I’m a little late off the mark on this, since the article that I’m responding to was actually written days ago, and really had a fair amount of buzz over the weekend. Still, since through some fluke of internettery or bad programming I’m unable to post my feelings in the comments of article, you get to read my thoughts here.
This is in response to the article posted on Bon Appetit‘s website named (le sigh) Why Beer Growlers are Bad for your Brew
The first thing I’d like to point out is that the URL to the article is actually “Garrett Oliver Thinks Growlers…” and I bet the next work is “Suck”, but that apparently didn’t meet the “sweeping generalization in order to get as many eyes as possible” criteria. Good job. It worked. I wish it wouldn’t have.
It’s raised a bit of ire around beer blogs and on Beer Advocate, and one of the commenters on the article itself poses the interesting question of “Why would anyone ever be so emotionally committed to growlers that it would ever induce such outrage?”
I can’t say it’s outrage, but it definitely makes me feel a bit.. well.. exasperated. Garrett Oliver really did write the book on beer. Well… he edited it, anyway, despite numerous errors, and his opinion carries weight, even when it seems like a quick one-off bullshit answer to some guy who he’s drinking with. Because after you’ve written the book on beer, your slightest opinions get repeated like this:
“Oh, well, Garrett Oliver says [poorly translated version of what Garrett Oliver actually said taken immediately as the holy fucking gospel].”
It’s especially bad when it’s repeated by a magazine like Bon Appetit, even if it is a bullshit one-off name-dropping blog post by some guy who was probably just desperate to meet an editing deadline, because people who trust Bon Appetit (who are likely people who buy good, craft beer) are likely to come away with:
“Oh, well, I read in Bon Appetit that Garrett Oliver says [something incredibly inaccurate which will be taken as an unbreakable law that only a basilisk's tooth dipped in unicorn tears could possibly destroy].”
So, let’s hear it for journalistic integrity on the internet in 2011!
I can tell you why people would get emotional about it – for some small breweries, growlers can be a life saver. Packaging lines (bottles, cans) are expensive, and growlers can be a great way for new and/or small breweries to get product into locations, like grocery stores, or maybe even people’s homes, in a way that kegs just can’t do on a large scale basis. It’s not emotional, it’s defensive.
At Mystery, we’re counting on growler sales to help us through our startup, and I’m hoping that they constitute a large portion of our sales. That said, we’re planning using a counter-pressure growler filler to make sure that they’re packaged correctly instead of urinating directly into each one, as Garrett Oliver would have Andrew Knowlton have you believe. And I would never, EVER fill a dirty growler. Dirty growlers should be traded out for clean ones. I have the tools to clean growlers in ways that most people do not in their homes, and ultimately, I am represented best by giving you excellent beer.
But to address a big issue in the article of “the pros hate growlers”. Ugh. Are growlers ideal ways to package beer? No. But I don’t hate them.
Here’s what I hate: I hate it when bottle shops have beer sitting warm on shelves. I hate it when they have beer sitting near fluorescent lights. I hate it when they don’t pull beer off of the shelves after 90 days. I hate it when bars don’t clean their tap lines, or when they serve beer in frosted mugs, or shove a faucet into a beer while it’s being poured, or don’t give me a new glass when I order a new beer. I hate it when bars don’t have dishwashers that get hot enough to clean lipstick off of glassware, or wash their glassware in the same dishwasher as their food dishes.
All of those things can have a detrimental effect on the flavor and presentation of a beer and all of those are way, way, WAY more common than someone filling a dirty growler or filling one so incorrectly that the consumer will notice a difference, assuming they consume it while it’s still fresh.
But I can’t control those other things. I can, as a brewer, control the quality of the growlers that leave my establishment. I can make sure they’re clean and they’re filled properly – just like any packaging brewer would do for ANY packaged beer product.
I’d like to see an actual well-researched, well-considered followup article by Bon Appetit about this, but I’m sure it just won’t happen.
This piece of pseudo-journalism will go on misinforming in droves. It might seem silly, but these little one-off things coming from a source that people trust can be very damaging to small businesses. It’s already being repeated, and all it takes is one more journalist who doesn’t know how to research (which I’m starting to believe is most of them) to make this opinion law by referencing it in some wider reaching periodical.
Come on Bon Appetit, do what’s right and fix your crappy journalism by actually doing some work on the story. I’m issuing you a challenge. Write a good story on beer packaging. Your readership deserves it.
One of the most-hit columns I’ve ever written on Top Fermented was a “Beer Advocate vs. Rate Beer” column. It raises ire. Some people like the fact that I attempted to (poorly) apply statistics to compare the ratings on each site. Other people have bitched and moaned about how it’s a steaming pile of turd, which I won’t necessarily argue with – it has flaws. I’m pretty sure I even say that in the article itself.
Anyway, I see all of these links point here and I read them all and contemplate them and never really say anything because.. hey.. it’s like a two and a half year old column at this point, and it’s kind of meaningless now. Ratings systems are continually updated and people continue to use the site in new and different ways. However, the rating sites still over-appreciate dark, high alcohol, and hard-to-find ales and well-made low alcohol lagers consistently under-perform.
I’ve thought about it a lot and I am now of the opinion that wholesale beer rating is really to a point that it is no longer useful and, in fact, might even be detrimental to the market as a whole – and I don’t just mean Beer Advocate or Rate Beer, but beer review blogs, etc., and anon. The noise-to-signal ratio is just out of whack and the results are being given gravity that they don’t deserve.
Before the flames and trolls show up, let me state my case:
People rate beer by measures that are too subjective
Plain and simple. By and large, people rate beer based on whether or not they liked it, not whether or not it’s a good beer. Believe it or not those are two different things. I can’t stand Bud Light, but I won’t tell you that it’s a poorly made beer. It’s excellently made beer if you want a lite (yeah, I spelled it) lager. But it gets a 0 on Rate Beer (a 1 within the style) and a D- at Beer Advocate even though it is essentially the definition of the “light lager” style. Why? Because it lacks technical brewing skill and is rife with off-flavors? No. Because the bulk of the people who are rating it, like me, hate it. Rather than disconnecting themselves subjectively to actually answer whether or not it’s technically well-made and matches the style, they rate their own taste in graduated values of suck.
I do think that there is value in being able to have a list of ratings of beers that you have enjoyed for your own reference. It’s one of the reasons that I like Untappd – because it gives me a list of my own ratings for me to reference later. I don’t always remember a beer three months later. Have I tried this? Did I like it? 5 stars says, “Yes!” But just because I like it doesn’t mean that somebody else will. Taste is subjective. I like a really wide range of beers, but give me something with a load of Nugget hops and I will always, always hate it. 1 star-only and man did that suck. But! That doesn’t mean you won’t like it, so why should my personal rating mean anything to you?
If it’s a useless measure, we shouldn’t be using it to judge beers with.
There’s no way to tell that people are tasting good beer
And by good I mean “like the brewer intended”. Not old or oxidized or through infected taplines or in dirty, frosted glassware or drunk by a smoker or someone with an asshole for a mouth. Certainly, some people will note in the comments of their review about how it was served or what it looked like, etc., etc., but one look at the top comment under Bud Light really says it all:
…serving type was shot gunning at the football game.
Indeed, byteme94. I will now take your D+ more seriously because I know you put a lot of thought into it for those 4 seconds while it was passing through your esophagus. Was the fact that you didn’t immediately throw up what saved it from a D- or an F?
If someone is tasting a beer out of a dirty tapline and (and this is important) they don’t know what a dirty tapline tastes like, they think they just have a shitty beer and there’s no way for me, as a reader, to tell if this is in perfect serving conditions or if this is someone drinking beer out of their cat’s old food dishes before they give a beer a score (“drunk from a straight-sided shallow goblet”, indeed). I’m not going to look through 3,000 reviews. I’m going to look at the aggregate score. If the aggregate score is a composite of unreliable measures, then the aggregate score is unreliable.
There’s no way to tell if the people are good at tasting
Let’s take, for instance, Geary’s IPA in which the first review – which gives it a B (which is decent, if you consider C to be average) – mentions the word “buttery” twice. Once in the aroma and once in the flavor. He didn’t really care for the butteriness of the malt. Of course, he mentioned that he wouldn’t really expect bitterness or alcohol in an IPA, either. Now, I happen to know that Geary’s is brewed at Shipyard, and that Shipyard’s house yeast is Ringwood which has a VERY high flocculation rate. It tends to drop out of the solution really early and doesn’t really remove diacetyl (which tastes like butter) from the beer like it should unless you do some awesome tricks to keep that yeast in suspension – which Shipyard is generally pretty good at.
IPA shouldn’t be buttery. Malt does not taste buttery. This is an off-flavor. But the reviewer doesn’t know this (or that an IPA should be bitter, sadly). He just thinks (correctly) that it tastes like butter, and while he doesn’t really like it he also doesn’t know that it’s not supposed to be there at all so he doesn’t judge it as harshly as he could and maybe should. Or to look at it backwards, he is judging it as though the butteriness is supposed to be there, because he doesn’t know that it isn’t.
Is this a good, honest review of this beer? It certainly reflects whether or not the drinker likes it, but does it reflect the quality of the beer? ie – Why should this B count with the same weight as someone’s C who does know that their beer is diacetyl heavy? How do I know if the person who is reviewing the beer knows enough about the beer to give a good review? Just because you drink a lot doesn’t make you an expert. It just makes you drunk.
(I am positive that at this point in the article, at least one thread will start on a forum somewhere to discuss whether or not it matters if a beer is well-made if you like drinking it, anyway. Related: Who cares who makes your beer if you like drinking it? Answer: I do.)
The internet is untrustworthy in general
Sorry kids, but I just don’t have any reason to trust you. Just because a lot of people rate something doesn’t mean that there’s any sort of reasonable quality involved. You know that saying that’s something like, “50,000 people can’t all be wrong”? Well – actually, they can. It happens all the time.
A significant portion of this country believes that science and math are just these things that the educated elite make up to try to perpetuate grant funding because paying yourself off of grants is sooooo awesome. They believe things like vaccines are bad but polio is kinda okay. They believe that man and dinosaurs used to co-exist. Why on earth should I trust you, the internet, to know enough about beer to give me a decent recommendation if you can’t get broad “society has moved on” issues correct?
Fact: You can’t measure something with an unreliable tool. If I’m allowed to make my own ruler that just has however many inches I want on it at whatever random intervals, I can use it to build the same thing every time. But as soon as I give you my plans you are up a creek without.. well.. a ruler. Have fun defining that cubit, bucko, because I measured it using MY forearm, not yours.
There’s no good way to cut through the noise of beer reviews to find out which ones are worth paying attention to and which ones aren’t. Since there’s no way to calibrate the tasters to make sure that they’re all tasting with the same objectivity, then there’s no way to say that any given set of ratings is even reasonably reliable and I won’t waste my time with them. Until we have some sort of Cicerone-weighted rating system or something like that, I’m calling shenanigans on beer rating, especially wholesale ratings sites like BA and RB. Their data is no longer worthy of consideration, by my estimation.
Make your own ratings and decide what you like for yourself. It’s far more valuable in the long run.
These ratings are being put forth as guides for consumers
Let me quote something to you from the comments of a blog that I ran across that I’m pretty sure sums up common sentiment. I know that I should quote who it’s from, but I don’t know them personally and I don’t want to get into any sort of pissing contest. This quote is in reference to a post recommending shelf tags from Rate Beer and Beer Advocate in retail establishments, much like you would see shelf tags from, say, Wine Spectator.
I do appreciate that the rankings are from a consortium of dedicated drinkers compared to wine, which historically was dominated by one individual or several publications.
Indeed. You know what I hate? Being able to make informed decisions based on reliable, consistent data. What I prefer is to make random guesses based on completely unreliable anonymous data. I mean – who needs Consumer Reports and a trained panel of experts when I can get a product rating from BoobLvr67?
That is the equivalent of trusting anonymous online ratings for beer (or anything, really, but let’s stick on topic).
What I’d Like To See…
…is some sort of rating system from people who are actually known trained tasters – Cicerones and/or BJCP judges – with ratings ranked in importance based on how skilled they’ve shown themselves to be. That would be better information. There’s still individual taster differences, but at least those tasters have been moderately calibrated. At least there’s a starting point beyond, “I signed up for the website.”
That’s a rating site I’ll trust, and those are shelf tags I want to see in retail establishments. Until we can get there, I’m dispensing with wholesale beer ratings in general.
This week is a festival-y week. This past weekend was, of course, the Great American Beer Festival. This coming weekend gives us the World Beer Festival in Durham, NC. It’s my home beer fest, and this particular one will be the first one that my little startup brewery has a booth at, however unofficially.
It’s meant that I’ve spent the past week or so thinking a lot about the festivals themselves: What do I want out of them? What are people getting out of them? What are they all about?
This year was my first GABF, and for the most part it seemed like a nice beer festival. I quite enjoyed it. It was well organized, there were nice wide aisles, there was a good selection of beer and nice side events. (The Farm-to-Food Beer Pairing Pavilion was brilliant.) Indoor beer festivals are also my favorites because there’s no smoking and there are actual bathrooms and not port-a-johns. So, awesome on those counts. What I really noticed, overall, was something that Andy Crouch brought up in his recent GABF recap which is that there was a tremendous lack of brewers. There were, however, scads of volunteers (yay!) that didn’t know anything about the beer they were pouring (boo!). It’s something that made me reflect back upon local beer festivals and seeing brewers hanging out behind festival tents chatting with one another while volunteers were pouring their beer just feet away on the other side of a flap.
What’s going on here?
Before I answer that, let me ramble on a little more.
While I was in Denver, I had lunch with a friend who does not drink. Over the course of lunch, she asked, “So, what’s the point of this festival? Is it a good way to get exposure to a lot of people?” and I thought about it and had to answer: No. Not really. Not at all, actually. I drank beer from dozens of breweries, and I doubt that I can tell you more than a handful that I had and enjoyed.
And it’s a sort of woogy answer. Here in Durham, with an almost-open brewery, I am looking forward to getting a lot of exposure. But I am largely an exception. I am pre-new and many people haven’t heard of me (or have only heard of me have no idea what I’m all about) and this is an excellent way to get in front of my local crowd. But what about for everyone else?
Again, what I told my friend: I don’t think most brewers really care about getting in front of drinkers, anymore. They care about getting in front of the 1% of people that are in there that can actually help expand their market – the beer buyers, the bar owners, the restaurateurs, the distributors. Everybody else is just getting trashed.
And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with beer festivals.
To wit (and I’ve said this before): Beer festivals used to be about education. For years and years, they served as a way for a population that was eager to learn to get a wide array of beers easily, and to learn about a vast array of different styles in a way that just wasn’t available to them anywhere else. Now they can go do that at the package store. Total Wine has just as many beers as you’ll see at most beer festivals, maybe more, and it’s cheap to build your own six-pack. Sampling is just a lot easier in the marketplace than it used to be. That means when people go to beer festivals they’re not interested in learning. They already know what they’re looking for. They’re interested in drinking – which in and of itself is not a terrible thing – but as beer festival prices go up and up and up, people tend to try to get their money’s worth out of the price of their ticket and that generally means pounding as many 2 oz. samples as possible.
Is this true for every festival? Certainly not. But the bigger ones, the more well-known ones? Almost universally true.
From a brewer’s standpoint, if people aren’t there to learn from you there’s no incentive to try to engage with them. There’s nothing more disheartening than having somebody walk up to your booth and ask for “your lightest beer” or “whatever” and then just slug it back, regardless of what it was. We put a lot of work into making these products, and we’re proud of what they taste like. It’s frankly a little insulting to watch somebody pound a sample of your product without any thought. I’d rather you hated it and dump it out then to drink it without thinking about it.
If it’s not about educating consumers, it’s really about that small contingent of people that can effect a brewer’s bottom line in a real way, the people who will end up buying a large portion of product (eg – kegs or cases, not a bottle or a 6′er), and that makes hanging out at a booth and giving beer to people who don’t care fall under “not a good use of time” in most circumstances. After all, a brewer can hang out around the back of the booth and wait for that 1% to come around and focus on them while volunteers pour the beer.
So, if this is the overall trend, then what does the future of beer festivals look like? I struggle with this. I can’t help but think that brewers will get more and more jaded about spending large amounts of time and product going to beer festivals that help them less and less and that more and more people will stop showing up to something that is become more and more of a chugfest.
I offer these possible future solutions for beer festivals:
I’m sure there are dozens of other ways we could see festivals revitalized. It’s time for some innovation.
I enjoy beer festivals, but I am jaded by their expense to the brewer. You’ll see us at our locals, but not at many outside of our area. They need re-imagining to continue to be relevant to both brewers and drinkers and I kind of wish I was in a place to help move them along. Unfortunately (for festivals), I’ll be on the other side of the tent flap making beer.
A brief editorial piece on the website “AshVegas” caught my eye this morning, asking Should Asheville officials offer tax breaks for a [New Belgium] brewery?
I find myself roiling with thoughts and light rage, and so I’m doing what I always do in these situations: write.
Let’s set the stage to begin: New Belgium is working on opening an East Coast plant to cut down on shipping costs on their quest for country-wide domination distribution. There are lots of rumors about Asheville being on their short list of cities to open the plant in and, of course, New Belgium has neither confirmed nor denied these reports (to my meager knowledge).
I have really conflicting feelings about New Belgium. On one hand, they are some of the early pioneers in the craft industry and the industry as a whole has a lot to thank them for. They are leaders in brewing science and innovation. They produce high quality beer and are responsible for a whole LOT of craft beer lovers finding their way to industry in general. They are known as an excellent place to work and they have a strong commitment to being environmentally friendly and generally pretty awesome.
They also have some of the most invasive marketing and distribution tactics I’ve seen in craft. When New Belgium pushes into markets (as they recently did in North Carolina) with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and sponsorship deals, small, local breweries cannot possibly hope to compete with them. Who sponsors the “local beer, local band” night around the corner from me? New Belgium. Who sells beer at the “Best of the Indy” parties? New Belgium. Who has been at every freakin’ local event before almost every local craft brewery? New Belgium. Why? Because in a morally dubious pay-to-play environment, they have the cash to pay – and pay a LOT – where small local breweries do not.
Is New Belgium the only brewery who does this? No. Good heavens, no. But in North Carolina, they were nowhere one day and everywhere the next, forcefully filling the niche I would have expected a lot of local breweries to fill. While most of that is their distribution partner, New Belgium also doesn’t seem to be in any sort of rush to stop those practices, either.
So, now maybe they’ll actually be a local brewery and that makes me a little sad and a little angry. They feel like a threat to our growing and thriving local beer industry, primarily because they have the ability and the apparent lack of scruples to muscle small business out of the way where they need to.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the ludicrous idea of offering them tax breaks to move in. The fact that it’s New Belgium makes no difference. My position would be the same for any large brewery moving in; however, the fact that it’s New Belgium in this case does feel a little like insult upon injury.
Tax breaks designed to entice big business is the kind of topic that drives me nuts regardless of industry, but in this specific case – and in MY industry – it seems even more ridiculous than usual. The idea, of course, is that Asheville would give tax breaks to New Belgium to entice them to open a brewery in the area, thereby creating jobs (and tax revenue).
Asheville, look around. You already have 9 breweries in you including the largest craft brewery in the state. Are you giving them tax breaks? Can you imagine how many jobs you could create by easing the tax burden on the businesses that are already there, already a part of your community, and already employing your local population? Instead of throwing money at a business coming in from another state (where most of that money will go), giving a large company with deep pockets even deeper pockets and an advantageous position over your local businesses, why not reward your local businesses for the excellent job that they’ve already done for you?
The local breweries in Asheville, along with its craft-beer-loving populace, have already brought country-wide attention and recognition to the area. Asheville has earned the moniker “Beer City USA” not because of its tax breaks, but because of its (stay with me here, this might get complex) beer. Why on earth would you, as a city council, make it easier to bring a small-business-crushing competitor to town? Sure, you might create jobs in the short term, but in the long run how is that one brewery opening going to effect the already existing breweries in your city and the already existing jobs? How many jobs could you create by reducing the tax burden on the businesses that already exist and thrive in your city, helping them open up new distribution channels, and grow enough to be able to stand up to the largest of breweries?
Tax breaks for incoming industries only make sense when you’re enticing an industry that doesn’t already exist into an area that economically depressed. Neither of these conditions seem true in Asheville.
Here’s the thing: If New Belgium is going to open a brewery in North Carolina, they’ll do it whether or not there’s a tax incentive thrown at them. They’re coming, and the best thing that we can possibly do is fortify our local industry so that we can welcome them as an equal level competitor, an enrichment of the local market. Giving them tax breaks that our local businesses do not enjoy is just inviting a fox into the hen house.
Announcing Pint/Counterpint Episode #3 – our “local” episode. In this episode we cover local issues, such as – what does it mean to be a local brewery? Is it using local ingredients, or just distributing locally? We also talk about local talent and that we’re looking for more of it (it’s not what you think!).
As a special guest star you’ll notice my very nervous dog Tessie who decided that the time to wander out of the office and look for comfort was the middle of our shoot. Isn’t she cute? Awww.
Special thanks again to Tres Bruce who continues to make us look and sound sharp.