Category Archives: The Beer Counselor

The Last Eight Months

“Dude, you’ve lost a whole person.”

One of my bartenders told me that after seeing a photo of me on his phone from April.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  You may have noticed.  There are two reasons for that.

The first is in February I had an incident that made me go to the doctor.  Long story short, I had elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  We got to it early enough that the doctor said it would be taken care of with exercise and a much better diet.  So, since March that is what I’ve been doing.  I eat much better now.  That was the key to losing all the weight.  When you tell people you are a vegetarian, they automatically think you are eating healthy.  Believe me, you can eat like crap as a vegetarian.  I was living proof.

I also now walk six miles every morning.  That takes up the chunk of time that used to be dedicated to writing.  However, I’ve lost almost sixty pounds and feel infinitely better.

The other thing that happened was Wicked Weed was purchased by AB-InBev.  That in and of itself was not the trigger.  It was the carping and vitriol unleashed by the sale that pushed me off Twitter and away from writing.  Throw in trying to study for the Cicerone exam (twice) and writing about beer didn’t seem too important.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been drinking and thinking about beer and keeping notes.  I’ve been doing a lot of that and if you go to my Instagram feed or my Untappd account you will see all that I’ve been drinking.

I’ve been keeping lots of notes and soon (this coming Sunday in fact) I’m going to start posting reviews again.  My intent is also to start posting daily again.  First, I must figure out how to do it in a way that will make it interesting to me and therefore readers.

This has a been a long and interesting eight months.  I’m not a different person, but I am a better version of myself.  I hope that is reflected in the writing to come.

Denver, Charlotte, and Craft Beer Culture

I got off the airplane and weaved my way through DIA to the train platform, bought my ticket and took the 25-minute ride all the way to Union Station in downtown Denver.  Once I got off the train I found a local coffee shop and grabbed an Americano and a Danish.  Since my check-in was still a couple of hours away and I didn’t want to wander too far, I went to the Terminal Bar and had lunch and a couple of Colorado beers.  That was all within the first 3 hours of me being in Denver.  I don’t think you can do that in Charlotte. First, the light rail gets nowhere close to the airport and our transportation hub isn’t quite as well stocked.

Whenever I go to Denver, I’m struck by how Denver is 10-15 years ahead of Charlotte in so many ways.  I think I do that because the cities are so similar in population and ambition.  You see it from the way the light rail works to what I care most about, how the beer culture in Denver is ahead of Charlotte’s. I sit on the airplane on my way back home and I can’t help but ruminate on the greater idea of where Charlotte is compared to Denver, but especially where it is in comparing beer cultures.

There are two primary ways I think about this.  First, how the beer culture is an excepted part of the overall city culture.  Second, how there is no such thing as peak brewery.

The first thing you truly get when you stay in Denver for a few days is the beer culture is part of the overall area’s culture.  Denver is the mecca for beer.  It may not have been the first city with craft breweries, but it is the city the first embraced the idea of craft beer culture.  Let’s put it this way, there are not many other cities in the US that would work with the NFL to make sure its team didn’t have a home game during a beer festival.  Denver does that with the GABF.  Every time I go to Denver, my love and my faith in this little part of American culture I’ve fallen in love with and want to see succeed is renewed and strengthened.

In Denver, for instance, the mid-level restaurants curate their beer selection.  I went to multiple restaurants that had all craft beer on tap and most of that craft beer was from Colorado and it wasn’t just New Belgium or Great Divide.  In Charlotte, that niche of dining is filled by chains that let the distribution reps and corporate mandate decide what gets put on tap. Craft beer is a thing they must do to appease a certain segment of potential customers. In Denver, you have restaurants where the beer buyer thinks about and curate their craft beer selection.  That is why in Charlotte, I can almost guess the “craft” and local beer a restaurant has before I walk in to eat.  That is slowly changing.

I only get that renewal in little pockets in Charlotte.  That is because while there is a growing craft beer culture, a lot of people in Charlotte view craft beer as this little fad over in the South End and NoDa that all the millennials are playing in until they get real jobs.  That is why buying craft beer for most bars is an afterthought.  In Denver, breweries are competing to get on tap.  That is slowly coming to Charlotte.

To go hand in hand with that, recently, there has been a lot of talk of reaching peak brewery in Charlotte.  What the discussion centers around is when will there be more craft breweries in Charlotte then Charlotte can support.  Denver proves that concept is a fallacy.  The Denver MSA has only a slightly bigger MSA then Charlotte’s as far as population (MSA estimates for 2016 put Denver at about 400k more people) but has many more breweries. Denver has somewhere like 5.2 breweries per 100,000 people. Charlotte is around a little less than half that number. 

One of my favorite places to go in Denver is Ratio Beerworks.  It is a great brewery and a great place to hang out and have a beer.  There are at least another 4 breweries within a 10-minute walk of Ratio including Epic’s Denver brewery and taproom.  Do you know what that kind of proximity does?  It creates a mostly friendly competition in which each brewery pushes the other.  You can’t be mediocre and you can’t rest on your laurels from 2 years ago much less 8 years ago.  Everyone has won medals.  Yours aren’t special and you have to keep getting better or you will fail. If your brewery sucks you can’t continue to coast on being the local brewery.  If I don’t like your beer, I can walk out your front door, turn left, and get better beer with a five-minute walk.

That is why we need more breweries in Charlotte.  Especially breweries started by experienced brewers who will come out strong and push the already established breweries to be better and stop coasting.  That doesn’t mean breweries won’t fail.  It means the ones with bad beer or a bad business plan or no real plan at all will fail.  The breweries with the best combination of beer, plan, and culture will succeed.  That isn’t a bad thing. It is how every other business works.

Th thing about this idea of beer culture is that it takes time and Charlotte is an impatient city when it comes to things like culture.  This is a city that grew and became an economic power overnight. That kind of growth is the kind that is bought and built quickly and overnight.  Just look at all the condos and apartments going up around town like so many Lego houses.  Charlotte is the embodiment of a boomtown in our microwave culture.

You must explain why Asheville, Denver, Portland, Portland, and Seattle (and maybe even Raleigh to an extent) have better craft beer cultures to many in Charlotte.  They are simply older and more mature.  Yes, we have breweries, but the vast majority are less than 5 years old.  Wynkoop Brewery opened in downtown Denver in 1988.  While many breweries opened and closed in Charlotte beginning around the same time, the oldest still in existence is Olde Mecklenburg which opened in 2009. That is a huge difference.  There were people who were born and came of legal drinking age in Denver between the time Wynkoop served its first pint and Olde Meck celebrated its 1st anniversary.

So, while I think Charlotte beer culture has a long way to go, I also know, it is only through time and making sure we keep our focus on good beer that we will get there.  We can’t buy it, we can’t build it overnight, but we can keep moving forward and build it with one brick every day.

Things I Did In Denver

I find airports interesting.  The people you see there, especially early in the morning.  Are a combination of exhausted, grouchy, dehydrated, and annoyed at the world, specifically the TSA.  In short, it is a good place to see humans at their most open and vulnerable.  Airports often have an aroma that is a combination of cleaning chemicals, human waste, fried food, and coffee.

I landed and after about 3 hours in Denver I was relaxed.  That is an almost foreign feeling.  My primary goal besides seeing one of my best friends get married is to only drink beer I’ve never had before or are not available in Charlotte.

So, this happened.  A weird lady with a Star of David tattooed on her forehead joined me at my table by the fountain outside Union Station.  Not dangerous weird, just weird.  She talked a lot about what I’m not really sure.  Something about waiting for her husband and his crazy family.

Then, at the Terminal Bar, I had an angry little man sitting a couple of seats down from me.  The angry elf was pissed at the whole world especially the incompetent people who were thinking about hiring him.  He muttered and talked to himself the whole time he was there calling the people he was trying to work for “dykes and faggots” in a wonderful stream of crazy.  He was mad at the bartender for carding him (its Union Station policy to card anyone ordering alcohol), didn’t like any of the 30 taps, couldn’t get cell reception, had a hard time figuring out Google Maps or something.  I stopped listening and just enjoyed my Telluride Brewing Face Down Brown on nitro.  When he left, the bartender and I looked at each and just laughed.

After dealing with a screw up by the hotel, I got a nap before meeting Dave and Ginny for dinner and a few beers.  We went to Bierstadt Lagerhaus.  Great German style beer and great food.  I had the Vegetarian Mac & Cheese and we shared a vegetarian poutine along with two excellent dunkels.  I finished the food later that night in my hotel room.  It was great to see the two of them together before the wedding both being kind of twitchy with the last of the preparations.  After Bierstadt, we walked over to Epic where I had the Smoked Porter just before they closed.

I had a nice view from the 22nd floor of the Hyatt Place in Downtown Denver

The next day I woke up and got some coffee and walked around the neighborhood a bit.  Then I walked down to Freshcraft for lunch and a couple of beers.  This is now on my list of places I must go whenever I’m in Denver. Good food, good beer selection, and better atmosphere.

The elusive Velvet Yeti

From there, my path took me to the Great Divide Barrel Bar. When I heard they were building a new tap room I was afraid it would be an overly elaborate monstrosity.  Part of the charm of the old taproom is that it is so damn small and cramped.  While the new tap room is bigger, it isn’t much bigger. There is room for a few tables and a more expansive bar, but it is still a small and decently intimate place to have a beer.

After that, I met up with Dave and Brian at Ratio.  I love this place.  First, it is great beer. Second, it has a great atmosphere and vibe that makes me feel comfortable.  That is a theme to all the places I like in Denver.  I always find places that I feel comfortable just sitting and drinking.  After that, we adjourned to Los Chingones for a little quick Mexican food.

After picking up Dan at Union Station we made our way to Hops and Pie.  I’ve been here a couple of times now and the beer is great and the pizza is great.  Another place I will tell anyone to make their way to.  Once we finished eating, we were all tired and found our way to our beds for a night’s sleep.

The next day was great.  I did nothing until the picnic at Sloan’s Lake.  There I just ate more Mexican food and hung out.  Wait, I forgot.  I timed it so I could go by Hogshead Brewery first for a pint.  Another place that I love.  Good cask ales served at the correct temperature.  Session beers all around.  After the picnic, most of the wedding guest went there for a few more pints.  Then some of us ended up at US Thai. Then we went back to the Dan, Dave, and Brian’s Airbnb where they partook in some of Denver’s finest that past guests left for others since they couldn’t get it on the airplane.

Sunday, Wedding day, I met up with the three of them again for a hike at Red Rocks.  That is an awesome and beautiful place and I want to get there for a concert at least once in my life.  We left there and had lunch and Block and Larder before getting ready for the wedding.

The wedding took place at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms.  It was a beautiful facility and beautiful setting for a beautiful wedding.  Dave and Ginny are two of my favorite people separately and they are perfect together.  The ceremony was short, simple and beautiful.  Then before the reception got started the surprised and honored me by asking me to be one of the witnesses for their wedding license.  The more I think about it, the more honored I am and the more emotional I get about it.  Then the reception and its two types of mashed potatoes started.  There was bourbon, vodka, and beer.  I was in heaven.

The next morning, I was back in an airport in the early morning.  Being there on 9/11 was an interesting feeling.  I was struck by the transience of life and how the memories of that day are clear as a movie with the same emotional impact.  I don’t feel the same about that day as I did.  It is still a demarcation point in memory of how the world works, but for me the emotions are muted.  It is almost a wistfulness of how things were and not the sadness of a tragedy that changed how we all live.

I flew home and landed in a rain storm still relaxed from the vacation and happy to have been honored to be invited to this wedding.

What Is Craft Beer, Part 1

One of my favorite classes, when I was at UNC, was on the history of the Constitution since the Civil War.  We studied all the major Supreme Court decisions that led to the Civil War and all the major decisions after the war as well as all the Constitutional Amendments from the end of the war through the 20th century.  It was interesting mostly because it was a good way to survey how the modern US government was formed and took shape for the last 150 years of the country’s history.

The concept that has stayed with me the most from that class is “annotative law vs. connotative law.”  In other words, what the law says in the statutes vs. how the law is enforced and interpreted.  Those are often two very different things.

The Brewers Association has defined craft breweries as:

Small

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional

A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

That means, generally speaking, any beer made by those brewers is a craft beer.

That is the annotated definition of what craft beer is.  The connotative definition, the one people define themselves in a way that they understand is where things get murky and where arguments and hyperbole ensue.

This all started while I was on my sabbatical from writing about beer after the Cicerone test punched me in the face.  I read two or three tiresome Twitter threads that were arguments between craft beer people. What I noticed in all these arguments were the two sides the arguments were having two different arguments. Mostly, arguing past each other.  I wondered why was this and the only conclusion I came up with is that while they agreed on the general definition of what craft was, there were differences in details and their approach to craft.

Let’s step back and think about the definition of craft again.  We have the Brewer’s Association’s definition.  The question then becomes how is the concept of craft beer interpreted and expressed by different people involved in the industry.

One of the things I find interesting about ideas and concepts like craft, alternative, independence, and freedom is how in a modern capitalistic society they can be co-opted by businesses and advertising agencies to sell stuff.  When you buy a pair of jeans you are not only buying those jeans, you are buying whatever concept and narrative the manufacturer and their advertising company have built up around those jeans.

For many people, buying and drinking craft beer has become the same as listening to a certain band, watching a certain television show, or buying certain clothes. They represent a narrative you want to express about yourself without talking.

This week, I want to use this space to theorize how each constituency, brewers, distributors/wholesalers, retailers, bloggers, and drinkers, defines craft beer.  Why do I include bloggers as a separate constituency from drinkers?  Usually, bloggers aren’t a part of the constituencies that directly financially benefit from craft beer, but they are a great deal more informed than the average drinker.  They also help drive the conversation surrounding craft beer in a way sometimes disproportionate to their actual reach.

Then to wrap up, I will delve into the idea that even within each of those groups is another dialectic between what I term the Realists on one side and the Romantics on the other.  That is where the real fireworks take place.

I hope to have fun doing this and you I hope you come back to read at least part of it even if you don’t agree with it.

What Do We Do Now?

There was a great disturbance in the craft beer universe a month ago.  In the latest of a series of purchases by big beer, Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC was purchased by AB-InBev.  This had reverberations far beyond North Carolina where Wicked Weed was seen as the leading light of the state’s craft beer by many.

Luckily for me, I had the Cicerone exam to study for and recover from which afforded me the opportunity to organize my thoughts and opinions on the sale.  I did read the writing and opinions of others and can say much of what I read was cogent and interesting even when I may have disagreed with the writer’s conclusions.  However, too much of the writing degenerated into the, “I’m more CRAFT then you” didactic that is part of too much online discourse.  Too many craft supporters take the position that if you don’t agree with every point they’re making you are at best a big beer apologist or at worst a sellout like Wicked Weed.

That line of writing, discourse, and thinking is boring to read.  More importantly, at a time when craft beer is at a very important flexion point in its existence, it bogs the conversation down into needless finger pointing, keeping the conversation from moving forward into, “What do we do next?”

What do I think of the sale?

I am of two minds when it comes to the Wicked Weed sale or the sale of any other craft brewery to big beer.  First, is my business mind.  It tells me that neither I nor anyone else should presume to tell another person how to run their business.

While there are nebulous obligations to the craft beer collective and concrete obligations to the affected employees, in the end, the owner/brewer of the brewery must do right by the rest of the ownership group/investors.  You invest in a fledgling company or start up because you believe you will see a return on that investment at some point.  From a business perspective, this current moment in craft beer is a good time to sell a brewery.  The number of new breweries popping up is beginning to create greater and greater competition, that hurts future growth and current margins of breweries.  Cashing in may be the best advice for many breweries and their investors.

Also, in all honesty, if you are not an investor or a member of the ownership group of a brewery, you have no real idea what the original business plan promised potential investors and you have no idea what the other internal machinations lead a brewery to sell to AB or other big beer company.  You cannot attack someone who starts a business, builds it into a successful national brand, and then sells that business for a profit.  In almost any other business sector that is applauded.

Second is my small business/buy local/craft beer mind.  There are national coffee chains close to my apartment with slightly cheaper coffee and tea, however, I walk to a locally owned place a little farther away that has more personality and keeps my dollars in the community and appreciates my business.

So, while my business (i.e. intellectual) mind understands these decisions and accepts them, this second mind, while not angered is disappointed and saddened.  I am disappointed that we are losing a successful locally owned business to a conglomerate that treats beer like any other factory-made commodity.  I am saddened by the fact that much of the Wicked Weed beer you buy in 3 years will be a hollow facsimile of the Wicked Weed beer you can buy today.

This second mind knows that craft brewing is a creative endeavor and respects and honors the work it takes to make it creatively and financially.  The second mind believes that craft beer is about more than money.  It is a business and everyone wants to succeed, but as Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing, put it in this article, craft beer is more of a foot race then a hockey match.  Each craft brewer is running their own race pushing themselves and by extension everyone else by doing their own thing their own way to the best of their abilities.  Big beer treats beer as a zero-sum game where you win or die.  That point of view is not only antithetical to my personal beliefs, it stands in stark opposition to the founding principles of craft beer.

No craft brewer gets into brewing to make money.  The hours are long and there is no guarantee the yeast will create the beer you want or expect.  Brewers do this because they love that part of the challenge and they love how brewing allows them to express themselves.  This separates them from their investors who may not have the same almost romantic vision of brewing and expect to make money from this venture.

We must accept both realities as part of craft beers future to ensure its continued growth.

Back to Wicked Weed. I understand the sale, but I don’t like it.  Sometimes the money they offer is too great to turn down.  This sale like almost all the others before it is understandable and defensible on a business and intellectual level as individual business decisions.  They are, however, against everything the craft beer ethos espouses.

Where are we right now?

First, big beer companies are going to continue buying craft breweries.  That is part of a long-term strategy that will not change and is exacerbated by a business environment that makes some craft brewers ripe for buying.

Second, we know that capital investment in new and existing breweries is increasing as the segment matures as a business.  Many of these investors no longer just want to say they own part of a brewery to be cool but want to turn their investment into a profit.

Third, the almost exponential growth we saw in the last few years in the number of craft brewers is leading to equally exponential growth in competition for tap handles and shelf space among craft brewers.  The larger, regionally focused craft brewers are beginning to get squeezed out of the marketplace not necessarily by big beer and their many tentacles but by the mass of extremely localized small breweries that they inspired.  Many of those larger brewers have been faced with flat if not negative growth in the last year.  That is why this business environment breeds these sales.  For some breweries selling means recouping an investment now when that may not be possible in a few years’ time.

What do we do?

The first thing to do as a craft beer fan is to start simple and start local.  Let your love of craft beer inform your buying decisions of what and where you buy.  If you have local breweries near you, frequent them.  Buy their beer, their growlers, and their swag.  If you go to a local brewery and their beer isn’t as good as you had hoped, don’t frag them on social media. Send a personal email or letter to the owner/brewer expressing your concerns in a thoughtful and respectful manner.  We must be the ones who control craft beer.  Not the faceless conglomerates who could just as easily be selling ball bearings rather than beer.

Another thing you can do is join your state brewer’s guild or the Brewers Association as an affiliate member.  Most state guilds have this option to raise funds and create a group of supporters and volunteers.  For as many issues as you may have with some of the day to day decisions the Brewers Association and state guilds make, they are organizations whose expressed reason for existence is to support and promote independent craft brewers.  Give money, get a t-shirt, get newsletters, and get discounts at members taprooms for stuff you wanted to buy anyway.

Finally, bloggers, writers, and podcasters should try to be more Thomas Jefferson than Thomas Paine.  In every revolution, there is a time for rhetoricians to spit hot fire from the blog post or podcast microphone.  However, there is also a point when that loses its effectiveness.  You need equally iron-willed and no less committed people who will create and implement the ideas and theories that make the revolution’s goals self-sustaining.  Too often, online discussion about craft beer ends up with everyone talking in circles, saying nothing, and going nowhere.  However, for craft beer to continue to move forward through this time of growth and upheaval, we all need to step off the hamster wheel of online discourse and offer something thoughtful and new.

I don’t think big beer is evil, much in the same way I don’t think Hurricane Katrina was evil.  However, there are two things.  First, many of their business practices and the actions their distributors perpetrate in their name are detestable and contemptible and are rooted in the fundamental belief that this is a zero-sum proposition.  Every time we hear those stories we should challenge big beer in ways large and small. Second, AB will turn Wicked Weed into another one of its stable of beers with just a little twist to make it stand out in its sea of mediocrity and that is what is maybe the saddest part. What Wicked Weed could have become will never be.

Update

The new post will be up tomorrow morning.  It is a bit longer then I anticipated, and has gone through a few edits and revisions.  However, I think it is almost ready.

The Beer Counselor

Hello, again

It has been over a month since I posted and wanted to let everyone know everything is well.

I took some time off to study for, take, and recover from the Cicerone exam.  I found studying for the exam and working 50 hours a week at my job was exhausting so I’m currently on a mini-vacation. However, there will new posts coming in the next day.

I will post my thoughts on the Cicerone exam and the thing I learned studying for it.  I will tell you my palate is better then before, but I realized some other interesting things studying styles.

I will also have a post on my thoughts about the Wicked Weed sale.  I am actually glad my break to study occurred during the sale and the resulting social media outrage. I not only took a break from writing but also a break from Twitter in a meaningful way.  That may have saved my sanity during that week.  Anyway, I just wanted to drop a post and let everyone know what was going on with me.

Stay tuned to this space later today for the new post.

Beer Counselor Fun Fact, 4/24/17

The article in today’s One Article got me thinking about something.

Here is a fun little fact that many don’t know about how grocery stores work, at least here in NC.  Let me back up.  Retail store shelf space is laid out in these things called planograms.  They are just as they sound: the plan of how each store is laid out.  It is not just what departments are where in each store, but what products and specific brands are placed where on each shelf.  Most large retail companies either have internal groups that handle it or they farm it out to companies that specialize in planograms.

That brings us back to grocery stores and their beer/wine set ups.  These planograms, at least the beer planograms are done by one of the two big beer companies you are thinking about as soon as I said big beer companies.  There is input from the grocery store chain and some chains are starting to put all planograms in house, however still with input from the big beer companies.  By and large however the big beer companies decide how much shelf space everybody gets.  Now, the shelf space is mostly divided up by distributor with the distributors of ABI and MillerCoors brands getting the bulk.  Then it is further divided among their “craft” brands and then finally any craft brands and self-distributed beers.

Now, whereas your frozen pizza shelf placements are mandated by corporate headquarters and stocked by the store, beer and wine are stocked by the distributor.  So, while the main beer sets are set by the planogram and stocked by a distributor, the smaller craft brands are picked at the store level and stocked by whoever distributes that beer.  The grocery store staff doesn’t touch beer or wine.  That puts smaller brewers at a disadvantage.  All the store manager wants to see is full shelf space, they don’t care what is in that shelf location as long as it isn’t empty.  The big distributors that handle the big brewers have sales reps who all they do is work the off-premise accounts like grocery stores ordering and policing their shelf space.  A small brewery self-distributing doesn’t usually have enough people to do that even just for local grocery stores.

That is why all these new breweries are competing with each other for shelf space in places where most beer is sold more than they are competing with the big beer companies.

When institutional racism is mentioned, people believe it means institutions are actively discriminating against people of color, women, or gays/lesbians.  It usually means the institution was set up in a way to often unintentionally benefit the majority group.

Because alcohol laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction even within a county, it was easier for grocery store chains to let the big beer companies and distributors create their beer sets.  When there were fewer than 200 breweries that made sense.  AB gets this Miller gets this and then whatever weird German stuff that makes it over can go here and will put malt liquor and 40s over here for black folks.

Many of the beer and alcohol laws that govern us to this day were written at the same time those decisions were made.  Now, the world done changed and those who benefit the most from the way the things were always done and the way laws are written will not give up those advantages without a fight.  Even if that fight is probably doomed.

 

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.

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.