The “smell of fermentation?” More like the smell of incompetence, as respected wine writer Thom Elkjer bumbles wildly through a new beer article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, apparently angling to become the Sergeant Schultz of beer. His first impression upon entering the Russian River Brewery is the stainless steel tanks and the “smell of fermentation.” When I read his article, the only scent I get is of his ignorance.
The article is titled Artisan brewers thrive in the Wine Country and in it he profiles Russian River Brewing Co. of Santa Rosa and Anderson Valley Brewing Co. of Boonville, and also talks more generally about craft beer in the Bay Area.
He begins by sampling Russian River Brewing’s wonderfully complex Damnation and spits out the sample into the floor drain, thus missing half the beer’s flavor! That’s only the first outrage in what I believe quite possibly may be the most ignorant piece of writing on the subject of beer that I’ve read all year. I’m glad that the Chronicle is once more writing about beer after Linda Murphy, the one wine writer that knew something about it, left in August. But there are so many mistakes and insults in Elkjer’s feature article that I almost feel embarrassed for him. And the Chronicle likewise should feel embarrassed for doing such a disservice to its many beer-loving readers.
There are so many things to call attention to in the article that I could spend all day on it, but I’ll confine myself to just a few and leave it to others to discover the rest.
He claims that early craft brewers originally “went into the commercial business to make a fresh, draft version of their favorite bottled import.” But most early craft brewers made a pale ale or amber ale as their flagship beer, while a majority of imports were still lagers. To be sure there were some pale ales — Bass Ale springs to mind — but they were a relative minority. Imports certainly “inspired” many early brewers, but for a variety of reasons making ales was a much more cost effective way to start a microbrewery in those days.
Elkjer goes on to describe “stout and ale” as some of the “time-honored categories” to describe “their beers — just as winemakers do.” I’m pretty sure wines are usually described by the primary grape or the region (appellation) they come from. Wouldn’t that mean that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale should be called “Cascade Ale.” And when did ale and stout become distinct categories? They’re not, of course, and I can’t even bring myself to insult my readers by explaining this.
After reporting how Vinnie Cilurzo is embracing Brettanomyces to create many of Russian River’s bolder beers, unlike winemakers who generally hate the stuff, he says its odor reminds “most people of barnyard manure.” So is he saying Vinnie’s beer using that yeast tastes or smells “shitty?” I think the more common description of Brett is “horse blanket” or similar allusions and while I accept that many people find it off-putting, I’ve never considered scatological descriptors. I think that’s a little insulting, frankly.
Elkjer next explains that Russian River is not the only brewer making this type of beer, and mentions Tomme Arthur, too, before dropping this bombshell. “There are, for example, more than 400 different beers made at Belgium’s Trappist monasteries.” Wow, that’s a lot of different beers made at a grand total of seven — count ’em — seven Trappist breweries in the world (6 in Belgium, 1 in The Netherlands). Some very simple fact-checking would likely have revealed this error, but it suggests a lack of follow-up or research, along with a careless disregard for the subject matter.
The author then talks about the history of hops in northern California’s past, explaining how hops were once “roasted” throughout the region. I don’t know what they did with the hops after they roasted them — assuming they didn’t catch on fire — because they’d be all but useless in making beer. While I can’t say some hop pellets have never been put in a frying pan for a few seconds to get some different qualities out of the hops in dry-hopping by some eccentric brewer, generally speaking nobody in their right mind roasts hops. There are far better and safer ways to get roasted flavors in your beer. But to Thom, “[r]oasted hops are one of the two essential ingredients in most beer (the other is malted barley).” I’m not sure what happened to the yeast and water, perhaps they’re not as essential?
And apparently it’s not just beer that Elkjer is ignorant about, he’s not so hot at math, either. In discussing the alcohol (a.b.v.) in Russian River’s beers, he claims Deification at 6.35% is “around twice the average of mass-produced beers.” Budweiser weighs in at 4.9%. You do the math, does that add up? He later refers to a 5.5% beer as a “session beer,” which he also defines as a beer to drink “during a long meal.” I didn’t realize “length of meal time” was one of the criteria you should use in choosing the right beer pairing for your dinner.
Later, he reveals the target demographic for “session beers” are “women as well as immigrants” and that’s who microbreweries are focusing on appealing to. Now, do female immigrants want a beer that’s twice as low-alcohol since they’re both “women as well as immigrants” or are they just twice as likely to want one? It’s amazing how dismissive and insulting that sounds, but frankly that’s how the whole things strikes me. This just seems to be written by someone who all but hates what he’s writing about.
But there’s more condescension around the next corner where Elkjer writes off brewpub food as “simple, hearty and well matched with the beverages,” implying, of course that the “beverages” are simple, too. Oh, and if you spend the entire day drinking beer, by all means learn from the adults, your betters, and, as Elkjer suggests, “do what the wine tasters do: rent a limousine or choose a designated driver.” Thanks Thom, that would never have occurred to me, what a thoughtful suggestion. We beer folk are such simple people, we sure do need your sophisticated guidance, by golly.
Elkjer ends his article, at least online (in the paper I believe it’s probably a sidebar), with a list and short description of wine country craft breweries, though curiously he omits Dempsey’s in Petaluma, among others. Here are just a couple of his comments:
Bear Republic has “a goofy gift shop.”
Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery is a “real restaurant that happens to make 400 barrels of beer.” So the other brewpub restaurants aren’t “real?”
Now apparently Thom Elkjer is a very well-respected wine writer who writes for numerous wine magazines and newspapers, including, according to his biography on WineCountry.com, “Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Country Living, VINE Napa Valley, and WINE.” He’s also written several books about wine. But from some simple searching, I can’t find another instance where he’s written about beer before and, if that’s true, boy does it show. But as some of my own critics have pointed out, the fault lies more properly with the editors, the publication handing out the assignment rather than the author. And that certainly may be true to a certain extent. Because I, too, would probably not turn down an assignment that paid well in a prominent publication, even if they asked me to write about something outside my area of expertise. But I also would have done a lot of research, fact-checked the piece to death, and asked people who did know the subject to look at it first. I would have gone over it with a fine tooth comb if for no other reason than simply to not embarrass myself and also insure that it wasn’t the last assignment I ever got from the publication.
Elkjer’s piece, on the other hand, is so riddled with simple, laughable errors and insulting, dismissive rhetoric that I’m truly perplexed that his article moved from the editor’s desk to the copy editor and on the printing press without somebody noticing something might be amiss. I know these are busy people. I know they have deadlines. I know they don’t know jack about beer. But how do you miss insulting “women and immigrants” by reinforcing stereotypes and suggesting they both prefer low-alcohol beers. I need look no farther than my own wife to know how wrong that stereotype is. And by now isn’t it fairly common knowledge that while wine tasters spit out the samples, beer aficionados do not?
This is or should be, I think, a source of much embarassment to the San Francisco Chronicle. Their newspaper is smack dab in the middle of one the most exciting places on Earth for craft brewing, where there are countless innovations taking place right under their noses. Yet the largest news organization in the Bay Area remains blissfully ignorant of what’s going on all around them, or even that it’s going on at all. More and more people are discovering craft beer in all its wonderfully varied diversity despite the Chronicle’s best efforts to keep their readers in the dark. And that may be the saddest commentary of all.