a trade publication, the song remains the same more than twelve years later. And we no longer even give a second’s thought to the issue. I hope the issues raised on Stan’s website continue to be debated in much larger forums in the future. Along the way, I look forward to receiving the thoughts of brewers, consumers, amateur hobbyists, and my fellow beer writers.

–In the interest of full disclosure, I presently write for BeerAdvocate Magazine, where I pen the ‘Unfiltered’ column, and I also write a bi-monthly feature for Beverage Magazine. I occasionally also write for a series of other magazines, a list of which can be found on the ‘about Beerscribe’ page.

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