A Link-Bait Manifesto

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This morning I got a press release from the P.R. Firm for a well-known men’s magazine that was so obviously link-bait, that I almost didn’t even want to read it. I won’t say who or what, mostly because I’m tired of playing into their hands, but most of you will no doubt be able to figure it out, as I’ve already started seeing responses and retweets.

It’s something I’ve been guilty of time and time again. I hate myself for it, but I still can’t seem to help it. When I see something that annoys me, or strikes me as being wrong on some level, I often feel compelled to intercede. I’m seeking help.

A few years ago, I definitely would have penned an angry response, pointing out the flawed reasoning, or what have you. But I think I’m done, at least I hope so. I was bcc’d (thankfully) so I have no way of knowing just how many people the P.R. firm was trying to bait with their e-mail, but I suspect it was a lot of people. The e-mail itself used the most incendiary quotes from the piece, obviously designed to raise the hackles of the beer community and rally support against the piece, all in an effort to get thousands of people to visit the website and get their hit count going through the roof.

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Essentially, this has become a strategy on the internet. Say something incendiary, and reap the rewards. Maybe some of the people actually believe what they’re writing, but I get the sense that even if that’s the case, they do it in such a way as to maximize the outrage, and thus insure a greater number of responses. Often, I think, the extreme position taken is done precisely to get a rise out of people. I think it’s become a variation of the old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity, in this case more along the lines of as long as people are clicking on the link, it doesn’t matter what they say or whether it’s even true or not. All that matters is the hit count. Oscar Wilde was saying something similar in the 19th century. “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Sadly, there are all sorts of helpful websites explaining just how to accomplish this. See, for example, the SEO Guide to Creating Viral Linkbait, The Marketer’s Ultimate Guide to Link Bait, or SEO Advice: linkbait and linkbaiting. There’s even a helpful infographic and a link bait title generator. While most of them insist that not all link bait is bad, in our little part of the interwebs, that hasn’t been my experience.

I think I’ve just grown weary of hearing why the bubble is about to burst, or why you hate hops or beer with flavor, or that you drink your beer out of a plastic cup as god intended. Please, stop. Okay, I’m certain that won’t work. No plea for sanity every has. So instead I’d like to propose that we all agree to ignore them. That’s really the only way to make them stop. If we all ignore the link bait, and they don’t get the expected backlash they’re hoping for, then they’ll have no choice but to stop trying.

Having a different opinion or wanting to spark a meaningful discussion about it will remain an excellent reason to pen a thoughtful blog post or article. But taking an opinion that’s designed to provoke outrage with inflammatory language, fringe positions, or by insulting entire swaths of people has no place in the marketplace of ideas that the beer blogosphere should aspire to. Just say know.

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Don’t take the bait

For The Next Session, Write About Writing

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For our 86th Session, our host is Heather Vandenengel, the Beer Hobo. For her topic, she’s chosen Beer Journalism, in other words using your words to write about writing … beer writing, that is. She writes. “It’s time for a session of navel-gazing: I’d like to turn a critical eye on how the media cover the beer industry. And, for a broad definition, I’ll define media as newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV, books and radio.” Here’s what she’s looking for:

What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

In the spirit of tipping the hat when someone gets it right, please also share a piece of beer writing or media you love–it doesn’t have to be recent, and it could be an article, podcast, video, book or ebook–and explain a bit about what makes it great. I’ll include links to those articles as well in my roundup for easy access reading.

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Here’s her instructions for participating:

  1. Write a blog and post it on or by Friday, April 4.
  2. Leave a comment [t]here with a link to your post.
  3. Check back on Monday, April 7 for a roundup of all the blog posts.

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Some of the earliest writing about beer, c. 3000-3100 BCE.

Contains No Bourbon

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After much speculation, I got a press release this morning from MillerCoors clarifying what we all thought to be the case regarding their newest creation, Miller Fortune. Here’s what they had to say:

Earlier this week, Bloomberg News Service wrote a story (“MillerCoors Seeks Spirits Fans With Bourbon-Like Lager”) about a new beer from MillerCoors called Miller Fortune, that we are launching the week of February 10.

Since that story ran, there have been several follow-up stories that inaccurately portray Miller Fortune as being a bourbon-flavored beer. That is simply not true and we’d like to set the record straight for anyone interested in writing a story in the future.

WHAT IS MILLER FORTUNE?
Miller Fortune is an exciting new beer with a 6.9% ABV. It features a rich golden color, brewed with caramel malt and cascade hops to achieve layers of flavor and a distinctly smooth finish. Our beer was brewed to deliver the complexity and depth that appeals to spirit drinkers. Spirit inspired…yes. Spirit infused…no. As many of you know, the beer industry as a whole has lost seven share points to spirits (five) and wine (two) in the last 10 years. Miller Fortune was created to fight against these losses and take back legal-drinking age spirits drinkers/occasions. So, you can say it has been inspired by the success of spirits competition and it is a darker beer that may look more bourbon-like in a glass.

WHAT MILLER FORTUNE IS NOT?
Miller Fortune is not bourbon-like or a bourbon-flavored beer.

I almost feel sorry for MillerCoors. That they would have to send out this release says a lot about the state of mainstream journalism, because that’s who got the story so wrong. What I think this reveals is that the mainstream and business press is not capable of covering the beer industry any longer. For so many years, they talked about numbers, about market share, about marketing; almost everything to do with the business, except for the beer itself, its flavor. But now that beer with flavor is kind of a big deal, they no longer know what to do. The business press booted it all over the place on this one, though Time magazine’s assigning it to a health reporter was even worse.

If I may be so bold as to suggest, the mainstream press needs to hire people who know something about beer to cover it effectively and accurately. Not business writers, not wine writers, not health writers: beer writers. I know of at least 130 members of the North American Guild of Beer Writers who would be pleased to accept a paid assignment from Bloomberg, Business Insider, Time or any number of news outlets who for years have been, for the most part, not covering beer very well, assigning beer stories to reporters who did not, and apparently still do not, really understand it. With over 2,700 American breweries, and even more internationally, there’s plenty to keep us busy. Just call one of us next time. We know the difference between a bourbon beer and one inspired by it.

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Miller Fortune: Bourbon & Cascades

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Okay, this is my third post today about Miller Fortune, the new “bourbon-like lager” from MillerCoors meant to address their loss of market share to distilled spirits. I’ll reserve judgment on the beer itself until my sample arrives and also until after it’s had a chance in the marketplace. Besides, it’s already been well-covered by Beverage Daily, Bloomberg, Business Insider and Time Magazine.

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But there’s certainly some oddities in the way they’re presenting it, whether by the mainstream press or by MillerCoors. As usual, it seems like they’re focusing a lot on the packaging — ooh, it’s black — and other marketing and not as much on the beer itself. One account describes the packaging as “jet-black, angular bottles meant to ‘evoke a guy in a tapered, athletic-cut suit.'” Uh-huh, that’s just what I was thinking of when I looked at it. The beer is 6.9% a.b.v., closer to an IPA than the usual light lager, though humorously Business Insider claims Coors Light is 5.9% instead of its actual 4.2%.

Then there’s trying to get bars and restaurants to serve it in a whiskey glass. Apparently, “[t]he rocks glass is intended to set Miller Fortune apart the same way the orange slice has made Blue Moon one of the company’s fastest-growing brews and its answer to the craft-beer juggernaut.” The idea is, of course, to make it seem more spirits-like, but it just seems gimmicky to me. It’s one thing to design a special glass to enhance the flavors but quite another to just pick a glass meant for something else in the hopes that people will make the association between the two.

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I don’t quite get the bourbon association, either. It wasn’t aged in a bourbon barrel, like many beers being brewed these days by smaller breweries, yet it’s referred to as a “bourbon-like lager.” The Bloomberg article says it has a “complex flavor hinting at bourbon” while Business Insider calls it a “bourbon-flavored beer.” The beer labels says it’s a “Spirited Golden Lager” while RateBeer categorizes it as an Amber/Vienna Lager while Beer Advocate has it listed as an American Amber/Red Lager. But apart from MillerCoors trying to draw an association to bourbon and spirits drinkers, and claiming bourbon makers as their inspiration, I don’t know where any bourbon flavors would be coming from.

Bloomberg brings up that they used some Cascade hops, saying it’s “a golden lager brewed in part with Cascade hops to give it a citrusy bite and caramel malt to impart an amber hue” and that “the flavor is moderately bitter with hints of sweetness, resting somewhere between a craft beer and a light lager.” So nothing about bourbon or being bourbon-flavored or bourbon-like, as far as I can tell. And the few people who’ve reviewed it on Beer Advocate and RateBeer likewise make no mention of any bourbon character. But perhaps the most hilarious statement was made by Time magazine, who states that “Miller Fortune is brewed with Cascade hops to give it its bourbon-like flavor.” That must be why Anchor Liberty and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale have all that spirited bourbon character. I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

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Spencer Trappist Brewery Is Bizarre?

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By now you’ve probably seen the news that the Spencer Trappist Brewery, America’s first Trappist brewery is selling beer, their Spencer Trappist Ale. I didn’t feel the need to write much about it since the news is just about everywhere, from the Boston Globe to L.A. Weekly, from NPR to CBS News.

But here’s one I don’t quite get. When ABC News, specifically the affiliate station out of Fresno, California, KFSN Channel 30, covered the story, they ran the headline US monks move into Trappist beer brewing business, but used essentially the same AP Story that most news outlets are using for this story. But ABC News also tagged the story with “Massachusetts,” which makes sense, and “bizarre,” which does not. Could somebody please explain to me what’s “bizarre” about this story? Other headlines in ABC’s bizarre topics include stories about devil babies, atomic wedgies and anal probes. But monks brewing beer, something they’ve been doing since the middle ages, possibly as early as the 6th century, is lumped in with what you’d normally only find in the pages of the Weekly World News when you’re checking out at the grocery store.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but that seems like beer getting a slap in the face to me. It was probably just some ignorant intern who didn’t know what to do with the story and didn’t want to have to think about it very much, and so just threw it in the catch-all category. But surely this story should have been characterized differently. Is that really too much to ask?

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You can also see additional photos at their Facebook page. And below is a video of the Spencer Trappist monks from St. Joseph’s Abbey.

A day in the life of a monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey from Spencer Brewery on Vimeo.

Are Americans Turning Away From Beer?

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Well I can’t say that seems to be the case from my personal experience, but a new Gallup Poll is being spun that way, especially in an Atlantic article, Why Are American Drinkers Turning Against Beer? This particular Gallop Poll is done each year — since at least 1939 — and what you have to remember is that it’s a popularity poll, not necessarily a scientific one. The poll itself is conducted in a proper manner, but it’s asking people to “say what they drink” or “what they prefer.” And that’s far different from what the actual sales indicate. The last time I wrote about this was in 2010, when that year the Latest Gallup Poll Reveals Drinking At 25-Year High With Beer #1.

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This year, the big story is “per capita consumption of beer down 20 percent,” as is overall production of beer. But as they continue to lump all beer together, when clearly patterns of drinking beer are changing, by keeping the poll simple they miss some of what’s really going on.

As my “beer brother” Lew Bryson commented. “Craft beer has been on a tear since 2002; latest figures have it up 15% annually (volume, 17% on $ sales). Volume sales of the majors are down, and trending downward steadily. Wine and spirits are picking up some of that, but craft is picking up a good share. It’s also worth noting that this IS a ‘what do you like’ poll, not ‘how much do you drink’ sales numbers. Beer still wins that by a sizable margin, both on volume and $ sales.” True indeed, when I wrote about this in 2010, beer outsold beer 4 to 1, showing just how skewed the difference is between what people say they like to drink, and what they actually drink.

One curious thing I wonder about these polls, and other alcohol data generally, is why alcohol is always divided up into these three tidy boxes? And where in these categories, if anywhere, is captured the sales, preferences or what-have-you for cider, alcopops, sake and other beverages that don’t seem to fit neatly into one of the big three. Are they ignored, or lumped into one of the three? It’s seems a fairly relevant question, since cider’s on a big upswing and alcopops have had their ups and downs, but certainly have to be part of the equation, especially when it comes to the all-important 18-29 demographic. But not even the full report gives any additional clues.

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Another item that makes me question Gallup’s polling is the huge gains of bottled water. To me that has more to do with availability than anything else. It’s getting harder and harder to even find a water fountain these days, because business has figured out that people will pay for it when that have no choice.

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Another explanation that didn’t ring true was that “American drinkers are more health-conscious today” and that’s led to people choosing other beverages, but even the author admits that this “does not adequately explain why Americans would turn against light beer,” as if that really is a healthy alternative. As I’ve said endlessly, low-calorie diet beer is hardly any healthier than non-light beers so that argument doesn’t hold any water … or even any watered-down beer.

Happily, the day after this story ran on the Atlantic’s website, the same author posted The Death of Beer Has Been Greatly Exaggerated, in which Derek Thompson shows that, despite the Gallop Poll, “total U.S. spending on all alcoholic beverages — both at home and at restaurants and bars — is up 27 percent since 1980 and even more since the mid-century.”

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And as I mentioned earlier, beer currently still outsells wine by a significant margin, and his data also indicates that “beer volume still outsells wine volume by 8.5″ times! So it’s pretty hard to swallow once more that beer is on the ropes.

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Thompson sums up his two days worth of articles:

The total amount of beer consumed by Americans is in structural decline, and there are more wine-drinkers than there used to be. But beer is still the most popular boozy beverage in America and overall sales are holding up, thanks in part to the emergence of craft beers.

Did we really need another Gallop Poll or Atlantic business writer to tell us that?

Consumer Reports On Craft Beer

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While Consumer Reports is an invaluable tool for buying the best among many different types of appliances, cars and widgets, when it comes to beer … not so much. Last year, Consumer Reports Rate[d] Mainstream Beers, with horrible results. More recently, they released their choices for the “Best Craft Beers,” stating that their “experts did blind taste tests of 23 ales and lagers.” The whole report will be in the August 2013 issue. As I’m on a deep deadline, I’m not going to be able to dissect where they went wrong, so I’ll instead happily defer to Jeff Alworth’s take, Consumer Reports on Craft Beer: #Fail, in which he describes how their “hardy band of untrained, eager tasters” chose 23 beers and “put them through their rigorous — if wholly clueless — tasting regime.” Some of their choice conclusions include that “the best ales have intense, complex, and balanced flavors” but “the best lagers are very tasty but not quite complex or intense enough to be excellent,” while they describe the worst beers as “decent but not as balanced, complex, or intense as the others, and some have off-flavors—hinting of cheese, soda water, or even paint.”

And while I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff that anyone with or without formal training can competently judge beer, I also agree that it can expose a “massive blind spot … when untrained people try to assess [the] ‘best’ among a widely differing group of beers with no regard to tradition or style.” Any of that’s fine if you’re sitting around your kitchen table with your buddies sampling the lastest haul from a beer run. But if you’re a massively influential consumer ratings group, you should take it a little bit more seriously and not just assume that the way you rate everything else will work in every instance.

People may laugh, but judging beer can be hard. (I assume at this point, I’ve become the equivalent of the supermodel complaining about standing around and looking sexy while people snap her picture.) But there’s more to it than simply swigging a few beers and saying which one you like best. Anyone can do it, but in order to do it competently and well, you still need to put in the time, gain the experience that’s necessary to calibrate your palate and understand what you’re drinking and why it tastes the way it does. It’s not magic, but you can’t learn to do it overnight, either. Like any learned skill, you have to keep doing it until you gain a certain competence, and then continue doing it to maintain or improve that level of proficiency.

I’ve judged beer on three continents, in local, regional, national and international competitions over a period of decades. No matter how often I do it, it’s always a challenge. There’s always something new to learn and appreciate, new combinations of aromas and flavors to consider against others, and a new understanding of the beers you’ve tasted. As Alworth nicely concludes. “Context matters. If you don’t understand why a beer tastes the way it does, you’re not going to appreciate the flavors you apprehend.” And that, I believe, is why Consumer Reports continues to do a great disservice to their readers when it comes to beer.

Oh, and one last snide remark. They have Samuel Adams listed among “the best ales.” Without identifying it, I can only assume that’s the Samuel Adams Boston Lager they’re referring to, which suggests a certain sloppiness, don’t cha think?

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The final “Best of Show” judging tables at this year’s California State Fair.

How Beer Gave Us Civilization

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While I’m firmly in the “beer came before bread” camp in the anthropological debate about what sparked civilization, evidence has been mounting for that view since it was first proposed over a half-century ago. In a new opinion piece in the New York Times by Jeffrey P. Kahn, the CEO of WorkPsych Associates, entitled How Beer Gave Us Civilization, he lays out the case for why “we needed beer” and runs through an overview of early civilization’s introduction of alcohol and why it was so necessary to our development. He also brings into the debate a recent study from the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic, which adds new support for what I call the “beer first” theory.

He unfortunately ends with the long-discredited Benjamin Franklin beer quote, but apart from that gaffe, it’s a good read. Just stop short of the final two paragraphs, and it’s even better. He should have just finished with this sage observation. “Beer’s place in the development of civilization deserves at least a raising of the glass.” Hear, hear.

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Illustration by Anders Nilsson.