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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Authentic Thoughts

What do you think of when you hear the word authentic? I think real, I think original, I think genuine, I think good, and I think proper.

So what do you think of when you hear authentic beer? How about authentic Belgian beer? Or authentic lambic? Or authentic double IPA? Or authentic farmhouse brewery? How about authentic Belgian-style beer?

There's a discussion over at Stan Hieronymus's Appellation Beer blog (which I still check every day because I'm an RSS moron), something that started in the comments section when we started talking about what kind of things young drinkers were looking for. I poked around a bit, and found this additional discussion at Jeff Alworth's Beervana blog.

'Authentic' is obviously an issue, at least for some of us (I remarked in that comment thread that this stuff was obviously important to us, but that we may over-estimate the impact on the general beer-drinking public outside the geekerie; and that GB-DP is buying these beers, believe it).

I hate doing the "dictionary definition" thing, but authentic is obviously a slippery concept, and I think we need to nail the little bastard into a corner so we can get a better look at it. Here's the definition from Merriam-Webster's website (I use that because it's easier than typing it out of the M-W Collegiate Dictionary I have here at home), with emphasis added by me and exegesis supplied by me:
1. obsolete : authoritative (obsolete? Throw this one out!)
2 a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact (more about ideas than tangible things)
b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features ((an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse) (like an 'authentic Belgian-style tripel,' maybe?)
c: made or done the same way as an original (which doesn't jibe with what Jeff or Dale Jacquette talks about)
3: not false or imitation : real, actual (authentic cockney accent) (looks like the meaning Belgian brewers, importers, and alpha geeks are looking for -- and I'm not judging that...yet)
4 is music theory, about church music chords, skip it.
5: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character (so...integrity, delivering what is expected?)

That gives us a springboard. I'll jump right off, head-first: 'authentic' means different things to people in different parts of the beer community, I'll even say the specialty beer community. Europeans see 'authentic' and, I suspect, immediately short-circuit to AOC/PDO thinking: legal protection of regional products by name and process. That's a whole other argument, and I'm going to dismiss it right now with this: "authentic" is not needed if there is a legitimate PDO designation. (If you want to discuss this wholly legitimate topic of what obligations American brewers have to PDO designations, please e-mail me and I'll start a new post, and we can go wild, but let's not clutter this one with it for now.)

From there, I think it quickly breaks down into two divisions. Either authentic means "the original", or it means "produced in a way that closely emulates the original." Where do you sit on this? Cui bono: who benefits? The first definition favors the first producers, the second definition favors those who taste the original and want to emulate it...or, to be fair, hope to sell something like it. If this reminds anyone of the foofaraw over the definition of craft beer, well, yeah. After all, the post and discussion on Stan's blog was about business. (One of the major reasons I check Stan's blog so often: he acknowledges that all this beer wonderfulness is a business.)

I got an e-mail about my comments on Stan's post, encouraging us (writers and geeks, I'm assuming) to save the word 'authentic' from big beer marketers. I responded that I think authentic is already being used for marketing, just by small brewers and their importers.

'Authentic' is not a useful term on a beer label, because it is imprecise, and means different things to a lot of people. If a product is an original, "Original" has always meant a lot to me. If a product is from a particular area associated with a type of beer, "Genuine (insert place-name here) beer" works, and the PDO, if there is one. If a product is a brewer's honest and effortful homage to a specific beer or type of beer, then the tired "(insert beer type here)-style" is hard to argue with, although if it's not a PDO beer, hell, why not just call it "(beer type here)"?

There is an argument on-going on the Burgundian Babble Belt about the use of the term "Belgian-style," and I agree: given the number of different types of beer made in Belgium, "Belgian-style" is meaningless noise. I blame the GABF categories, which label everything this way: "German Style Kölsch/Köln Style Kölsch." As I've said before, this is to distinguish it from all that French-style Kölsch that's been flooding the market?

But I don't think that has anything to do with the authentic argument. I think the authentic argument is about selling beer. And what this still comes down to, what it all comes down to, is the damned beer. Put it in a glass. Hand it to me. Stand back and shut up while I drink it. Let me react, let me enjoy or despise. But let me do it without telling me about the beer's pedigree, it's maker's history. I'll want to taste other beers that claim to be similar. But if the beer's good, and not too simple, or too complex, or not integrated enough, or overdone, or just plain bad...that's usually a lot more important to me than whether or not it's authentic.

Flame on.


Alan said...

Being a typlical slightly bitter GenXer, I find all this authentic stuff a bit odd. What is wrong with actual? Gen X went off and lived someplace for a year or never left. [I have eaten the raw herring for breakfast in Poland to prove it.] Gen Y seems to want the replica that "authenticity" connotes - not the thing but a thing like the thing. If the thing is what it is, does it have to claim that it is genuine or authentic?

Adam said...

Reality is always less glamorous than the marketing. Why spend time looking for the truth if it isn't any fun when you find it?

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention that. Evan Rail brought that up as a corollary of authentic Czech beer styles, namely Pilsner from the city of Plzen. Now we see marketing campaigns in the US advertising "True Pilsner"s, and many styles seem to be migrating in that direction for mass marketing purposes.

Alan said...

By the way and as an analogy, we Canadians used to say the same thing about Toronto in the late 80s when the phrase "world class" started getting attached to everything about it. If anything needs "authentic" or "genuine" attached to it, it probably isn't.

Anonymous said...

"German Style Kölsch/Köln Style Kölsch."

I think it's more of a TTB label issue than a GABF one.

Also, as I'm sure you know, Kölsch is an Appellation Controlée, so perhaps that particular beer is not a great example.

Other than that, I agree 100% with what you're saying...

Lew Bryson said...

Nah, the German-style/Köln-style thing is not TTB, this is internal, it's the name of the category of judging. They could call it whatever they wanted to, TTB doesn't control contests.

Besides, if TTB's so powerful, how come the label still says "Blue Moon -- Belgian White Ale"? I suspect that money may be involved.

But I don't think 95% of American brewers give a damn about the PDO on kölsch. I was just referring to the GABF penchant for putting " -style" on everything. Brewers yap a lot about not being bound by styles or conventions, but most of them pay attention, at least.

Lew Bryson said...

But as Rail notes, "pilsner" isn't the AOC/PDO; it's 'Czech beer.' I do know of a couple American brewers who use "Czech" in their beer names, but they're tiny. 'Pilsner' is like xerox and band-aid: the term is loose, and no amount of legal back-scuttling is going to get it back in the trademark/PDO/AOC corral.

Good piece, by the way, thanks for bringing it up!

Anonymous said...

OK I didn't read your whole post Lew, but to me the word means, "certified," or, "with authority." As in a panel of experts got together and decided the outcome based on unwavering, set-in-writing standards, and their findings are accepted by the status quo.

What is authentic is not up to one single person to decide. A lone individual stating such a thing needs to provide references/citations to back their reasoning up. The word is weighted heavy...ripe with emotional connotations...what seems to be authentic could ultimately be discounted as "without basis/merit," by a true expert. or someone with a lot of money to pay an expert to say such a thing. anybody can be bought! lol

Does this make any sense?

Anonymous said...

Good to see style arguments continuing. If there's one thing that will NEVER change about beer's arguing over "Style".

I still think it's cool to go to a restaurant and see the beer list give these choices:

1) Lager
2) Ale
3) Stout

Only definitive authenticities in beer today are the brewers passions. The rest is minutia.

Steven said...

"Besides, if TTB's so powerful, how come the label still says "Blue Moon -- Belgian White Ale"?"

It does? I thought that was a big deal a long time ago and they had to add the "style," and I thought it was more flack from Belgium than from the TTB.

FYI -- It's a little of both misnomers:

Bill said...

I confess I'm not clear on Lew's position here. Mostly due to me not having enough coffee, not to Lew! If it's all about how people use "authentic" on a label, I have no constructive comments. If it's whether it's valid to want something that's "Authentic", I say yes, yes, yes -- even if we don't know what that means.

Lew closes with "it's all about the taste." Well, we're now faced with the wonderful situation where we have dozens of examples of a given style that taste wonderful -- so how to distinguish? Through purely subjective, non-measurable criteria -- and that's fine.

I want a tripel? I'll choose a Belgian version over a U.S. version most times, because I have non-quantifiable ideas about sense of place and years of tradition and a place I'd like to visit. Or, conversely, I'll drink the tripel my local brewpub does, or those from breweries I like within a x-mile radius, because I like the people involved or like that locally I have breweries to support, or...

We bring non-taste connotations to things. Things, that, in our minds, make them taste better. There's nothing wrong with that. Once we find 20 tripels or 20 IPAs or 20 whatevers we like, unique sensory taste qualities become only one of a number of factors in deciding why we return to certain brews. And if someone comes up with internal criteria for "authenticity" to decide why he or she picks certain views, I understand fully.

Stan Hieronymus said...

Well put, Bill.

I also thought well put by Lew way up at the top.

My question would be, What is authentic marketing?

Lew Bryson said...

I can see a lot of thoughts branching out here...what should be on beer labels (just read an interesting take on that in Sam Calagione & Marnie Old's new book, He Said Beer, She Said Wine), how beer lists should be written and arranged, whether beer should have bodies telling us what is allowed or disallowed on labels, what effect non-taste factors have on beer choice (and how valid that is -- surprise, I think that is an extent), and...thank you, Stan: what would authentic marketing look like.

I'll take this one at a time.

Rebecca, I don't want any official rulings on "authentic." I doubt I would agree with them any more than I agree with the ruling on "craft brewery."

Loren, as a geek, as someone who already knows beer, I'm fine with that list. But it's not that friendly to the 95% of the market I'd hope we were trying to entice into joining in the fun! As for the authenticity of passion: I agree, putting it this way several years ago: the most important ingredient in making great beer, more important than fine malt, choice hops, carefully chosen yeast, capable equipment, money, or even brewer's skill -- is the will to make great beer. Without that will, the beer will be soulless. Is that intangible? Sue me; it's how I feel.

Steven, the Belgian brewers did make a big deal about it, and the TTB still does fuss about it on small brewers' labels, but you'll note that the BIG print on Blue Moon's label still says BELGIAN WHITE. Something wrong with "witbier" or "White Ale"? Sure: they don't say "Belgian."

Bill, If it's whether it's valid to want something that's "Authentic", I say yes, yes, yes -- even if we don't know what that means.

That is something I can agree with, especially that last part! I meant everything I said at the beginning of the post about what "authentic" means to me, and that's what I want...but I want to define it for myself, and I would just as soon not see claims for it made by brewers when it's not clear what it does mean. "Authentic" can mean something as simple as an authentic all-malt beer really being made from malt and no adjuncts...but wouldn't it be just as simple and more precise and just as appealing to the moderately beer-educated to say "all-malt"?

Work to be done. We're doing it. Spread the word.

Steven said...

"Sure: they don't say "Belgian."

No, Belgian Style -- for what that's worth. :-/

Steven said...

"Sure: they don't say "Belgian."

Sorry Lew -- missed your point the first time, get it now -- motor on.

Stonch said...

"Authenticity" isn't something to get hung up about but I definitely don't agree that it's "all about the beer" and "what's in the glass". If that was true, what would be the point in writing about beer?

Lew Bryson said...


I may exaggerate slightly to make a point, but look at it this way: if the beer is crap, does it matter if the story's good, or the brewery's old or independent, or the pub's cozy-perfect? If the beer is spot-on excellent, does it matter so much who makes it or serves it?

Now...if you have two beers that are great (ideally, you'll have more, but we're just setting an example here), then the story becomes more interesting and important. But my first question is whether the beer's any good. If it's not, then you can write about why not. But that's the first thing I want to know.

Stonch said...

Lew, when you put it that way, I can get on board. I suppose my issue is why we'd want to emphasise the whole "it's what's in the glass" credo. It doesn't sit easily with me.