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Putting On Airs

A friend sent me this link (thanks Steve) to a Wall Street Journal article entitled When Beer Takes On Vintners’ Airs, about craft brewers making beer with more complex flavors. There’s a lot of good in the article, but I can’t help but feel like it’s dripping with a certain condescension. I don’t know if it’s intentional or simple ignorance. Of the last 43 articles by author Conor Dougherty, only two were about beer, with the vast majority of his writing being about economics. And in one of the two he likens cask ale to flat beer, a fundamental mistake and in that article his writing barely conceals a disdain similar to the current piece. In the article published on Friday, he starts out with a particularly fallacious statement.

Small brewers have long boasted that their beer can stand up to the finest wine. Their new strategy: Make beer that tastes like wine.

No brewer I know sets out to make his beer taste like wine. That’s never been the goal, nor is it the result. The brewers mentioned in the article merely are trying to stretch the boundaries of beer and make unique and original works of liquid art for their customers. Just because they may have some flavors that wine also has doesn’t mean the brewers who made them set out to make a wine. Taste any of them side by side with a wine. If you can’t tell the difference, stick to water. They’ll never be mistaken for wine.

Though many winos may be loathe to admit it, brewing is a far more complicated and involved process, requiring far more equipment, ingredients and education or experience than does making wine. Winemakers — at least all the ones I know — will freely admit this. A winemaker from Mondavi that I sat with at a dinner there told me she thought winemaking was easy compared to brewing, that all she did was get the grapes ready and let nature do its thing. Brewers, on the other hand, have figurative knobs and buttons to fiddle with in endless combinations. In the same way a mere twelve notes account for all the world’s music, four main ingredients account for a diversity in beer that is truly staggering. While a sad majority believe, as Dougherty puts it, that beer is “plain and even watery,” they couldn’t be more mistaken. The major beer companies have been passing off an industrial product as beer for so long now — and with so much marketing muscle behind it — that a majority of Americans today believe that’s what beer is. Simply put, they’re wrong. Or more kindly, that it’s not all that beer is or can be.

People might refer to Wonder Bread as bread but does anybody think it’s the only kind of bread? Who doesn’t know there are many kinds of bread or that there are lots of better breads? I’m sure Wonder Bread and all of the other nutritionally challenged white breads far outsell gourmet artisanal bread but it seems to me most people at least recognize that there is a difference. Yet time and time again, people seem to think that all beer is the same and often seem quite surprised to discover that there are literally dozens of distinctive styles of beer. That’s a triumph of marketing that’s perpetuated by a media that insists on remaining as ignorant as the public at large. Even when some do appear to at least realize there is beer beyond the industrial lagers, they are often dismissive and condescending which only serves to maintain the status quo opinion.

But back to the Journal. Just because brewers use grapes as an adjunct or age the beer in oak wine barrels doesn’t make it wine or even a wine beer. Winemakers don’t own grapes. Not everything made with grapes is wine. Are cork dorks up in arms over grapes in jams and jellies trying to make winey jam? And like jams, brewers also use many other fruits in beer, too, there’s nothing sinister about a few using grapes.

But Dougherty concludes that “the concept with all of these” beers it to add “extra layers of complexity” and refers to them all with a broad brush, branding them all “winey beers,” which I find more than a little derogatory. Every time he finds any similarity between one of these boutique beers and his beloved wine — such as serving temperature, bottle size, or the fact that it uses a cork — he takes it as a sign of beer trying to copy wine or be like wine. It’s as if he believes that these features are somehow the exclusive domain of wine, and none dare do the same lest they be accused of envy or stealing. It’s a very weird position to take. Beer has used corks for over a century, it’s nothing new. Many Belgian beers have been using corks since the 19th century right up to the present. 750 ml bottles likewise are nothing new for beer outside our shores. And as for being consumed at warmer temperatures, that’s also been the case for centuries. It only seems strange to Americans since the major companies so vigorously promote the notion of ice cold beer. The colder the beer, the less of the flavors that will come through. It’s not magic. If you make a beer that actually has good rich, complex flavors you’ll want to taste those, won’t you? And so you drink them at a slightly warmer temperature. So what?

The article also calls these so-called “winey beers” hybrids just because they “have a stronger aroma, fruitier tastes — and alcohol levels that, at 10% to 15%, are two to three times that of a typical beer.” Huh? IPAs have strong aromas, plenty of mild beers have fruity esters and barleywines, bocks and Belgian tripels are plenty strong. That makes them hybrids … why? Dougherty also calls them a detour, because for craft brewers they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. As the craft beer segment matures, why wouldn’t you expect brewers to make increasingly sophisticated products? Why is that a detour, and not simply the vanguard brewers leading the way?

Apparently cheese and food pairings and the ability of some beers to be aged is also infringing on wine’s cache, because Dougherty seems surprised that pairing might even be suggested. Cheese and beer have long been a far better pairing than wine. It’s only that the wine industry has done a great job of inextricably linking the two that most people don’t realize it. But the monks at Chimay, to give one example, have been making cheese as long as they’ve been making their fine beer. Together, as you might expect, they’re a heavenly delight. Beer dinners, of course, are becoming more common every day and there’s nothing noteworthy about strong beers ability to be aged.

The article finishes up with a tasting, naturally not by experts, but by journalists who are fans of either beer or wine. It’s the rare wine tasting that includes amateurs, but that seems de rigueur for media beer tastings. Just bring in a few shlubs off the street and see what they think. It’s just beer, after all. Who needs people who know what they’re tasting? That seems especially egregious given this whole piece is talking about beers who by definition are not the usual “plain and even watery” beers. So perhaps that’s why they chose journalists instead of just the man on the street. Either way, it’s infuriating. What did they learn? Nothing, apparently. Here’s the write-up:

On a recent afternoon, we gathered a panel of reporters and editors made up of both beer and wine fans to sample winey beers from around the country. Our first discovery: These beers aren’t for everyone. Comments ranged from “interesting” to “terrible.” A number of our testers said most of the brews tasted like neither beer nor wine but made them pine for one or the other. “Is it possible that there is beer and wine and the two should never meet?” asked one befuddled sampler.

Wow, they “discovered” that something you taste isn’t universally beloved? Tell me, please, what is “for everyone?” Wine? Nope. Whisky? Nope. Coffee? Nope. Water? Probably, but that’s got to be the only liquid I can think of that truly is for everyone. Saying some people found them “interesting” and some “terrible” without any context like who they are,what their predispositions are, or their backgrounds makes these cryptic one-word comments completely meaningless. Of course they didn’t taste like wine, they’re not wines no matter how many times you insist on calling them “winey beers.” That some people didn’t think they tasted like beers merely displays how little the tasters know about beer and its diversity. Beer doesn’t have just one taste or flavor. It doesn’t all taste the same. And more importantly, each bottle they tasted (although to be fair I don’t even know what beers they tasted because that isn’t revealed) is a unique beer and isn’t meant to taste like anything else. Why did the tasters expect that it would taste like either beer or wine?

But my favorite line is that last sentence of the paragraph, “‘[i]s it possible that there is beer and wine and the two should never meet?’ asked one befuddled sampler.” Befuddled is the word for it, alright.’s second definition for “befuddled” is “to make stupidly drunk.” The first involves confusion, which is what this particular taster and perhaps the entire article seems to be. Beer and wine have not “met” in any of these beers. They are strictly beers. They are complex beers with full, rich flavors which some people cannot help comparing to wines just because they happen to also have some of the same flavors. Dark beers often have coffee notes from the roasted malt, too, but nobody complains about brewers making beer that tastes like coffee. No matter how “winey” the beers are, or how much whining the author insists upon, they are not beers that taste like wine, nor are they meant to be. Please, for the love of everything holy, stop calling them “winey beers.”

Over a lifetime of tasting beer, I’ve used terms also used by wine tasters in describing beers like the ones mentioned in the article, as well as many others, without once thinking they were beers trying to emulate wine. To my way of thinking, any phrase that someone reading a description would understand and recognize is useful in communicating the elusive and largely personal sensation of taste. It’s hard enough to train one’s palate to discern minute flavor compounds, aromas and defects, let alone be able to write them down so that others can readily understand what you’re talking about and get a sense of what the beer they’re reading about might taste like. So any descriptor that conveys something recognizable is worth using if it furthers that goal, even if it’s commonly used to describe a wine. I know there any many people who believe that beer should never be described using anything but very basic language, usually because such advocates believe beer itself too basic to be discussed in loftier terms. That’s a mistake and merely serves to perpetuate the myth that all beer tastes the same and will not yield subtle nuances of flavor. I also think there’s a backwards prejudice that thinks discussing beer as the complex beverage that it is will necessarily make it take on the snobbish airs that many ascribe to wine aficionados. But the beers mentioned in this Wall Street Journal article are already as complex as wine, and so to not describe them in similarly complex terms is to not do them justice. That’s a very different thing from presuming because they’re complex they must be trying to be like wine. How insulting it is to presume complexity equals wine and as ales and lagers they couldn’t possibly stand on their own as fine beers. But my point is that we should be able to describe any of these beers using allusions to wine and winelike flavors without the presumption that they either are wines or beer trying to be like wines. They’re beers simply trying to be as flavorful and unique as they possibly can. If the wine community can’t understand what to me seems so self-evident, perhaps they’re not as sophisticated as their reputation suggests. It can’t be bottle envy, can it?

From time to time, I am accused — even by colleagues — of going too far and overreacting to articles like this one, usually because they claim some attention paid to beer is better than no attention, or it’s not all bad or because they sense no malicious intent. All of those arguments may be true, but I still think at least part of the reason beer is so often lambasted by the media is that no one calls them on their mistakes or their unflatteringly offensive portrayals. Appeasement is almost always a bad way to go. Nobody’s going to change people’s attitudes if everyone remains passive and quiet.

So yes, maybe this latest Wall Street Journal article helps spread the word about craft beers that are every bit as good as fine wine. But I don’t think it’s asking too much that they do so without insulting beer in the process. Maybe hiring someone to write about beer who actually likes the stuff, has an open mind or knows something about it would be a good start.

In the end, I find it strange that the author’s title suggests that wine has airs that brewers are attempting to copy or emulate. To put on airs is “to assume an affected or haughty manner.” I am certainly willing to agree that there are segments of the wine industry that reflect such pretentiousness, but don’t understand why the wine community would be so willing to paint themselves so unflatteringly and then suggest that beer, by making complex, flavorful beers that rival wine, they, too, are putting on similar airs. Why can’t we just talk about the new, complex beers and leave wine out of it altogether.


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