Diatribe No. 112: Beer Still Don’t Get No Respect
The Food Network got energetic in January. A TV special, “Top Five Food Fads,” carried off the idea that beer is up to something entirely new. Gimme a break! Fad, according to my dictionary, is “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal—Craze.” I suppose I shouldn’t complain; they actually did a fairly good job.
First “fad” on the program, the 10-minute craft beer portion (number 5 of 5) was quite good, but while host Bobby Rivers had the good sense to get our Oregon Beer Goddess, Lisa Morrison, to be his resident “expert,” he was careful not to overdo the guest expert bit lest we conclude that there might indeed be a lot more to beer than he had anticipated. To his credit, he acknowledged (totally new to the food media) homebrewers as instrumental in powering the micro or craft brewing phenomenon to its ever-growing status.
Usually, when these Food Channel guys get going, they reveal no understanding of the significance of craft beer, or that it is a “western US phenomenon.” They invariably stay east of the Allegheny Mountains. This was one of the few times that one of them ventured out to our area, where a full 10 percent of the beer consumed is craft beer and another 3 percent is import beer. At least part of the show was videotaped at the Rogue Brewery on the Oregon Coast. One of the signs they let the audience read: “Wine is not better with food than beer.” Now there’s a message one never sees in the food media!
The Travel Channel also entered the realm of good beer. Well, almost. Host Michael Lomonaco of the “Epicurious” visited the Otter Creek Brewery in Vermont. He was smart to invite our Garrett Oliver to appear on his show, whose presence saved it from being only so-so. Oliver makes anything work, but Lomonaco approached it as a “who knew—there’s actually more than one kind of beer out there” discovery. Good for Lomonaco, even if he is 20 years late with his discovery.
In a major article last year, the Columbia Journalism Review featured a very good piece by Molly O’Neill, titled “Food Porn” (CJR, Sept-October 2003; www.cjr.org). She pointed out “some of the most significant stories today are about food (and by our extension, beer). But you won’t find them in the food section, where journalism has been supplanted by fantasy.” Think mad cow (or was it dead cow?) disease. Ms. O’Neill, a food columnist for the New York Times and the author of several cookbooks, took food writers to task for their failure to document the food industry and its flaws.
Some while back, I mentioned on these pages (“Diatribe No. 99,” AAB, May 2002) that food publications habitually neglect beer. I mentioned several that were remiss: “I don’t care if Gourmet, Bon Appetite, Saveur or even the Wall Street Journal refuse to recognize that fine dining and drinking can not only include beer, but can begin and end there!” I got a lot of flack about that from the editors of Saveur, who do indeed produce something about beer sporadically—more than most food publications offer. Simultaneously with All About Beer publishing my little diatribe, there was a good article in Saveur by our friend, Stephen Beaumont, about Belgian beer. More recently, in the October 2003 issue, was another fine article by Beaumont and co-author Janet Forman on Bavarian beer.
Just as I was about to apologize to Senior Editor Kelly Alexander, and offer my blessings, I noticed an editorial by her in that same issue: “This Bud’s For Me—When I want a beer, I don’t want baloney.” A 3/4-page blessing, 370 words and a photo clearly identifying the beer, in a major food magazine, of the most predatory brewing company in history! What would that cost as an ad, Ms. Alexander?
Can anyone forget the infamous Budweiser-NBC-Stone Phillips television spectacle (“NBC Dateline,” Sunday, 13 October 1996) where they tried to destroy Jim Koch and his tiny (by their standards) Boston Brewing Co., and along with it, craft beer in general, with what can only be described as an “infomercial,” although it was clearly a major NBC news feature. No one in the media, including CJR, picked up on that, but it nearly destroyed America’s fledgling craft brewing industry at the time.
Ms. Alexander, could that have started the leveling out of the craft beer “boom” that you mentioned? And yes, Ms. Alexander, American lager, the beer style you like, is indeed the most popular in the world, but Millers and Coors (not to mention at least one brewery in every other country in the world, except maybe Germany) brew credible examples of that particular beer type. You could also have chosen PBR—Pabst Blue Ribbon—the choice of many rebellious young folks who like that particular beer style but choose not to drink the leading predatory brand. I’ll just bet Ms. Alexander would be unable to identify Budweiser in any kind of “blind” tasting. Clue: it would be the one with the least taste—unless, of course, that tasting were to include Michelob Ultra, and then it would be the second most tasteless beer there.
Meanwhile, in the world of brewing, if it weren’t for the existence of craft beer, all Western Hemisphere beer would taste the same, and that of much of the world’s brewing industry as well. Must we, who try to encourage and promote diversity in beer, be condemned as “connoisseurs of suds”? American craft brewers are actually becoming the saviors of the world’s great beer styles.
Belgians, the British, and even the Germans are closing down their independent breweries at an alarming rate. We don’t know where this will lead, but it is devastating to one of the world’s great beverage industries.
Now, let’s talk about that line in Ms. Alexander’s diatribe: “look(ing) for ways to make beer…more like (let’s be honest here) wine…” [parentheses hers]. Of course, she’ll never know, from reading only her own publication, that beer is indeed much better as a beverage to accompany food than wine. As I have written on these pages (AAB, January 2002), “wine is only varietal. You can have red or white, dry or sweet, sherrified and fortified…(whereas) …beer is truly universal.” Beer is varietal and seasonal, strong and weak, light and dark. Beer has it all. A beverage for the 21st century where food from across the planet waits our pleasure and alcohol takes our measure.
“It wasn’t really until the mid- to late-1980s that enough different beer styles had evolved, and become available in any one place, to dine with a decent variety of beers. We were approaching a critical mass in beer styles, and that’s when everything became possible.”
What’s sad is that the food media are still stuck in the hotdog-with-their-beer era. They are the food porn artists of our time.
Fred Eckhardt lives and works in Portland, OR, where, as a former teacher of wine making, he has a small but interesting wine cellar to provide him with good wines all year round, plus a nice selection of sake, single-malt Scotch, and rum, just in case he runs out of beer.