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November, 2003

Say Anything

Three articles by other beer writers reached my desk recently. One was Martin Morse Wooster's review of New York Breweries that ran in Mid-Atlantic Brewing News that took me to task for failing to say anything critical about the "bad" breweries that the reviewer seemed morally certain existed in New York. Another was a rant (by "Writer X") that ran in Southwest Brewing News about the "big" beer writers (not-named but clearly described: Jackson and Beaumont) being the only ones allowed by editors to write emotively about beer, but never criticizing beers because they were afraid of cutting off their supply of free beer (Puh-leeze! Perhaps valid criticism, but stupid reason!). The third was an interview (by Andy Crouch) with importer Dan Shelton in Beverage Business; more on that shortly.

It all got me to thinking about honesty. Do I tell the truth? Am I a damned pollyanna? These are issues I've dealt with for a long time. I've actually turned down bribes from bar-owners as far back as my 1995 Beer & Tavern Chronicle days. I've told myself that my credibility is my only real asset, that honesty is the core of what I do. But these three pieces made me think hard about that, and brought me to a decision. Here's what I've been thinking.

I don't like every beer I try. Nor do I like every whiskey. Some are boring, some are not to my taste, some are just plain bad. Despite all the talk we hear (and I've talked some of it, mea culpa) about how the quality control of craft brewers has improved greatly, I still get stale, infected, or flat beers on a depressingly regular basis. And despite the winnowing of bad bourbons that has left us with a notably strong batch of booze on the shelves, despite the new care taken in wood management that has left the days of musty bourbon behind, there is still some red likker out there that I wouldn't drink on a bet. Rye's a different matter; I've never yet had a rye I didn't like, but they are so sadly few that it's no surprise.

I used to be quite open about bad beers. When all I had was a website (back in the coal-burning Internet days of 1995) and e-mail to my friends, if a beer sucked, I said so. Ed's Cave Creek Chili Beer, for instance, sucked out loud, a horrible travesty of a beer, and I told everyone I knew. "Don't waste my sacrifice," I said. "I drank this so you wouldn't have to." Tangle Ridge is a whisky I can't believe anyone drinks; mawkishly sweet even for a Canadian, and I said so. 

But then I got an editor or two, and things changed. I started writing full-time, with no day job backup, in January of 1995. I suddenly looked at my two kids and my mortgage and my wife, laboring 45+ hours a week at her job that has and still does keep us in benefits, and I thought, I have to get work and sell stories. To a degree, that meant writing stuff editors were willing to print. Though I was rarely told to write a feature about a beer, brewery, or distillery "because they're an advertiser" (it's happened twice in eight years, and both times it was a valid subject to write about, so I did), I was asked to ease off on criticism. 

So I found myself taking the usual dodge. It's one I've talked about freely with other writers: never lie. I wouldn't say anything that wasn't true, but I wouldn't say everything that was on my mind.  That means that if the beer sucks, I'll talk about the food. If the food sucks, I'll talk about the building and the people. If everything sucks...well, I've never faced that, thank God. So I went on like that, only talking about the good stuff and consoling myself that my regular readers (forgive me the conceit...) would understand that if I didn't wax enthusiastic about the beer, there must be something wrong. 

At the same time, I blamed the editors. I shoved criticism off on them. "My editors won't let me write what I really think!" I'd complain. "If only I had editors that would back me up like a movie critic or a restaurant critic, I'd write anything I wanted!" Beer writing would never be taken seriously, and beer would never be taken seriously, I argued, until beer criticism was allowed to flourish, and writers felt free to criticize the beers and brewers that didn't cut it, without being taken to task as "traitors." The editors made a great scapegoat...even after I became one at Malt Advocate.

Well, the fact is, I don't like confrontation anymore than most people. The unfortunate result of that was that I would only write critically about brewers and distillers and importers I had good relationships with, figuring we would weather the moment and everything would come out okay. Yards took a few hits on that while other breweries with similar problems got a pass, simply because Tom Kehoe is such a nice guy I felt completely safe telling the truth.  (Sorry, Tom: you've always been a real brick, and your beer is absolutely fantastic these days. Thanks.)

But that's not right. And the more I thought about it, after reading these pieces, the more I felt like I had to come clean, and put myself on notice. So here goes.

I apologize. For years of half-truths. For blaming the editors when it was my own reluctance to offend. For letting down you, my readers, who expected and deserved the whole truth. For the criticism of brewers and distillers I liked, and the free ride for those I didn't know as well. No, I never lied, never said a bad beer was a good one, never said a mediocre whiskey was a star, but if I didn't like a beer, most times I kept it to myself, at least in print. 

What to do about it? That's where the third piece comes in, Dan Shelton's rant on beer writing. Here's what he said, the heart of it:

If you look at wine writing, it is quite cutting and acerbic sometimes. They say, "This is good, this is bad." But beer people arenít willing to say, "This is bad." I think until we do, the business is not going to be looked at like a serious one, like wine. Even Michael Jackson, I think he is a great writer and I like him a lot, but he seems more and more unwilling to criticize breweries that are...dumbing down their beers...and I think it is the wrong way to go. In the end, the beer business is going to suffer for it.  

Right on, Dan. I printed that out and have it prominently displayed by my desk, where I see it every moment I'm writing. Dan's viewed as somewhat of a loose cannon in the industry -- he'll tell you that himself -- but he's also our passionate, dedicated conscience. He's dead on the money here. Not necessarily about Jackson, I honestly don't know enough about the changes in Belgian beers Dan's talking about to have an opinion there (and Jackson was very forthright in a recent issue of Malt Advocate in calling Diageo on the carpet for what he sees as a dumbing down of Cardhu Single Malt). But he's absolutely right that not criticizing breweries and beers is the wrong way to go. And I don't want to go the wrong way anymore. 

From now on, I promise to show the warts. I'm not going to avoid confrontation anymore. You deserve better and the brewers and distillers deserve better; hey, I deserve better. Understand, though, that I'm not some half-cocked, half-assed screamer who's going to trash a brewer and beer based on one bad pint in a bar. That's not responsible, and it's not going to do me or "beer writing" any good. If a beer's bad, I'm going to have to have at least two other samples, preferably from different batches, before I'll write that. Things happen, especially with draft beer, that are out of the brewer's control. If possible, I'll talk to the brewer. Whiskeys I'll probably be a bit quicker to criticize: they rarely go bad, and they're rippingly consistent.

More importantly, I don't intend to let brewers go the wrong way. Like Dan said, dumbing down beers is the wrong way to go. That's not the only thing. Bad advertising, bad product choices, bad service in brewpubs, bad attitudes, questionable calls on dealing with problems...if it happens, I'll tell you. 

Don't expect critical ratings of hundreds of beers in the Breweries books, though.  Martin Morse Wooster aside, that's not what those books are about. They're about the breweries, not so much their beers, especially when a new brewer could change the whole picture in 5 weeks' time. I can only think of three places in both Pennsylvania and New York where the beers were so below average that I wouldn't go back for them. Two of them, The Distillery and Buffalo Brewpub, I said as much about in New York Breweries. But Buffalo Brewpub has so many other charming features, and great guest taps. Even The Distillery has Saranac on tap -- although I was rudely insulted to my face when I went there to try to get an interview. There's truth for you. The third brewpub is one I've got to deal with on my own before I talk about them here. I have never told them the truth about their beer, and I owe them that -- and an apology -- before I say anything here.

Man, is this ever cathartic. I feel good. Things are going to be better, here and in print. Editors, get ready: we're going to take beer and whiskey writing where it's never gone before. With any kind of luck, we'll quickly get past any kind of bad feelings to a mutual realization that the truth is in everyone's best interests. Producers need to know when they're straying. Consumers need to know when things are not as good as they could be. Publishers and editors need to have great writing in their publications.

And a writer, this writer...needs to tell the truth. Period. Hang in there with me. Should be interesting.

 

 

 

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Revised: November 04, 2003