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.

Big Bottles Equals Wine?

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This is one of those “what the fuck” moments when I absolutely loathe wine’s status as the owner of all things sophisticated and fine, which also assumes, in the great words of Mike Myers (substituting “wine” for “Scottish”) “if ain’t wine, it’s crap.” The other assumption is that everything else is trying to be like wine, that anything trying to be a well made, good product on its own has to be aspiring to be like wine, it can’t just want to be good for its own reasons. This has been incredibly frustrating and insulting, as the status and quality of beer has been steadily improving in the United States for several decades. Despite the many years this has been so, it seems to me that many wine and spirits writers have essentially put their heads in the sand and every now and then will pop up and see that things have changed, and then decide they’re the ones who first noticed it.

Case in point is an article in the New York Times by a Clay Risen, who is, as far as I can tell, primarily a spirits writer who writes about that at Mash Notes and also writes about other things at the Atlantic. In the Times’ “Wine & Dining” section (another pet peeve of mine; why can’t it be “drinks & dining?”) he writes about Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause a Stir. Here’s the stir to which he’s referring, as he begins.

Time was, beer came in one size: whether bottle or can, the stuff inside measured a reliable 12 ounces. But walk into a craft-beer store these days and you’ll see shelf after shelf taken over by giants: 22-ounce “bombers,” 750-milliliter wine bottles, even three-liter jeroboams.

I’m not sure what time exactly he’s referring to, but a twelve ounce “standard” size for beer is as mythical as the idyllic America conservatives refer back to in telling us what’s wrong with the world today. While it’s true that the diversity in sizes was reduced after Prohibition, that’s largely because many states adopted post-prohibition laws that included only sizes many of the big brewers made, in part because those businesses helped write the laws. Florida’s an ideal example, where state law after Prohibition mandated only specific package sizes were legal. But even so, larger, and smaller, sizes have always been with us. And I also don’t know what he means when he says that craft-beer shelves “these days” have larger 22 oz. bottles, etc. The 22 oz. bottle has been a big part of craft beer for literally decades, and many breweries started out with just that size because it was cheaper, and didn’t require six-pack carriers.

Anchor Brewing, Belgian breweries, and many others have been using magnum bottles, and other large format bottles also for decades. I have Anchor Christmas magnums from the early 1990s and I’m confident they were using the size well before that.

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So, okay, he seems to be taking the position that this is something he just noticed, therefore it’s new. Annoying, but somewhat benign; ignorance, not malice. But here’s where he loses me.

The trend toward large bottles is part of what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer, the push by many brewers to make their product as respectable to pair with braised short ribs as is a nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and at a price to match.

Frankly, meat dishes like braised short ribs naturally pair much better with beer than wine so really it’s wine that should have to fight for this respectability, but the author just takes it for granted that wine must be the better choice for a food pairing. What arrogance. Ribs with beer is already a respectable pairing, it’s only through willful ignorance that someone would not realize that.

But apart from the author, who are these people calling it the”‘wine-ification’ of beer?” Who decided this was a “trend?” I sure wish they’d cut it out. It’s wrong. It’s insulting. And most of all, it isn’t really true. Sure, brewers and people who love beer would be very pleased if good beer got the respect that it deserves, but they don’t think of it as the new wine, or any other annoying label the mainstream media loves to put on it. Beer can be good, even great, on its own terms without turning into wine. Just because some beer is put into a different size bottle doesn’t mean they’re trying to make it like wine. Look at beer bottles from 100 or more years ago. They were large, they had a crown and cork, and nobody confused them with wine.

Below, for example, is a bottle of Budweiser in an ad in the Ladies Home Journal from 1904. Notice anything? It’s a big bottle, and it has a cage and cork. I guess this big bottle trend of trying to make beer like wine really has been going on a long time.

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And here’s one for Rainier beer in Seattle, from 1900. And what have we here? A big bottle, wrapped in foil at the crown.

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As part of the support for his theory, Risen cites the following. “Last year, only about 3.5 percent of craft beer was sold in 22-ounce bottles, the most common large-format size, according to the market research firm SymphonyIRI.” Maybe he doesn’t realize this, but Symphony IRI data is primarily collected from grocery and big box stores, it is not representative of the market as a whole. And those outlets as a general rule, stock less odd-size bottles because their shelves are not set up for packages of varying sizes. Their shelves are at their most efficient when they stick to the same sizes.

So while nobody that I know has reliable statistics for the breakdown in all beer packages sold in the market, I can say with confidence that grocery sales do not reflect them. 22 oz., and other sizes are, and have been, selling for quite some time. When I was the beer buyer at BevMo, we specialized in beer much more than the average grocery store and that was reflected in the mix of package sizes we carried, too.

The story goes on to stir the pot of controversy over people’s concerns about big bottles. And while I’m sure he can find plenty of people willing to complain, it’s still just anecdotal evidence that ultimately doesn’t mean that much. Oh, this guy over here doesn’t like a big bottle. So what? Most of the more expensive, limited beers are the ones in big bottles so they’re not exactly made to be a mass marketed product. They’re meant for people who like them, can appreciate them, and who want them. The idea that somebody could be “uncomfortable with the notion of drinking beer like wine” seems utterly ridiculous. I mean, who’s saying that? What does drinking it “like wine” even mean. Does it mean not out of the bottle? Does it mean in something other than a pint glass? Does it mean sharing it, which he suggests, though that assertion seems very odd to me.

Then there’s a quote from Ben Granger, from Bierkraft (which I’ve heard very good things about, but have not visited) that “[a]s soon as you say you want to be more like wine, the battle is lost. I don’t think beer and beer culture need to be more like wine. I think they need to keep being themselves.” But who’s saying we’re trying to make our beer more like wine? With all due to respect to Granger, all of the people who I know who love great beer don’t think that big bottles, sharing or drinking out of a nice glass means we’re treating beer like wine. And I live in the heart of wine country. Treating beer with respect is just that. There’s no analogies necessary. Drinking beer out of the proper glass, and opening a big bottle to share with friends is exactly my favorite way to enjoy a beer. Until this mess of an article, it never occurred to me that what I was doing might be winey. You know why? Because it’s not, for chrissakes.

But this statement might be what bothers me the most: “Ultimately, traditionalists say that what irks them the most about the big bottles is that they send the signal that beer is trying to be something that it’s not: that it needs to be more like wine or scotch to win over elite consumers.” No it fucking doesn’t say that at all. If that’s the message you’re receiving, you made that up, all by yourself. Wine does not have a monopoly on glassware, bottle sizes or anything else. Beer can, and should, be put into whatever size package the brewer thinks best suits the product inside.

Who exactly are these “traditionalists?” And what does that mean? Traditional in what sense? Twelve ounce bottles became more common after prohibition because they fit nicely in the refrigerator. They weren’t even always in six-packs, and brewers tried other sizes, too. But my understanding is that six could be easily carried by most people, and especially women, who back then did the majority of the household shopping. As breweries became larger and more national, buying glass in bulk was also cheaper, and standardizing their own operations saved them money, but they weren’t creating a “tradition.” It was a business decision, pure and simple.

Now I like wine just fine. I live in Sonoma County, where there’s plenty of great wine all around me. If somebody hands me a glass, I happily accept it, drink it, and even sometimes enjoy it. I am a cross-drinker. But there’s nothing inherently exclusive to wine in the way it’s packaged, consumed or enjoyed. And saying so just pits the two against one another in a way that distorts reality and does neither side any good. It’s just unnecessary. This manufactured issue may sell papers or get click-throughs online, but otherwise should have no part in the way we perceive the status of different alcoholic drinks.

But one thing I have noticed, though I freely admit this is anecdotal, too. This argument is always made by the wine or spirits side, never by the beer world. Most beer people are content letting beer be beer, in whatever form it wants, but wine seems to always accuse beer of putting on airs whenever it dares to be more than lightly-flavored malt swill served out of buckets from tailgates outside of football games. “Big bottle? You must be trying to be like wine?” What utter fucking nonsense. Now hand me that Jeroboam of Russian River, I’ve worked up a powerful thirst.

UPDATE March 6: Garrett Oliver today posted his comments on Risen’s folly on the Times’ website, which I’ve copied below.

I must say that I take genuine exception to yesterday’s article on high-end beer in large bottles. The article appears to be pushing a point of view that is patently at odds with reality, and the piece is so full of holes and half-truths as to be essentially false. Let’s have a look:

(a) Our customers enjoy these beers enough that we have a hard time keeping up, as does every other good craft brewery we know.

(b) The writer conflates the 750 ml bottle with the 22 oz. “bomber” bottle, which is akin to conflating punk rock with heavy metal because they’re both loud and aggressive. That’s embarrassing.

(c) Beer cannot be “wine-ified” for two reasons. The first is that beer, like wine, has always been both “high” and “low”. The old American term for an alcoholic was “wino”, and there’s a reason for that. European museums are full of ornate gold and silver beer vessels and beer has featured heavily on the tables of royal and aristocratic households for more than 500 years. And every small French, Italian or Spanish town has a cantina where bottles of wine can be filled for a euro or two.

Also, ninety percent of the American wine market is bag-in-box or jug wine. Ninety percent! People drink both wine and beer at backyard barbecues and at four-star restaurants. And if the bottle is large and the beer tasty, all the better – we have friends and family to share it with.

Cheers,

Garrett Oliver
Brewmaster, The Brooklyn Brewery
Editor-in-Chief, “The Oxford Companion to Beer”

Well said, Garrett.