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?
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.
Illustration by Anders Nilsson.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brewmaster, The Brooklyn Brewery
Editor-in-Chief, “The Oxford Companion to Beer”
Well said, Garrett.
As the news keeps swirling around the possible — I say inevitable — buyout of Grupo Modelo by Anheuser Busch-InBev in a breathless “will they, won’t they” kind of coverage, I’m utterly fascinated by the theater of it all. It’s especially interesting to see the many “business experts” weighing in with no real understanding of the history of the brewing industry or how it all works. These “instant experts” all seem to assume that general economics or business principles apply equally well to every scenario, yet fail to grasp that alcohol has always navigated a different path through the economic world, with extra layers of taxation, legislation and law, its moral or anti-alcohol critics, and has to abide by at least 51 sets of laws (federal laws plus one for each state). I brought this up last month in The Beer Monopoly, but this morning an economics reporter from the New York Times, Adam Davidson, weighed in with his own take on the shenanigans.
In his It’s the Economy column published today, Are We in Danger of a Beer Monopoly?, he gives his own version of reality. In his world, where there are nearly 2,400 American breweries, he at least admits many of them are “tiny,” but goes on to claim that a few “have become large national brands.” National, yes, but “large” is a somewhat relative term. They’re large compared to a tiny nanobrewery or even an average sized brewpub, but the volumes of beer manufactured by ABI and SABMIller are in another class altogether. All 2,398 of the other breweries represent much less than 10% of the total beer produced in the U.S., meaning there’s a fairly wide chasm between the two groups, even if “a handful” of them have been successful. Measured against the domination of the biggest two, even the most successful seem modest by comparison.
But this is an argument that many economists seem to make, and indeed it’s the same argument that ABI always makes when they’re trying to buy another global company. How can there be a monopoly with so much competition? Just walk down the beer set in an average grocery store and, if you know who owns or controls what, you’ll easily see who’s winning the beer wars. The power wielded by ABI and SABMiller is so far above that of any smaller brewer, or even the total of all of the smaller ones, that it really is a true David and Goliath relationship. Sure, the big guys throw a few crumbs to the little guys nipping at their heels, but they don’t feel seriously threatened by them. Lately, they’ve been paying closer attention because they’re losing incremental marketshare, but they’ll respond to any such loss, because it hurts the share price. But saying they’re on equal footing is the economic equivalent of pretending that employees and employers have equal bargaining power, as most economic textbooks continue to insist.
But here’s Davidson’s takeaway from recent events as ABI tries to win approval for buying Grupo Modelo. “So I was surprised to learn that the Justice Department is worried that Anheuser-Busch InBev, the conglomerate that owns Bud, is on the cusp of becoming an abusive monopoly.” That’s almost spit take worthy. “On the cusp?” ABI has been a de facto monopoly with one or two others for decades, all but controlling the marketplace, not that anybody has been particularly concerned in the business world.
Anyone who hasn’t had their head buried deep in the sand for last few decades has to have noticed that we live in a society utterly dominated by business interests. Business power is the only power that matters. Political power takes a back seat to it and the will of the people is something politicians invoke only when they’re trying to get elected. How else can you explain that corporations have all the benefits of being a person, with none of the responsibilities or consequences? How else can money be considered free speech to influence politics? How else can you explain the many businesses deemed too big to fail while the same individuals those corporations ruined are left swinging in the wind, with no life raft for the ordinary flesh and blood person.
Davidson goes on to give a flawed history of the brewery business, and seems to think that mergers are a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, brewery mergers and acquisitions have been going on in brewing since the late 19th century, and stopped only briefly for about thirteen years, during Prohibition. Then he says we’re “still in the very early stages of what appears to be a global version of the scale-based consolidation we’ve seen in the United States over the past century.” I can’t tell if that’s a joke? The global beer world has been dominated by an ever-shrinking group of very large conglomerates for at least the last three or four decades. It’s hardly a new thing. In 2010, the four largest beer companies accounted for over half of all beer worldwide, and according to another source the Top 5 were about half. Heineken, Carlsberg, and a few others are very large companies, indeed, and they, too, have been gobbling up breweries around the world for many, many years.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Davidson has his own S.H.A.M.E. profile. Why the New York Times continues to let him shill for big business, well’s that’s a whole other discussion, but it’s obvious he’s defending the pro-business position. It’s also clear that he’s part of the theater that will ultimately end in the DOJ’s approval of the deal between ABI and Grupo Modelo. Here’s my prediction of what will happen next. As always happens, the two parties will hammer out a compromise that was probably the deal everybody wanted in the first place, but this way both parties look good in the public eye. The DOJ will look like they’re being tough on big business and are protecting the public while ABI will look good because they were able to get the deal done, and their share price will shoot up. Everybody wins. As Shakespeare observed, “all the world’s a stage.” And we’re the audience. I just wish they’d stop pretending we’re all idiots.
Oh, I hate to pick on the mainstream media as they cover the world of beer, but this is too delicious not to point out. In a story about the proposed buyout of Grupo Modelo by Anheuser-Busch InBev, entitled The Great Beer Monopoly Deal May Be Back On, the Atlantic features the following photo, which I downloaded in case somebody gets wise and replaces it. And a hat tip to Tom Dalldorf for sending me the link. I guess one Bud’s as good as another. Can I assume I don’t have to draw a diagram?
If you haven’t seen it yet, U.S. News & World Reports had an interesting read entitled Hopslam: How Big Beer Is Trying to Stop a Craft Beer Revolution, and subtitled “The blocked merger between Modelo and Anheuser-Busch shines a light on the long-brewing fight between big beer and craft brewers.” It’s a long piece, but worth it for pulling together a number of threads that have been pulling together lately.
In case you missed it, yesterday’s New York Times had an article on Brettanomyces entitled Brettanomyces, a Funky Yeast, Makes Flavorful Beers that’s worth a read.
Wow. Just, wow. Rarely have I seen such naked ignorance on display in print, and in the Wall Street Journal, no less. “Self professed negative styled humorist” Joe Queenan has written a piece for the Journal entitled Foaming at the Mouth About Craft Beer that packs in more idiotic commentary per column inch than I’ve seen in a long time.
Queenan begins by admitting that he knows nothing about craft beer and that everybody else seems to be talking about it, causing him great consternation. Then he drops this bomb.
It doesn’t help that I don’t drink. I used to drink a long time ago, but back then we didn’t talk about beer. We merely drank it. We might occasionally discuss wine—especially if we were in France—but beer wasn’t viewed as a suitable topic for conversation. Beer was simply an ingenious device one used to get hammered.
As a teetotaler, there’s little chance he’ll understand craft beer. It’s a bit like teaching a fish to ride a bicycle. Or as my friend and colleague, drinks writer Stephen Beaumont put it. “And what is a teetotaler doing writing about beer, anyway? [It’s] Like me writing about nuclear physics.”
On and on he goes, presumably trying to be funny but missing the mark by a country mile. And everywhere he goes, people are talking about craft beer. And he finds himself increasingly “frozen out of conversations because [he] literally know[s] nothing about craft beers.” Of course, he could pick up a book, use the internet or even ask a few questions of the throngs of craft beer drinkers he’s surrounded by. That appears to never occur to him. He could educate himself, but he voluntarily chooses ignorance instead. He’d rather be pissed off than join the conversation.
Of course, he also admits that talking about beverages is nothing new, when he notes that he and his friends used to “occasionally discuss wine — especially if we were in France — but beer wasn’t viewed as a suitable topic for conversation.” Hey Joe, guess what? That was then; this is now. You’re about to take Andy Rooney’s place, imagine this next sentence in Rooney’s voice. ‘You ever notice how people know more about beer now than when I was a kid?’ Times have changed, Joe, and apparently you’re not too thrilled that you’ve been left behind. People discussed wine in France for the simple fact that it was an engaging, interesting subject. When you came of age in the 1970s, American beer was almost all the same, so you can be excused for thinking beer wasn’t a “suitable topic for conversation.” At that time, it wasn’t. But that changed. A lot. And given that you’ve been a “media figure,” a commentator on public life and pop culture for many decades, there’s simply no excuse for not noticing that the status of American beer has been on the rise for quite some time. After all, it’s been in all the papers, even some of the ones you write for. To have missed what’s been going on would be to display monumental willful ignorance.
It’s especially odd when you write that “on a trip to Philadelphia, I happened upon a local magazine called Philly Beer Scene,” and you note it looked like Vanity Fair. But you failed to mention that you’re from Philadelphia, indeed grew up there and went to college at Saint Mary’s University. Ignorance about beer is one thing, but about your hometown? Is that a literary license? A plot device? Or has it really been that long since you’ve made the trek all the way from upstate New York to Philly? Surely you could not have failed to notice that Philadelphia has become one of the premiere beer cities in the nation. It should have been obvious in nearly any restaurant or bar you happened upon.
But okay, fine. You’re an idiot about beer, and apparently you like it that way. Nobody’s forcing you to keep up with the times, appreciate that beer is different now than when you were a child or do even a modicum of research on the subject. Ignorance is indeed bliss, and by your own admission you must be the most blissful man in America.
All well and good, but then you had to go and try to persuade others that your point of view has some legitimacy, merit or even a chance in hell of turning back the clock to the good old days when everybody was just as ignorant as you are about beer with these statements. “I want people to cut this out right away” and “I want the madness to stop.” I got bad news for you, Joe. Craft beer is here to stay. The madness will indeed continue. You might as well get used to it.