There was a post to the Brewer's Association Forum recently that led me to respond. It was about the recent "Extreme Beer" issue of BeerAdvocate magazine, an issue that I contributed to. Here's what Ashton Lewis, of the Springfield Brewing Co. (Springfield, Mo.) wrote:
We got a shipment of magazines at our brewery recently and I have read the new BeerAdvocate magazine cover to cover. I must say that after I read some of the articles I was forced to remind myself that I actually know the definition of “advocate”. Some of the Google definitions include “someone who speaks on behalf of another”, “to speak or argue in favor of” and “a person who pleads for a cause or propounds an idea”. The term advocate I think can be clearly ranked in the positive description category.
The reason for my temporary confusion over the definition of advocate stems from the number of negative ideas and comments written about our industry in this new industry publication. I suppose one way to advocate one thing is to denigrate another, like our wonderful politicians seem to do so well.
The Beer Advocate starts off with a letter from the editors hyping “extreme beers”. I don’t have a problem with that, but they do this by putting down the majority of craft brewers and our beers to make their point. They claim that if it weren’t for extreme beers that “we’d probably be drinking a lot of Pale Ales, and brewers would be content to copy the great styles of Europe, instead of reinventing their own”. To me extreme beers offer something exciting to beer consumers, but the bread and butter of most craft brewers is not something “extreme”. The very name suggests that a very small group of beers and beer drinkers want to drink this type of beer, otherwise “extreme” would be “ordinary” ... right?
As far as copying the great styles of Europe I don’t personally believe that the bread and butter of most craft brewers are copies of European beers. Some brewers have made the European clone their niche, but why is that such a bad thing? Let’s face it, a lot of imports are oxidized beyond all recognition when consumed. I suppose the bakers on the East Coast baking San Francisco-style sourdough bread should discontinue this style and encourage consumers to buy stale bread imported from the left coast.
Skimming through the book there is a nice interview with Larry Bell, a nice article about “American Wild Ale” (I didn’t realize Brettanomyces is bacteria) and then the beer reviews. This is the section that again made me wonder “Why?” That’s also the comment associated with beers given the score of D-, one step up from F or “avoid”.
Even the Wine Spectator, known for its sometimes cold and damaging reviews of wine, does not go out if its way to be rude. The beers given low scores [Not Worthy (C-) and Disappointing (D+)] were slammed in a not so polite manner. “Take this back to the drawing board” was one of the comments.
I have had my share of bad beers, both imports and domestics and know that there is some bad stuff out there. It doesn’t make me feel a better person to spend my time blasting bad beers to my friends. Maybe I am getting too old (37 is pretty ancient to the up and coming hip generation) and my values must be misaligned with the times. But the way I see it is that a beer magazine boasting to be the “Beer Advocate” should focus on the positive. If I were looking for advice about how to go about spending my beer dollars I may take away some pretty negative views about craft brewing from this magazine.
I've never met Ashton or had his beers. So that has nothing to do with how I felt or how I responded to this. But I have to tell you, this kind of "let's treat craft beer with kid gloves" stuff has been bugging me for years. It's one of the main reasons I started this blog and my website. I don't have a lot of patience with people who blast beers from positions of ignorance -- "This IPA sucks! I hate hoppy beers!" -- but when a beer is not good -- poorly packaged, poorly formulated, or just plain insipid -- I don't want to be told by some brewer that it wouldn't be nice to say so, or that if I felt I had to say so, I should say so nicely.
Hey, we've all heard it from mothers and grandmothers (and editors): if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. Well, how am I going to talk about light beer, then? Seriously, if a critic can't say negative things, he's gagged. And if I can't say those negative things in an entertaining, creative way...what the hell am I getting paid for?
So I wrote this response to the Forum:
As one of the writers in the issue of "BeerAdvocate Magazine" Ashton Lewis refers to, and as a beer writer who's been writing about craft beer full-time for over ten years, I'd like to throw in my perspective. The folks at BeerAdvocate -- the magazine, the website, and the extended Web community that posts on that website [and at ratebeer and Real Beer] -- DO consider themselves "advocates" for beer, and particularly for specialty beers, both American craft-brewed beers and traditional-styled imports. They actively support beers like that, by asking for them at bars, by offering them to their friends to sample, by buying tickets to beer dinners and festivals and tastings, and by buying those beers almost exclusively. That's advocating beer.
But "advocate" does not mean "worship blindly," or "defend without judgment." They stand outside the industry, and they judge it by their own standards. And by those standards, whether you agree with them or not, they believe that they advocate "beer" -- not "the craft beer industry", not "your beer" -- by speaking plainly about beers they think fall short, breweries they think engage in bad practices, retailers and wholesalers who don't measure up to their standards.
I don't necessarily agree with everything said on the website or in the magazine. I don't agree with all the quotes in my own story in the issue in question. As the classic journalist's rejoinder goes, I don't make this stuff up, I just report it. Maybe the negative was expressed in unduly harsh terms.
But to tell an independent magazine that it should focus on the positive, with the strong implication that it should give a pass to anything negative, is to show a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between a magazine and its readers. If readers decide that they're not getting honest opinions from a magazine that purports to have expert knowledge, or if they decide the magazine is only delivering good news -- essentially filtering out anything that would upset advertisers -- that magazine's reputation, readership, and ad rates will suffer. And like we keep hearing about
craft brewing: publishing is a business.
Think of what is said about craft brewers: independent, uncompromising, innovative, honest, passionate. As a beer writer, I've tried to be true to the same principles. Would a craft brewer have me do any less?
The responses I've had from brewers have been, so far, positive. I can see where Ashton was coming from, truly. To get such negative statements from a group -- beer geeks -- that has been outspokenly pro-craft for so long must have seemed a bit of a betrayal. But the industry is over 25 years old. It's old enough, and big enough, and successful enough to stand up and take criticism. I think we owe the industry that.