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.

This Is Reasonable Proof That Big Craft Is Losing It

This first hint something stunned was up came in a tweet from Andy Crouch:

Ha ha ha true craft beer. I give up.

Now, before you jump to “haters gonna hate” have a look at this response to that tweet: “Stopped saying “craft”, feels good.” That from the first guy I heard “haters gonna hate” from. You know big graft has already lost its grip when a man of faith such as an Alstrom mocks it. What’s the news they are discussing? This:

…Stone will be participating in True Craft as a founding member. The new venture has received an initial $100,000,000 brought forth from an investor group committed to the long term model. True Craft will welcome a handful of the best craft brewers in the business alongside Stone Brewing. Each brewery may participate in True Craft and in turn the company will provide minority investments to its members with minimal stipulations. All breweries will be aligned in the philosophical mindset of banding together to preserve craft while retaining full soul and control of their businesses for years to come. “This is about setting up a consortium so we can not just survive, but continue to thrive in a world in which craft is being co-opted by Big Beer,” said Steve Wagner, Stone President and co-founder. “This allows companies like Stone to follow an ethos that involves independence and passion for the artisanal. By investing in True Craft now, we can be confident that our vision is locked in beyond our professional lifetimes and we feel privileged to help others in our industry do the same.”

One of the more disappointing things about writing about beer for over a decade is how many folk writing about beer have little interest in studying history or understanding business – let alone tackling the reality that beer and brewing sits in an very wide intersection of human activity that has been regulated in our tradition for at least the best part of a thousand years. It’s a story like this that has the wheels, however, to interest an amateur brewing historian who practices in public construction and commercial law. Let me explain.

See that figure up there? $100 million. Sounds like a lot. Sounds like someone thinks that will make some sort of change. Don’t count on it. Long time readers will recall an early post of mine sweetly titled “Beer is Bigger Than…” in which I pointed out that all beer in Canada in 2003 was worth $7,864,437,000.00. It was bigger than wheat, charity and the Government of Nova Scotia. Thirteen years later, not much has changed. Beer is big and $100 million USD probably now represent maybe 1.5% of the Canadian brewing market. Expect the US market to be ten times that and in the NATO region market maybe double that again. In the global marketplace the fund is piddly. About the cost of building two 18 story apartment buildings or one water treatment plant for a small city. And that’s in Canadian funds – which is about 80% of US right now.

Not only is the fund small, notice also that it is an investment fund. It’s not a grants fund. The capital is to be recovered. A month ago, Jim Koch of Boston Beer was telling a tale of woe about the effect rapacious private equity will have on craft beer. We are toldFunds have finite lives…When those fund lines get to the end, [fund managers] have got to sell those assets.” It’s reported as doomsday. They sky is falling. Well, if it’s true of a professional fund then that reality is going to be true of this one, too. Interest will have to be paid and at some point the fund will cash out. These monies, too, will need to be repaid – passion or no passion.

And it’s also up against clever competition. Recently, the Boston Globe profiled private equity firm Fireman Capital Partners, the investment folk behind the expansion of Oskar Blues and the cash injection into Florida’s Cigar City Brewing. You think those guys are shaking in their boots over the prospect of a rival fund based on Stone’s ethos? Hardly. The experienced private equity players will out bid and out run their deals. It’s their business, not a hobby or a faith-based act of grace. While True Craft may “welcome a handful of the best craft brewers in the business alongside Stone Brewing” we are all too well aware that many of the best craft brewers have already made their minds up and moved elsewhere – whether under the wing of big beer or in partnership with existing private equity.

Finally, look again at one last loony line in the press release: “This allows companies like Stone to follow an ethos that involves independence and passion for the artisanal. By investing in True Craft now, we can be confident that our vision is locked in beyond our professional lifetimes…” Question #1: is Stone the central recipient of funding or an investor in the dreams of others? What is really going on? Question #2: can you see the oxymoron? How can one be independent and also go along with a “vision… locked in beyond our professional lifetimes” when that vision is someone else’s vision? The guy looking forward to retirement’s vision. Who needs that? The greatest thing at the moment in good beer are the thousands of actual small brewers coming forth independently in a complex wave of entrepreneurial vitality. They don’t need Stone or its money. It is a rather modest proposition to set up a small brewery and, in the right market, one that usually is greeted with enthusiasm by the buying public. Unless you suck.

It’s the same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. At the macro level, brewing is a business that undergoes continuous change that is usually misinterpreted as failure. Folk say temperance caused the collapse of breweries leading up to prohibition. It was actually the explosion of the railroad network in the latter 1800s which unleashed basic commercial efficiencies. Hooray for cheaper good beer for all! Folk suggest the old guard of big craft represent some sort of guru class who carved a niche of good beer forgetting that the entire world of consumer goods has raced towards diversity and excellence over the last four or five decades. The big craft era of 2005-15 is relatively late to the game. And, let’s be honest, if these guys didn’t become the millionaires and billionaires someone else would have. It’s not like they invented beer. Folk will say that good beer is in crisis and point to this odd news as some sort of life raft in an ocean of evil big beer and big money. Have none of it. This is just the new boss meeting the old boss all in the great cause of money. Which is good. Because that is success.

Rejoice. Big craft is dead. Brewing continues to move on and on, becoming more affordable and more excellent and more diverse and more interesting because this era of craft is dead.

Is It Even Possible To Be A Beer Expert?

monkey4Jeff wrote an article for All About Beer this week called “Why Beer Experts Matter”. I commented by Twitter that it set out a “good argument by @Beervana but expertise is key, not the “experts” – personifying a body of knowledge just limits it.” Discussion ensued. I meant it. Good. It was not snide code. It good – and good can be, you know, good. And it got me thinking about experts, expertise, professionalism, experience and interest… and interests while we are at it. And Lars asked for more detail. So, In this post, I am going to try to explain myself to myself, Jeff, Lars and to you if you care to follow along. It is, however, not mandatory reading, there will not be a test and it is Saturday.

Let’s think about what these words mean: experts, expertise, professionalism, experience, interest and interests. One way or another they are all about being clever. Having amassed a body of information. But then they represent doing different things with that information. It is interesting to separate the threads to discuss each but it is really important to keep in mind how much they overlap. Things like this are not neat and tidy. That being said, let’s have a look:

Professional: A professional is not someone paid to do something. A professional is someone whose opinion you can act upon as presented without interpretation. Lawyers, accountants and doctors are professionals. Engineers, too. They… we… carry errors and omissions insurance in case our opinions are wrong and cause harm to those who relied upon them. It is not to say that that those who are not professionals are highly skilled or deserving of significant pots of money. But every time I hear someone mention professional baseball players, I ask myself where fans can file the claim against the Chicago Cubs for undue emotional reliance. Similarly, I can’t see any brewers getting errors and omissions insurance to protect drinkers against negligent brewing, especially given the amount of that going around. Are there beer professionals? Not that many. Not most of the folk you might hear calling themselves professionals.

Expert: Not all professionals are experts and not all experts are professionals. As a professional lawyer, I hire experts and I challenge experts – both pros and not pros. People don’t like us for that. Lawyers don’t really care. It’s the job. No, it’s the profession. Me, I have done enough work in certain specific areas like history and heritage related matters that I peer review the work of experts myself. I challenge the content of their reports. Even reports by experts who are professionals which I am supposedly not required to go behind. Thankfully, it happens rarely. Mainly because (i) professionals who are not experts in a given field should be aware of their incapacity and do not tread beyond their specialty and (ii) true experts are so focused on the particulars of their particular topic. Because experts are experts in niche topics. Can there be a beer experts? Not in my opinion. Because, for one thing, “beer” is too big a topic and, for another, so much about beer and brewing is so self-evidently shallowly researched. So far. Example. Stan asked where Cicerones fit in. I responded that it was an example of “expert creep – trained as top notch wait staff they take on more status.” I should have written “some” take on more status. The niche training works in the niche. Beyond the niche… well, things get wonky.

Expertise: This I think is the most important point. The body of knowledge is collectively the “expertise” in that topic. It also means the skill of an expert. I am interested in the first meaning. “Canada’s expertise in coconut production is lacking” is something that can be said. Similarly, we can correctly say that the western worlds collective expertise in all aspects of beer and brewing is not as sophisticated as its collective expertise in public health or the economics of international trade. Beer and brewing is (i) not as complex topic to attract a body of expertise and (ii) where it is complex it is not well researched… yet. There are reasons for this lack of complexity that are obvious. It is only beer. But there are also reasons for the lack of detailed study that are not as obvious. I call these factors “interests” and they are not all alike.

Interests #1: This is where things get truly odd with beer. Dr. Johnson in the 1700s once stated, “We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” He was an executor of the brewer Henry Thrale and spoke the truth. There is a lot of money in beer. Micro and craft brewers work incredibly hard to avoid discussing that. In 2007, it was so shocking to point this out that one risked a playground pile on and perhaps a cherry belly, too. Many excellent points were made. Tomme Arthur and other brewers chimed in mainly defending price inflation. I think that time has passed. We are more realistic about brewers as Andy’s recent article about Jim Koch and the reaction showed. We are no longer “all in it together.” Financial interests are exposed and being discussed. Which is good. Many beer fans won’t be taken as suckers any more. AND brewers will be able to describe the well deserved rewards for their efforts… even if a well informed consumer base means the less than realistic brewers out there may end up paying for their own experiments and self-assigned artistic status from their own pocket, not mine. Money is good but we all benefit from real information as much as we want honest beer at an honest price.

Interests #2: There are other sorts of interests at play which put pressure on access to real information about the beer we like. In my 12 years of writing about beer nothing as stupid has ever been written as the article from 2009 “Sober Thoughts On Writing About Beer” in which it was suggested that fewer people ought to be writing about beer. I reacted strongly. I won’t repeat the discussion but point out that while Jeff did not say the same think, he could be taken for being in the same neighbourhood when he argued “[w]hy should you bother seeking out an expert? Because beer experts do some things even 900 laymen together can’t.” What he was not saying, however, is that the 900 lay folk should shut up. He made a different argument. But I still think it was flawed for the reasons about seeing as he based much of the argument on this idea he wrote “[a] good expert opinion will draw on several threads of information—science, process, history and culture—and bring all of that knowledge to the discussion of a beer.” The trouble is not the validity of the idea itself but its applicability. For two reasons: (i) the science, process, history and culture of beer is not yet well studied and (ii) those holding themselves out as experts in beer generally have self-evident disinterest and even disdain for knowledge about “science, process, history and culture of beer” not to mention the economics of it, the health implications of it, public policy related to it etc. These are the people who might tell you all English beer was smoky before the use of coke in beer. They say so because they have not bothered to do two hours of studying. We need to be honest. There is much greater interest in protecting the status of expert in many of those who suggest they or others are experts than there is an interest in gathering and building the collective expertise. Beer is money. And the shallow PR wading pond needs to be fed. But note I said “many”. To be abundantly clear, if I am looking for information about current trends in the global beer retail market, I seek out Mr. Beaumont‘s opinion. If I want to know as much as I can know about hops, I ask Stan. There are others with that sort of focused understanding who have not only earned but absolutely resonate with the necessarily broad, deep and detailed awareness to be respected as experts in their field. And each of these guys would also guide me and you to others of whom they might say are the expert’s experts. I would estimate them to total about 10% of those who have an interest in you thinking they are beer experts. Sorry to break the news.

Interest: we all have an interest in beer. I would not be writing on this keyboard if I did not. I would not be sketching out a number of alternative choices fourth book on beer if I did not. Everyone who wants to experience a greater variety of the deliciousness of beer, the exquisite comfort of pubs or the vast and particular history of brewing through time has an interest. It is lovely. It is worth doing. It’s participating in part of a bigger thing across culture and centuries. But the beer itself is experienced one person and one beer at a time. Beer is experienced only in the theatre of the mouth. With time and practice, anyone can hone their skills and create a deep body of experience which gives them greater and greater pleasure. Along with this they can write reviews of the beers they taste, write blog posts about the themes they see developing and a few can be lucky enough to be asked to write articles and books. Which leads to requests to be quoted. And called an expert. Hmm. It also leads to cherry syrup laced, bourbon barrel aged, sea salt infused gose. Which sucks. But the “expert” told you you should like it… except you just don’t understand. Sadly, you buy it and drink it and feel bad about yourself for (i) being not smart enough and (ii) having that crap in your mouth and (iii) having just dropped ten bucks to affirm you are not smart and to place crap in your mouth. This is a terrible thing for one simple reason. Beer should make you happy.

So you see how this works? It all relates the thoughts of Ivan Illich in fact. And do you see what I just did? I made you feel odd about the whole Ivan Illich thing. I just experted on you. I didn’t mean to. Sorry. This essay is in no way intended to be a sword of Zorro moment, a triumphal flourish in which the topic is summed up so completely you need not think further. That is not my point. I only propose the above. It is just something I have been thinking about. If I took more time, I would weave in more links with illustrations of the points I may be making. I’d add in Andy’s discussion here. But I didn’t. This is not a professional opinion. It’s not the statement of an expert. It’s just something I have an interest in triggered by the excellent thoughts of Jeff and Lars related to one corner of the whole body of knowledge related to beer and brewing.

Are Contract Brewers Posing As Gypsy Brewers?

Because we are having so much fun with terminology and meaning, I thought I would mention this:

As the name suggests, all the breweries involved, save for one (the host), are gypsy brewers. The Brewers Association (BA) defines this type of brewery as a contract brewing company—essentially a business that hires another brewery to produce its beer. The contract brewing company is often responsible for recipe development and handles the marketing, sales and distribution of the beer. “Not-owning a physical brewery doesn’t stop us [gypsy brewers] from being extremely passionate, innovative and community-minded,” notes Band of Gypsies ring leader, Ashley Routson of Bison Organic Beer. “Our mission is to work together to promote and celebrate each other, and educate the craft beer community on the world of gypsy brewing.”

Now call me goofy, but I do think words should have meaning and my understanding that a contract brewer hires someone else to make their beer while a gypsy brewer uses the surplus time on the brewing equipment of another to make a separate line of beer. In each case, the owner of the brewing equipment does not own the beer… unless that is part of the behind the scenes deal to get access to the equipment. The contract may or may not include marketing, shipping and the rest. Depends on the terms of the contract, doesn’t it. Pretty Things, for eastern North American example, does not own its own brewery but makes the decisions so it is an example of the gypsy. These BAers have been forming a shortish list of likely actual suspects. You can provide your thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate in the comments.

But there is something else to note. The fudging of the idea is alleged in the article to be based on the brilliant linguists of the Brewers Association whose recent work has been noted. The two ideas are muddled here, too. I am not sure that is correct, however, from this BA webpage which clearly described contract brewing for what it is – despite some of the other head scratcher definitions in there. Why would one widen the definition of “gypsy brewer” to include anyone who hires someone else to make beer? Because “gypsy brewer” sounds neato and swell while the more accurate “contract brewer” is laden with… accuracy? The trend towards adulteration of the language in the name of good beer is a bit weird, isn’t it.

This is not a crack at all against the project which I suspect includes far more hands on involvement than a contract brewer would sully themselves with. But there is something unseemly even needy in all the slipperiness, isn’t there. Again, thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate.

Is There Anyone More Interesting Than Simon H Johnson?

simon1I like helping people. Say what you like, I am a people person at heart. I helped people today. I have been helping people so much this week, I have snapped at an old pal in my business life and been living on five hour sleeps. I made a lamb sausage curry tonight, too. So it is with some discomfort but for more giggles that I read Simon’s post today entitled “Reluctant Scooper regrets that…” about his regrets over not being able to respond to all the demands made of him including regrets that he can’t:

– read your blog just because you tweeted me to do so in BLOCK CAPITALS
– write 500 words for free in the next two hours for your magazine because the writer you usually pay to do it has got delayed at an airport with no wifi / is face-down in a vat of custard / has caught VD
– recycle your press release into an “innovative yet commanding” blogpost
– do any kind of RT / Like / +1. Even if you say ‘please’. Even if you didn’t ask in Comic Sans. Because you asked for it
– attend your bar opening which is three hundred miles away. On a Tuesday night. With 24 hours notice. Because all the proper beer journos have got gastroenteritis. Or a better offer…

It does remind me of my latest policy update. It appears that Simon has a lawn, too, but he is able to sum up the point of beer blogging succinctly with a “[i]f it isn’t for shits & giggles, what to we do it for?” Perfect. Exactly. This week I have been working through Shakespeare’s Local by Pete, perhaps his real breakthrough book. I have assisted with comments on the draft of another book. I got 16 beers worth of samples dropped off. I helped a household of seven stay sane. I thought a lot about Albany, NY in the 1600’s and how it is just possible they were exporting beer out into the larger Dutch West Indies colonies. I drove to Ottawa and back Thursday night. I worked at my job, too. I was told there was “a bunch of young beer people who follow you questioning your relevance to your face” and knew how important it was to not give a rat’s ass in any way whatsoever.

There is so much fun in all of this. So many shits and giggles. Why bother with the rest?

But Which Spenser Would Not Be The Fool?

Jordan posted an excellent taking up of the exploration of ideas around junkets last evening. Earlier in the day he and I had a very good exchange on the topic and I assured him that the point was that this was very much that – an exploration. It interests me because in my other areas of life, there is no question that accepting side b$enefits from those I am dealing with would be greatly challenging to say the least. But Jordan’s review captures many of the differences that may make the situation distinct. He concludes his piece with this:

I suspect that the fact that Alan’s blog post needled at me at 6:30 AM in an environment where most people would be content to listen to a light jazz soundtrack and punish the continental breakfast buffet speaks to the fact that I have an active moral compass when it comes to representing my activities as they relate to writing about beer. There is also the other fact, which some folks might not be willing to admit to. While I’m certainly compensated well for writing (be it books or newspaper columns), a trip like this would typically be beyond my financial means. Given the circumstance, if someone invites you to go to Boston, meet Jim Koch and eat a bunch of really good seafood while drinking a selection of beer on their dime, the response is predictable. As Spenser would say, “We’d be fools not to.”

Being the proud holder of a degree in English Lit before the LLB and LLM, I immediately assumed we were talking about the author of The Faerie Queene, itself an exploration of virtue – but I was unclear how that would attach to a beery jaunt in Massachusetts, to Winthrop’s very City upon the Hill. Then I thought it might be reference to the Victorian thinker Herbert Spencer who was, perhaps like Jordan, a utilitarian in matters such as these. But this Spenser’s ethics are a distasteful pre-Randian whackjob un-virtuous sort of utilitarianism, the sort that allows wikipedia to summarize his thoughts as including “anything that interfered with the ‘natural’ relationship of conduct and consequence was to be resisted and this included the use of the coercive power of the state to relieve poverty, to provide public education, or to require compulsory vaccination.” Screw you, too, Herb. Turns out Jordan was actually referring to the character Spenser in the novels of Robert B. Parker. This Spenser is also Bostonian so a junket there would make no sense. Not sure how his ethics play out but seeing as he is a detective one assumes they are somewhat reality-based.

Some years ago now, there were bloggy posts about the ethics of beer writing that went in circles before settling neatly on a high shelf where it sits well within reach, getting brushed off now and again. The Junket Registry is nothing more than the same ideas turned around, like looking at another side of an unsorted Rubik’s cube. I never gained the obsession that others did when it first came out so I don’t know how many paths it offers towards its own resolution. Within Spencers and Spensers alone the range of options is quite remarkable, too.

Blogging About Blogging As Boak and Bailey Disclose

Books, beer and awkward branded clothing. And those products that supposedly make you experience of beer more convenient but do not. Emails offering come to me a number of times a week and, unless it is a really unappealing concept from the get go, I writing in reply that wee treat in the mail would be fine. Honestly, over half truly fundamentally disappoint one way or another. Sometimes, however, there are great surprises. Last week or the week before, I received a courier notice for an unexpected delivery. I hauled myself to the edge of town where the courier trucks live and was handed a box with a sample six pack of Rickard’s Cardigan, a spiced amber sort of beer – and really liked it. I didn’t expect to but with the shift in weather from stinking hot and 107% humidity to 65F and dry, Cardigan filled a need nicely. Rickard’s Blonde surprised me the same way last year as a good value brew. But I didn’t need the actual cardigan that came with it and the matching glassware will become a gift for some Christmas photo contest prize winner.

So, is there an ethical level to this? I have had an 18 wheeler stop at our suburban home to drop off a six pack and also had two UPS trucks stop at the same time down the lane a few years back on Christmas Eve, each with boxes of importers samples. The delivery guys shared looks of envy. These things happen, not often enough frankly, but overall writing about beer is a zero net affair for me. There are things I don’t get. The nutty LCBO system only offers samples at its “sensory lab” deep in the heart of its basement concrete bunker (I am told) which means I would have to travel for five hours return to participate. As if most people will interact with beer in that context. Shame on those who bow to these demands of the monopolist. Others, including certain well known US craft brewers, are notorious with being cheap with samples while others are quite keen to make it easy for you to try what they make – to, you know, spread the word. Do I like those who make it convenient more than those who don’t? I wonder.

Well, you don’t have to wonder anymore with Boak and Bailey as they are telling all by way of a disclosure page. My first reaction truly was brewers need to send them more samples. But the second was that they describe these samples as “gifts”! Gifts?¹These are inducements to help the brewer, the author or the maker of that stupid beer opener ring that rips your flesh. They are search engine optimization strategies. They are part of the trade. Marketing.

I have to run to work but would be interested in your thoughts. Given the absence of a real revenue stream, I would suggest that these things are the least one should expect, the very least.² But you tell me.

¹ See comments. I was in haste so over reacted a tiny bit. But, if I am honest, a sample from someone you like is still not a gift. This is a real issue with beer writing. We really like many many people involved with beer half the time (keeping in mind there are arses as well as in any part of life) which makes samples feel like gifts. Yet, one does also give back. How is that to be described?

² Note, too, how the juxtaposition of pleasure in beer and thought about beer can get tricky.

New York: Frankenwhale, Community Beer Works, Buffalo

OK, it is Frank and The Whale, actually, the two brews from Buffalo’s Community Beer Works. The recent Euro 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference has sent the up a red flag about the ethics of samples. Really? I suppose some have ethical debates within about the free bit of gak they might foist upon you at a grocery if you don’t plan your cart route cleverly. I think Tandy is on the right track. Missed PR opportunity. That’s all.

These samples sparkle ethically. A work friend was coming to this end of Lake Ontario from the other end and rather than stay in Canada popped south. He asked if there was anything he might pick up and I directed him to CBW who hand filled these two bottles for same delivery back across the border. They are only on tap so far so the bottling is a bit of an experiment. The “F” and “W” black markered on the cap is not actual branding. So, not available in my town or country and not available in this format. If I like them, I know the pain and torment of alienation from the beloved. If I don’t, well, what was the treat that I was somehow leveraging against my inner compass? No ethical mine field when the prize is crap. Result? My soul is as pure as the lamb’s.

Let’s see. Gimme a second to get a glass…

Frank poured a clouded light gold, under whipped egg white head. The aroma jumped at me as soon as I popped the cap. Bright apricot and lime citrus on the most modest snort. On the swish, it is a lighter bodies mouthful of grapefruit and arugula. Very much the lawnmower in the the weedy ditch sort of hopping. At 4.6% God knows I could not possibly suggest this is sessionable but one sure could consume a significant quality at a moderate pace over a long period of time. The slightly drying finish reminds me a lot of Nickle Creek’s APA of a couple of weeks ago. But this is a bit more of a fruity take of a pale ale. Like it lots. BAers who have had it have the love.

The Whale is beefier at 5.9%. Rahther than rocky meringue, from above this looks like a very large espresso with its fine mocha cream head. Plenty to smell: date, cocoa, coffee. In the mouth a wonderful wash of soft water cream and coffee with nut and dark dry fruit flavours wafting about. Really quite rich and lovely. Hopping is there, a bit minty but only a bit, to cut any cloy and also to frame the flavours in the malt. I get licorice and a bit of white pepper, too. Maybe even a little cigar. Quite the thing. Rich but not flabby. Still bread crusty. More BAer love.

So. Feeling ethically pure still? Sure am. A fine brace of beers as ever I had and certainly so given that they are from a brewery that has only been open for month and could fit in my shed.

English-Speaking Atheists Lose Their Columnist Saint

I can’t say that I am particularly struck by the loss of Christopher Hitchens but its in the same way that I was not moved by the death of Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Hitchens was something of a presentation of himself – not a bad thing in itself but it does distract from whether the output was as valuable as claimed. That being said, David Frum has an excellent memorial to the man in the National Post that captures bits of his appeal:

As the event broke up, a crowd of questioners formed around him. I created a diversion thinking it would help him escape for some needed rest. But Christopher declined the offer. He stood with them, as tired as I was, but ready to adjourn to a nearby bar and converse with total strangers till the bars closed. Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”

Frum called him “a man of moral clarity.” I would have thought “amoral” or perhaps ethical was more the proper word. The man he most reminded me of was Mencken. Both had that sort of rhetorical skill that aligned well with their failure to actually meaningfully participate in anything that added to the public good. Both were keen observers and skilled reporters. The sort of person who can tell you what a poor job someone, anyone, yourself even has done but would not actually engage with the doing themselves. Both were famous drinkers.

I am sure that we benefit somewhat from these columnists, folk who can sharply report on the human condition. But they never really get to anything of value as to the why of it all. They have their own belief system which is immune to denting and judge all from that place on the orb with skill, charisma and something of an ultimate pointlessness. Humans already know life is hard and confused, that our leaders make many bad calls. Directing us to that obvious state of affairs, however insightfully or entertainingly, is not the stuff of heroes.

Pete Revives The Beer Blogging Ethics Question

We did this one in 2008 but it is good to visit this question repeatedly. Me? I like cash. Because, apparently, the people who run pubs, make beer and publish beer periodicals like it as well. There is an odd assumption that bloggers (and drinkers) participate out of “passion” – a catch all word for sucker far too often.

But there is a question in all of this. Go read Pete and tell us what you think… here or there.