It’s really easy to criticize. Perfection is an elusive concept, especially when the object of review is so subjective. Almost nothing can be said to be perfect, and so we critics will always have a job. And in the age of blogging, that means almost any person who wants to can be a critic. That’s both a good and, at times, disastrous, development. The art of criticism has a long and storied past, serves a useful function to be sure, and is itself an art form. The best critics are as much of a joy to read as their targets, sometimes more so. Dorothy Parker springs to mind as one of the best, and she’s still a delight to read, long after the the plays and books she skewered have all but disappeared into out-of-print literary oblivion. So I’m not trying to downplay the important role critics have in society. Hell, I’m one of them. But something unsettling seems to be taking place that became all too apparent with the release of Beer Wars on Thursday.
Actually, the hue and cry began well before the film premiered. And just the idea of the movie seemed to bother more than a few folks. Like most people watching the industry, I first learned of the film several years before when they were filming at GABF. It then disappeared from consciousness for a time, and I wondered about it occasionally, then finally it resurfaced again last year. I met with the director, Anat Baron, for lunch last fall when she was visiting her sister in the Bay Area. We talked about the film then, her ideas and what she hoped to accomplish with it. She knew from the Bulletin that I, too, believe that the world is not a level playing field, and especially so in the beer world.
It got so bad at one point in the weeks leading up the debut, that I was singled out for being too positive about it, and was all but called a sycophant for simply not being critical enough. It reminded me of the moralists outside of R-rated movies like Basic Instinct, railing about the godless communists and urging people not to see it. Inevitably, a reporter would ask them the simple question. “Have you seen the movie you’re objecting too so strenuously?” “Umm, no. I would never see such filth.” And such people certainly have the right to not see the movie, but I never quite get why they so strongly don’t want anyone else to see it either (particularly when they haven’t seen it), as if they believe everyone does or should hold the same morals or beliefs they do. I just don’t understand such unwillingness to remain open to a new idea being expressed, and shutting down any receptiveness to it. At some level, it seemed to me that people were having a similar reaction to Beer Wars. People reacted so strongly to the trailer, the idea of it, and even just the publicity push for the film, that I was quite baffled.
The beer community, and many bloggers in particular, have never seemed so divided to me. See here I was enough of an idealist to think we were all in this together. I’ve tended to be naive that way my whole life, and frankly I hope I never outgrow it. As cynical and curmudgeonly as I am, I’m a big sucker for hope. Pandora’s Box has always been one of my favorite Greek myths. I want to root for underdogs, for people with more passion than resources, for people who want to change the world. And I hate bullies, which is what most big companies are in practice. As persons — their legal designation — they’re psychopaths. Don’t believe me, read Joel Bakan’s wonderful book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (or watch the film, if you’re not a “reader”).
Personally, I thought the intent to expose what most Americans don’t seem to know — that large corporations have enormous advantages in the marketplace (regardless of the industry) — was worthwhile enough for me to support it. Add to that the fact that this is especially true in the beer world, in part because of the added regulatory morass that alcohol brings, plus the three-tier system itself, and it seemed a worthwhile endeavor on that basis alone. So like everybody else who hadn’t seen the film — that is to say, everyone — I could only decide to support it or not support it based on what I saw. And I liked what little there was, plus I actually talked to the director and other people in the film, all of which led me to champion it. Seemed perfectly rational to me. And while there was certainly a great deal of support for the movie, I was caught off guard by all of the negative reactions I saw, especially when much of it was based on pure ignorance (and I mean that not in the pejorative sense, but that people’s perceptions were just plain wrong, meaning they simply didn’t really know what they were talking about) or in an odd sense of projecting their own message or agenda onto the film that wasn’t evident from the trailer or other pre-release materials. This latter type of criticism was more along the lines of what they “thought” the film was about, without any real knowledge about what it really was about, not that that stopped them from criticizing it. These two kinds of criticism were not the only types, I should hasten to point out, but were of the variety that bothered me.
But now that the film is out, it only seems to have grown worse.
Obviously, I haven’t had time to read everything people have written about it, and have seen just a small sample and watched part of the twitter feed Thursday night, too. And Alan at A Good Beer Blog (whose birthday was today) was kind enough to provide a useful summary, as well. (For the record, I don’t think Alan is Mayor McMean of Meantown. Police Chief, maybe, or City Solicitor, but not mayor.)
So, like beforehand, there’s a lot of positive reactions, but a surprisingly large chorus from the nabobs of negativity. And most of those are what I’ll call quibbles. Finding fault with small bits and pieces, things here and there. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Everybody, it seems, has to find something they believe was wrong with the film. Not one account I read praised Anat Baron for the effort. Few seemed to think she was making the film with the best of intentions, and in fact everyone who even mentioned this either couldn’t figure out why she made it or believed it was for a sinister or cynical reason. Yet no one else made the movie. No one else stepped up to tell this story. Where was this level of complaint and scrutiny when A-B sponsored The American Brew, or when American Beer showed us frat boys traveling the country abusing themselves, with short interludes of brewery visits in between? Only Stan had much to say when How Stuff Works did beer a disservice last December. At least Baron tried to tell the story. Let no good deed go unpunished, I guess.
And almost nobody had much to say about the overall effect. I don’t even want to add to the chorus, it’s just all so exhausting to read, and very disheartening. Did I have my own quibbles? Yes. Was the film perfect to me? Of course not. Am I going to pile on? Not a chance. This just seems like Kung Foo Fighting on a grand scale. This was an opportunity for the craft beer segment and its fans to show the media and the world that it is supportive as a group. That craft beer can, when necessary, speak with one voice for a higher purpose. Again, what was I thinking? Of course it’s not. Instead, I feel like what it showed was a chaotic, diverse group that can’t agree on anything. I realize that now I, too, am focusing on the negative, instead of all the positive things people have said about Beer Wars. And that saddens me even more. Sigh.
I can’t really blame anyone in particular, not that I even want to. Most of the opinions are valid, some are even well thought out and incisive. Many of the criticisms I can’t really disagree with, though there are certainly a lot that I can and do think were unfair, uncharitable or based on ignorance. And some were just plain silly.
I hope it goes without saying that you’ll find no bigger supporter of Oregon beer than myself, even though I’m a Californian. I’ve been a SNOB member since the beginning, and have been coming to OBF every year for well over a decade. Many of my favorite brewers and breweries are in Portland or Oregon. Hell, I spent the first half of my honeymoon visiting Oregon breweries. So understand that I mean no disrespect to Oregon beer when I say this to the person who said they didn’t like the film because it didn’t feature an Oregon brewer, which was one of the “pioneering locales for the industry.” Shut up, you sound provincial in the worst sense of the word. There are other places in the country that make great beer, and you don’t have to get in a twist every time you’re not paid what you perceive to be the proper fealty. They also didn’t mention the San Francisco Bay Area, which was the very first pioneering locale, nor Seattle or Yakima, or countless other places, either.
And that same person, along with many others, took issue with director Baron’s former life with Mike’s Hard Lemonade, most of whom said in effect that since alcopops aren’t really craft beer then she didn’t face the same distribution issues that real beer did. This shows more ignorance as, in fact, malternatives use exactly the same distribution networks as beer and are shelved either with beer or adjacent to it. If anything, most retailers and distributors carry fewer malt-based beverages so her experience was probably more difficult than with beer.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend these criticisms, but they’re indicative of the more churlish variety, and as such I find them counter-productive and muddying the general discourse which keeps legitimate issues from being discussed. There are many more of this type, but I’ve frankly had quite enough. I was happy to see, by contrast, that the general feeling on Beer Advocate was in fact mostly positive.
In the end, it’s not any one or any two or any three specific criticisms that has me down in the doldrums. It’s the white noise of it all. As many have pointed out, this is a topic in beer circles that has been talked about for many, many years and has been a problem for small brewers since the beginning of time. And since many have been successful, they say, doesn’t that mean that it’s not really a problem anyway? This strikes me as myopic thinking by people too close to the problem to recognize that while they know this story all too well, it’s not well-known by many or even most of the 95% of the beer-drinking public that is outside the inner circle of craft beer fans. Obviously, I have nothing personally invested in the success of Beer Wars. But I do believe our country would be a better place if the superiority of craft beer was taken for granted, as it is in many other nations. If the breadth of diversity that beer can be was as obvious to a majority of Americans as it is to you and me, if the media took beer as seriously as they do wine and spirits, if most people knew enough to ignore or at least look skeptically at advertising and marketing that panders to them and paints beer with a broad, commodified brush that emphasizes style over substance — oh, what a better world it would be. Yes, that makes me a wide-eyed idealist and is somewhat unrealistic, but without dreams, what’s the goddamn point? And for a few years now we’ve felt tantalizingly and frustratingly close to a Malcolm Gladwell-style tipping point that could indeed push craft beer into mainstream consciousness.
So that was my admittedly somewhat unrealistic hope, that the meme of the story would indeed spark a dialogue that would spread beyond our sudsy shores and reach people outside the insulated beer bubble we inhabit. Instead, the conversation seems to be about what was wrong with Beer Wars, not what it got right. The big breweries must be pleased as punch with that outcome. Instead of talking about people supporting local and regional businesses, which might help local economies and also keep the money spent within the area, we’re complaining about why Beer Wars didn’t include all 1483 breweries. Instead of talking about why artisanal or craft-made beer — like bread, cheese, and everything else — is demonstrably better and more flavorful and unique if made with better ingredients, in small batches and with an eye toward being an integral part of a meal (not just an afterthought), we’re complaining about whether there was too much PR for the movie or if $15 was too much to pay to see a movie. Instead of talking about the three-tier system and how it’s warped our perceptions of beer, kept us believing alcohol is evil and has done little to protect consumers, we’re smugly dismissing Beer Wars because we know it all already. Instead of talking about how corporations operate and the methods they employ to maximize profits for shareholders and why what’s good for GM is not necessarily good for America, we’re complaining that the biggest small breweries seem plenty big, too, and therefore don’t deserve our support either. Sigh.
But that’s the nature of criticism, people decide what’s important to them, and act — or write — accordingly. As Wikipedia collectively defines it, “Criticism is the activity of judgment or informed interpretation and, in many cases, can be synonymous with ‘analysis.'” [my emphasis.] So while I think a lot of the interpretations offered can not be considered “informed,” many others are. But just saying so makes me critical of them, repeating a cycle likely to go on ad infinitum. And I had so hoped this would be a different conversation. C’est la vie. Damn. Sigh.