A User’s Guide To Dealing With 2017

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
               “That is not it at all,
               That is not what I meant, at all.”

 

It’s tough writing in 2017 about a pleasure hobby like good beer. Remember 2016 when all the celebrities were taking their final exit from this mortal coil? When norms in US politics collapsed? 2016 made sense compared to 2017. Bryan Roth captured that sense of doubt when he struggled this week with what appears to be the word of the moment, authenticity. His coda was excellent: “I have no idea what just happened here.”  

Stan responded in his flickering light bulb of a blog’s Monday links commenting “[b]ut that’s not the rabbit hole. Authenticity is the rabbit hole.” He went so far as to shout out in dispair, even in paranthetically “[i]t might be time to bring back the Good Beer Blog chimp.” Good thing Stonch is off social media for Lent. He haaaates Mr Chimp Head. The inclusion to the right is completely gratuitous.

My take is this. Like J. Alfred above, we search for both a meaning in and a validation of our experience. We humans do that inherently even when we stand in the face of apparent meaninglessness. We seek solace. For some, solace is found in the spectrum that runs from nostalgia to anti-novelty as B+B discussed earlier this week. We hope we can convince ourselves that milds, bitters and stouts without all the phony pricey additives are better. Such things are more grounded, more rooted into… something. Authentic. But, as those of you who like me have participated in construction contracts with grounding issues know, things need to be grounded into something. Not all stone has acceptable conductivity. Authenticity is like that. Authenticity is not a characteristic but a quality of a characteristic.* It needs its own grounding.

Even having made myself a student of brewing history – largely out of sheer dismay at the state of what I saw as good beer culture – I am not sure what that grounding, however, might be. In the face of this year’s confusion, there is such a rush on opportunistic self-congratulation, guru-label affixing and tantrums over what the young and happy are up to. Authority wants its place at the head table despite the sense that the centre cannot hold.** Hasn’t held. Private correspondents still complain that what is considered good writing to the dull editor, under the guise of keeping it light, often seems to seek compensation conformity with an extra expectation of a nod to deemed authority or even a scratched familiar back. Oh dear.

Yet, out there in the actual marketplace what was expected a few years ago is simply no longer a viable expectation.*** Things are far less dull on the ground. The other day, I had a beer so thick and murky I immediately thought that it would be perfect for my kid who likes wheatgrass and kiwi smoothies. Which, when I thought about it, is exactly the point – and its immediate market.

The craft schism has occurred. It is done even if not complete. Not only is it impossible now to be a beer expert it may be impossible to be an expert even in one of the growing number of sub-classes. With all due respect to the honest and excellent exertions of even Mr. B, the beer atlas approach is now too old, too slow. Too big. The global style guide no longer provides hope to those wanting to understand their immediate surroundings. That tower of Lego lays shattered and scattered around the crying child.

This is, however, a situation laced with hope. Two months ago Stan wrote an incredibly (well, if it wasn’t so credible) well put observation in one comment thread that I was busily filling, as I am known to do:

To return to the notion that you “don’t seem to be learning from all this plump and very nicely packaged writing,” doesn’t the reality that you’ve been reading and commenting in this space for so long factor in? I certainly feel that way. There are a lot of things I feel like I’ve been many times over that are “gee, look at that, it’s new” to many others.

 
New! New marketplaces. New techniques. New fans. New interests. What care they for the pioneers and their lessons framed in their acquired comforts?  They might as well be those who invented coke, who first plucked a hop blossom. Who cares? Fortunately, good beer is so forgiving and so varied, the real excitement’s in what’s to be had today and tomorrow. And near. Why buy a plane ticket when a bus ticket will do?

Authenticity? It’s in the context. And more and more that context is local and varied. If you read someone still writing about the beer community or industry in the singular you know they’ve slept through the shattering schism, dreaming their dreams of global conformity. Or wasted time at the moveable buffet meeting the same entourage encountered at the last fest or city. Forget that. Be brave. Explore your own corner of the world instead. Find that dimpled pint of mild or stemmed thimble of fruited gose. See how the new beer fits in your world before wishing away the hours over the pretty story told by someone else about some place else. Dare.

Babylonian Cuneiform And Brewing Patterns

The other day, I read that The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had freed thousands of images from their intellectual property right shackles for free and unrestricted public use. This is good. And being a dutiful beer blogger, I immediately put in the word “beer” in the search engine to see what would pop up. And this is what popped up. A chunk of dried mud with scratchings. I love stuff like this. Three years ago, I stared at Mesopotamian brewing things at the Royal Ontario Museum, aka the ROM.  Somewhere I have photos I took thirty years ago of myself, when a selfie took a tripod, at the British Museum staring at Mesopotamian brewing things made of mud. Scratchings made a person over 150 generations ago. On just a piece of mud.

It’s actually more than that. It’s Urra=hubullu, tablet 23 from Mesopotamia in the late 1st millennium B.C.  “Twenty-three, eh?” thought I. Being a clever man I realized there must be twenty-two others. So off I went. Or, rather, I put a few words in Google… and found what I am sure you all expected I would findCuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Literary and scholastic texts of the first millennium B.C. by Ira Spar, Wilfred G. Lambert published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005 where I learned about what had been scratched into the dried mud thingie over three thousand years ago. Tablet 23 is a vocabulary of food and drink terms. The passage on this piece of cuneiform cites, at page 234, a 1950 article “On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia According to the XXIIIrd tablet of the series HAR.ra=hubullu” by Oppenhiem and Hartman which describes the content of tablet 23 in the context of brewing.

Fabulous. So fabulous as it is all seemingly quite authoritative. The Spar and Lambert text goes on to state what exactly was written down on three thousand odd years ago in that clay. There is great beer, dark beer, white beer, cloudy beer and beer for the tigi-songs whatever they were. My favourite might be the symbol for “clear/clean beer” indicating, of course, that folk were both skillful and appreciative of skill. That information is all in column 2. In column 3, the words are about process. Yeast is pulverized, barley bread is crushed and spread just right. It is soaked and dried then soaked and mashed. It is rinsed, pressed, crushed, broken and mixed. Malt is dried, watered, opened, spread and warmed. To my mind, this is more than a vocabulary. This is a guide not so very much different from Samuel Child’s 1768 guide discussed the other day.

This is interesting. How is it that I can read a Mesopotamian clay tablet and pretty much immediately understand what is going on? If it was about religion, governance or astronomy I wouldn’t have a clue. But beer and brewing are not strange. They are, in a very meaningful way, constant. You can see that if we go back to column 2 where you see words for 1:1 beer, 2:1 beer, 3:1 beer and even triple beer. The ratio is the relationship of grain input to beer output. If you scroll down to page 238 of the 2005 Spar and Lambert text you see there are footnotes and in the footnotes an explanation of Mesopotamian methodology. I am just going to cut and paste the footnote in relation to column 2, line 11 and what follows as I think it is one of the more extraordinary things I have ever read about beer in a couple of ways:

 

 

 

 

First, it is extraordinary as it basically sets out the scheme of brewing over 3,000 years ago in a manner which is readily understandable to anyone who has home brewed from an all-grain mash. Second, not only is it understandable… it is very familiar. It looks a lot like the parti-gyle process which makes a lot of sense as no one in their right mind wastes resources. So, the first sparging of the mash gives a 18% sugar solution wort, the second a 6% wort and the third a 1.5% wort. Roughly declining to a third each time. And sometimes the wort is recirculated to strengthen it even more to make what the footnote’s author describes as “very powerful” beer.

What is extraordinary to me is that this ratio looks a heck of a lot like the proper way to brew that I have read about from Piers the Ploughman in England’s 1370s to Matthew Vassar in New York’s 1830s. It reads like the 1825 advert for Thomas Molson’s brewery here in my hometown. Strong ale, single ale and small or ship’s beer with what looks like double double thrown in for good measure, that hazard from Shakespeare to Schenectady.

Which leads to another thought. Is that pattern a constant? Four grades of beer naturally created solely by the relationship between the sparge fluid and mash?  Following these rules you will have a 11%-ish beer, a 4%-ish one and a 1.25%-ish one. As well as whatever the heck double double was to create all that toil and trouble. A constant pattern. Could be. Could be.

The Promise Of Every Man His Own Brewer, 1768

I’ve been thinking about Samuel Child’s 1768 work Every Man His Own Brewer, Or, A Compendium of the English Brewery for a few days and particularly its fine narrative flow. Consider this brief passage in the preface:

I was once on an election, at a certain borough in Wiltshire, and, in the course of our canvass, drank sometimes to the amount of two quarts of beer in the forenoon, not only without sensible prejudice, but that it rather mended my health, and gave me brisk spirits. As I had not been used to drinking, especially in the morning, I admired at this, and found, on the most strict scrutiny, that nothing was used in this liquor but malt and hops, and that its happy vinos flavor was merely the result of good ingredients, well cured, a fine a fine chalk water, and not being too much boiled…

What a lovely way to introduce the basic idea of beer, a bit of knowledge that has been repeated in pretty much every book on brewing and good beer in the intervening 249 years but seldom stated so well. I have dug around in brewing texts from before 1800 hunting for facts about fern ale or that fib about smoke-ridden gak that so many beer experts erroneous suggest was the state of affairs back in the era that, you know, the expert never much studied. But I have not thought about the texts as writing or even read them from beginning to end. Maybe only for Coppinger because he was such an odd duck. 

I’ll do that, save the text to a reader of some sort. But right now look at the table up there. It’s from page 37. First, I love its title. The TABLE. As if Child would have added a few exclamation marks. As if he was just figuring out how to make a table out of HTML. Yet… there is another table also titled “The TABLE” just seven pages later. The thing I like next best is how it is immediately bragged up by the author:

These are hints sufficient to guide any one in the choice of his malts, as it respects the color of his beer, and the time it will be fit for use if judiciously brewed; and the experiment is to be made in the kiln as soon as the malt is perfected, and used as soon after as possible to preserve the genial spirit.

Brew with the malt as soon as kilned to attain the desired colour of the beer. Which means nine grades of beer brewed from any given malting should be considered attainable. Child then over pages and pages describes many sorts of beer: “London Beer under the name of Porter,” London Amber, Burton Ale, table beer, oat ale, Marlborough beers, Dorchester beers, Nottingham beers, Western White Ale.

The variety is quite extraordinary. As a whole, the book frames not so much the state of British brewing in the decade before the American Revolution, at a point before traditional brewing shifts to industrial with the shift to steam power starting with Whitbread in the 1780s as it now provides a guide how to go back and recreate them from the few basic elements he first considered on that election campaigning in Wiltshire. Including, towards the end, exotics including three pages on Brunswic Mum  and a shorter passage on Newfoundland spruce and molasses beer.

It would be a great project to annotate and experiment with the techniques described in the book. It is, after all, only through the use of a guide that one figures out if its any good or not.

 

 

What A Difference A Year Makes – 2017 Edition

Over the holidays, I was thinking about what to do with this blog in 2017. It’s been a heavy slog over the last few months ensuring the important and favorite and representative bits of bits of 10,000 posts get across the River Jordan to the next bloggy life but that’s largely behind me now. What I need to do now is look ahead and take on the new opportunities that the coming year offers in style. It a bit of panache. Even. Maybe.

A lot can happen in a year. Last year this time we were still in the grip of learning that US craft brewery owners were (horrors!) not all evangelists willing to starve for the cause. No, the sweet taste of gravy was too much for many – or the actual goal all along. Click on the score card and have a look. You’d have a hard time filling that chart out properly now. You might need different colour pens. Funny thing –  no one really cares now. As is often the case with the leadership clique within even a small circle, they are barely missed as others are ready and willing to fill the gap. Beer is nimble like that. Beer itself is a survivor. The survivor. The rest of it all comes and goes.

Not sure blogging is surviving along with it. I could try out a new structural twist like the B+B “Breakfast Debate”… except I am only one person and I wrote my homage in two-fisted dialogue to The Compleat Angler with Max a few years back. But I like the idea. Keeping it fresh. These winter months are great for working on an historic era, for working through a data base. I have a notion to work away at the erroneous ideas that (1) temperance was some sort of trick played on the many by the few and (2) that, contrarily perhaps, it was all that effective. And greater early 1900s social history. I sit above a small outdated law library. It’s great stuff and holds masses of facts proven by evidence, tinged with authority. Rare.

I would also like to figure out a way to crack the nut of getting into the ledgers of contemporary craft brewing. What are they actually up to as businesses? It’s the only way to break the cycle of brewery owner cheery pozzy obvsy bios we’ve been stuck with for the last few years.* You would have thought that the craft sellouts would have taught a lesson but gate-keeping editors will have their way. The narrative must go on. And it will be even more popular in the new Trumptastic era. Boo to the questioners! Down with those losers asking “why?”!  Hmm. I would need to present it at a statistical abstraction. And I would need some helpful assistants in the business offices of craft breweries. Any takers? You can voice flabbergasted serious objections in the comments below and send me your non-disclosure agreement template to beerblog@gmail.com. Let’s talk.

What else can I do? We do? I am interested in another unpopular idea. What is it that makes us lose interest in novelty, makes us find a home in certain pop culture things like beer? Most folk I know have packed in chasing the beery tail. Novelty is for novices. Some lasting things are actually better. Think of it this way. I am a lucky man. I was 14 to 24 from 1977 to 1987 which means I was in the front row to a very strong point in pop and alt** music history. I have not been persuaded since that another period is superior but I also realize its not only the music I heard but that I was that age in my life when it was popular. I would hope those years were golden for each of us – though being 14 in 1977 was pretty sweet. Does the same idea work for good beer? Will we all just end up accepting Rochefort is fabulous or will today’s twenty somethings actually get a bit verklempt over memories of weird fruit flavoured gose thirty years from now? Could you imagine? It’s be like getting nostalgic over Mumford and Sons.

So. Any suggestions? Any idea I might explore? Conversely, any lakes you might, perhaps, direct me to jump into? I am for too entrenched to care if you take offense. Last year saw a peak in the “how dare you!” emails suggesting a personal slight directed to folk I really never thought that much about. Could you imagine thinking that much of yourself that you took the minute and 27 seconds of deep consideration it took from outrage to pressing send? Well, we won’t be having any of that in 2017, will we. Nope! And that is because this is the year where people get a grip, learn we are not each the centre of the beery world and get about doing what needs to be done!

Remember: it is only beer and, by way of corollary, you are only you. Well… fine. Can we at least start with this is the year we give it a try?

*aka “it’s amazing work – but, trust me, everyone is broke.”

**Is it too soon to use “alt” again?

Hello From The Blog’s Back End – And The Road…

It’s been busy at the system admin end of the blogging life even if not so active here out front. Since mid-October, I have happily shifted over 650 posts to the new WordPress platform and am starting to see a bit of daylight. There will be an opportunity to receive a bulk loading of posts in a few weeks but I wanted key posts well in place before that happens. To get the house in order. In doing so, I have had the experience of reliving my last 14 years or so as a public writer. It’s very instructive. There seem to be clear phases to my – and our – beer blogging, the fourth or fifth of which we are in now.

a. The first from maybe 2003 to 2006 was marked by reviews, by news items about beer taken from the news, by figuring out the lay of the land.

b. Then the beer blogging explosion of 2007 to, say, 2010 saw a lot of active discussion including plenty about the role of beer blogging. And the Xmas photo contest going full speed. Participation was riding high.

c. Next, we have the difficult period. The Oxford Companion to Beer was a problem faced in late 2011. In May 2013, we lost Simon, one of the brightest beer bloggers, the bringer of viciously accurate humour.

d. An about turn led me more deeply into history in 2013-15, building on the Albany Ale Project, as well as utter dissatisfaction with the state of things. The self appointed consulto-expert. The acceptance of the shoddy. The rise of unaffiliated certificate programs. Three books resulted. New York City history in the 1700s began to get unpacked.

e. Next and up to today, the sudden great collapse brought on by a number of things like the great buyout phenomenon, murk, short form social media, long long form amaze-balls storytelling, the deletion of old blogs and All About Beer sucking up all the beer bloggers ideas and then dulling them down for general non-boat rocking comfortable digestion without much resulting chitchat. Yet, despite this, this is now the time of the wonderful rise of the many and tiny and clever as well as, perhaps, a return to more of the substantive sort of books 2010 promised.

That image up there? It’s from the journal of the Napanee Beer Company’s Geordan Saunders. When I stopped in there yesterday while on the road for the first time to see how things were going since they opened last spring, we immediately had a “I know your face” and “And I know your face” moment. Four and a half years before he had popped into my office to ask me what I thought of his dream to be a small town brewer. Good thing I was helpful (or at least not a big wet neg) as their beers are fabulous – in particular their Blacklist, a schwarzbier. When I thought about it, at least three of those chats have now been followed by brewery openings in my area.

I don’t know if I am a great resource.  Geordan was kind to think I was. I do know, however, that reviewing all these posts and ensuring my favorites are well manicured and comfortably housed has led me to realize there is a point to it all. The collection as a whole traces the arc of something. Something continuously moving forward inveigling itself into the culture. It’s reminded me to be very hopeful.

Unhappy New York Hop Inspection: 1827 to 1835

hopinsp1

It’s a funny thing, history. Sometimes you can only see a bit. Just the effects of something but not the cause. Or just one rabbit hole to chase down all the while missing the larger field below which it sits. Coming across the Article Ten above in a set of laws entitled The Revised Statutes of the State of New-York: Passed During the Years One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-seven, and One Thousand Eight Hundred and Twenty-eight… immediately struck me that way. It’s a bit of a dislocated. It sits among laws about the inspection of other things: pickled fish (Art.4), sole leather (Art. 9) for but two examples. It seems pretty clear that in 1827 the need for inspecting things was important to New Yorkers. Section 161, however, may have laid an unintended trap in the general scheme:

Hops inspected in the city of Albany, may be exported thence, or be sold in and exported from the city of New-York, without being subject to re-inspection in the city of New-York.

First, note that the laws of the state of New York described the state of New York as coming from “New-York” is in itself a question… I wonder if I can find a highly placed New York law librarian who might address this question. Second, notice that there are two points of export. As you the careful reader might have picked up over the previous six or seven years New York had two centers, one for the Dutch and one for the English, which became one center for the administrative life and one for the financial. A certain tension was being addressed in the law.

Helpfully, there are other books one can find on line. Such as the General Index to the Documents of the State of New York, from 1777 to 1871, Inclusive published by the New York State Assembly. And in that index there is the following fabulous entry:

hopinsp2

What do we see? Well, it took a bit of time to get the whole hop inspecitng thing going. The law came into being in 1827-28 but the first report only is presented to the government in 1830. Plus there were three inspectors over one decade. But none overlap. Which is a problem. Because there are supposed to be two concurrently operating inspection processes going on. Scanning around I find the answer. In 1871’s General Index at a page 109 pages before the page above has the index entry “HOPS, INSPECTOR OF, see Albany, New York” – note: without a hyphen. And when one goes looking for that you find on page 17:

hopinsp3

So, the Albany inspector was John C. Donnelly of whom I immediately presume Craig will have a list of prior offenses the length of my arm. Why would I say such a thing? Did I ever mention we co-wrote a book on the history of brewing in Albany?  You will also see, he did not last long. Why might that be? Well, let’s look at what else is out there to have a look at. We actually have the 1830 report out of the New York City office which reads in full:

ANNUAL REPORT
Of Robert Barnes, an Inspector of Hops, for the county of New-York.
To the Honourable the Legislature of the State of New-York.

The hop inspector respectfully sheweth :—In conformity with the state laws on the subject of inspection, I herewith transmit to the Legislature a statement of all the hops inspected by me during the last twelve months, ending 1st mo. 1st, 1831.

Inspector’s Report for the City of New-York, for the year 1830.

606 bales of hops, 127,840 lbs., average price, say, 12 1/2 cts $15,980
Inspector’s fees at 10 cents per 100 lbs.,….               $127 84
Deduct for extra labor, materials, and other
incidental expenses, at 31 cents per bale,                     21 21
Inspector’s available funds, (no emoluments)         106 63

From the inadequate means, as stated above, towards supporting a competent judge of the article of hops, I respectfully solicit the legislature to abolish the Albany Inspection, on all hops exported from the state. Shipments when confined to a single brand, would render it more hazardous for those making encroachments on our state laws, which in some degree is followed, and by superior management, rendered difficult of detection.
ROBERT BARNES
New-York, 1st mo. 1st January, 1831.

So, Robert Barnes of New York City… err… County had John C. Donnelly kicked out of a plum appointment at the bottom of his very first report. Is that it? I take it that rendering “it more hazardous for those making encroachments on our state laws” by superior management is an oblique way of suggesting that Mr. Donnelly was in on some bad behaviour. It wasn’t a one sided discussion. The Donnelly report was received by the State Assembly on Friday February 4, 1831.

A month later, as a final matter of its working day on Friday March 4, 1831 the New York House of Assembly voted as follows:

Resolved, That the annual reports of Robert Barnes, inspector of hops in the city of New-York, and John C. Donnelly, inspector of hops in the city of Albany, be referred to the committee on trade and manufactures; and that said committee report to this House, what alterations (if any) are necessary in the law regulating the inspection of hops in this State.

It appears that the victory by Barnes might not have been entirely the sort of self-serving move one might expect from appointees of the era. In his 1835 report to the government he set the following out as part of his request to continue in the position:

My having been a brewer upwards of thirty years in this city, and since, seven more as inspector, a sufficient time to complete a thorough knowledge of its necessary duties, and respectfully solicits a continuance in office, which would confer a lasting obligation on your friend.

It is not like Barnes was not connected to the industry. Craig actually mentioned him in a post back in 2012. Here’s a notice of his from the New York Commercial Advertiser of 1807. His role as inspector appears to be a part time gig. Note also that during those years from the 1830 crop to that of 1834 (each reported the next year) there was an increase in value from $15,980 to $129,656. The volume of hops exported as well: 606 bales of exported hops in 1830 became 4,235 bales reported in the 1835 report. So why were the inspectors unhappy? Why did one report shutting down the other’s office? We actually have John C. Donnelly’s report from Albany submitted in February 1831 which has this fabulous table:

hopinsp4

Turns out all of the 606 bales of hops reported in Barnes’s 1831 report were entirely sourced in upstate New York to the west and directly upstream… err, up the Erie Canal from Albany.  So, as a first thing, if all the hops are passing both cities why have two inspection points?  As a second? Not sure. I can’t find reference to hop inspections referenced in either the Journal of the NY State Assembly for 1832 or in the Documents recorded as being filed with the Assembly in that year. I may update if I find more information on the run in between Messers. Barnes and Donnelly but for now let this be a lesson to you all. Even a decent set of records should be considered partial and, therefore, imperfect. Ah, the human condition made manifest, as it usually is, in the inspection reports of primary agricultural production.

Session 117: I Predict More Predictions Ahead

sessionlogosmThis month’s edition of The Session finds us being asked by Beer Means Business to think to the future:

Over the last 10 years, numerous topics have been presented and the bloggers who discussed them expressed a rich diversity of perspectives or specific areas of interest. Therefore, I refrain from giving you further ideas or examples. There are no limits in time, space or nature either. I would like you to let your imagination free, and capture ONE thing you think we will see MORE of with an explanation of the idea.

Forecasting is a pretty tedious affair. What we will “see more of” is all a lot of folk are writing about these days. The last year has seen the rise self-appointed seers unaccountably yapping about fascinating topics like “a bubble is coming” to “there is no bubble coming.” Oh… and the brewery who brought me, fed me and watered me is going to be important to you. Personally. Soon. Count on it. You know, this sort of forecasting appears to be largely a matter of explaining how what ever is happening today will continue. My favourite one is how ABInBev is, again, in peril of imminent collapse. As it dismantles big craft. Wow. We need a word for that. Beforecasting? Borecasting?

None of this sort of writing matters – but I expect to see more of it.  It’s the packing styrofoam of beer writing. The filler between the interesting bits. I wish it weren’t so. I wish folk would be a bit braver in putting their own ideas into the discussion. I wish publications were a bit more risk taking and independent. I wish the actual business of beer were explored like any other industry of comparable impact. There are a lot of big brains out there. Good brains. And not just moaning negs like me. Folk who can create the better next thing.

I am not holding my breath. Because I need to breathe. But I have hope. I am a hopeful person. As I move blog posts from the old blog system to this one I am reminded how much richer the discussion was from, say 2007 to 2013. So I know it can be done.

Hopefully Just An Intermediate Stage

One unfortunate consequence has arisen, as far as I see, from the relatively (or perhaps just otherwise) good thing that is the swapping out of amateur beer blogging for fewer paying opportunities for the writing. I wonder whether its only me but over the last year or so I have seen more and more comments like a topic being too nuanced for open discussion or, worse perhaps, the idea that one’s research is too personally important set out in a blog post. Concurrently, I have seen a lot of interesting voices drop away from the discussion even as, yes, some other interesting ones show up. Makes me wonder.

A few unfortunate things seem to have resulted. The research never ends up getting presented – or perhaps even finished – which makes us all the worse off simply through lack of information sharing. Publishers don’t turn out to be that interested, I guess. Then, because it is already labeled as important, when it is published there is an implication that it is not open to scrutiny. The good beer discourse seems especially immune to the normal sort of semi-academic rigor that other topics normally attract. Third, there seems to be a resulting shift such that the cleverness now sits in the person rather than on the page. It never does.

This is not an accusation. Just an observation. It may just be something driven by a tinge of regret that the golden age of beer blogging – and the inherently zesty dynamics – are more than a few years past us. It may be the bleat of the buggy whip salesman seeing his first automobile. Pity me. Yet, there is a more recent combination of homogenized perspective and disengagement that saddens a bit.These things do not seem to be happening in other areas of pop culture like baseball or music. I can openly proclaim that I think the Blue Jays suck but who speaks against the new hops?

Perhaps it’s just an intermediate stage. We may be at a point at which risks are too great so things naturally get clenched. Maybe its just part of a greater thing. While I was talking about the sorts of stories that appear in an daily Google news search for “beer” when I rushed off the footnote the other day, I wonder if I might have as easily created a similar list for beer writing. I hope that isn’t the case.

Happy to hear other views, by the way. If anyone is left who does that sorta thing. And links to interesting new writing most welcome.

Not So Much A Bursting As A Great Dissipation

monkey4Ah, Mr. Chimphead. A serious point must be about to be made. But being August, there is not much out there to read, not much worth writing about. People rightly have other things to do. But Bryan Roth has posted a useful examination of the use of the word “bubble” that gets the juices flowing. He did so hard upon Stan posting a piece pleading (maybe rhetorically) for the cause of “craft” based on its persistent use. And he did so perhaps not coincidentally after Lew was quoted extensively on the need to kill off the word. For Stan, the mere fact of use conveys a certainty of some meaning. For Lew, there is simply no need for the word: “I’m holding a smart phone in my hand. If I want to know, I just thumb it in.” To be honest, I find these sorts of conversations appear amongst the All About Beer set rather regularly and I usually assume they are fillers until a real topic comes along. Quantity sometimes is a quality. What we have at this moment, however, is an opportunity to discuss how words are used to see if we can see what might actually be going on. So… let’s do just that.

I have looked back into this blog’s archives and those of others to see what can be found of assistance – not to mention making sure I did not write something entirely contrary to what I am suggesting here. It is easy to trace to way that “craft” was thrown away. It’s illustrated in one sentence from 2012 that I discussed here:

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.

“Craft” was botched by the Brewers Association in two main ways. First, it was made mutable. It could be uniquely redefined by their sole higher authority – and then was redefined regularly. Second, as we see above, like the man who lends his rake to the new neighbour never to see it again the BA extended “craft” to big beer by attaching a mere “y” to it. And the BA did not just give large multinational brewers the gift of “crafty” but they reinforced the point by creating the concept of “craft-like” too. Prior to that point no legitimate voice on the small brewer side was admitting that big beer was making a product similar to the beers of BA members. Then their very voice of authority confirmed that some of the Evil Empire’s beers were like craft. No one remembered the underlying intention of drawing a line. As Jordan wrote two years ago there is no such thing as an evil milkshake. All that the BA achieved with “crafty” was bringing macro into the club. Way to go.

Since then, we have seen “craft” not only extend to include these beers of big brewers but also things which were not considered well-crafted beer just a few years ago. Beers with facile fruit flavours to attracts folk who have no interest in beer. Beers made so poorly that the question is now legitimately discussed as to whether “murk” is now a style. The concept of “craft” takes in such a wide range of beverages now – even casually invading the distinct realms of cider and sake by times – that its meaning has been diluted and dissipated. It now includes so much meaning – so many meanings – that it no longer has little specific meaning. If you doubt that such a thing is possible, look up the word “jack” in the dictionary.

“Bubble” is starting to reach “craft”-like meaninglessness. Look again at Bryan’s post. In it he discusses, quite acceptably, that the measure against which the posited “craft beer bubble” is to be judged is the growth in the number of craft breweries in the United States and their ability to sell expensive beer. He does not mention the ability of most of those brewers to sell and actually rely upon revenues from relatively inexpensively priced good beer. He also quotes from the BA’s Tweeter-in-Chief, Bart, for whom I have a growing fondness largely based on his intelligent responsiveness to inquiries. When he was discussing bubbles last week, I asked a few questions to narrow exactly what he meant when he used the word “bubble” in this context. His answer was that “most common usage in econ is an asset price bubble” in relation to “collective brewery equipment” as it covers both number of breweries, their capacity and level of investment. He indicated his understanding was that lots of breweries [were] using equipment as collateral for loans.

We can see that “bubble” is being used in two very different ways by Bryan and Bart. And they are not mutually incompatible. The increase in the number of small entrants to the good beer market should be expected to be a pre-condition to a later “asset price bubble” in relation to “collective brewery equipment.” There may be other meanings. Retail price collapse is one. We have seen a form of that with the slowing or even halting of inflation. Craft beer prices hikes five to eight years ago would not be accepted today. But that was a time when people could suggest with a straight face that value was not to be a consumer’s consideration when approaching craft beer. “Bubble” can also mean a conceptual collapse. Craft’s bubble could burst were the sector to splinter along the faults seen now: macro crafty, big, craft, actual local micro continue to have less and less in common. The word would burst in the sense that it no longer had a center upon which the all these different forms could latch onto and hold.

For me, “craft” has suffered a conceptual dilution in the same way that “IPA” has. I wrote about this three years ago. The success of the word as a word is in large part due to its failure in maintaining precision. Has the same thing happened to “bubble”? In the rush to set up straw man arguments “bubble” gets trotted out, defined to the proponent’s convenience and then knocked down in yet another moment of triumph for craft… whatever that is… too? Think about it. Isn’t discussing the bubbles in the craft beer market about as precise as a discussion of positives in politics? How useful is that? You know, in many contexts and for a number of purposes – very.

The Dreary Reality Of Those Disclosures

Even starting to type this post initially weighs upon me in my pre-coffee haze.* Really? Has it come to this? Thinking about beer writing again? I suppose I am somewhat insulated from the quandary by being well past it. Few people consider the comfy role of the post-popular writer. Sure, it is as much a self-imposed circumstance as one caused by market forces but I am decidedly not as interested or interesting as I once thought. Yet… does this not also free me up? I mean, I actually like to think about ethics, having written codes of conduct and advised regularly on how to keep on the right side of many lines. Actually, you know, working with the stuff. Still, I’ve liked to keep away of such things around here… at least since around 2008. Haven’t I? But, then, Jessica and Ray today sent out a newsletter this morning which contains this:

A couple of newsletters ago we wrote about disclosure, advertorials and so on, suggesting among other things that beer writers and bloggers ought to make a statement of ethics on their websites so that readers know where they stand. We’re pleased to say (though we take no credit for it) that a few such pieces have shown up since… You might not personally agree with the positions those writers or organisations take in each case but setting out a position is in itself an ethical act. Good stuff.

First ethical question. I am under the simmering impression that what happens in a newsletter is supposed to stay in a newsletter. While publicly shared with subscribers, it’s not pasted on the front page of a blog. But their newsletter isn’t like.. those other newsletters. It’s actually interesting. And anyway I take comfort in Canadian law that lets me post the content of others for matter of review and, especially, given I am citing and quoting for purposes of exploring an idea I am also comfortable that I could not be giving offense. But I did not ask permission. Out of a principle founded on the marketplace of ideas.

Which is an interesting turn of phrase. The marketplace of ideas. There has always been a sort of an Edwardian Olympics aspect to writing about beer – particularly since the advent of blogging over a decade ago. It has gurgled beneath this topic without the manhole covers ever being lifted. Because good beer is an accessible joy juice topic it invites amateur hobby writing interest. Because it is pleasant and compelling it drives the dreams of frustrated careerists. And because beer generates great gobs of money, it’s as ripe for allegation that the left pocket has been as directly sewn up next to the right pocket as any topic this side of knitting blogs – those hellholes of graft and corruption. Which is the core of the second ethical challenge: great opportunity lays all about us. And – given great names in beer writing have accepted exclusive sponsorship and content creation contacts from large breweries – not a hypothetical.

So, they often write disclosure statements as Ray and J’ rightly encourage. Great. If you had subscribed to the B+B newsletter you’d even know which great examples of these statements they linked to. I pass on spilling the beans on that. Not because they are not good examples but because they are just the start of your job as reader. What is great about these disclosures is they are big red flags with the words “Start a’Judging NOW!!!” pasted upon them. See, once you know who took the Carlsberg money or the flight to an personal attendance with Jim Koch then you know why the articles that follow are so often plump, dull and somewhat smarmy. Honestly, nothing is as bad as the post-disclosure post. As enthused as the plagiarist who lifted his text from Peter just back from Damascus. Laced with horrible conceits like “the colors in the morning were orange and magenta like a sherbet” – all combined with an earnest hope that somehow transparency creates nobility. It doesn’t really, does it. Just a bit more honesty. Like that honest dot of marmalade on the tie of the man who was just at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. The mark is upon it.

Me? I think of reading this sort of writing like I think of drinking a brewer’s beer. I don’t need to know the samey opinions and self-reverences of the brewery owner. Some see it as wizardry to cut and paste what’s offered but the fact is their either beer sucks or it doesn’t. It speaks for itself. Same with writing. I’ve seen economic development webinars which include Asheville consulto panelists so, having heard them, I now assume every story pitch on that town’s beer scene comes with a flight and a hotel booking. Similarly, once these disclosures are made – once the ever thin argument that “journalism has changed” is trotted out – from there on out the presumption that each post offers invention gets replaced with the expectation that somewhere a PR strategist munching on his morning’s toast is pleased. Another job well done.

Remember: there is nothing wrong with this. These days dabbling in boosterism for one sort of benefit or another is pretty much within the range called norm. Until this era too has passed** I say “Viva the Freelance PR Apprentice!” Welcome to the marketplace of ideas. Somebody has to do it, its a reasonable step to something else and not everyone can actually be original. Has my understanding of good beer ever been increased by a post-junket essay? Can’t think of when or how. But thanks to the disclosure statement I can place my expectations in the appropriate context as I start my reading. And it is all about me – we the readers get to judge, not the writer. Gotta be careful. Think of this, too. Will the opposite lift its head one day soon, a bit of benefit flowing to slag a competitor? Does it happen now? Bet the knitting bloggers do it.*** Now, that would be interesting. And to much the same effect. Just directed messaging.

*I picked this up, half written up after work. Edited it for niceness.

**Please let it pass so that the promised silver age of beer writing may begin.

***Knitting bastards.