Part of me breathes a sigh of relief when someone else I respect reacts the same way I do to something, case in point being the recent Slate beer slam that I wrote about yesterday. Not only did Food & Wine editor Nick Fauchald take offense, but so did fellow beer writers Stan Hieronymous and Jess Sand. On one hand there’s a certain comfort to know I’m not off the deep end, which is a place I often find myself, but on the other hand these sort of attacks on beer seem to be coming with an alarming frequency here of late. Increasingly, they seem calculated to cause offense in order to increase web traffic, ratings, exposure, etc. It’s what I’ve called the Coulter-effect since incendiary pundit Ann Coulter is a master at the ridiculously offensive statement that’s crafted just for that purpose of keeping herself in the public eye as an object of media attention without which presumably she’d whither and die (figuratively, I mean). There have been quite a few of these lately against beer that have caused quite a stir, but I won’t mention them by name so as not to give them more of what they crave — attention.
This latest one on Slate is heating up again, thanks to a Q&A with author Field Maloney that the Washington Post hosted yesterday at 10:00 a.m. I’m sorry I missed the live version, but there is a transcript, thoughtfully sent to me by a Bulletin reader (thanks Sean). Maloney answered a baker’s dozen of questions, most of which were asking for advice on what to drink, but a few were more illuminating, both for the questions themselves and Maloney’s answers.
Question #4 was from a wine blogger in the D.C. area, Winesmith, and he displays a great deal of ignorance (I don’t mean that derisively BTW, just that he doesn’t seem to be aware) about how well food and beer work together when he writes the following in his query. “More people are beginning to realize (consciously or not) that wine and food enhance each other, but beer is a refresher that washes food down.” To his credit, Maloney disagrees with this, and says he “think[s] [beer’s] flavors can play off the flavors of food nicely.” But the wholesale statement that wine is so self-evidently better with food than beer is remarkable in what it says about perception and how the self-avowed wine lover can become myopic in pursuit of a narrow range of tastes. Wine goes quite poorly with a wide range of foods, such as Barbecue, Cajun, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Mexican, to name a few. As Garrett Oliver put it in his wonderful book, The Brewmaster’s Table, “spices distort wine flavors, turning white wines hot and red wines bitter.” And the caramelized flavors from roasted grains work perfectly with the similar caramelized flavors you get when you cook meat. I could go on and on, but the point is simply that I’m always surprised at what people don’t know and so surmise or presume to be true based on propaganda. It’s understandable but deeply troubling.
Question #7 concerns the much-discussed 2005 Gallup poll that was the basis for some of Maloney’s conclusions. The question, from Philadelphia, was that “despite the Gallup Poll in 2005 (the 2006 poll put beer back on top, by the way, but it didn’t get anywhere near the press attention the 2005 one did — more evidence of a wine-wing media bias…) beer continues to handily outsell wine, both in volume and dollar sales. What’s that indicate?” Maloney responds with these gems.
Some of the beer people pointed this out in 2005. Even though more Americans said they preferred wine in that pool, beer still outsold wine 6 to 1. So either a very few people drink a whole lot of beer, or people are more stuck on beer than they let on. I think because wine has become more of a “lifestyle” drink, people might be more likely to say they “prefer” wine in a poll, even though they actually drink more beer. But who knows? The unpredictable psychology of polling behavior is fascinating to me.
Also, I think the American media loves stories that indicate a shift in the status quo. In this case, with wine vs. beer, it was a shift in the status quo that seemed to reinforce some larger cultural trends. That kind of stuff is catnip to journalists.
Now this is just plain odd. Maloney actually admits “beer still outsold wine 6 to 1” along with his fascination with the “unpredictable psychology of polling behavior.” He then went on to explain why so much of the media pounced on the 2005 poll. So not only did he know that the poll was bogus and not indicative of a real trend, he even speculated on why it was so over-reported. So maybe this is just too obvious a question, but then why on Earth did he use the poll as support for his theory that suddenly wine is ascendant and beer is in a nosedive. Acknowledging that here is a bit like getting away with murder and then later saying offhandedly, “oh sure, I knew I killed her, but ….” To me, this makes Maloney a first class wanker, because it means everything that flowed from this first incorrect statistic (in paragraph two of his article) that he knew was incorrect is all malarkey. It makes the whole hatchet job more malicious somehow. I could more easily forgive using a faulty statistic if I thought it was an innocent mistake or that he genuinely believed it to be true. But writing falsehoods that you know to be false to support an already questionable conclusion is really hitting below the belt.
Finally, in Question #10, a person from Cleveland asked him to justify his position given the terrific growth that craft beer has experienced lately. Maloney’s answer was the same as in the sidebar of the original piece, and points out what I suspected, which is that many people who read the article didn’t even know there was a sidebar since to view it you had to click on a link in the middle of the story. Basically, Maloney dismisses the entire craft beer industry with a wave of his hand because it doesn’t represent a big enough piece of the pie. It’s a stunning piece of logic which in my opinion requires balls the size of kegs to even say out loud. It’s just so condescendingly insulting. It reminds me of the way some people treat children, the ones that refuse to take seriously anything they say until they reach a certain age. But 100 million cases of beer seems like a plenty big enough kid. To keep the analogy going, craft beer is in its mid-twenties, and has been showing signs of maturing for several years now. Pretending we don’t exist or that we don’t matter seems necessary only because our continued existence and health makes impossible the notion that beer is dead and wine victorious. It’s irresponsible journalism, in my opinion, to so nakedly ignore facts that do not support your conclusion.
Of course, Coultering doesn’t require facts, only that you be as outrageous as possible. Here Maloney excels. As he correctly points out in the beginning of his answer to Question #2, he states “I’m not a beer authority.” He just plays one in the press. Slate should have been wary of letting someone whose only apparent beer expertise is that he drinks the stuff declare an entire industry to be in its death throes and the healthiest portion of it irrelevant. Then again, maybe Slate was in on the Coultering. “But who knows?” Like Maloney, I too am nostalgic for a pastoral bygone era, but mine is for a time when journalists and the news media had standards and ethics. Maybe such a time never really existed, who knows? But I’ve decided that I won’t let facts get in my way, either. Apparently that’s not how it’s done anymore.