“Click Bait!” Not Really Code For Good Beer Criticism

monkey4This week’s craft beer tantrum has come in reaction to a very well written personal essay attacking a number of specified effects of craft beer snobbery. In particular, strong reaction has come from the mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / appearance fee good beer personality seats in the audience. I have absolutely no idea why this column caused those in the front pew to reach for the book of common prayer to announce “click bait!” as one. But it does make one sad given how this exemplifies at least part of the state of critical thinking about beer these days. Makes one wonder what that agenda behind the Sturm und Drang is all about. Consider this passage from the impugned opinion piece:

When I go to the pub I want to talk to my friends about their lives, our jobs, politics, funny things we saw on public transport that day. Ward says that “craft beer is a conversation”, which really gets to the heart of the matter: I don’t want to have a conversation with my beer, I want to have a conversation with my mates. Combined with our loose culture of buying rounds, this “beer-as-backdrop” phenomenon is why it’s important for tap beers to be sessionable and relatively inexpensive. Beer blogger Martyn Cornell’s exploration of sessionability pinpoints the crucial difference between a “craft beer” kind of beer and what I, from an Australian perspective, would call a “normal beer”…

While Martyn has not entered into the “clickbait-clickbait” din, he has disavowed the citation on a Facebook comments thread. Which is unfortunate. Because what is described is a perfectly reasonable and attractive experience of beer. Who would want to see that imposed upon? Hmm? What’s that? Not good enough for some? Why? I don’t know. Not sure they do. Frankly, the knee jerk reaction has gotten to be such a matter of rote. There is a such race to post something righteous on Twitter that actual reading of the text in question seems to be optional.

Which, without getting into the bushes too deeply given how little I care about the uni-clique¹, let’s think about two things Boak and Bailey have noted lately. First, during the craft beer emo-crisis of a few weeks ago (they are coming so fast and furious that they seem to be the hallmark of 2015’s discourse) they noted of another article: “It actually made us laugh; the author writes with flair; and, unlike other pure clickbait articles (‘craft beer sucks and people that drink it are dicks’) it has an argument.” Then, last week they wrote the following in their discussion of the London-centricity of the UK’s good beer discourse:

Where there is a gap in regional coverage is, unfortunately, the blogoshire. A few years ago, beer blogging was all but dominated by Leeds. Now, Leigh Linley has taken a job in the industry and temporarily put his blog on hiatus; Zak Avery posts infrequently (though it’s always good when he does); while others have moved to other parts of the country, had children, or otherwise run out of steam. By their own admission, Birmingham bloggers Dan Brown and David Shipman are both ‘semi-retired’. And our favourite Bristol beer blog hasn’t posted since 2013.

See, it is not just that blogging is dead but as a prominent beer writer has confided this week, we lack those now who “stir the pot occasionally. Lord knows the readers could use the perspective.” Which makes me wonder.² A long time ago the happy land of beer blogging suffered an outrage – the invasion of pro writers pretending to be bloggers. We found a measure of peace. But then beer bloggers went off in a few directions in the last couple of years. Too many for the available cash decided to make a living out of it. From that we have received many interesting books and articles but we have also witnessed the rise of the mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / collaborateur / appearance fee good beer personality chasing the tail of craft. We then have also seen, as B+B said, the loss of interest by the pure amateur out of boredom at, I suppose, the now dull lock step cultish homogeneity of the scene due to the previous group separating off. And we still have those game actual professionals who actually do well thought out, critical and carefully presented writing about good beer. What a business. What a state of affairs…

Does one despair, fight the power or make pitches to the patient but not infinitely resourced opportunities for a beer writing cheque? Not sure other than I am sure it is all more to be pitied than scorned. By the way, I hope you disagree…. which would require you to make up your mind independently and not follow someone else’s agenda like a drunken lemming. See what you can come up with. Make Stonch proud.

¹ Which reference may actually qualify me as a “clique baiter”… neato …

² See Mr. Chimp Head up there? That is the “Al is wondering” icon if you haven’t picked that up yet.

One thought on ““Click Bait!” Not Really Code For Good Beer Criticism”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Velky Al – February 28, 2015 2:41 PM
    I found myself in broad agreement with the piece in the Guardian, though I disagree with the implied notion that session beer should be largely flavourless. A great best bitter simply bursts with flavour.

    I wonder though if the writer of the article has ever actually sat in a pub with the rank and file ‘craft’ beer drinkers who aren’t bothered with revolutions, evangelism, and what beer glass to put a beer in to pair with cheese on toast but just want to enjoy tasty beer with their mates in the pub?

    Personally I look forward to the day when the poseurs all bugger off, move on to the next big thing and leave beer back with the people that appreciate it for what is actually is, a tasty supplement to a good life.

    Alan – February 28, 2015 3:24 PM
    My favorite bars are those where quality and a relaxed atmosphere are present. But the threat of sandwich tongs imposes upon those who might enjoy it. Add to that columns and social media authored by the clique suggesting that multi-week evening classes (for a less than modest fee) are required before an entry card can be issued and, well, no wonder few one feels invited. But even if that is the case, the argument is that there is no invalidity to traditional Australian beer drinking practices. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    Jeff Alworth – February 28, 2015 3:42 PM
    Disagree. The article was itself an example of exactly the kind of thing you and the author purport to condemn–but just coming from the other side. The world she describes is wildly exaggerated, the crimes those of straw men.

    Extending to the author an assumption of good intention (which, given the text, is hard to do), I come to the conclusion that she just doesn’t like the changes afoot in her local. Says she: “Craft beer culture must die, or at least stop taking over all the pubs where I like to go. If it were contained to its own small bars where I never drink, it’d just be another niche subculture, where it belongs.” Yeah, yeah, and those damn kids are playing their music too loud. Silly and clickbaity and absolutely not “very well written.”

    Alan – February 28, 2015 3:52 PM
    I think you need to shake that “straw man” tick. You go back to that too often. If you think that folk being unhappy with what makes you happy that is fine. But this is hardly a culture war. [Comment Consolidation] Well maybe not you but it does get trotted out… even by me.

    [Additional] But if you are not going to give any basis for disagreeing with “very well written” you have only yourself to blame for being taken for giving the drive-by comment. The slag and leave. What is that about? Aren’t you kinda making my point about superficiality?

    Pete Brown – March 1, 2015 6:27 AM
    Alan, a few things.

    Firstly – I appreciate that this is a genuine concern of yours that comes from a strong, principled stance, but this whole “mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / appearance fee” thing – I fall into that category, and if you aren’t thinking of me specifically when you write that (and I’m guessing you are) it does still apply to me. I don’t have another job to fall back on. Writing about beer is how I pay my mortgage. If you ever see a specific example where you feel the stuff I do for money compromises the ideas and opinions I attempt to communicate, please pick me up on it specifically. But in the meantime, the general implication that those of us who earn our living doing this are somehow tainted is an unpleasant one, and you haven’t provided any evidence that our opinions are somehow compromised.

    Second – I disagree that it was a well-written piece of criticism. (“Craft beer is un-Australian?” REALLY? The entirely inaccurate assertion that craft is displacing mainstream beer – HUH?) It was petulant and provocative. I write for the Guardian myself sometimes and I know how much they value ‘below the line’ comments for online articles. In these strange days where no one wants to pay for – ahem – ‘content’ any more, getting a massive reaction to a piece is one of the key measures of success for a media brand with online presence. I know this. People at the Guardian have told me this. The Guardian has a lot of craft beer drinkers among its readership, and a piece like this is commissioned in the sure knowledge that it is going to provoke a strong and vocal reaction. I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else who used the word ‘clickbait’, but that’s why I did.

    Thirdly, my initial outrage (again, can’t speak for anyone else) was not the piece itself, but the fact that the Guardian initially posted it under the label ‘alcoholism’ rather than ‘beer’ or ‘drinks’. Whatever else the author is, there is no evidence for the piece that she is an alcoholic, and there is no content in the piece on the subject of alcoholism. That’s what I reacted strongly to, and the Guardian changed it when I did.

    Finally, the reason pieces like this piss me off as an Old Timer in the beer writing world now is that I’ve been writing (stuff you have enjoyed reading) about beer since long before it was popular over here in the UK. Until maybe four years ago, people here used to laugh at the very notion that you could BE a ‘beer writer’, whatever that is. Since craft beer became popular, that is no longer the case. We’re enjoying our day in the sun, beer is cool, and we mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / appearance fee people and the handful of nerds who read us are no longer the only people who think so. I want this phase to last as long as possible. But increasingly, we get these rants from both beer haters and beer lovers who just don’t like the fact that flavourful beer is becoming something ‘other’ people drink, that it is developing a more sophisticated, classier side, that beer can be special AS WELL AS – NOT INSTEAD OF – everyday; that beer can be complex, flavourful and challenging AS WELL AS – NOT INSTEAD OF – easy-drinking and refreshing. People would not write about any other food or drink stuff in this way, with this hostility against both the drink itself and the people who drink it. The idea that craft beer is going to, or could ever, somehow make mainstream suds disappear is fatuous bullshit and has to be called out. It’s inverse snobbery, it’s not based in fact, it’s unpleasant and it’s damaging. So we mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / appearance fee folks will fight it wherever we see it – and not just to preserve our future income streams, paltry as they remain.

    But in all seriousness – seriously – thanks for writing this. I would never have thought of writing this response on my own blog if you hadn’t, and now I’m glad I have, and I’ll probably be in total agreement with you on the next thing you write, as I usually am.

    bailey – March 1, 2015 6:52 AM
    As we’re cited, I guess I should say for the record that we don’t think this latest piece is particularly good — weak prose, re-treading points made better elsewhere. But we’re not angry about it, and had planned just to ignore it.

    Alan – March 1, 2015 9:26 AM
    Thanks for that Pete. I have been really irritated by this for quite a while. I know that what I wrote was not pleasant reading so thank you for disagreeing so seriously. I don’t want to recite myself in the comments but let me say this again. I think it is a well written personal essay. I don’t think it is a criticism of the craft beer scene but an expression of an experience of being imposed upon by the craft beer scene. The prose is angry and rude. The argument is made: leave me and my pals alone and screw off with telling us our lifestyle is for losers. I agree entirely with that as an expression of an idea. I don’t want to sit in a bar full of Australians drinking macro crap myself but, as with US country and western song praising traditional beer bar life, it is entirely legitimate. It is not waiting around for craft beer to improve their lifestyle. Actual punks spat into microphones, they didn’t become millionaire brewers co-opt ting the word. She is giving craft the finger. Some days it deserves it.

    And I know it is hard to see something written that strikes so close to home but (1) who other than me is going to put that idea of the mixed revenue writer out there to have it pushed back by you and (2) I am honestly concerned where the struggle for cash has led the discourse. You know that I have put out three books on beer so I know this from the inside. I have been writing about real pressures on thinking about beer for over a decade just like you. And when I see day after day tweets about tickets for beer events, then post allegedly unimpugnable opinion pieces or worse criticisms of those who don’t write happy happy joy joy? Of course the pattern is there. As is the real need for money in question for people to live on to write. When I wrote more pitied than scorned I meant all of it pitied, all of us. Some days we are all like the family with the alcoholic who cannot be mentioned.

    Chris – March 1, 2015 11:45 AM
    Reading your post and specifically Jeff’s comment, you’re clearly at odds with the article and you’ve both made eloquent points both in favor of and against it. I think my reaction to this article is symptomatic of the way I look at beer writing now. I already felt fatigued when I saw the title. The part of your post that really struck a chord is when you said “We then have also seen, as B+B said, the loss of interest by the pure amateur out of boredom…” I blogged about beer for a few years myself, and simply lost interest as a result of the same tired talking points being periodically trotted out, the same well-rehearsed outrage being exhibited in response to them, and the same mop-up duty being performed by blogging vets. And the same thing has happened in response to this essay.

    But that’s, of course, a little dismissive as well. I, and many others, could have simply been better at blogging. Could have written better, provoked thoughts outside of the established safety blanket of posts, and shined light on areas often ignored. Saturated coverage might have been easier, but then uniqueness and quality suffer as a result of it.

    Anyway, I’m rambling (probably why I wasn’t such a good blogger!) but I do side a bit with Jeff in one area. I see more people complaining about craft beer hipsters than I see actual instances of craft beer hipsterdom. It seems that people are so eager to not be seen as a hipster that they’ll trip over themselves to combat it. It’s one thing to simply say “I don’t go in for all of this craft beer,” but saying “craft beer culture must die?” Yeah, all I see when I read that is “get off my lawn.”

    Alan – March 1, 2015 1:26 PM
    Good points. I am too old and fat to be confused for a hipster so that that bit is easy for me. My particular boredom / irritation comes from that part of craft which relies on facile fruit flavouring, trick based beer. Add pink peppercorns to that beer and, wow, who knew?!? It’s suddenly tasting like pink peppercorns. It’s like the miracles of Christ, innit?

    Yet no one calls it out. Why? Dependency. You get perceived as negative and the door gets shut. One pro writer confided that he had to go on a blatent junket set up to foster lashings of praise on a big craft brewery and its cult of personality – because if he did not participate he’d have less access to the brewery staff. Another told me he could never discuss craft and drunk driving as he could only be seen as being positive about the industry. A friend who is a newspaper editor described it as being like automobile journalism and that there was nothing more compromised as automobile journalism.

    The result is a lack of a sliding scale. Over 95% of stories are about how everything is amazing. The balance? Slightly sub amazing. One reason I was so pleased with my visit to Northwinds last weekend was how utterly bare the beer was. Not stupid adulteration. No gimmicks. Fabulous quality. And at $7 Canadian for a 20 oz glass. That is well under a four pound pint. No stupid stemware either. I kept thinking how honest the place was. And how I would measure all others against it. Gave me renewed hope. That the crappy fad end of craft might die off – and sooner than later with any luck.

    Jeff Alworth – March 1, 2015 6:12 PM
    One other point that we forget when we write from Portland, Ontario, Australia, and London, is that it’s hard to know how to judge the reports of another’s experience. All those places have really different beer culture. I have to remind myself–and did not when I commented originally–that the scene at your local is certainly different than at mine.

    My experience: the majority of people (by a sizable margin) drinks craft beer in Portland. It’s completely commonplace to have two female retirees sitting behind pints of stout chatting. There’s not a lot of aggressive boosterism because there’s no point. Sure, hipsters drink craft beer here, but they’re not boorish about it. (If they want to be boorish about beer, they drink canned tallboys.)

    I don’t have the faintest idea what the culture is like in Australia (and I wonder if there is a singular culture in Australia), but I criticize the piece because I have no great confidence that the author is accurately reflecting it. She’s got so much invested in her argument that there’s no room for nuance. It’s a polemic, and polemics are inherently unreliable. It may well be a hellscape of judgment and hipsterism in Australia, and a piece like this may well be a needed corrective. But it’s impossible to tell from this overheated piece.

    Jeff Alworth – March 1, 2015 6:12 PM
    (Btw, it seems like the spam bots have given you a breather, which is nice–this has been a great and interesting discussion.)

    Alan – March 1, 2015 6:20 PM
    [Thanks for noticing, Jeff. I feel like you’ve complimented my tie! Some days I was sent insane by the bots. I’ve had to manually delete over 500 comments in the backend before finishing my morning coffee.]

    I agree it is a polemic but I do have to admit that macro culture in Canada is much the same, just with snow. I have stood for hours in the garages of brothers in law or pals from college sucking on light lagers and having a great time. We don’t really have a bar culture in the same way as we have a home drinking one. But if you were to inject other beer you would be made fun of unmercifully. I have a pal who is honestly mad at me for showing him other beers taste better, having destroyed his ability to like a Molson Canadian lager innocently. So maybe I get it because I do not live and drink in a circle of craft beer pals. Other than other beer writers I might visit with in Toronto or like next weekend in Albany, most folk I know are not into craft beer and are perfectly happy with the discount light lager or, frankly, most anything they have in their hand.

    Joe Stange – March 2, 2015 12:03 PM
    I saw the piece as entertaining piss-take. Certainly nothing worth outrage. I also see your point about people using “clickbait” to knee-jerk dismiss something as drivel… On the other hand, I often appreciate the warning. There is too much drivel out there and not nearly enough time to read it all and judge for ourselves.

    Have to admit I don’t like your broad brush of “mixed revenue stream writer / consultant / appearance fee good beer personalities.” All aboard the Craft Beer Gravy Train Conspiracy, is that about right? Do you see all paid beer writers that way, or most, or only a few? Personally I have a single revenue stream — I get paid to write — and it is paltry. Any events I do are efforts to support that revenue stream, like promoting a book. More accurately, they are things that sound like fun to me and I use promotion as an excuse to do it.

    Is it time again for one of those ethics in beer writing conversations? Surely it beats hinting that we are all somehow corrupted by a shared interest in the Craft Industrial Complex, or… what is it that you’re hinting exactly?

    Alan – March 2, 2015 1:40 PM
    Not really hinting at it as I laid it out there pretty plainly. There is some propensity or maybe tensions in the discourse that I understand I am seeing and I want to describe. I don’t think it is actually ethical. I think it is the nature of the marketplace of ideas as it stands now. While I am only describing my understanding and not myself proposing a manifesto, I am not sure at this point what it all means but the struggle for a buck is real. And in a topic awash with money it is interesting how so little of it goes to writing and thinking about beer that maybe I blame the breweries for not supporting independent thought about beer. Also, it is not a broad brush but a rather focused one. Wearing too many hats is very bad for the integrity of an outcome in many fields. Self defined satisfaction as to the purity of results or even their value is a really bad way to measure. And layer on that this is not a niche topic but one of huge economic value.

    Put it another way. What would it look like if normal business journalism was applied to beer. Meaning the writer did not meet with the subject of the writing on a personal basis, was economically separated from wanting to please the subject and – imagine this – the writer did not drink. Best practice for everything from sports to political news. Why not beer?

    Brett – March 4, 2015 1:18 AM
    I agree pretty whole-heartedly with Pete on this. The irony of the piece is the author, in calling out craft beer fans for being snobby, is being snobby herself. She’s turning up her nose at those who turn up their noses. Why the vitriol? I love to talk about beer, but will generally only do so in the company of those who also share my interest. If I’m at a bar with mixed company, we ARE going to talk about our lives, our jobs, politics, and funny things that happened to us on the subway. How is which beer we choose to drink while we have these conversations getting in the way of that enjoyment? My enjoyment of craft beer should have no effect on someone who’s only interested in light lagers, and vice versa. Lately I’ve been trying to live by this mantra: drink what you love; don’t be a dick.

    Alan – March 4, 2015 3:26 PM
    You have fallen into the trap of false equivalency. She hates craft beer as she perceives it. Pete does not hate non-craft beer. Again, these are not culture war manifestos. She has explained clearly and logically how her experience is being imposed upon. You can say “should” all you want but as Jeff admits you are likely not aware of her particular experience. You can only find this sort of fault if you misidentifying the purpose of the opinion piece. A mantra more like “listen more and jump to conclusions less” would work, too.

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