Roundup: The Session #123, "CyberBrew"

First, let me thank all of the bloggers who participated in this 123rd edition of The Session!  And, of course, to Jay and Stan for making it happen in the first place.  So, without further ado, we jump into a roundup of what everyone thought of Beer in the Information Age (and if anyone cares, my own brief post on the matter is at the conclusion).

The Brew Site 

Jon Abernathy's take focuses on the interconnection that the internet and social media make possible, and gives a nice rundown of the benefits and costs of this unavoidable linkage mechanism.  On the plus side, small (good) breweries get more attention and have an easier time building a following that can sustain them.  At the same time, the lengthy history of beer (even on the early internet) means that we have a running record of beer and brewery development, attitudes, and history that serves a useful archival function!  

On the negative side of the ledger, however, is one key detriment: especially in a social media age, the internet gives an outsized voice to the more-persistent and louder negative voices.  If 100 people are pleasantly happy with a beer but one is determined to destroy it, that one voice has a motivation to leap online and raise hell, whereas the 100 happy drinkers will simply enjoy their beer and move on.  That the internet is a platform for snobbery and distorted impressions is certainly not a new observation, but it's one that's always worth remembering.

Barrel Aged Leeds

"Do you even blog, Bro?" might be one of my favorite titles of all time.  Pointing out the rapid expansion of the blogging/vlogging/punditry sphere on the internet, we are warned that there is a risk of creating a beer blogosphere that is far too focused on cheerleading in an attempt to garner more likes and shares.  While we have less of a profit motive (ahem...some of us have none at all!) than the breweries themselves (or their PR departments), there's still some incentive to avoid rocking the boat.

We are rightly encouraged to think of the dogs that don't bark - a plethora of positive reviews of a brewery doesn't make it good.  I would concur and add that the same is true for the negatives we hear.  And, of course, as beer writers we might be best served by voluntarily adopting a degree of journalistic detachment and obejctivity.

The Aposition

Tom Bedell provides two recent beer interactions as vignettes on the impact of the internet on the beer community.  First, the near-"miraculous" (despite its now-commonplace nature) phenomenon of being able to gather the beer-interested from around the world via social media to discuss and share beer news and opinions.  The fact that we can now, easily, harness ideas and thoughts from brewers all over the world, instantaneously, is an astonishing thing, whatever its effects.

Second, we're all now also benefitting (and, again, we ignore the revolutionary nature of this) from advanced knowledge of what beer is available where, which means less time hunting and more time enjoying, and fewer disappointing tap lists even in places like airports and sporting stadiums.  It's like when someone finally get a DVR and sees what life is like without the down-time of commercials and the shackles of airing schedules.  It's remarkably liberating!

Kaedrin Beer Blog

Mark delves into this question with abandon, and I couldn't possibly summarize it all here (but I strongly urge you to read it all for yourself - great stuff!), but one point that jumped out at me was the incredible diversity of kinds of beer communities online.  Like a lot of these points, it was something I had observed but never remarked upon.  Trying to nail down online "beer culture" can be challenging because it reflects so many different approaches, concerns, and attitudes.  

With increasing levels of transparency are coming increasing levels of trust online, Mark notes, which is almost certainly a good thing, regardless of the topic or area.

A Better Beer Blog

Alan didn't seem to think much of my question, I regret to report, suggesting that it was "short-sighted" (or, if I'm reading it correctly, failing to appreciate the lengthy internet history of beer).  In my own defense, I don't think I was suggesting that beer is new to the internet - rather that recent changes in both scope and scale of the internet audience, in addition to its transition to an active space rather than a passive resource, might merit a review of how the internet today affects beer.  But I digress...

Alan seems to espouse a radically different view of many of the others in this week's roundup: he suggests that the interconnectedness and dynamic shrinking of the world that the internet and social media provide is merely the "presumption…no, the illusion of nearness."  The interactions found online are artificial.  "All beer is, as a result, properly understood as local and personal."  

It's an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I subscribe to it.  While these interactions may begin superficially and artificially, they often yield real relationships and benefits.  How many visit NHC or GABF and take active steps to meet and spend time with those who were previously only bits of data on a social media feed?  The end result certainly meets the "local and personal" standard, and if what starts that chain of events are the artificial virtual interactions of social media and internet activity, then doesn't that end result add a degree of "realness" to its beginning?  And are we really saying that IRL beer interactions can't be equally fleeting and artificial?  It's certainly a fascinating topic for discussion - more another day...

Ramblings of a Beer Runner

Derrick makes a wonderfully simple case for craft beer on the internet: everyone can and is getting something beneficial out of it.  Breweries get low cost-of-access publicity and direct contact with consumers.  Drinkers get information about beer and breweries and events.  Traders get a wildly expanded universe in which to offer and receive exotic beers.

All of this comes with a caveat, though: there's a lot of noise out there.  And as Derrick notes: "If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to."  I couldn't agree more!

The Tale of the Ale

Dublin-based blogger Reuben Gray stakes out a simple and compelling argument for the modern internet as a craft beer engine.  Information often fuels interest, and the fact the "global explosion in craft beer would be much slower and have far less of an impact without the rise of the internet and specifically smartphones/social media."  I find this to be especially true given the nature of craft beer's position and image in the marketplace: a swarm of "little guys" trying to take down the macro behemoths.  It's the perfect marketing medium for a David v. Goliath narrative.

Reuben also notes, though, that this sword cuts both ways: before everyone and their mother was on social media, and before internet news became ubiquitous, only the most-dedicated of beer people (or the most thorough of newspaper Business Section readers) would have noticed the full buyout of Lagunitas by Heineken.  Now, that information whips around the world (literally) at the speed of light.  Whether it actually helps or hurts the brewery is a question of case and context, but the idea that it could do either is a significant change in the beer world's ecology.

The Beer Nut

Also out of Dublin, The Beer Nut makes a fittingly novel argument: the novelty that pervades the beer world (one-offs, collaboration beers, 20 seasonals to 4 year-round offerings) is a direct result of the ramped-up communications (especially mobile) technology that breweries can now utilize.  When communication with customers was both costly and required firing a marketing shotgun into a crowd of potential beer drinkers, focus was key: serve only a few beers, and preferably have your brand identified by just one.  

With microtargeting, direct messaging, and a market segment constantly on the hunt for new and creative beer, the incentive structure changes, probably permanently.  Sure, you can have a range of really good "everyday" beers, but breweries can now choose to leave that model behind and brew an ever-evolving range of beers and make a living doing it.  An interesting illustration of one way that technology that has nothing to do with brewing changes beer.

Boak & Bailey

Boak and Bailey make a broader cultural argument that seems quite on-target: online and offline are no longer distinct spaces.  The integration of internet-based technology into practical everyday living is, if not complete, then damned near there.  

They follow up with a great question: what is the impact on the local when the global shows up in your pocket?  Certainly there are benefits to each, and just as we should be open to the idea of the exotic and the far-flung we should also take care to nurture and maintain the nearby and the familiar.  How?  That's a much longer discussion for another day.

Beer Simple

My take?  I agree with almost all of what my colleagues have written in the past week on the subject.  I concur that the Information Age (with the addition of social media) has changed the beer world by bringing all of us closer together, enabling interactions that would have been logistically challenging and probably impossible even a few years ago.  And I disagree that these interactions are immaterial or ineffectual or artificial.  

These interactions are real.  Nurture them, and they'll pay dividends.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

 

 

Sending Beer Back: Walking the Customer-Alehole Tightrope

"Don't like that beer?  Send it back.  You're the customer - you should get something you like."

Oh, if only it were that simple (especially around here - right?).  

Maybe it's a desire to avoid conflict.  Maybe we don't want to look like beer snobs.  Maybe it's that there seem to be a lot of introverts in/around craft beer and homebrewing.  Whatever the reason, though, this is one of the topics in which I find a lot of anxiety, disagreement, and tension: when, and how, do/should we send beer back?

I know that some of you out there are brazenly demanding new pints left and right and think the rest of us just need to get more assertive, but for those who don't fall into that category, let's get into this a bit.

First, When?

Right out of the gate, I gravitate towards trying to sort out the situations when it's OK to send a beer back and those in which it's more of a questionable move.  

Probably Not OK: The one time when I'm reasonably sure it's unreasonable to send a beer back is when I simply don't like it.  If what I ordered is basically what I got (as in, I ordered a Pilsner and it's lighter than amber and has some hop character/bitterness), then whether I think it's good or not doesn't factor into whether I should send it back or not.  The bar's under no obligation to only serve me beers that I would rate highly.

Almost Certainly OK: A seriously dirty or chipped glass, a beer that's flat, obvious off-flavors of a fecal variety, something that's demonstrably not the beer I ordered ("say, this beer's pretty haze and pale for a Russian Imperial Stout...") - these all seem like perfectly good reasons to send a beer back.

In Between: The trouble I run into is when there's not a patently obvious justification.  What do you do when there's lots of bubbles on the beer glass (not "beer clean")?  Diacetyl, DMS, other minor flavor faults?  Slightly stale flavors/oxidation?  Temperature issue?  I guess there's never going to be a commonly-accepted rubric for what does and doesn't qualify, and even if we agreed on one there's a lot of subjectivity in beer evaluation.

This is what I mean when I say we're walking the Customer-Alehole tightrope.  One person's reasonable complaint is another person's eye-rolling "get over yourself" self-indulgence.

For these "tweeners," I like to go with the "Two Beer" rule.  If there's one beer with that problem, fine.  But if my second has it, too, then I'm either going to leave and not come back OR bring it to someone's attention.  

What you say v. What they hear

"When," it turns out, might be the easy part.  "How" is a much bigger challenge, because now you're treading on more-dangerous ground.  

Sending a beer back could trigger all kinds of weird responses, few of them good.

On the one hand, you could be at a place that is really committed to customer service, trains up their staff well, and genuinely cares that you have a great experience.  That, though...isn't everywhere.  Many don't want or need your feedback, and may not care whether you're happy or not.  

It's really kind of understandable.  I mean, you're just sending a beer back.  But to the bar, you might be saying any/all of the following:

  • "You're losing $6 because I'm not paying for this."
  • "You run a dirty bar.  Clean a beer line, just once, for the novelty of it."
  • "You don't know what you're serving - that's NOT a stout, idiot."
  • "You're an idiot who served this in a chilled mug."
  • "I'm a super-entitled beer geek and beer judge and homebrewer and YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!"

So...you know, maybe we should approach this cautiously.  

The "How"

Well, I suppose it should go without saying that you should be polite and courteous (and even complimentary - "we love it here, and we know you guys care about your beer, it's just that this one is [fill in the concern]").  I've been burned by "goes without saying" before, though, so it can't hurt to repeat it here.

Context matters here, too - if it's a bartender/bar owner that you've known for a while, then feel free to be more direct.  Some people I could spit-take the beer across the room without offending, but that's not most folks in most places.

So, how do we politely but firmly register a request to send a beer back?  I like the Triple-A Method (modified from writing on how to engage in challenging political discourse):

  1. Apologize: "I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid I need to ask for a different beer."  Why lead off with an apology?  Because it suggests this isn't a power trip for you.  You don't want to make their lives harder.  You're just someone who wants a good, fair transaction.
  2. Augment: "I have a serious sensitivity to [whatever your beef is], and I'm tasting it in this beer."  Explain your concern in neutral terms.  No need to point fingers.
  3. Advance: "Could I have [new beer, new glass, etc.] instead?  Thanks SO much, and again, I'm sorry about this!"  Don't wait for them to suggest a fix - it can make you seem like you're trawling for more than a replacement, or they might think that you don't want it redressed at all.  

This method can work for all kinds of complaints.  It also makes no appeals to authority ("Look, I'm a homebrewer/beer judge, and I KNOW that's not right...") or normative value judgments.  It's clear, simple, and (unless someone's having a really bad day) pretty benign and non-reactive.

The Wrong Beer Exception

There's one area, though, where I haven't been able to come up with a single "clean" and non-insulting way to call attention: The Wrong Beer Scenario.

I ordered something.  You gave me something - but not what I ordered.

Now, one of two things could be happening here:

  1. It's patently the wrong beer (or Oktoberfest is now super-hoppy and cloudy).
  2. I know it's the wrong beer because I drink a lot of different beers and can tell.

There's no winning here.  If it's obviously the wrong beer, then pointing that out means you're calling the bartender an idiot.  If it's not patently wrong but my experience makes it obvious, then pointing it out makes me look like a smug beer snob.

The only thing that MIGHT work - but the server needs to be hip to what you're trying to do for them - is this face-saving statement: "Sorry, I think this must be for someone else - I ordered the Oktoberfest!  It's so busy, totally understandable..."  

Otherwise, you're on the express train to Awkward Town.  

Say Hi to the Vicar

Finally, a quick word on an under-pour.  I was drinking with an Englishman one fine afternoon, and on receiving his pint asked the waitress, "what about the vicar?"  I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so; apparently, he was referring to the white collar of head at the top of the glass, taking up space where his beer should be, and resembling (I now saw) a clerical collar like a priest or vicar might wear.  

If a place is slow, I might mention it.  Otherwise, I just let it slide.  He didn't - they're serious about a beer being a proper pint, those Englishmen...

Manners Cost Nothing

In any case, let your conscience be your guide, on all of this.  What I will say, though, is that being polite never hurts, usually helps, and costs nothing.  

If you're going to step out onto the Customer-Alehole tightrope, best to err on the side of courtesy.

Keep it simple.

JJW

The Session #123: CyberBrew - Is the Internet Helping or Hurting Craft Beer?

It is my great privilege to host the 123rd rendition of "The Session," the brainchild of Jay Brooks (of Brookston Beer Bulletin fame) and prolific beer writer Stan Hieronymous, coming up on May 5th.

What's "The Session?"

To quote Jay: “The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. Over time, it is the hope — of me, at least — that a record will be created with much useful information about various topics on the subject of beer."

Interesting - what's the topic?

This month, we're taking on the internet and craft beer: is it a help, a hinderance, an annoyance, or all of the above?  How is beer drinking/brewing different in the internet age, and how is the internet changing the way brewers and craft beer drinkers do business?  

Topics might include:

  • Marketing beer in the internet age
  • The astounding influence of beer bloggers to make or break breweries (just kidding, but seriously, what's the effect of all of this quasi-journalistic beer commentary on the drinking and brewing public?)
  • How are beer reviews (expert and mass-market) affecting what gets brewed and drank?
  • Are beer apps for tracking and rating overly-"gamifying" beer (or does that make drinkers more adventurous)?
  • Just how fast do aleholes on message boards and elsewhere turn off prospective craft beer enthusiasts?

And, of course, I'm sure that you're all more creative than me and there's a lot I'm missing.

Cool - how do I join in? 

Leave a comment with a link to your post in the comment section of this post, preferably by May 5th (the first Friday of the month, also known as "next Friday").  Even if you're running a little late, leave your comment and I'll catch it.  The roundup will publish in mid-late May (I'd say that the 15th is a likely target), and we'll see what everyone came up with.

Keep it simple.

JJW

 

A Year of Unique Beer - First Quarter Update

I'm a believer in making one's own fun, setting challenges, and turning life into a game whenever possible.  This year's game?  2017 will be a year of unique beer.  I don't mean that I'll try to drink interesting and different beers this year - I mean it literally.  Every beer in 2017 will be singular.  Today's post is the first quarter update, and I'll also lay out the rules.

Getting to Here 

I drank 381 pints of beer last year.  How do I know?  I was tracking it, thanks to a fun conversation I had with my wife.  The question we had was, "do I drink a barrel of beer per year?"  Turns out I do - about 1.54 barrels, to be precise.  

The "roughly one beer per day" average, though, started us down a different track: what if they were all different beers?  A new beer for every new day?  Not that I'd be limited to one per day or would HAVE to drink one a day, but just that there would be no repeats.  

Challenge accepted.  Why?  Well, because it might be interesting, but also because it struck me as a great way to test the depth and breadth of the craft beer world (at least in our area) in 2017.  If this is easy, then it says a lot about the variety of beers we get to choose from.  If not, then it might suggest that there's not as much choice out there as we think (what if bars all have roughly the SAME 25 beers on tap?).  

The Rules

Pretty simple, really - no repeated beers.  I'd better enjoy that one Celebration Ale, because it's the only one I'm getting all year.  Now, inevitably, we need to work out some kinks here, so here's the general setup (if you want to play along at home):

  • All beers will be tracked in Untappd, and checked-in when drank.
  • A "counted" beer is a pour of more than 6 ounces, but not more than 22 (unless poured into a liter mug or boot as part of a festival situation).  As a result, samplers are fine, as is a small pour of a shared bottle, but anything else checks it off the list for the year.
  • This applies to homebrew, too (even my own). 
  • Beers served in different ways (nitro, cask, etc.) ARE distinct, but ONLY if they exist separately in Untappd.
  • Beers that are tied to a specific year or version/batch number (Luponic Distortion, Black Ops, etc.) are distinct, but (again) only if they exist separately in Untappd.  

That's it.  

The Year So Far

BEER COUNT: 108

Bottom line up front?  So far this has been a breeze, with just one notable exception.  Even though (like most people, I imagine) I frequent the same 5-6 drinking establishments most of the time, I've found it to be no challenge at all finding new beers to try at each visit. Surprisingly, to me, this is true even at brewpubs; their seasonal rotations and one-off beers are more than enough to keep me covered, at least for now.  It's also interesting because I find myself ordering more beers from breweries I don't know well, or trying more seasonal beers, or going for that nitro-IPA even though I don't generally go in for that.  It's been a great excuse to drink outside my comfort zone a bit more!

I also found that most of the beer I drink at home tends to be the more unusual or rare beers, anyway.  I don't generally pop open something just to drink it while watching football or to unwind at the end of the day, so that's been no problem, either.

No, the only real problem is when I'm going calling on friends/family who aren't beer people, or when they visit us and there's social drinking going on.  Since we're talking about 12 oz. cans/bottles in most cases, it isn't that hard to check off four or five in a single happy hour/dinner situation.

Do you know how hard it is to keep a supply of single bottles on hand?  I mean, mixed cases usually give at LEAST three of each beer, so that's no solution.  For now I'm getting by with the "mix your own six-pack" option at Wegmans, but those bottles/cans aren't always in the best shape and I'm concerned about how much they rotate.  I've also been making a LITTLE progress with trading my "extra" beers with others, hunting for equitable trades for things I haven't had yet, and asking friends who are traveling to pick up something local and cut me out some single bottles from their haul.

I'm going to see if there's a more-systematic approach to this that I can utilize.  Maybe cut a deal with a local beer distributor for a full case of singles?  But in any case, it's interesting that so far the major challenge isn't variety, but logistics.  

Next update: July.  In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for how to source singles, please feel free to let me know at josh@beer-simple.com!

Keep it simple.

JJW

Beer Yoga Is Stupid (or the "Taking Beer Seriously Equilibrium")

For any thing that anyone cares about, there's someone who cares insultingly little about it and, at the other end of the spectrum, someone who cares way too much about it.  This week, we're going to see if there isn't some kind of "sane middle" that we can agree on.  Because if there's one thing I know, it's this: "beer yoga" is really stupid.

I'll admit that some of us take beer too seriously - me included, probably, since I actually pay money to produce a beer blog that generates virtually no revenue.  But at the same time, I don't think it's out of line to suggest that maybe people shouldn't use craft beer as some kind of artisanal prop, either.

You're Taking It Too Seriously

When I saw an April Fool's joke that suggested Cantillon was soon going to begin distributing in cans, I laughed my ass off - which is a massive warning light that one might be a bit too "into" a certain hobby.  That's a seriously esoteric and geeky joke.  But geekiness, in and of itself, isn't really something to be too concerned about.  If anything, it's a natural pendulum-swing away from a postmodern society that's "so over" almost everything, and where enthusiasm is almost something to be ashamed of.  

That's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about the people who feel the need to treat beer as an almost theological enterprise.  We've talked before about the dogmatists among us (and thanks for the "you're not insane" support from Brulosophy on that one).  Beer, brewing, homebrewing, beer judging, and other cognate/tangential sectors of the beer world are lousy with martinets, sticklers, and pedants and purists who sound off on normative absolutes and generally suck the fun out of this whole thing.  We've talked about them before, and at length, as being great personifications of "aleholes."  These are often people who start from a position of taking beer too seriously.  

When your approach and attitude to beer start to spill over into a desire to dictate to others how or what or when they should be drinking, then you need to take a hard look at what you're asserting to ask if it's reasonable.  

Am I a hypocrite for saying that drinking beer while doing yoga is dumb?  Maybe.  But I think I can defend it reasonably, so I'm still OK with doing it.  Yoga requires significant effort and concentration, so drinking while doing it makes as much sense to me as holding a footrace over an icy parking lot.  I'm not telling you not to do it - I'm saying I think it's a really inconvenient way to drink beer (if that's what you want to do) and a poor way to do yoga (if that's what you want to do).  Why not just go to a yoga class and then go drink beer afterward?

But, for example, if I say that if you're drinking a beer that's a few degrees above or below its optimum serving temperature that therefore you're doing it wrong, then I'm now entering a different arena - that's not just sharing an opinion, it's imposing a standard and actively judging people that don't hew to it.  That's wrong, and when I do it I hope people point it out.

You're Not Taking It Seriously Enough

OK, so what about the people who don't take it seriously enough?  They're out there, too.  Our "beer yoga" people are probably in that category.  

Here's the thing: making good beer is a challenging endeavor undertaken by people who (usually) care a lot about what they do, and they do it knowing that it's almost certainly not going to make them rich.  The Jim Koch's of the world are rare.  Most people in brewing know that the way to make a small fortune in the beer world is simple: start with a large fortune (rimshot).  

When you treat their work as a trendy prop, they might be grateful you bought it in the first place, but it's still kinda disrespectful.  Craft beer has fought long and hard to get to where it is, often against competitors that use ethically (and, sometimes, legally) questionable practices to fend off legitimate competition.  I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a craft beer-themed fundraiser for your nonprofit or host a "beer tasting party" for your non-beery friends - I'm saying that you shouldn't be doing it so that you can make fun of the "hipster in the work shirt and beard" that is your stereotypical image of a craft brewer/drinker.

I used to joke about yoga, that it was just stretching and laying (hell, there's a yoga pose that's literally called corpse pose where you lay flat on your back).  Then I tried it, and it kicked my ass for a little while.  It made me realize that I was being a bit of a dick about it, even if I wasn't making fun of people who did yoga, maliciously and mercilessly mocking their efforts.  I was just being dismissive and (mentally) treating them like dilettantes who were just engaging in a trendy hobby - and while, almost certainly, some were, a lot weren't, and what they're doing deserves our respect even if we don't share their enthusiasm.

The Balance Point

So where's the balance point?  After all, we're talking beer and yoga, both of which care about balance.  

I think it's here: don't let your attitude about beer (or just about anything, really) be either a cudgel or a punchline.  If you're browbeating people with it, you're taking it too seriously.  If you're (even passively) mocking people with it, you're not taking it seriously enough.  

And for those who are (inevitably) going to criticize this as being "obvious," I just have to say that I don't think it is.  Most often, people say something like, "yeah, duh - we know 'too far' when we see it."  Years of experience in/around this world have shown me that those on either side of this divide very, very often do NOT know "too far" when they see it.  

A modest suggestion: be a little more self-critical.  Err to the middle.  We'll all be a bit better off for it, I think.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm literally going to go do yoga before writing an article about becoming a certified beer judge.

Namaste (which is Sanskrit for "Keep it Simple").

JJW

 

What The Hell Happened to Fruit Beers?

I know that sometimes it seems like beer blogs exist to be critical of beer and brewers.  Today is good news, though: brewers seem to have really figured out how to make fruit beer.  

I'm dead serious.  This isn't a setup for some kind of satirical take on fruit beer.  Craft (and even some craft-y) breweries are cranking out top-notch beers that also happen to be fruit-centered or fruit-accented (and no, I'm not counting that orange wedge on the side of the glass - that's still a travesty).  Sometime in the last couple of years I've started to notice a dramatic improvement in the quality of fruit beers, and it's really wonderful to see.  

The Dividends of Variety

One reason this came up at all is because I set myself the challenge of drinking a new beer for every beer of 2017.  No repeats - I get one serving (12-22 oz.) of each beer that I have, but that's it for the year for that beer (which has done all kinds of weird things to my homebrewing plans - lots of high-ABV and dark beers that will hold up until 1/1/2018!).  

The first update on how this is going will be posted in two weeks, the short version being "not that hard so far," but one side-effect of it is that I'm going out of my way to order seasonal or "not usually my first choice" beers so that I can preserve (for example) that Sinebrychoff Porter for a special occasion somewhere further down the calendar.

Thus, my recent exposure to more fruit beers than usual.  One dividend of enforced variety.

Long Way's Journey Into Right

I have no problem admitting that I had a low opinion of fruit beers to begin with.  Not so much the Krieks and Peches of the world: though they're fruit beers, I tend to think of them as sours or Belgians first, fruit beers second or third.  But the generic "peach wheat" beers, "cherry stouts," and recently the seemingly-ubiquitous "citrus fruit pale ale/IPA."  

These were beers that, for years, seemed either determined to de-beer the beers they were used for ("Don't like beer?  Try a FRUIT beer!"), or were so poorly balanced that it was like drinking beer that had been over-spiked with citric acid or sour cherry extract and/or a ton of unfermentable sugar.  They were beers made by brewers that seemed to want to change beer into FRUIT beer.

Ick.

Dancing, Not Fighting

But then - as I say, I came to this recently, but maybe it's been coming for a while now - there seemed to be a change in the approach.  The fruits being used were now much more complementary than substitutive.  It wasn't "apricot malt liquor with a hint of grain" or "blood orange juice with 120 IBUs - you know, for intensity" anymore.  I started getting non-Belgian non-Sours that were actually using fruit as a balanced part of the flavor profile in the beer.

There were still exceptions, of course.  Grapefruit IPAs are always going to be hard if you're not careful.  Grapefruit is a bitter, acidic fruit and creating a balanced beer I could drink two pints of from it is a serious challenge (though I did have one recently that would have fit the bill, but for my stupid self-imposed challenge).  That's what they are, now, though - exceptions.  Of the last half-dozen fruit beers I've had, all have been at least "good," and a couple were in the vicinity of "great."

I now give serious thought to ordering fruit beer.  Not because I'm forced into it by a narrowly-constructed draft list, but because I'm actually curious.  The ingredients now seem to be dancing, not fighting.  The beers are honest-to-goodness beer, not some fruit punch that uses barley or wheat.  The fruit is used as an accent or a supporting player, not a domineering, astringent, tart sledgehammer.

It's just nice to see.

The Blueberry Exception

I still say, though, that there's no such thing as a good blueberry beer.  Blueberry mead or wine?  Excellent.  Blueberry beer?  Never had one that was able to get firm (natural) blueberry flavor.  I'll try again when I head to Maine this summer, but I'm not optimistic.

But hey - hope springs eternal.

Keep it simple.

JJW

[Author's Note: For those who are inevitably going to complain that I didn't list any fruit beers for you to try, let me state in advance that I very rarely do that.  First, someone automatically takes issue with it - "I've had that beer, and it sucks.  This guy's an idiot."  Second, someone else automatically assumes I'm shilling for that brewery and getting paid for it - I'm not, but why invite the criticism?  And third, doing so also automatically generates a response of, "who the f**k are you to tell ME what to drink?"  No one.  And I'm not.  In any case, the point of the article (since this is the second thing that happens - "what was the point of that?  This guy's an idiot.") is that you should be more open to trying whatever fruit beers you see - not that a couple of them are doing well.  So, it would be kind of contrary to the spirit of the piece to send you out with a list.  There - done.]

 

Penetration: At What Point Do We Stop Treating Craft Beer as the Underdog?

There's no doubt that craft breweries benefit greatly from the impression (often true) that they're playing the David role to Big Beer's Goliath.  Craft breweries' customers feel like they're supporting what are often small, local businesses rather than huge multinational beer conglomerates, and by doing so they're also getting a potentially superior product.  We'll leave the "craft beer quality" discussion aside, since it's been done to death (not that it's unimportant, though).  My question is a simpler one: is David even still David?  And if not, does that change how we feel about the beer we buy and drink?

Craft Beer Everywhere?

At the risk of pitching some boring stats, it's worth mentioning that craft beer now commands about a quarter of all beer dollars spent in the US (US Dept. of Commerce), exports of US craft beer are up by 16% (Brewers Association), and the number of permitted breweries in the US is more than 7,000, with nearly all being small, independent breweries (TTB).  Americans now drink about as much craft beer as they drink imported beer.  

It's still no small thing that big beer commands 3/4 of the market.  I'm not suggesting that they can't still use that size advantage to tilt the field in their favor.  But does craft beer really have a legitimate claim to underdog status?

Three years ago I was on a Christmastime pub crawl, traveling with a group decked out in Santa suits (having just completed the annual Philadelphia "Running of the Santas") - oh, and this has nothing to do with the point that'll follow in a second, but I just wanted to set the scene, because how often do you see that?  Anyways, there we were, celebrating in a variety of bars, several of which can be legitimately described as typical, run-of-the-mill, maybe-a-little-dive-y, corner, neighborhood bars.  In nearly all of them we found the usual suspects - big beer, macro lager.  But those boring big beer lagers had company: anywhere from half to three-quarters of the taps in these places were local craft brewery beers.  Even then, I thought, "we're winning."  Three years on, and it's becoming increasingly rare to find bars and restaurants that don't at least act like they care about craft beer, and a huge number actually do. 

I recognize that's not true everywhere.  But when I find a brewery in Lubec, ME (population 1,359, located at the extreme northern tip of the East Coast, several hours from the nearest small city), then it's certainly not unfair to ask the question.

Cultural Penetration

And forget market penetration (well, don't forget it, but don't only think of it) - what about cultural penetration?

One of my professional responsibilities is to advise students who are considering law school as an option, so I routinely browse internet sources for information on the kinds of questions they'll see on a certain graduate legal study admission test.  Last year a question appeared in the Writing section, and a small group of Reddit folk discussed it.  The question began thusly: "Tony is opening a craft brewery..."  The prompt asked examinees to explore the benefits of opening a brewpub vs. a small production brewery, given "Tony's" goals.  

What's remarkable about it is that these questions are designed to ask about topics which would be familiar to most people taking the test.  Other prompts on the same exam ask about public vs. private school choices for a hypothetical family, budget priorities for a municipal government, choosing to drive or fly on vacation, etc.  So when a question pops up that asks about a young person establishing a brewery and asking law school applicants to weigh in on Tony's desire to brew a variety of beers and his marketing plan to win over beer writers and critics, that's pretty telling.

Shaping the Discussion

I'm not suggesting that the local, independent, small-business brewery is a lie or a myth.  Individual craft breweries are definitely dwarfed by macro brewers.  But there's a collective strength to craft beer that begs the question.  It's the "many hands make light work" argument.  Your local brewery can get trampled by ABI.  5,000 of them can't, at least not nearly so easily.  As the saying goes, "quantity has a quality all its own." 

The reason I'm even writing about this is that a criticism lobbed at craft breweries (and craft beer people, to an extent), personified by the Super Bowl ads that knock craft beer, is that craft beer takes itself a bit too seriously.  That criticism can start to look like part of a larger inferiority complex if craft beer continues to treat itself as though it's still just a tiny part of the segment when in fact it's now the source of a great deal of the energy and growth in beer.  

So as we think about and talk about craft beer, maybe it's time to stop talking about it as the spunky upstart.  It may not be universally available, but it's getting there, especially if you're willing to look for it.  It may not be as big as "big" beer, but it's sure as hell growing into it (while big beer actually gets smaller).  On average, it's just not the underdog anymore.

I don't think this means we shouldn't keep buying it, or that we should think of craft beer "collectively" and suggest that it's the effective equivalent of big beer, but I also don't think we should open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy by pretending that we're not part of a multi-billion-dollar market segment.  It just rings false, like a person that pleads poverty but lives in a sprawling McMansion.

Now, about those small brewery quality issues...

Keep it simple.

JJW

Beer & Popcorn: Movie and Beer Pairings for Oscar Night

This Sunday is one of my favorite nights of the year.  Yes, I know that the Academy Awards and its ilk are self-congratulatory and rarely identify the "best" films, but I don't care.  I love movies.  And I love beer.  And if we pair food with beer, why not movies?

Enjoy your Oscar Night, with this as your guide.  Pick these up, have some friends over, and enjoy the show!

A Beer for Every Best Picture Nominee

Let's face it, you didn't watch most of these movies.  They're mostly sad, long, depressing stories with an absurdly high percentage featuring dead fathers or other relatives.  But you know who DID watch all of these?  Me. [...and my long-suffering spouse, who has little choice but to accompany me]

So, without further ado, a beer pairing for each of the nine Best Picture nominees (in ascending order by movie quality - not necessarily beer quality):

9. LionThe sad story of an Indian boy who falls asleep on a train and wakes up thousands of miles away from home, gets adopted and taken even FURTHER away, and then uses Google Earth to identify his home village based on landmarks as seen from space.  WHY DIDN'T HE JUST USE GOOGLE GOOGLE INSTEAD???  HE KNEW THE NAME OF HIS VILLAGE!  In any case, it's a predictable slog of a movie (apparently based on a true story, so I might one day hunt this guy down and ask why he wasted months looking at satellite pictures instead of typing into Google the name of his village and the name of the station where he got on the train), and it deserves a beer that's likewise generic, and not that interesting, and Indian, I guess.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Lion Beer (some of these just write themselves, folks)

8. Manchester by the SeaA lot of critics loved this movie.  I didn't get it.  Much like Lion, we have a cavalcade of cliches, not much originality, and a lot of grief - but at least it's long as hell.  Having said that, it does feature some gorgeous scenery and a competent performance from Casey Affleck (though a bizarrely horrible one from Michelle Williams, whom I usually love).  So we need a beer that's highly predictable and too much of it.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Sam Adams Boston Lager - and make everyone drink a 22oz. mug of it even if they just want one 12oz. bottle.

7. Hell or High WaterThis basically felt like the best TV movie you'll ever see.  A semi-interesting crime story about two brothers robbing banks to avoid foreclosure on a family ranch in Texas that's suddenly worth a fortune because of an oil discovery (and btw, they soft-pedal this plot point so hard in the movie that it isn't until the end that you realize it isn't just a joke made up by one of the brothers).  Competent, but not anything to write home about - and Jeff Bridges chewing so much scenery he probably could use a beer to wash it down.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: I know a lot of you are expecting Hell or High Watermelon from 21A, but that's actually a bit too original here.  Instead, since we're getting a movie that's really good for what it is but might not really be in the top tier, out of Texas, I'm gonna go with basically anything from Jester King.  It's great, but not clear if it isn't just a big fish in a little pond...

6. Hacksaw RidgeAn incredible true story of a pacifist who saved 75 Marines during a battle on Okinawa in WWII, this is a war movie that indulges in lots of cliches but gets by on the strength of its source material and a sterling performance from Andrew Garfield.  Directed by Mel Gibson, we need a beer that pairs with a movie that's kinda conventional but gets by on its charm, made by a recently-disgraced figure looking to get back into your good graces.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: I'm thinking one of our Big Beer Buyout people - Devil's Backbone Vienna Lager fits the bill (and Devil's Backbone sounds like a place that's just down the road from Hacksaw Ridge).

5. Hidden FiguresCharming and super-competent film about African American ladies being recognized for their contributions to the early successes of NASA.  Good fun, an important story, and well-made - it stops short of being great, though, and left me wanting to go home and watch The Right Stuff again (which lacks the diversity but delivers as an epic of the new Space Age).  PAIRING SUGGESTION: If you can get it, anything from Ninkasi's "Ground Control" series of space-traveled-yeast-fermented beers.  If you can't, Victory Moonglow Weizenbock seems like a good alternative...

4. MoonlightA touching story about a boy from a rough neighborhood in Miami who has to navigate a complicated childhood and a drug-addicted mother, told in three chapters at ages 9, 16, and 25 (give or take).  There's some great advice in this movie, particularly from Mahershala Ali's character: "Sooner or later, you just gotta decide what you're gonna be."  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Cigar City Jai Alai IPA.

3. Arrival: Aliens arrive to preach a message of unity and cooperation.  Collaboration for greatness - simple, beautiful, and impactful.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Russian River & Firestone Walker STiVO Keller Pils.

2. FencesThe movie adaptation of an award-winning Broadway play set in post-war Pittsburgh, this is a real showcase for the power of dialogue and ensemble performances.  The movie's complex family dynamics and statements on the nature of strength make it a great pairing with a complex beer.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Great Divide Barrel Aged Hercules DIPA.

1. La La LandAn outstanding modern fairy tale, love story, and musical about the need to care for the things you love even if you're the only one that believes in them.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Your favorite beer, whatever it is, and even if other people think it's terrible or a waste of time.  

Shorts

Some quick hits for other noteworthy or nominated films, for the real film geeks out there:

  • Jackie: Sawtooth Amber from Left Hand ("Back, and to the left...back, and to the left..."  Too soon?)
  • Kubo and the Two Strings: Hitachino Nest White Ale (because for some reason a story set in feudal Japan features a ton of white voice actors...)
  • Deadpool: Anything from Unibroue in honor of Canadian Wade Wilson
  • Sully: 21A beer in cans, obviously

Call in sick for work on Monday, really make a night of it, and stay up right to the bitter, played-off-the-stage end.  

Keep it simple.

JJW