Last week saw a nicely-timed bit of beer journalism: just as us New Zealanders were settling down to enjoy this year’s batch of green-hopped1 beers — served within days of their release — a flurry kicked off online about the dodgy practice of some U.S. breweries putting longer “best before” lifespans on beers they send to Australia than what they are labeled with back home. So a can of, say, Stone’s Go To IPA will have a much-hyped 120-day ‘expiry’ in California, but get given a whole year on the shelf in Canberra. It’s a saga worth reading through, if you haven’t already, and perfectly illustrates a nice little point of moral philosophy2 — that hypocrisy is a special kind of dickishness.
More information always seems like a worthy idea. But the truth is a complicated thing and some people are very skilled bullshitters — able to spin a rare species of lie from saying something entirely accurate, which carefully exploits ambiguities in someone’s question or levers off errors in their background understanding. ‘Beer the Beautiful Truth’, a new campaign launched by the Brewers Assocation,1 is sadly just this kind of bullshit. It’s the opposite of what beer needs right now.
So, that was 2016. It was… interesting. As you perhaps noticed. Plenty happening in the beer business, but no shortage of distractions in the wider and weirder world. Despite working on various of beer’s front lines, I felt a little disconnected from it all last year. And so rather than trawling through my notes looking for particular favourites (such as I’d do when preparing for a Year In Review episode of the podcast) I took some time for a more-general contemplation of the year gone by, and its heroes and villains — or at least those who are not helping,1 and those who are. Here, I present three loud boos and three cheerful hurrahs.
I’m a big fan of sour beers. I like what they do to my brain, in terms of their inherent deliciousness. But also — and I say this as a bartender, host-of-tastings, and general observer of the business — part of the fun is what they do to the brains of other people. Nothing more efficiently upends a newbie’s naïve understanding of “what beer is”,1 and nothing seems so capable of making professionals spout nonsense. After a few recent articles and tasting sessions,2 I just want to take a moment to defend sour as a character and as a category.
So, that was me. I’m the wag, in the old-timey parlance of the newspaper. There’s little point pretending otherwise, since the sign was twenty steps from the front door of the pub where I work — and a large part of my m.o. here involves uploading literally hundreds of handwriting samples you could compare against. I’m all for the normalising of beer into the wider popular culture, but this crap isn’t helping. And I say that as a bearded someone (admittedly, it’s neither “bushy” nor “bristly”) who works in the (for want of a better word) craft beer business.
I spent a few hours on Saturday in the beer-bunker that is Hashigo Zake, in the company of two-dozen-or-so like-minded folks and enjoying the Brewers Guild Awards beaming at us from Auckland over a mercifully-dependable livestream. It was a properly marvellous occasion,1 and the Guild (with new host, Hilary Barry) put on a great show. It’s truly heartening to see the gradual evolution of the industry, particularly the maturation of the “craft”2 corner thereof as it becomes less of a niche or subculture and settles into being just part of the landscape. But as if on cue, two abysmal videos surfaced late last week3 — both from TV3’s ‘Story’ program — to remind us how far we have to go in terms of generalised acceptance and understanding. If you can stand the cringe, I think they’re worth watching for how instructively shallow and terrible they are.
The first is styled as a taste-off between craft beer and quote-unquote “normal beer”, with the former signified by hats, hipsters and IPA and the latter bluntly equated with lager. Through four rounds of anonymous beers from unidentified styles served in a misnamed bar (“Beer Brothers”), the contestants follow their tired generational stereotypes and spend a suprisingly long time saying not very much of substance. The comparisons, kept completely mysterious, don’t really illuminate anything: were the beers they put up against each other even trying to do similar things or was this pure apples-to-oranges time-wasting that forgot that everything is best in its right place and something calm and friendly isn’t automatically inferior to some-other-thing attention-grabbing and audacious? Who the hell knows?
Weirder and worse, though, is the rambling chat with Scott McCashin.4 It puts the “taste-test” piece to shame in terms of its wordy emptiness, with bonus side orders of contradiction and claptrap. The website dutifully regurgitates McCashin’s nonsense claim to being New Zealand’s first craft brewery — a boast which rings hollow whatever your definition of that contentious term5 — and you could easily come away from listening to the piece knowing a lot less than you did going in. It’s an absolute mess: mainstream beers are all ‘thinner’ and brewed with ‘less ingredients’ and perhaps particularly ‘less hops’, seemingly across the board — and Heineken fills a strange duel role as the name-dropped example of something flavourless and disappointing and the hoppy interesting thing that started a revolution. Craft beer, he says, “doesn’t have sugar added” which will come as a huge shock to generations of Belgians and Brits and others — if you don’t understand that sugar isn’t an inherently evil ingredient and can be used to make certain types of beer more enjoyable (rather than merely for cost-cutting) then you need to stop “educating” the public immediately and maybe reconsider whether this is the right business for you. Scott’s sole good point about the wide appeal of craft beer is lost under a mountain of muck and the reporter does nothing to tease out any clarity or coherence, instead belaboring a weird analogy about religion and dragging out the old “extreme beer is for hipsters” trope. His late realisation that all this uncritical dreck amounts to a mere ad is depressingly tossed aside.
Both of these pieces should’ve been spiked. There’s just no there there, in either of them. They add precisely nothing, merely reinforcing old clichés and (worse) muddying the water. The latter, in particular, is hopefully an embarrassment to the producer, editor, reporter and subject alike. If the brewery are delighted with it, or the Brewers’ Guild and/or their PR firm have chalked these up as marketing wins,6 then excuse me while I despair. There is a lot of good stuff going on in the beer-related and beer-adjacent media.7 Some of it, to my delight, percolates into the mainstream and is presented to diverse new eyeballs. But we all need to do more, and do it better, to break through the stereotypes and misinformation and nonsense.
Most beer writing is crap.1 This should be unsurprising and uncontroversial for the simple reason that most of everything is crap. Enshrined as Sturgeon’s law, this isn’t a cynical or depressing conclusion; just a sound observation and call for better mental hygiene. But that strangely-comforting general cause shouldn’t blind us to the idiosyncratic causes of crapness in beer commentary — insidious things which we should strive to keep in mind. Reading with your faculties more-sharply engaged is just as life-enhancing as drinking more thoughtfully is. I recommend both.
I was forcefully reminded of all this when I picked up2 The Ultimate Book of Beers, a glossy British publication3 from just last year which attempts to round-up the world and history of beer by way of two hundred pages and four hundred examples. The result is, quite frankly, terrible. But it is at least instructively terrible, and that makes it great — even though it’s not the greatness they were seeking.
Too much beer writing sinks to the level of crap insidiously, because it either is or just appears like it might be advertising in drag; most amateur and professional commentators still won’t spell out commercial entanglements with their subjects (which might account for surprisingly-strong praise or mysteriously-missing criticism, or both), or even just note that the proximate cause for them talking about some particular thing at all is that free samples from the brewery arrived in the post.4 But sometimes, you don’t even need to start pondering potential moral wrongness; occasionally something will just overdose on old-fashioned factual wrongness. Here, there were some telltale false steps early on — like retelling a debunked version of the history of IPA that’d make Martyn Cornell spin in his grave, if he wasn’t still alive — but the wheels most-obviously fell off, for me, when I flipped ahead to the New Zealand section, curious to see their summation of the place where I live, and (after all) usually drink.
The three-spread section features sixteen beers5 and manages to make errors both trifling and troubling which vary from obvious marketing-guff passed on as gospel to patently bizarre weirdness pulled from nowhere obvious. They get their hop varieties confused, slightly mangle a few brewery and beer names, entirely elide the reality and centrality of contract brewing in our modern scene (Epic, Bach, and Yeastie Boys are all listed as if they were bricks-and-mortar operations),6 completely ignore the many-branded natures of our bigger companies,7 and a give over a half-page section to a beer (namely Pink Elephant’s ‘Imperious Rushin Stowt’) that hadn’t been brewed for several years when the book was published.
The selection, as a group, is also pants-on-head nonsensical. This isn’t even destined to be useful to future generations as a (flawed) historical document because the sampling is so un-self-consciously bizarre: it doesn’t track with present or historical popularity, or award-winningness, or uniqueness, or any kind of story about what we’re doing here. It’s not even a case of “we went there and this is what we had”, which would at least be obviously personal and idiosyncratic. My best guess is that the breweries listed were the quickest to respond to requests for photos and blurbs — not a great way to go about an “ultimate” survey.
Then there’s the utterly baffling claim in a break-out text box that “ice brewed beers are popular in New Zealand”. This is an unbelievably niche practice of freezing some of the water out of beer to make what remains stronger, and you’d struggle to find more than one example around here, if that.8 When the answer to one Did you know? aside is “no, I fucking did not, because I understand what ‘knowledge’ is and your statement was complete bollocks”, all the others are cast into question. There’s basically one of these putative factoids per page, and while I’m a determined collector of trivia I’m nowhere near expert enough to rule on most of the others. The presence of that, though, is an unpromising sign. Which is a perfect microcosm for the rest of the damn book — given the smattering of errors and distortions I can spot in the accounts of beers I know, how can I put any stock in the listings for things I’d never heard of? Easy: I can’t. If they so weirdly and subtly and pointlessly flub the story of beer in New Zealand — a country so historically and culturally linked to theirs that their flag is (for now) on ours — there’s scant hope for the rest of the planet.
All of this is emblematic of wider problems: this area — like all fields of criticism and reportage — is beset by challenges of overturning myth, unpacking spin, overcoming biases, and navigating conflicts of interest. I don’t know nearly enough about the creation of this book to accuse it of falling foul on the ethics — that’s a minefield for another time and another example — but the point is that you need to be wary of crapness in all its forms and whatever its cause. And when you hear the clang of a factual error or catch the whiff of an un-declared conflict of interest, hold on to that skepticism. We should do more to make it unnecessary — and it wouldn’t take much; a little more humility, a little more honesty — but unfortunately, it’ll still serve you well.