Your faithful Fool – me, personally, not this blog so much – generates quite a bit of backlash…which is good and exactly as it should be. An uber-critic, whose name you would absolutely know, once told me “if people are calling you an idiot, that’s how you know you’re doing this right.” The subject of this post is a couple of current phenomena that have nagged at the edges of the beer culture for a while now and I’m fairly sure that my views on them are going to offend some people.
Sorry. Think of it as Tough Love.
Recently, the venerable Charlie Papazian, one of the guiding lights of American brewing, discontinued a series of polls he had organized and run for examiner.com. The poll was entitled “Beer Town USA” and it asked readers of examiner to vote for what they feel are the best beer places in the US. For three years in a row, the readers chose Asheville, North Carolina. “Shocking” doesn’t even begin to cover the reaction. I love Asheville. You would, too, even without breweries. It’s one of the most picturesque small cities in the US. It was established by George Vanderbilt, who drove up onto a nearby hill, looked at the long east-west valley, turned to his assistant and said, “Buy everything you see from here.” He built the Biltmore Mansion there, for over 100 years the largest private residence in the country. The setting around the city is breath-taking. It is romantic as heck. As a North Carolina native, I’ve been watching the scene there very carefully for its entire history, which is barely a decade. There are about a dozen breweries there and they’re good – not great, good.
The problem with the Beer Town USA poll is exactly the same problem – only worse – as with reading scores generated on the beer sites, RateBeer and BeerAdvocate: they’re crowd-sourced. Crowds are, by definition, unknown quantities. Nobody really knows, even if they claim to, what the real level of beer acumen is among the readers of RB and BA, but even those are FAR more reliable than the Examiner poll, in which many people’s interest isn’t even in craft brewing at all but in promoting their hometown’s tourism and, ergo, their local economy. What is the actual percentage of examiner readers who actually have ANY knowledge of craft beer? Better yet, what is an approximate, even charitable, estimate? Charitably, let’s say 50%. That still means that every other person voting in their poll is clueless about the relative merits of one beer over another. And these are the people naming Asheville “Beer Town USA”.
That poll and its wildly unsupported conclusions, has been a goldmine to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Board. In a list that I was asked to do by my readers, I gave Asheville an Honorable Mention…and was deluged with angry emails from people who were incensed that I dared to question Asheville’s supremacy. They all cited the examiner poll and the fact of several large West Coast breweries having opened satellite brewery facilities in their county. No one argued it any other way, really, because the poll and breweries are all they have on which to base their umbrage. Despite the fact of these regional brewing outposts in Western NC, Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium are still Colorado, California, and Colorado breweries and, in fact, and that will never change. Red Hook also brews in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but they’re a Seattle (okay, Woodinville) brewery and nobody’s confused about it.
Over the past two years, six people I know in the NW beer trade have expanded East Coast trips to include a stop in Asheville. (Quite an expansion. Asheville is near exactly nothing.) Though I warned them all to keep their expectations reasonable, all of them came back either outright disappointed or baffled “This is what everybody’s raving about?” one wrote me, “Damn, I could have had a grand little weekend in Bend for what I paid to go to Asheville and had a lot better beer to boot.”
Beer lists come in three basic varieties: crowd-sourced, which appears to be far more egalitarian and fair than the other options but carries the distinct possibility that almost nobody participating knows squat. The second is like what I do, every December, with Best of The Northwest: One Guy’s Opinion. I parrot this every time I do the list: these are just MY opinions and no more credible than you think I am. The third is when some magazine or website chooses a panel of “experts” who are asked to debate and come up with a list. This one COULD be the most credible option but…who chooses the “experts”? Are these “experts” prone to grave personal agendae which would color their judgment? Do they carry grudges against certain breweries or beers? Do they, in fact, know ANYTHING about craft beer? In one recent list like this, I checked the online bios of the six judges. One had some experience writing about beer. Two were travel writers. One was a food critic. One was a home improvement specialist. And one had written nothing I could find online that wasn’t about cycling! But, they’re a panel and they’re presented as “experts”.
Here’s the point at which the two subjects of this post converge:
Beer lists are always suspect.
Saying that the beer brewed in your hometown or state is “the best in the country/hemisphere/world/solar system” is absurd and, in at least 90% of the times it’s uttered, dead wrong.
I run into this all the time. Even here in Seattle, which I absolutely DO regard as the most sensible and open-minded place in America, people become livid with me for even suggesting gently that I think there’s anything some other place has that Seattle/Washington doesn’t. Last year, I suggested that Washington could probably support a brewery dedicated to sours and barrel-aged beer like Cascade Barrelhouse or Crooked Stave. I pointed out that most all beers made in Washington fall into the category of British-tradition ales and said, flat-out, that I feel we do this style better than any other part of the US. I was called several names I had never even heard before and told that I had “disrespected Washington breweries and you owe them an apology“.
Now, that’s right here in my own, very civilized back yard. The folks from Asheville and Vermont (who also got an Honorable Mention”) were far more angry.
Let me make this very clear and the fact that anyone might not like it doesn’t change a thing about the core truth of the statement: If you haven’t traveled extensively and tasted beers in San Diego, Seattle, Grand Rapids, Denver, Loveland, Fort Collins, Boulder, Portland, Bend, and maybe ten other brewing centers, saying your hometown beer is the “best”, in any sense, is absolutely nothing but blind homerism and fluff. Even if you DO live in Bend or Seattle or Denver, saying that is hollow if you don’t know the breweries of the other places. Local pride is great and is best expressed by frequenting your local breweries and buying beer. If your local pride comes in no tangible form, such as dollars in the brewery’s till, it’s a fairly empty sentiment.
And when you read a “Best Beer ______” anything, don’t simply quote the thing without doing some research. Who compiled the list and how did they do it? (Cycling writers are NOT your most reliable beer authority.) Don’t, for that matter, quote ME about anything I write unless you’ve got a little history with The Pour Fool and are satisfied that I know what I’m talking about. The wild and unchecked explosion of local breweries and the fact of craft beer being as hot a topic as we have in the US, here in 2014, produces this spate of lists and polls and opinions that, many times, are misrepresented as “scientific” or “expert”. The same dynamic also breeds this clumsy, premature boosterism for towns like Asheville which will, mark my words, wind up becoming genuinely one of the country’s top brewing cultures…in about a decade. Not now. Like so many other American towns, many of which are home to more breweries than Asheville, the breweries are very, very young. They may have a splashy opening and the beers may be, in fact, very good immediately. But every brewery needs time to hone their craft, make youthful mistakes, and settle into a groove. The trendiness, which is every bit as rampant in craft beer as it has traditionally been in wine, leads many younger beer lovers to fawn over the new, buzzworthy breweries and skip over the veteran breweries that have been around long enough to become old hat, many of which, after ten years or so, are just beginning to hit their stride. As a Washington distributor once told me, “I have 450 beers in my warehouse and all anybody wants is that one.” And, in blind tastings, I found that, in most cases, that one sought-after beer scored no better than fourth and dead last in four of the tastings. Choose beers with your tongue, not with your ego or your manic desire to have the coolest beer.
Know as you read this that I’m fully aware that, once the lifestyle crowd who embrace craft beer more as a status symbol or coolness factor, become involved in sufficient numbers, it completely changes the culture it invades. Pliny and Bourbon County Stout and Parabola and Cigar City’s Hunapu will be pursued by the trendy crowd and largely ruin the experience of enjoying these beers for the rest of us. Those beer lovers who actually know beer and don’t obey the current Buzz are, even now, being forced to step out of the way of the roving trendies or be trampled. Breweries have to adopt alternate strategies for releasing certain anointed beers. And ravening self-interest and over-entitled aggressiveness will poison what one Seattle beer professional recently called “this beautiful family we’ve all created.”
Tough Love, folks. But inarguably true. Like everything else in modern American life, craft beer becomes a victim of its own success. The best thing any of us can do is to simply refuse to aid and abet the craziness.