Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 9 a.m.
Hypothetical situation: A friend of yours, who recently decided to buy a kit to brew his own beer at home, has presented you with a bottle of his first batch and asked for your honest opinion.
This beer is flat, sour and looks like it was brewed with 51 percent spittle. What do you tell him? Do you tell him it's the best beer ever, and he should quit his current job to become a full-time brewer so he can distribute this ambrosia among the masses? Or do you maybe give him some constructive criticism in the hopes that his next attempt improves upon this one?
The craft beer community has been harrumphing about the topic since Tuesday, when a post about "overrated breweries" on the beeradvocate.com (a free website on which users can post beer reviews and discuss topics related to beer) garnered this response from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery owner Sam Calagione (grammatical errors have been fixed because I'm a nice guy):
It's pretty depressing to frequently visit this site and see the most negative threads among the most popular. This didn't happen much ten years ago when craft beer had something like a 3 percent market share. Flash forward to today and true indie craft beer now has a still-tiny but growing market share of just over 5 percent. Yet so many folks that post here still spend their time knocking down breweries that dare to grow. It's like that old joke: "Nobody eats at that restaurant anymore, it's too crowded." Except the "restaurants" that people shit on here aren't exactly juggernauts. In fact, aside from Boston Beer, none of them have anything even close to half of one percent market share. The more that retailers, distributors, and large industrial brewers consolidate, the more fragile the current growth momentum of the craft segment becomes. The more often the BeerAdvocate community becomes a soap box for outing breweries for daring to grow beyond its insider ranks, the more it will be marginalized in the movement to support, promote, and protect independent, American craft breweries.
It's interesting how many posts that refer to Dogfish being overrated include a caveat like "except for Palo...except for Immort," etc. We all have different palates, which is why it's a great thing that there are so many different beers. At Dogfish we've been focused on making "weird" beers since we opened and have taken our lumps for being stylistically indifferent since day one. I bet a lot of folks agree that beers like Punkin Ale (since 1995), Immort Ale (wood-aged smoked beer) since 1995, Chicory Stout (coffee stout) since 1995, Raison D'être (Belgian brown) since 1996, Indian Brown Ale (dark IPA) since 1997, and 90 Minute (DIPA) since 2000 don't seem very weird anymore. That's in large part because so many people who have been part of this community over the years championed them and helped us put them on the map. These beers, and all of our more recent releases like Palo Santo, Burton Baton and Bitches Brew, continue to grow every year. We could have taken the easy way out and just sold the bejeezus out of 60 Minute to grow, but we like to experiment and create and follow our own muse. Obviously there is an audience that appreciates this as we continue to grow. We put no more "hype" or "expert marketing" behind our best-selling beers than we do our occasionals. We only advertise in a few beer magazines and my wife Mariah oversees all of our Twitter/Facebook/dogfish.com stuff. We have mostly grown by just sharing our beer with people who are into it (at our pub, great beer bars, beer dinners, and fests) and let them decide for themselves if they like it. If they do we hope they tell their friends about. We hope a bunch of you that are going to EBF will stop by our booth and try some of the very unique new beers we are proudly bringing to market like Tweason'ale (a champagne-esque, gluten-free beer fermented with buckwheat honey and strawberries) and Noble Rot (a sort of saison brewed with Botrytis-infected Viognier Grape must). One of these beers is on the sweeter side and one is more sour. Knowing each of your palates is unique, you will probably prefer one over the other. That doesn't mean the one you didn't prefer sucked. And the breweries you don't prefer but are growing don't suck either. Respect Beer.
With one part of Calagione's statement, I wholeheartedly agree. Beer geeks are very much like band geeks, writing off a brewery when it becomes successful because they can no longer earn hipster points (which, I imagine, are useful for buying tight pants and grease for fixed-gear bikes) for supporting obscure, unknown spots most people have never heard of. This is a mindset that runs rampant among an outspoken fringe of the craft beer-drinking community, and it has to stop.
HOWEVER. There is an underlying theme to the post above I have to disagree with -- that every craft brewer, big and small, must be supported if the community is to continue its success.
Inspired by Calagione, a writer for the Ladies of Craft Beer made a post urging beer geeks to "review responsibly."
Discussing the Pearl Street Brewery, a tiny beer producer in Wisconsin, the author brings up how hard each of the brewery employees works and decries how "the exact thing that this brewery of nine employees pours its heart into has been reduced to a number rating out of 5 and a few short words, many of which are negative."
She goes on: "You may not realize how little information is available about the smallest breweries on the Internet; but when it comes to the small guys, anything you write about a random beer might affect the purchase of that beer by others. Really."
To which I say: good.
It's one thing to support craft beer; it's another entirely to blindly patronize and encourage those who make an inferior product. It is not my responsibility to blow sunshine up the asses of bad brewers, and your insistence that I do so to "do the craft beer community a favor" is insulting to me and to the brewers who are actually putting in the work required to produce good beer.
I see myself as a strong, outspoken supporter of craft beer. I do this by trying every new beer I can, introducing my non-craft-drinking friends to new and exciting beers, opening rare bottles with my monthly tasting group, and sharing beers with the readers of this blog. I make every effort to find redeemable qualities in a beer, but if I can't, what good does my backing do for the brewer or other drinkers? I realize a negative review can have impact, but just as I will not indiscriminately support a brewery, I have faith that the fourteen or so people who read my reviews will not take them to heart without first trying the product out for themselves.
I have a right to my opinion. You have a right to try the beer out for yourself to see whether or not you agree with it.
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