Fresh hypocrisy

Hops at the Baxendale family estate, Golden Bay (March 2016)
So fresh*

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.

The reading order, if you’re keen, goes like this:

Patterns quickly emerge in the responses from the brewers who adopt this strategy and the distributors who play along (or perhaps suggest it in the first place): it’s a commercial necessity (given the extra shipping time and such), and anyway it matches the practice of others in the Australian market — so what’s the big deal..?

Stone W00tstout at their 'City Tap Takeover' here in Wellington
W00tstout in Wellington, served unnecessarily fresh

And, admittedly, freshness is a fraught issue. Like almost everything else in this business, subjectivity complicates things; there’s a reason that #freshisnotbest is a running joke around here.3 Some styles — usually boozier, darker, maltier stuff — of beer are widely regarded as candidates for extended ageing, and nevermind that, if you individually enjoy a beer that a hundred other people roundly dismiss as “past it”, their opinion doesn’t make your satisfaction somehow invalid. But even if we’re just taking the more limited case of beer that doesn’t usually age gracefully (say, overtly hoppy pale ale) and a hypothetical customer who knows they prefer it “fresh” there’s still the technical questions of how well the beer was packaged and shipped and stored4 — all of which are hugely complicated and any of which could dent the perceived liveliness of a beer just as badly as the mere passage of time. At best, the date stamped on a beer is a wildly unreliable proxy (but the only one you’ve got) for a host of other things you’re unlikely (as a consumer) to be able to trace.

But none of that complexity absolves breweries like Stone, here. This is the handy thing — philosophically speaking — about hypocrisy: it simplifies things so cleanly. Saying one thing (crowing about short shelf lives) and doing another (quietly tripling them in another jurisdiction) is just inherently bad,5 whatever you believe about the results as far as the beer’s concerned. The rank bullshit of Greg Koch indignantly saying “we have no choice but to use an Australian system, or nobody will buy the beer, period” is just sadly predictable. Of course you have a choice: don’t send the fucking beer all the way to Australia if you don’t think there’ll be time to sell it in good condition once it arrives. This is the same guy who flipped his lid at grey-market imports of his beers for precisely that reason,6 and who said we drinkers should have his beers “fresh-and-as-intended, or not at all”. Well, okay then. Keep them in California.7

Avoiding hypocrisy isn’t hard: it starts with listening to yourself speak, and meaning what you say when you do. If you do change your mind, say so, and say why.8 Plenty of issues are hard to untangle and rich with moral complexity — but others just aren’t, even though some people will try to convince you otherwise to distract from the fact they fucked up.

  1. A photo like the above is mandatory, this time of the year. Two caveats for mine: these ones aren’t so much fresh as unripe since they had a couple weeks’ growing left to do — and they’d be super-stale now anyway on account of that photo being from early March 2016 when I was visiting a friend’s family’s property in Golden Bay, where they grow their own. But at least I didn’t use that one image from Wikipedia that gets recycled endless millions of times online.
  2. Which, by the way, is a) the thing I’m technically trained in, and is in turn b) probably why I’m still a bartender — and also coincidentally c) what I’m supposed to be working on right now, since I re-enrolled in some postgrad for some daft reason and I have an assignment due.
  3. Popularised most aggressively by Yeastie Boy Stu McKinlay, and still going strong. Mark Johnson also had an excellent recent post about how the freshness obsession can easily go too far.
  4. Which Luke gets to in his follow-up piece.
  5. There’s a nice passage about this in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Ageexcerpted and discussed a little here. In this case, of course, given how loud the crowing, we’re not talking about garden-variety spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak hypocrisy, here; this is the real deal. I’ve mentioned this point before, as well, in reference (inevitably) to a bit of nonsense from BrewDog.
  6. Which I mentioned, years ago, here — coincidentally-enough (since they’re the other subject of Glen’s initial post) in relation to some (grey-market) Sierra Nevada, which was pouring at work.
  7. Maybe just send the less-fragile stuff, if you like. And/or keep the short-lived hoppy stuff for special occasions and make sure it’s actually all sold through in the apparently-sincerely-determined timeframe. Don’t just plonk it on the shelves at bulk retailers and act like we’re the assholes for noticing and giving a damn.
  8. Don’t just — you know, for example — bleat on about being all punk and independent and just slowly make a liar of yourself by taking on VC funding and selling a fifth of yourself to a faceless conglom that also invests in things like, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon. I am — obviously and exasperatedly — looking at you, BrewDog. I do wish you’d stop getting my attention.

3 thoughts on “Fresh hypocrisy”

  1. Put yourself in Koch’s place for a second though. He’s pretty much between a rock and a hard place. If he doesn’t send the beer, and talks about the reasons for that (quality control), people lose their collective shit at him over it. If he gives up and DOES send the beer, and complies with lame retail requirements for dating product, people lose their collective shit at him for that.

    Have you considered he might just be trying to give the people what they want in the best/only way he can? I am not sure Stone really needs the meagre amount of sales he’d get from Australia (compared to the USA that is). That’s pure speculation on my part, I just don’t see any way he could win here, given that the product in question is aimed at the US market, and sent to Australia only because of the continual demand.

    What do you think Stone should do?

    1. I think they should not be hypocrites, clearly.

      They can: 1) wait until they have a brewery in, say, South East Asia. 2) send beer that they don’t (apparently honestly…) consider to be so fragile. 3) send specially-coordinated shipments of such fragile beers in smaller amounts to make sure they sell through in their (sincerely determined, right..?) usual lifespans — the little splash of Stone beer we got here in Wellington a couple years ago seems a good example of that. Or 4) just say no. That seems the easiest option, and (as you say) the financial rewards would’ve been relatively meagre. Which makes it all the sadder they made liars of themselves over so little.

      1. I think there’s a little hypocrisy in everyone, but sure, I see your point(s) there, even if I don’t think any except perhaps option 2 are particularly commercially viable. Just saying no would be fine if there wasn’t such a negative backlash when they did so.

Have at it: