Beer writing. Again with the critical beer writing. Look, I am not interested in being unpleasant or just an oath bolster in relation to calling out so you needn't worry about that. But this comment over at Stan's blog about the state of critical beer writing - the 66th in the thread - posted this morning by Andy Crouch is, in large part due to its specificity, one of the most interesting observations about the state of beer writing that I have read in all the years I have been reading about beer. I do not necessarily agree with it all but I agree with much. Here it is in its entirety which I would encourage you all to read and to read in the context of the entire thread. I think I will make some comments at the foot of this long passage:
AAB’s buying guide has been brought up a few times and I think it’s a good place to draw out one of the specific ethical issues I’ve been raising (insofar as you will all allow me to jump beyond the original topic, from which this debate has often devolved). AAB’s buying guide is actually run by the Beverage Testing Institute and no the magazine itself. AAB licenses the content from AAB and then charges brewers to put the labels into the guide. Now I have my own problems with BTI’s methods, and by extension AAB’s republishing of the results (and it’s not just that the testers gave Michelob’s excellent Porter an 83 in this issue, the lowest recorded score). It’s actually that 82 is the lowest recorded score and that BTI, among other things, is simply not in the business of giving low scores. I won’t rehash what I’ve written online and for BA Mag on this topic: http://www.beerscribe.com/2007/08/02/judging-beer-what-is-a-medal-really-worth/There is so much in there about themes and concerns that I have had pop up in my mind that I think I will need time to digest it all. But one thing that it makes me think about is that mine field of a word "maturity". I don't mean maturity in the sense of individual responsibility but the maturity of a theme. I wonder if we are actually at the point of maturity in beer thinking generally. It could be (like the mid-1700s Royal Society the members of which who could sit around a table and arguable say they collectively knew everything) that there is such a limited number of people thinking about craft beer that there are inevitable overlappings of roles and multiplcities of income streams for those who write about beer.
What I really wanted to discuss was AAB’s Beer Talk section, which includes reviews from beer luminaries across the globe. For some time, the list has been comprised on John Hansell (editor), Steve Beaumont (writer/restaurateur), Charles Finkel (importer/distributor), Stan of this site, Charlie Papazian (president of Brewers Association), Jeff Evans (British author), Roger Protz (British author), and Garrett Oliver (brewer). Each writer does four reviews per issue for a total of sixteen beers covered. Now, stop for a second and ask if there is anything wrong with this picture in terms of ethics.
In both journalism, the law, and other professions, the standard one is held to is not an actual conflict but the appearance of a conflict of interest. It’s not that someone is inherently biased but that their position or particular situation might create the appearance of bias. As such, most publications (outside of the beer world) have stern rules about such conflicts.
Here’s a lengthy read on that topic: http://www.nytco.com/pdf/NYT_Ethical_Journalism_0904.pdf I’m not disputing that these eight men are not qualified to write reviews (we couldn’t throw in one of dozens of similarly qualified women?), but that several of them have at bare minimum a clear conflict of interest in reviewing the products. Of those listed, I would suggest that Finkel, Papazian, and Oliver shouldn’t be writing reviews due to their professional situations (Papazian as the professional organization leader of all of the small brewers) and Finkel and Oliver because they are reviewing the products of their competitors (or their own products if so assigned it is possible). These gentlemen may be good souls who can put aside any possible bias or conflict, but again, that is not the proper standard to be applied. The appearance of conflict is clear. We certainly have enough beer writers who could fill these spots, conflict free.
Along other lines, a mere ten pages later I came across another curiosity, in the book review section. Contrary to my above comments on the lack of criticism, I’m reading a review that is pretty much hammering Amy Mittelman, author of Brewing Battles: A History of American Beer. Some of the points seem pretty petty, which surprised me, until I see who wrote the review: Maureen Ogle. Now, I would imagine that most readers have no idea who Ms. Ogle is. And the review doesn’t tell you either, which bothers me. Many here probably know that Ms. Ogle wrote Ambitious Brew, the Story of American Beer. Brewing Battles is certainly a competitor product and the conflict here is again clear, with no disclosure, which compounds it.
Those are a few areas of ethical difficulty that I see in an industry that has several more. I think many of us are aware of them but don’t want to discuss them because of the insular, friendly community that we all enjoy. I’m not sure that is a healthy way to conduct journalism (and for Lew, this is in part why I see the need for some definitions of this and other terms as applied to beer writers. Some bloggers have suggested they are not bound by any ethical rules because they are just bloggers, not writers. I think the audience should be able to tell whether the writer whose work they are reading is tethered by ethical rules of is just flailing wildly at every free beer or book tossed his or her way. The snarky Brewers Association example was inapt here, I think).
Best to all again, Andy
Is there the critical mass? Is that lack of critical mass only limited to criticism or journalism? No. While I noted in far less specificity my concerns about All About Beer's reliance on a few voices and I also know when I reviewed Ogle's book I was disappointed not so much about the book itself as the lack of a more academic authoritative history of US brewing, except perhaps for Minnesota, like the ones I can find in relation to Hornsey's in the UK or Unger's work on Holland, against which her more pop history could be compared. Is that all due to the lack of time or the lack of resources or the lack of interest to create the body of work and the body of workers to do the independent work? Whatever it is, I do know it overshadows those who are too few out there, those who are not undertaking the popular, familiar and less difficult way.
Without a basis of independent and detailed work in any sort of critical thought, especially in a youngish area of thinking, the sort of overlaps that Andy notes are perhaps inevitable. But the job of noting them is vital if thinking and writing about craft beer is to advance. For me this is not a call to point fingers but a call to up the game. Maybe this means an organization the Brewer's Association puts $50,000 on the table as an annual prize for the best beer history selected by an independent jury? Maybe...maybe not. There is much to think about, though and Andy, again, has done much to encourage us all to do just that.