I don’t even know where to start with this one—and you know exactly what I’m talking about: Whiskey writer Clay Risen’s piece in the March 4 New York Times. Everybody and their neighbor has weighed in (Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery had an especially spirited response, which I will run in its entirety at the end of this post as I can’t seem to find a link to it). Basically, Risen said craft brewers were a tad disingenuously trying to raise beer above its station, all the way, in fact, to the level of wine. Egad!
As for my response: Risen’s piece reminded me of The Times‘ first stab at covering American craft beer. The year was 1979, and the piece was just as drenched in wine as Risen’s in 2013.
Jack McAuliffe‘s groundbreaking New Albion Brewery had been up and running for nearly three years when the esteemed Frank J. Prial paid it a visit in the wilds of Sonoma County in the late spring of 1979. Prial had been writing The Times‘ weekly “Wine Talk” column since 1972, and his mission was singularly noble: Prial may have been the person who coined the term “winespeak,” and he meant it disdainfully. “You should not have to be a budding enologist to enjoy reading about wine,” Prial once explained. Wine-writing, which had groaned under the weight of pietistic overwriting for generations, should, to Prial, be simple, straightforward and informative.
When it came to beer-writing, however, he simply gave it his best shot—and that meant taking refuge in wine-writing. Here’s how Prial explained New Albion’s fermentation: “Because New Albion is not filtered, it is not crystal clear like most mass produced beers. It also contains small amounts of yeast. Like true Champagne, New Albion’s final fermentation literally takes place in the bottle.” (The column’s very headline, which Prial probably did not himself write, kicked things off with the soothing familiarity of wine: “In California Wine Country, a Rare Beer.”)
You couldn’t blame Prial (who died late last year). Craft beer like New Albion was doing was extremely rare in 1979, almost entirely concentrated commercially in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was barely a vocabulary for describing it (heck, the larger brewing industry could barely define it!) and even less of a consumer and retailer familiarity with it. Tom de Bakker, a fellow Bay Area craft brewer in the late 1970s, invariably found his eponymous beer shelved with imports; retailers simply didn’t know what to make of it then.
But times have changed. The idea of retreating into winespeak to describe craft beer… come on.
· Craft Beer’s Larger Aspirations Cause a Stir [NY Times]
· Backgrounder: Frank J. Prial [N.Y.U.]
Garrett Oliver’s response to Clay Risen’s article, posted through the Brewers Association:
In this article, The New York Times, usually a fount of very good beer writing, essentially posits that craft beer producers – meaning many of us – are money-grubbing elitists trying to drag humble beer away from its populist roots. The writer says that 22 oz. and 750 ml bottles are “getting a chilly reception from many drinkers” and that “many beer drinkers are uncomfortable with the notion of drinking beer like wine, to be split among several people.” Here’s another quote for you:
“The trend toward large bottles is part of what is being called the “wine-ification” of beer, the push by many brewers to make their product as respectable to pair with braised short ribs as is a nice Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and at a price to match.“
Let me be clear. I love The New York Times – half the internet would disappear tomorrow if it ceased to exist. But this article is so replete with omissions and chock-full of inaccuracies that I feel we cannot give it a pass. It is know-nothing opinion masquerading as reporting. Anybody here heard from customer saying that they don’t want more big bottles of interesting barrel-aged beers? No, me either. We can’t even keep up, and I’ll bet you can’t either.
Aside from this, wine itself is not “wine-ified”. About ninety percent of the American wine market is bag-in-box or jug wine in a big bottle with a finger loop. This is the “true” American wine market, which looks exactly like the beer market – 10% at the top, and 90% at the bottom. And it was always so. Museums in Europe are filled with ornate gold and silver beer vessels, and beer has always been on the tables of kings and peasants alike – just like wine. The large bottle with the mushroom cork is original to beer, not to wine. So why is the “paper of record” telling us what beer ought to be? And our traditions and history? And what our customers are asking us for? It seems that the writer wants us back at the kid’s table. And keep in mind that many, many other papers copy what the NYT does.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very, very tired of this. If you think I dost protest too much, I suggest you think again. The NYT is massively influential, it’s read world-wide, and this article will be read by many more people, I suspect, than reads the entirety of the dedicated beer press.
To their credit, when I complained to an editor, the NYT decided to open the online article for comments. As of this hour, there are 42. I want to see 400. Please let them hear from the rest of you. Comments and “top emailed” is how they keep score. Tell them the truth. Tell them what you’ve seen out there, what you’re here to do, and what your customers are telling you. We need to send this sort of “journalism” packing. Please go to the Times website and weigh in.
Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster
The Brooklyn Brewery
Editor-in-Chief, The Oxford Companion to Beer
Brooklyn, New York