Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle carried a minuscule little item on the Great American Beer Festival and the Bay Area winners. It was the last blurb in “The Sipping News,” a section for news that apparently doesn’t warrant its own story. Despite the fact that a GABF award is essentially the biggest, most prestigious beer award in the Nation and one of the biggest in the world, apparently it’s still not big enough to rate more attention than seven measly sentences in the Chronicle, the last one insulting. Of course, every Podunk wine competition rates practically full page coverage. It doesn’t matter that there are so many little wine competitions that they’re all but meaningless.
In the first six sentences, W. Blake Gray is all business, reporting the simple facts of who won what. It all sounds fine, except that to someone familiar with the awards, it’s painfully obvious he has no idea what he’s talking about and that he’s left out more than he’s included. Gray’s credentials include wine and sake, perhaps that’s why he was handed the no-prestige assignment. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he’s certainly not going to be mistaken for H.L. Mencken anytime soon.
His first sentence contains his first error — hey, why wait? — where he claims Bear Republic “won two top awards.” Actually they won a single award. The award has two components because one of the trophies stays with the brewery and the other travels with the brewer who won it so he or she retains the honor even if they stop working for that particular brewery.
In the bulk of his last (or second) paragraph, he reports on who won Gold Medals, and not even all of those in Northern California, ignoring silver and bronze entirely. I guess silver and bronze aren’t worthy of being reported, even if it shows multiple wins by the same breweries he’s already mentioned. Bear Republic, for example, won four medals, Russian River Brewing won three, Schooner’s won two, and Eel River Brewing even won two medals for the same beer! Here are sentences three through six:
Several local breweries won medals in the 69 categories for types of beer. Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Co. took a gold medal in the Imperial or Double India Pale Ale category for its Pliny the Elder. Bison Brewing Co. of Berkeley won a gold medal for its Organic Farmhouse Ale in the French-Belgian Style Saison group. And the Oatmeal Stout beer from Antioch’s Schooner’s Grille & Brewery took a gold in the Oatmeal Stout.
So in reporting these three medals Gray completely ignores a total of 17 awards, including four more gold medals, won by breweries in the Bay Area or Northern California. He fails to mention any of the awards listed below.
Gold: Triple Exultation – 2004, Eel River Brewing Co., Fortuna, CA – Aged Beer (Ale or Lager)
Gold: Organic Pilsner, Butte Creek Brewing Co., Chico, CA – German-Style Pilsener
Gold: Otis Alt, Elk Grove Brewery, Elk Grove, CA – German-Style Brown Ale / Düsseldorf-Style Alt Bier
Gold: Winter Wheatwine, Rubicon Brewing Co., Sacramento, CA – Other Strong Ale or Lager
Silver: William Jones Wheat Beer, El Toro Brewing Co., Morgan Hill, CA – American-Style Wheat Beer
Silver: Eagle Pride Pilsener, Elk Grove Brewery and Restaurant, Elk Grove, CA – German-Style Pilsener
Bronze: Aud Blonde, Russian River Brewing Co., Santa Rosa, CA – Golden or Blonde Ale
Bronze: XP Pale Ale, Bear Republic Brewing Co., Healdsburg, CA – American-Style Pale Ale
Silver: Racer 5, Bear Republic Brewing Co., Healdsburg, CA – American-Style Strong Pale Ale
Silver: Apex Ale, Bear Republic Brewing Co., Healdsburg, CA – American-Style India Pale Ale
Silver: Beatification, Russian River Brewing Co., Santa Rosa, CA – Belgian-Style Sour Ale
Bronze: Total Eclipse Black Ale, Hoppy Brewing Co., Sacramento, CA – Robust Porter
Bronze: Peter Brown Tribute Ale, Bear Republic Brewing Co., Healdsburg, CA – Brown Porter
Bronze: Irish Stout, Schooner’s Grille & Brewery, Antioch, CA – Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout
Bronze: San Quentin’s Breakout Stout, Marin Brewing Co., Larkspur, CA – Foreign (Export)-Style Stout
Silver: Seabright Oatmeal Stout, Seabright Brewery, Santa Cruz, CA – Oatmeal Stout
Silver: Tripel Exultation, Eel River Brewing Co., Fortuna, CA – Old Ale / Strong Ale
So is this story shoddy, ignorant or malicious? It’s hard to imagine doing a worse job in such a small space. It’s so bad I think he should have his professional credentials revoked. If I got that many facts wrong or omitted so much I’d be out of a job. But I guess it’s just beer, so it doesn’t really matter. This is beyond frustration. I’ve come to expect a certain amount of this from the mainstream media. Even here in San Francisco, where we enjoy one of the best places in the country for good beer, our media is so nakedly ignorant that it’s a crime. But this example is such a perversion of good reporting that it makes the Weekly World News look positively Pulitzer-worthy by comparison. What makes this all the worse is that Linda Murphy, who’s the Wine Editor for the Chronicle, is supposedly a friend of good beer. Yet a part of her job is being “responsible for all editorial aspects” meaning she green-lighted and/or approved this travesty. [ NOTE: I’ve since learned that Linda Murphy is no longer at the S.F. Chronicle, which means there are no friends of beer there anymore. ]
Of course, it may be that she and/or the Chronicle gave Gray such an infinitesimal amount of words in which to tell the story that he did the best he could under the circumstances. I might be tempted to conclude that were it not for his last sentence, which displays probably his true feelings for the assignment and the depth of his ignorance about beer. After listing some of the medalists of this year’s GABF, he ends his piece with the following. “To them we say, ‘Ziggy socky, ziggy socky, oy oy oy!'”
To those of you who don’t know what that phrase means, consider yourself lucky. It was made popular by the wildly sophomoric television show, The Man Show, which aired on Comedy Central from 1999-2004 and was hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla until 2003. During the first season, Bill “The Fox” Foster was the show’s emcee and part of his schtick was downing a mug of insipid beer in one quick gulp after shouting “Ziggy sokky, ziggy sokky, Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!.” He was also known as “The World’s Fastest Beer Drinker,” a dubious distinction if ever there was one. Foster owned a bar in Santa Monica, California, the Fox Inn, where he performed from 1961-1989. His catch phrase — spellings vary — is actually “Zicke Zacke, Zicke Zacke, Oi, Oi, Oi!” and in it’s original form is a German toast. The Man Show continued to use Foster’s toast as their own even after he died from prostate cancer in 2000. The show itself extolled the basest impulses of the frat-boy mentality, and indeed that was their audience in a nutshell; young, white college-age males who felt discriminated by political correctness, equality, and women generally. Some of the high brow segments included the “Juggie Girls” (jiggling bikini-clad girls dancing in the audience), a recurring skit in which the hosts visit college campuses, “successfully asking girls to sign a petition to “end women’s suffrage,” demanding the repeal of the 19th Amendment (which guarantees women’s voting rights),” and ending every show with scantily clad girls jumping on trampolines.
So Gray spends his last sentence making reference to a German toast for decidedly “American” awards. On top of that, he’s alluding to one of the worst examples of celebrating bad beer to congratulate some of the local winners of medals who make great beer. I assume he thought he was being clever but whatever you think of the Man Show, it is not an apt reference to use in a story about award-winning beer. By using the catch phrase, perhaps he thought it made him sound “in the know” when in fact it did just the opposite. It proves that yet another drinks writer, one who specializes in wine and sake, remains blissfully ignorant of the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world. And that is the mainstream media in a nutshell.
The San Francisco Chronicle lists an impressive nineteen staff writers for its wine and food section, not one of whom lists in his or her biography even a passing familiarity with beer. Now I like wine, indeed, virtually every beer person I know loves wine. I may not be as expert as any of these nineteen “professionals” but I’m pretty confident I know more about wine, food, sake and spirits than all of them combined know about beer. Given that San Francisco is probably the second-strongest market for craft beer in the country (after Portland, Oregon) the Chronicle is doing a great disservice to their readers. It just doesn’t make any sense that they wouldn’t have at least one beer writer on staff given its popularity, craft beer’s recent ascendancy and the sheer number of worthy stories that come up in the Bay Area alone on a regular basis. Except that unlike craft beer drinkers, the wine writers’ disdain for beer is palpable, on display by its unending omission, error and ignorance.
I consider myself to be a beer snob of the most obnoxious type. I will refuse beer from a bottle if no glass is available. If nothing worthy is listed on a restaurant’s menu, I will drink something other than beer. I will not stoop to drink bad beer just because it’s the only kind available. I will soundly chastise a waiter who brings me a wheat beer with a lemon wedge in it — ruining the beer — without first asking me if I want one. But I will also never miss an opportunity to sample and/or learn more about rival beverages. I have attended countless wine tastings, whiskey and other spirits dinners and events, sake samplings, etc. Not only do I consider it my duty as a beer writer to have at least a passing knowledge of other alcoholic beverages (if for no other reason than simple comparison and contrast), I also greatly enjoy trying new things. And paradoxically, many, if not most, wine makers I know also love a good beer, too. It appears to be only the wine media and the readers they mis-inform that remain so completely ignorant of craft beer and refuse to embrace good beer with the panoply of alcoholic beverages produced by mankind.
One has to wonder why this is so? I wish I had some simple answers to this bewildering enigma. Is it simply that wine writers are afraid their wine snob credentials will be revoked if they deign to admit liking beer, a drink of the “common people?” A few years ago, one of the editors of Saveur magazine wrote an editorial on beer displaying such monumental ignorance that several prominent brewers and beer industry leaders canceled their subscriptions and wrote scathing replies to the magazine.
Could it be because retailers and winery’s profit margins allow for more advertising in newspapers and magazines? Perhaps that is too simplistic but following the money is usually a good way to figure out what’s going on. It’s a technique Wal-Mart has mastered in deflecting criticism when entering a new market. They spend a lot on initial advertising locally then ask for favorable coverage, which most small town newspapers are only to happy to give them with the promise of more ad revenue on the line. Of course, as soon as Wal-Mart has estabished themselves in that market, they stop the local advertising entirely, but that’s another story. My point here is merely that it’s not implausable to suggest that beer’s bad coverage could be to protect revenue streams.
Or is is possible that the nation’s wine writers really think that the highly-engineered food products churned out by the big breweries as industrial light lagers is all there is to beer? That might have been acceptable, or at least understandable, twenty — or even ten — years ago. But today? Today it’s completely untenable. How can any food or wine writer ignore the diversity of beer and its superior ability to pair with such a wide range of food dishes? If our food and wine media continue on this path, the consumer will simply have passed them by and perhaps will regard them with the disdain that I do now.
They remind me of the generation of geologists in the 1960s that refused to believe in plate tectonics despite the mounting evidence, because it undermined their careers even when it made them look more foolish the longer they resisted. Today, hardly anyone but adherents of the Flat Earth Society would discount plate tectonics. Will today’s wine and food writers who continue to steadfastly refuse to embrace craft beer be viewed by future readers as ignorant dinosaurs? I think that’s a distinct possibility given the fervor with which they display how much they don’t know. I can’t tell you how many times many of us writing about beer have offered assistance — even free of charge — just so that when newspapers actually do cover beer that they get the story right. And how many times have our offers of assistance been welcomed? To my knowledge, exactly zero times. Apparently ignorance really is bliss, but it’s driving me to drink.
UPDATE (10.13): The Chronicle printed the following letter today in response to this article:
Beer Deserves Respect
Editor — Re: The Sipping News (Oct. 6). Ziggy socky, ziggy socky, oy oy oy? Thanks for mentioning a few of the Bay Area’s many awards at this year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. It’s one thing for the award-winning Wine section to remain ignorant of the burgeoning beer scene but quite another to be sophomorically disrespectful.
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