An Argument For Beer Criticism

We live in a time when everyone can be a critic. Anyone can go on Rotten Tomatoes and rate the last movie they saw.  Anyone can go on Yelp and review the last restaurant they went to.  Anyone can go on Untappd, RateBeer, or Beer Advocate and rate the last beer they drank.  Anyone can start a blog and write about whatever movie, album, or book they just enjoyed or hated.

It is the democratization of criticism.  However, is it criticism worth listening to?  I recently read AO Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism.  It is an interesting book for anyone involved in any type of creative endeavor. He wrote the book as an argument for the need of the professional critical class.  He explains the origins of criticism, how it is practiced by professionals, and the goal of good criticism.  The book also serves as a for users of Rotten Tomatoes, Good Reads, and RateBeer to criticize better.  So from Mr. Scott’s general thoughts on criticism to a more specific area of criticism:  What is a beer critic?

Let’s start with is the point of the existence of critics.

A critic is a “professional appreciator.” The best critics have the ability to be moved emotionally by a piece while at the same time explaining to you why they were moved.  A critic should be able to take the component parts of a work apart, examine them, and tell you why they work or don’t.  Yet, at the same time the critic should be able to convey the emotion conveyed when those parts are assembled.  In other words, tell you why a certain camera angle at a precise moment can move you to fear or happiness or tears.

While telling you why something does or doesn’t work or is or isn’t beautiful is important in some sense, what exactly is the need for critics?  Is a critic someone who defends the traditional, champions the unknown/underappreciated, or are they cheerleaders for what’s popular at this very moment?  To answer that, lets break it down into 4 sections: How do creators see critics; How does the public see critics; What do critics think they are doing; How does all that effect what the modern critic actually does.

Series and rigorous critics consider themselves part of the creative process.  A slightly removed part, but a part nonetheless. Most critics began their critical lives as creators.  Most movie critics studied screenwriting or directing.  Most book reviewers have a manuscript or two tucked away somewhere.  Most beer writers have sat in garages on Saturday morning boiling wort.

The critic stands between the creators and the public fostering a conversation between not only those two groups but for creators and for the public to have among themselves.  To me the critics job isn’t to tell anyone whether a movie, album, book, or beer is bad.  It is to tell you whether it is successful in attempting to do what it attempts to do.  Good or bad are value judgements that can only be made by individuals.

Creators see critics as meddling know-it-alls.  Dilatants sitting outside the creative process throwing stones and making assessments about things they know nothing about.  When faced with a bad review, creators will often fall into, “They just didn’t understand what I was trying to do.” Here is the critic’s defense: Good reviewers usually have an excellent idea about what the creator was trying to do.  In a world where the critic and the creators are in a dialogue, the critic is free to tell the creator I know what you were trying, but you failed and here is why.

The difference between a critic and a website reviewer is the Untappd user will give a beer 1 star and put the comment “this sucks” with it.  A critic explains that the beer was an attempt at something new and creative and then why the beer failed.  Unfortunately, creators often lump both of those reactions together.

The public sees the critic as a utility. The reason people love rating websites is that they point them in a direction.  Critics help cut through all the clutter and noise to find the stuff worth enjoying.  There is a finite amount of time in the world and too much of everything.  Around the world, almost 3000 movies come out every year. In the US alone, somewhere around 300,000 books come out every year.  There are over 4000 breweries in the US and if you say they each produce around 7 beers each, you are looking at almost 30,000 different beers.  The critic in part should strive to make the average consumer’s life a little bit easier.

So, combining those points of view, what is it the critic actually does in a modern world?  The critic has no job if the public doesn’t read him. So, a job of the critic is to find the worthwhile and present it to the public in a clear and concise way. A good review should get across the basics of a beer and whether it is worth your while to seek it out and drink it as quickly and as entertainingly as possible.

A critic should also write the review so that the creator can get something out of it.  By saying what worked and what didn’t with as little judgement as possible, makes the review more palatable for a creator if it is a “bad” one.

The critic and the creator should also engage in a continuous conversation about what they are doing and where their creations stand with respect to the past, present, and future.

That is an important conversation.  In beer, annotated styles are snap shots in fixed point in time.  Styles shift and change as the public’s appetites change, ingredients become more or less available, and as the brewers (who are creative people) take chances with their creations.  Take the ubiquitous IPA. Just in the last 10 years the American IPA has shifted and changed.  If you consider what we call an IPA with the first IPAs shipped from England to India, those beers only have a passing resemblance to each other.  In my mind, it is important for critics and creators to talk about what was, what is, and what the future may hold.

So, what is it I want to do as a beer critic.  First, I want to explain why a beer is successful or isn’t successful.  Meaning, did the brewer do what they set out to do?  I want to tell you that so you can make the decision as to whether you like it or not.  I never want to use the words good or bad or any of their synonyms in a review.  I can only tell you what it tastes like. I can only explain whether I think it is a successful interpretation of the current style guidelines, a return to the original intent of the first brewers of that beer, or whether it is the herald of a shift in the style.

Second, I want to think about where beer is going.  What will affect who, what, where, and how beer is made in the future.  We are at an interesting time in beer.  Two things are occurring simultaneously: Consolidation is creating ever larger beer companies as beer drinkers are getting more localized in the beer they want.  I think the growth we have had for the last five years will slow.  Urban areas are getting saturated with breweries and those breweries will start to close and consolidate with each other.  However, it is the smaller towns and more rural areas where growth will continue with breweries opening up in 15,000 people towns away from urban centers allowing everyone to have a beer to call their own.  While at the same time the big beer companies are no longer going to build breweries pumping out the same beer all over the country.  Instead they are buying regional breweries and helping them flood their local markets.

I’m making my life harder.  I started off, just wanting to drink and write about beer.  Now, I’ve elevated myself to the role of critic and all that I put into the meaning of that word.  God, this will be fun.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 8/8/16

We are going to try something different with the Five Articles.  At least for a little while.  Instead of 5 takes on 5 different articles, I want to try one take on one article in 500 words.

One of the things you notice when you pay attention to the news surrounding craft beer is how there is a learning curve that has to happen in many parts of the country about craft beer and its culture.  That is particularly true in places where alcohol has been historically demonized like the South and parts of the Mid-West.

I know in many places in the South, any consumption of alcohol is considered sinful and an aberration of “good” behavior.  There is fear that allowing easy access to alcohol will lead to things like “Beer Street” or “Gin Lane.”  William Hogarth’s painting is a depiction of what the wealthy and he upstanding thought happens when the poor and unwashed were given access to “demon alcohol.”

That idea of the degradation caused by unfettered access to alcohol led to the Prohibition movement in the United States which still persists.  When you combine that fear with the power many alcohol distributors and their lobby have in most state legislatures you can get situations like the one in Alabama.

Recently, Alabama passed a law to allow breweries to sell growlers.  As in many states where similar laws were recently passed, the distribution and big beer lobbies added in provisions to protect themselves.  In this case, one of those provisions is to limit individual purchases of growlers from breweries to 288 ounces at any one time.

First problem, this limit is only for brewery growlers.  You can buy more than one case of mass produced beer at your nearby gas station with no problem.  Second problem, as often happens when legislatures pass laws to either protect a certain lobby or to solve problems that don’t actually exist without putting much thought behind their actions (NC HB2 anyone), someone has to enforce those laws.  So, the Alabama alcohol beverage commission had to figure out how to regulate this 288-ounce limit and decided the best way to do it is to have breweries take down the name, address, and telephone numbers of anyone who buys growlers and give that information to the Alabama ABC. That went over like a fart in church.

So what will probably happen next is the Alabama legislature will have to go back and fix this, by taking out the limit on individual purchases and everyone will go on their merry way.  This could have been avoided if legislatures were populated by more people with enough common sense, intelligence, and respect for the legislative process to actually read and understand the stuff they are asked to vote on during a session.

The people we elect to represent us in state legislatures are supposed to be the smartest most community dedicated people in the room.  That is why we choose them to be our representatives.  Our spokespersons.  Unfortunately, what we seem to keep electing are the ones who can raise the most money.  Not the smartest and not the ones who care the most about the least of us.  And they are certainly not people dedicated enough to public service to read the things they are being asked to vote upon, much less care how these actual laws will affect the people and small businesses they are there to represent.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 7/27/16

Missing yesterday was not my fault. It was the fault of Time Warner Cable.  My internet was down most of yesterday morning.  Now, everything is back to normal (for the moment).  Onto the Five Articles.

  • Tap handles are interesting. Sometimes they bring people to the beer and sometimes they just sit there.  If they are interesting enough, they may get the attention of a customer who will be intrigued enough to try a pint.  This is one of those beer adjacent industries that has popped up over the last few years.
  • They will figure out a way to make the money work and the deal will go through. The core of this merger was always the non-North American (specifically the African, Asian, and South American markets) companies and neither side is going to let that investment go away easily.
  • Yes, the insane growth of the last 5 years has slowed. It was never sustainable and any article you read that says this is some kind of death knell for the craft beer industry should be ignored. I will say again; growth will soon grow flat.  Rural areas will lead the growth because small towns all across the country will open their own local breweries.
  • I don’t know what the point of this column, but it was at least interesting. Yes, many beers were developed to be easy drinking, but that does not mean devoid of all taste.
  • Economic development and state incentives interest me in general. The question I always ask is at what point do all the tax incentives given to corporations to move end up with the state paying more money to the company than the taxes they pay? On the other hand, if you are a community with a large swath of empty factories and/or warehouses you need someone to come in and make that wasted space into something that generates some kind of tax revenue.  Here is the view of craft beer corporate investments from Michigan.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read and Why, 7/25/16

I am a creature of routine and when my routine gets disrupted it takes me a while to find my rhythm and make my way back to a new routine.  I’m starting to get my new routine established and that means writing more consistently (my new routine includes meditation and jogging). On the Five Articles.

Yet Another Update

I’m no longer moving.  I’m no longer trying to get my cable/internet/phone working (at least for now).  I’m no longer buying crap for my new apartment.  I am now home.  I’m still getting my voter registration sorted out, which is made ridiculously difficult to keep that scourge of voter fraud from occurring by silly hoops to jump through (check out Media Matters for more statistics, but from 2000-2014 of the 1 billion votes cast there were a grand total of 31 cases of voter fraud).

Now with all that crap out of the way, I can concentrate again on writing and beer (and reading Ulysses and Hamlet).

I have a beer review in the hopper and I hope to get another one for next week.  So, I am back on my plan to do 1 or 2 reviews a week (working on my palate so I can take the Cicerone exam) and writing 1 or 2 other blog posts per week.  The Five Articles will start back on Sunday.

It feels good to be back and it feels even better to be home.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/20/16

Sorry, I missed the Five Articles this weekend.  I was in Richmond, enjoying a lot of good local beer, but we were also without power.  No power meant no Wi-Fi.  Richmond was awesome. My favorite place was The Answer a small brewery attached to the Mekong restaurant.  Also, the new Stone brewery will be awesome when it is finished.  We managed to go six different breweries and restaurants starting at noon on Saturday and wrapped up around 11 and didn’t get hung over on Sunday morning.  That is some professional drinking right there.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/17/16

A short vacation starts for me today.  I’m heading to Richmond for a couple of days of beer drinking.  The Five Articles should not be affected, but it just depends on how drunk I get.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/16/16

Today is Bloomsday.  It is June 16, the day Leopold Bloom walked through Dublin in James Joyce novel Ulysses.  Once again, I will begin my quest to start and finish the book. I’ve made it pretty much half way through on my last attempt.  Anyway, on to the Five Articles.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/15/16

There was a bounty of good articles today.  Here are the five that I like best.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/14/16

Tuesday has arrived.  Today’s articles have a lot of food.  Also, there is a new beer review coming up in the next couple of days.

  • This is a short article that tries to delve into craft beer and food. The article does the same thing many in the craft community and certainly those outside the community do.  It treats craft beer like a hobby or fad instead of the business it is by diminishing it with the phrase “craft beer craze” to describe its subject matter.  We in the craft beer business have to get over apologizing for what we do and the success that has come with it.  Yes, brewers do what they do for the love of beer, however, what they do is also how they pay rent and put food on their families’ table.  Thinking about beer as a business should not be left to the province of ABInbev and their ilk.
  • This is a celebration of beer and cheese from England. It is a bit of paid content in the Lifestyle section of the Telegraph from the Britain Beer Alliance.  It breaks down why beer and cheese work so well together and gives a few suggestions for pairings.  I’ve read many pieces on the Brewers Association website craftbeer.com that are very similar.  There seems to be more of a distaste and distrust of paid content in the US than in Britain.  However, is that worse than a newspaper/news website just reprinting a press release as a news article? I’ve read a lot of those also.  At least with paid content the news organization gets some money out of it.
  • Along with some pretty good nutritional information about beer, this article taught me that Duluth is known for its craft beer. This article does point out that beer has nutritional value, however like any alcoholic beverage it should be used in moderation.  If you’re drinking beer for its health benefits, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I still don’t understand why they are dragging this out over 20 years. Most of the Colorado liquor stores that will fail will do so because they offer no added value for consumers. If you provide consumers with a knowledgeable staff (sommeliers and/or Cicerones) or just a cool place to hang out, you will probably survive.  Those that don’t do that will not survive.  That’s how a free market economy works.
  • Every couple of years a story like this pops up. Some rich guy with too much time on his hands goes out and finds a shipwreck. He salvages as much as he can to sell so he can make more money and finds a sealed bottle at the bottom that is pretty well preserved.  He brings in a scientist and/or a brewer who pull out the contents and try to create a reasonable facsimile of what was in the bottle.  This particular version of the story comes from Australia.