Those of us who have been writing about and/or closely following the craft beer industry for any length of time are often left exasperated by the mainstream media’s coverage of beer. If they cover beer at all, the number of amateurish mistakes that are made are legion. In fact, I’d go so far as to say mainstream beer coverage contains more errors than correct information. It’s that bad most of the time. They sometimes do more harm than good because spreading bad information is sometimes worse than ignoring us entirely. There are exceptions, I know, but they are just that: exceptions to the rule. Usually mainsream media outlets, again if they write about beer at all, tap one of their food or wine writers. Occasionally, that writer cares about about beer or even — dare I say it — likes the stuff. But not usually. More often they feel as if they’re being punished for some other misdeed, as if pulling beer duty is akin to being sent to a kind of literary Siberia. And more often than not the writing reflects that. It drives us more than a little nuts. When beer writers get together at events it’s usually the number two subject (number one is the location of the free food) that’s discussed time and time again. Tom Dalldorf, publisher of the Celebrator, and I have talked endlessly about this problem. Lew Bryson recently ranted nicely about it in his monthly Buzz column.
Don’t expect anything that broad here, I just read something that got me pissed off again and it started me thinking about this subject again. It was by an AP business writer by the name of Libby Quaid. A quick search reveals she writes about a disparate range of subjects from beef and madcow disease to Condeleeza Rice rebutting Colin Powell. The piece that got me going is called “Once-flat beer sales beginning to revive” and in it she’s billed as, of all things, an “AP Food and Farm Writer,” whatever that means. Apparently it means she doesn’t know anything meaningful about beer.
The gist of her story is that beer sales have “gone flat” but are now trending up again. But by “beer sales” she actually means beer sales from the large breweries since craft beer sales have had good positive growth over at least the last two years.
Beer sales had gone flat, while wine was flying off the shelves. So beer makers decided to steal a page from wine’s marketing manual and create new packaging, flavors and drinks. Now beer is coming back.
As her only evidence, she cites ACNielsen figures and the article includes a graph. Now I’m not an AP writer so perhaps I missed the class on how to read one of these complicated graphs, but look at the figures for “mainstream beer” which is what she’s talking about when she cites only A-B, Miller and Coors in the early part of the article. Is it just me, or are the fgures for sales this year over last year showing sales declining? But beer is coming back, she says. She continues.
But not beer from major breweries. It’s imports and craft beer that are showing growth, even according to the only evidence she cites for the opposite conclusion. This “strong sales” is due to “new packaging, flavors and drinks.”
For additional authority she quotes Nick Lake, who’s a Vice President of New Business Development at ACNielsen. But she refers to him first as a “beer expert at ACNielsen.” That’s laughable especially when he claims “[t]he major brewers ‘blended, became the same,'” as if it just happened. It’s hard for me to place much stock in a “beer expert” who doesn’t know that the major brands have been making American-style light lagers that have pretty much tasted the same for decades, perhaps beginning as long ago as post-World War 2 or some sixty years ago. But in the context of this article, he makes it sound like something the breweries did last year as a business tactic that’s now backfired and they’re in the process of reversing themselves again.
While beer is still preferred by more than half of all Americans, wine and spirits drinkers have been increasing. This is happening, our esteemed food and farm writer tells us, because, as she puts it, “[b]asically, wine seemed to have gotten more fun.” Now I like wine. I drink it reasonably often. And I’ve been to organized wine tastings, wine festivals, and commercial wine competitions. But they are all quiet, serious affairs compared with even the average beer festival. Saying wine is more “fun” than beer can only be said with a straight face by someone who does not really know what good beer culture is and has the potential to be. I just spent the weekend camping at a brewery with hundreds of brewery people and their families, drinking, eating, talking, laughing, playing disc golf, and enjoying the sunshine outdoors. Down the road at the several Anderson Valley wineries that dot the area you could probably hear actual crickets chirping, it was that quiet by comparison. Now I realize she’s talking about just the big guys again, but that also means she’s missing the whole picture. She’s talking about three breweries and ignoring what’s going on at fourteen hundred of the rest of the breweries across the country.
Oh, and I think she defines “fun” as “cute critters on the label, easy-open screwcaps and cans and party-friendly boxes.” My mistake, at first I thought she meant actual fun, not that kind of fun. Even so, a walk down any decent beer aisle and you’ll see that beer labels have been defining that kind of fun for years, too.
But then she contradicts herself again, saying:
For beer, new packaging includes Heineken’s keg can for the fridge, which gives people draft beer at home. Coors sells a cooler box with 18-ounce plastic bottles that is ready to be filled with ice and taken to the beach or a barbecue. And Budweiser comes in new sturdy aluminum bottles that are like a cross between a can and a glass bottle.
So even under her strained definition of packaging as fun, beer is “fun,” too. Although Heineken’s keg can has been around for years, maybe even a decade, and doesn’t give anyone anything near “draft at home.” It’s the same horrible beer they sell in a regular can or bottle.
Ms. Quaid continues. “Beyond packaging is flavor.” Really? How astute. But wait, it gets better. “For Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, that means Bud Select, a light beer with a more robust taste.” Stop, I’m laughing too hard now. Bud Select … robust taste … ha ha ha …. If that’s what passes for robust flavor kill me now.
My point is that this so-called journalism is so bad that it paints a completely distorted picture of an entire industry. The author may know business. She may know the food industry. She may even know a little about the big breweries. But she appears to know absolutely nothing about beer. Now perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. Perhaps she didn’t ask for this assignment and did the best she could. Perhaps. But if this is the best the Associated Press could muster then I weep for the state of journalism today. Of course, I do that almost every day anyway.
But is it really too much to ask that our mainstream media pay even some attention to what more than half of their readers drink? And when they do deign to cover it that they do so with at least a modicum of accuracy. But most newspaper people will tell you that beer drinkers don’t read newspapers. Wine people do. So that’s the general reason given for why beer gets such short shrift. Because they’re bowing to what their readers want. In their mind, people want to read about wine but don’t want to read about beer. It reflects the same general prejudice that beer is not worthy of study, that it is inferior to wine or that it has no story to tell. Once upon a time, people thought the same thing about American wine. When small wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties began making world class wines, the press took up their cause is still talking about it today. When the same thing happened with beer beginning in the early 1980s, the press did cover what they then called the microbrewery revolution. But for reasons I’ve never understood they abruptly stopped, as if it was a novelty or fad whose time had passed. Of course, while they weren’t paying attention craft beer continued to grow in size, quality and prestige. Small American breweries today make some of the finest beers in the world and have the international medals to prove it. Yet nowadays, getting a newspaper or television station to regularly, consistently, fairly and accurately cover beer is as rare as a 1968 vintage bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale. If our mainstream media cared about beer even a fraction of the way they feel about wine, then more people would know how rare that is.