May, 2006 (A two-part Buzz)
There was a big piece on beer in the Inquirer last month.
take a look (the link is live for now). This got a lot of play on
the beer aficionado sites, where there was much wetting of drawers over
this big splashy piece, with color photos yet, right on the first page
of the Food section. Wow, look, the big paper did a piece on beer!
Whoopee. Did anyone actually read the piece? Staff
writer Tom Ferrick has a great intro: imagine that when Americans
drank wine, they mostly drank lambrusco. "You'd go into a wine
store and it would be stacked with aisle after aisle of lambruscos -
with maybe a few burgundies and chardonnays in a corner. You'd go out to
eat and the wine list would have 20 different lambruscos - and only one
or two cabernet sauvignons or pinot grigios." How awful, eh?
And he says, that's what it is like with Americans and beer. And
it's true. An excellent image, a brilliant way to communicate
to wine-drinkers just how stupid most American beer-drinkers
And I'm sorry, but most of them are. The beers of the world
are laid out before them, a banquet prepared by master cooks and
covering a table an acre in area, and they turn their back upon
the feast and stay their stomach by catching and eating flies
(my apologies to Mencken,
though I'm sure he'd agree).
But what does Ferrick do, after this great opener? Ruins the
effect with one ridiculous idea or statement after another. After
comparing wine to beer, he then paints the greater cost of better beer
as an impediment to trying it, without noting that it's still a lot
less than wine. He says that "the world of beer can be
confusing." There are so many kinds: "You've got
your porters, your Russian Imperial Stouts, your IPAs, your doppelbocks,
your wheat beers, your Scottish-style ales." Y'know, I could come
up with 30 more without breaking a sweat (the GABF gives medals
in over 60 categories). But why doesn't anyone bring up that there are just
as many variations of wine, plus all the vintages, which is
only an issue with a tiny percentage of beers.
It only gets worse. "A word to the wise here," he
says, completely miscasting himself. "Lager has the lowest
alcoholic content among all types of beers and ales, averaging
between 4.5 percent and 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)." And
what's "lager"? Did someone not tell this fella that
"lager" is a whole constellation of types of beer, including
ones that boast mighty ABVs in the 12+% range? Whose job was that?
Mine? Hey, believe me, if I got that many column inches in the Inky,
I woulda. This constant muddling of
"lager" has got to cease.
Then Ferrick does the thing I really can't forgive, can't forgive
of him, can't forgive of his editor, can't forgive of the Inquirer.
I'll let him tell you about the "tasting panel" he assembles
to taste ten truly excellent beers picked out for him by the savvy staff
of Philadelphia's own The
tasters weren't beer aficionados. For most of them, their beverage of
choice is wine. But all of them are smart about food, know how to cook,
and are open to experimentation. And all of them are guys. Guys like
Now. You tell me. If the Inquirer was doing a major, first
page story on the glory of wine, would you expect to find tasting notes
on ten truly excellent wines prefaced with this?
My four tasters weren't wine aficionados. For most
of them, their beverage of choice is beer. But all of them are smart
know how to cook, and are open to experimentation. And all of them are girls.
Girls like wine.
Oh yeah, that's gonna make it past the editor.
I could go on. About Troegenator doublebock,
the "dark version of a German-style ale" that was
criticized for being "watery, thin, and sharp" and
"too hoppy." About Eggenberger Urbock being
"passable, but not exceptional." But...the fact is, I like
Tom Ferrick, a lot. Never met him, but his column is one of the first I go
to in the Inquirer, especially when it's one like this.
So I'm not going to bust on him anymore.
I'll save that for the Inquirer in particular,
and most mainstream publications in general. There are exceptions, but
most daily newspapers, big or small, still have a real "gee
whiz" attitude about beer. Their food editors are wine people,
wine lovers, with wine blinders on. I recently dined with fifty
or so of them at City Tavern,
a special beer dinner put on by beer hero Walter
Staib, the chef-proprietor. It was excellent, and three out of the
four pairings were brilliant, but when I walked through the
room at the end, I was astounded to see how many of the small
glasses of beer were completely untouched. I heard five different
people say it just at my table: "I just don't like beer."
And that's how articles like this see the light of day.
Ferrick could have done a better job, I know he could have, I've
been reading him for years. He needed a fact-checker, and he needed
an editor to say to him, "Why don't you ask the guys at The Foodery
to nominate a tasting panel of people who know something about
As far as that goes, if you wanted a piece on beer, why
not get someone who knows beer in the first place? Like me, or Jack
Curtin, or Priscilla Estes? We've all written for the Philadelphia
papers, it's not like we're unknown quantities.
Would you give a wine piece to someone who just liked
wine and didn't know much about it? Hell no, and you shouldn't. Why do
it for beer? Why do it to beer?
Open challenge to Inquirer food editor Maureen
Fitzgerald: run a beer piece that's as in-depth and detailed as
you would expect a wine piece to be. Give it your best shot. The New
York Times's Eric Asimov is doing it already, and Philly is twice
the beer city NYC is. This is the biggest market for Belgian beers in
the country, Victory and Dogfish Head are two of the hottest breweries in
the country, and what do we hear about it in the Inquirer?
We don't hear diddley. Step up.
Hit the Road (Buzz
Spring's fully here in southeast PA. There was
frost last night (glad I didn't plant the watermelons like I planned to),
but the trees are leafing out, flowers are blooming, and we haven't seen
snow in over three weeks. It's May Day! The wife and I are planning a
weekend camping trip to do some shopping at Woolrich
(and maybe hit the Jazz Brunch at the Bullfrog)
later in the month, and I'm bound and determined to visit a couple new breweries
that I've been telling you about.
And you should join me. Get out of your rut and go
visit a brewery. That's the message of American
Craft Beer Week. This is the new, more manageable version of
American Craft Beer Month, and I like it. American Craft Beer Month lacked
focus: a month was probably too much for an industry that's largely about
weekends, anyway. But I'm not here to complain about American Craft Beer
Month, I'm here to say embrace American Craft Beer Week: May 15-21.
How? Simple: go to a brewery! The website has some
'suggestions' and events listed by brewers who apparently mostly just
sent in their tour schedule -- hey, it's busy at small
breweries! My advice: just go visit your local brewery. As the website
also points out, the average American now lives within 10 miles of a
brewery. That's pretty great news, and they even have a brewery
locator to help you.
Going to a brewery is great, if you've never done it.
First, you learn and see and smell how beer is made. This is not
just important, it's crucial. Learning what's going on helps you realize
what's in there that you like, and why it costs as much as it does.
Other reasons? You meet the brewers, you see the folks in the
tasting room, you develop your own connection with the brewery. You
may well be able to try and buy beers that you can't get where you are;
this happens all the time. If it's a brewpub, well, are you nuts?
This is local to you and you've never been? Go now!
Going to a brewery is great, if you've done it before,
too. There are obvious reasons: fresh beer. You'll meet new
beer lovers, and you can share knowledge with them or learn from them, or
just have some fun with them. This is about people, too, and that's
very important. Beer is a social drink, and you've got to embrace that
part of it, or you will be a geek. Period. What else? Beer gear!
Growlers! An excuse to go beer traveling! All that stuff that you just
can't get enough of, and here's the perfect time to do it.
It's important for less tangible reasons, too. The
brewers need it. It's okay to read sales figures, it's even better to get
a rush of support at a promotion. But when people actually come to your
brewery to visit, make the effort to come see you, that's the kind
of stuff that keeps brewers going on bad days.
It firms up your support for beer. Going to a
brewery is a step of commitment. Once you've gone to a brewery, you're
involved. You've seen and tasted the source, and you'll want fresher beer,
and greater variety, and that's great.
If you've never been to a brewery, take this
opportunity and go.
If you have been to breweries before, why not
stretch a bit and go to one you've never visited before. (If you're
wondering where to go...might I suggest one of my excellent brewery
And when you see the brewer, tell 'em thanks, and
keep up the good work!