A Beer Language Problem…

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We have a language problem in the world of beer. I’m not talking about our over-use of four-letter words or an inability to speak after too many pints. Instead, we lack a cohesive and agreed upon central terms for discussing our shared are of passion.

Let’s start with the term whose popularity continues to grow every day, namely craft beer. Brewers, distributors, writers, and industry insiders have been engaged in a long-standing battle over what to call the flavorful, colorful, characterful beers we all enjoy. As with defining pornography, we know it when we see it, or in the case of beer, also taste it. But we still don’t quite know what to call it. Do we define what constitutes a craft beer or just a craft brewer? Can a big brewer (macro? Behemoth? International conglomerate?) make a craft beer? In terms of flavor, is Blue Moon by Coors so different from dozens of other average witbiers made by smaller brewers? Should we instead use the term better beer, and if so, better than what? Anything brewed by the big brewers? Nowadays, even the Boston Beer Company is derided by many beer geeks as being too big, so that hardly seems appropriate.

Having grown up with the term microbrew, many seem loathe to let go of this iconic word and the related imagery of beer made in tiny, handcrafted batches. While many small breweries still operate at least in part by hand, the days of handcrafted beer belong to a different, quickly disappearing era, having been supplanted by much welcomed automation and greater control. And with many once small breweries now producing tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels per year and distributing beer from Denmark to Japan, the micro designation is an anachronism if not a myth.

Beyond these big picture terms, the creativity of brewers also continues to create new issues and areas of confusion. In the last two years, beer geeks and brewers from coast to coast have waged a nerdy battle over what to call dark beers that display strong hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Depending upon which viewpoint you subscribe to, you might tend to call such beers Black IPA, India Black Ale, or Cascadian Dark Ale. With a somewhat murky history, either having first been made by the late Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Britain, there is no agreement over what such beers should be called. It does, however, seem a bit ridiculous to call a dark beer with no connection to the sub-continent an India or pale ale.

Perhaps the most troubling and recent example of our parlance problems comes with the American use of the British-based session beer moniker. As discussed in a recent issue, beer cultures are largely not transferable between countries and that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t expect to find a vibrant Belgian beer culture in Cleveland just as San Diego’s thriving beer scene can’t be recreated in Tokyo. While pursuing the goal of lower alcohol yet flavorful beers is a very worthy goal, trying to cross-apply the session label just doesn’t work in the states.

Even the otherwise appropriately named nano-breweries have come under some scrutiny. Just how small does a brewery have to be to qualify as a nano? I’ve recently started seeing the term pico-brewery pop up, denoting something even smaller than a nano, if that was possible. I’m not sure if this involves beer made by boiling the mash in a microwave but it boggles the mind.

As a beer writer, I’ve been struggling with these language issues for a long time, usually with little to no results to show for it. While we generally agree on what we’re discussing, defining these beer-related concepts remains a difficult task. Maybe you’ll figure out the whole craft beer language debate over your next pint.

Then we can get started on gastropubs.

-Article appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Brew Masters Clarification and the Crazy Beer Week That Was…

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With many brewers, bar owners, and writers just settling in from a long week at the annual Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, the week was supposed to be relatively quiet. We of course now know that this past week was destined to be one of the craziest that craft beer has experienced in a long time. It started with the news that Anheuser-Busch InBev planned to fully purchase the Goose Island Beer Company. The consumer and industry hand-wringing that followed closely thereafter was as visceral as it was split.

The increasingly hostile debate was, however, abruptly cut short by a rumor from food writer and television show host Anthony Bourdain, who tweeted that the Discovery Channel program Brew Masters, which follows Sam Calagione and the staff at Dogfish Head Craft Ales, was facing internal pressures by a big brewery advertiser.

Immediately, craft beer enthusiasts lit up Twitter and the beer website forums with angry rants against big brewers, mainly Anheuser-Busch InBev, for their perceived interference with their favorite beer show. A few hours after Bourdain’s tweet was noted, I reported via Twitter while in attendance at the annual NERAX fest that the Discovery Channel had canceled Brew Masters.

I’ll be the first to admit that breaking such news via the 140 character limited forum of Twitter, and in the environs of a crowded beer festival, was less than ideal. So after a busy week and weekend, I now have the opportunity to correct some of my language. I initially had tweeted that Discovery had ‘canceled’ Brew Masters. I then followed it up with the text of an email I received from a Discovery Channel media source which stated that the show was not renewed. In a Delaware business journal, Dogfish Head’s Calagione told a reporter:

“It wasn’t canceled,” he said Friday as he returned from celebrations for Wilmington’s new Queen Theatre. He signed up for six episodes, and six episodes will run into the summer, Discovery Channel confirmed to him Friday. “What happens after that has not been determined,” he said.

As I have now learned from talking with people more familiar with the parlance of the television trade, Brew Masters was not ‘canceled’ but was instead not renewed. This ostensibly means that the final sixth episode of the program will foreseeably be aired at some point in the future. I expect that any confusion, to the extent there was any, was clarified by my posting the text of the email I received from the Discovery Channel on the show’s non-renewal.

Now, with this said, the future of Brew Masters appears to be in dispute depending upon whom you speak with. Calagione and Dogfish believe it may come back in some form. The executives at Discovery Channel, however, were clear. Laurie Goldberg, the Executive Vice President for Public Relations for TLC and Discovery Networks told me in an email on Wednesday:

BrewMasters was launched with a lot of marketing support and garnered widespread media coverage, but unfortunately the series did not find a large enough audience so it was not renewed.

In the Delaware business journal article, Calagione acknowledges that the network was “underwhelmed as far as the numbers,” but noted that the program did as well as many other regular Discovery offerings.

Whether the show was canceled due to less than favorable ratings as Discovery suggests, but Calagione disputes in the Delaware journal article, or due to concern or interference (depending upon your point of view) from an advertiser remains to be flushed out. Despite the near complete absence of facts regarding the decision not to renew the program, loyal craft beer enthusiasts, perhaps still infuriated by the Goose Island news, have been exceedingly quick to lay the blame for the demise of Brew Masters squarely on the doorstep on Anheuser-Busch InBev. I haven’t been able to find anyone who has been able to recall whether Anheuser-Busch InBev even advertisers on the network, let alone on the program. But the script already seems to be written for ABI despite any supporting evidence.

What we do know, beyond not much at all, is that MillersCoors advertised its popular Blue Moon product line on the program. So if MillerCoors was the corporate voice behind the hazy Bourdain-veiled threats to Discovery, this begets the question of why the company chose to advertise on the program in the first place, if such programming was otherwise objectionable. And why would it decide to pull its ads after the near-full run of the program?

Whatever the final reasons, which by contractual obligation we’ll likely never know, it seems a bit of a jump for consumers to conclude that Bourdain’s minimal, 140 character Molotov cocktail should be believed, let alone being able to assign blame to a particular brewery. The whole affair has simply provided those so inclined with the opportunity to slag the larger breweries and to revel in the safe insularity of their respective passions. It has also been a loss to level-headed craft beer fans, consumers who have never seen how a craft brewery operates, and for craft brewers and Dogfish Head in particular.

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Why Big Brewers Are Bad For Craft Beer: The Brew Masters Controversy…

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Of course, a day or so after I stick my neck out for the big brewers saying they may have turned a corner, writer and television host Anthony Bourdain sent out a couple of bombshell tweets in which he seems to suggest that the Discovery Channel is either holding back or canceling production of the popular beer show Brew Masters due to pressure from its advertisers, namely the big brewers. Now I disdain reporting based solely on quixotic 140 character stabs but these were pretty disturbing allegations. Now MillerCoors has of course heavily invested in advertising on the program for its Blue Moon product, so it would be a curious thing for that company to be involved. But, as I noted, we have next to no information either way. So, of course, the blog and twitterspheres are up in arms, accepting the tweets as gospel, assuming Anheuser Busch InBev is behind the conspiracy, and telling me how wrong I’ve been. As with the Goose Island story, I’ll wait until we have some more information (which I am trying to get now) until we cast all our anti-big beer stones. I will say, however, that if the allegations prove true, it’s a pretty major form of dirty play by the big guys and I expect an absolutely massive backlash to follow, perhaps even from regular, everyday Bud guys and gals.

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A Silver Lining In The Obama, Gates, Crowley Beer Debacle…

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With all of the punditry out there, I didn’t think it at all necessary to weigh in on the controversy brewing over the President’s decision to have beers with the participants in Gatesgate, as it’s being called here in the People’s Republic. Craft brewers from Harpoon to Sierra Nevada have been angling since the beery announcement was made to have their beers served at the unusual meeting. And while I think the obvious choices, after maligning (rightly or wrongly so) Our Fair City, would have been to give something from Cambridge a shot, say a John Harvard’s beer or better yet Benevolence from Cambridge Brewing, I’ll leave other eager pundits-in-training to debate that topic.

Despite Bud Lights, Red Stripes, and Blue Moons all around, I think there may be at least one unintended silver lining in all of this import/foreign owned beer drinking: transparency. Craft brewers often complain about how the corporate origins of faux-craft beers such as Blue Moon float beneath the brand radars of beer consumers. With the rash of public complaints and news articles appearing in the last few days, anyone not previously paying attention will now know that Blue Moon is not a little imported brand but is instead produced by mega-conglomerate MillerCoors and that Bud is owned by a foreign company. American crafts may not have made it into the White House this time, but in the battle over “who makes your beer,” this may very well be some priceless PR time…

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In Praise Of The “One Beer”…

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Tens of millions of barrels later, the craft beer renaissance can be traced to a single beer. Now, I don’t mean Anchor Steam, Redhook Ale, or even the New Albion Ale, though they might qualify for some of you. Instead, I’m talking about the experience every dedicated craft beer drinker has enjoyed at one point, the time that “the beer? set them upon the road to beer enrichment. It’s a moment you’d think we could never forget. But with all the excitement our industry has to offer, it sometimes seems as if we’ve forgotten the remarkable place from where we’ve come.

Sparking an interest in craft beer is all about the right beer at the right moment, the one sip that radically transforms the imbiber’s way of thinking about beer. After experiencing a flood of yellow, fizzy, cold monotony, it’s the scene stealing instant of real flavor that stops you in your tracks and ends with an exclamation point hovering in a speech bubble above your head. An internal cymbal crash signifies the breaking of long-held beer stereotypes, be they an avowed dislike of “dark beer? or a staunch opposition to “bitter beers.?

Depending upon when you came of age, the defining beer might be Sierra Nevada IPA or Samuel Adams Boston Lager, recalling a seemingly distant time when these beers were anything but omni-present and not derided by beer geeks as “mainstream brands.? For others, “the beer? may have been a locally produced pale ale, brown ale, or hefe-weizen. Others still may have first seen the light as it passed through an invitingly hazy Blue Moon Belgian White, a laudable product of Coors.

In truth, “the beer? is more likely a series of beer sojourns spaced over an extended journey into craft beer. For every beer lover, life is a series of single beers and defining moments, the right pub and atmosphere at the right time, warm weather and the perfect quencher, celebratory moments with family or stolen seconds of personal solace at the end of a long day, each accompanied by “the beer.?

After a long, monogamous relationship with Miller Genuine Draft, my personal interest in better beer started with the first sip of Guinness. A near polar opposite in terms of body, flavor, and overall perception from American-style premium and light lagers, this “gateway beer? led me to my first brewery tour and a romp through locally available imported brands. When a brewpub opened in my college town, I visited and ordered my first sampler, in the process unknowingly stumbling upon my second “the beer? moment. The first taste of Court Avenue’s Blackhawk Stout subconsciously taught me the difference between ubiquitous Irish dry stouts and the sweeter but less popular foreign-style or export stout variety. From there, Vermont Pub’s syrupy Wee Heavy, Capital’s malty Blonde Doppelbock, and Summit’s bitter IPA and smooth Maibock propelled my interest. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, along comes the Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, a wonderfully hoppy German-style pilsner whose remarkable complexity is matched only by the come-full-circle irony of enjoying the beer directly from its can.

These single beers define the development of a craft beer drinker, from early, beerphobic days to passionate travels to far-flung breweries. In this era of eBay’d extreme beers, Dark Lord Days, and famed international brewing collaborations, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of the simple origins of our interest. Perhaps more importantly, our passions can sometimes disconnect us from the 95-percent of beer drinkers who do not share our enthusiasm for the charming marriage of hops and malt. With this in mind, I’ve made a resolution this year to redouble my efforts to spread the good word of “the beer? to friends, family, new acquaintances, and strangers yet to be known.

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