End of the Kid Gloves Era?

/disapprove
By Striatic, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Is it time for beer writers and bloggers to stop acting as if they’re part of the same ‘movement’ as brewers, publicans and marketing people, and begin landing a few more punches?

In the last week, we’ve kept coming back to this post by Adrian Tierney-Jones, in which he criticises those who appear to want some breweries to fail in order to free up space in the market: ‘A certain amount of these new start-ups represent someone’s dream… I wonder if there is an element of mean-spiritedness, elitism and sheer arrogance in wanting breweries to fail?’

That prompted interesting responses from someone ‘in the industry’ (‘There is nothing wrong with wanting unskilled brewers to fail.’) and from Pete Brown, whose agonies resonate with us: is it really doing anyone any favours to avoid confronting head-on the problem of downright rotten beer?

In Britain, this whole issue is complicated by the fact that, for the last forty-odd years, opening a brewery has arguably been a political (small p) act — part of ‘the fightback’. Martin Sykes, who (re) established the Selby Brewery in 1972 was elected to the CAMRA National Executive in 1973. Later, SIBA (founded in 1980) represented the interests of small brewers, but also, to some extent, those people who liked to drink the kind of beer small brewers made. There was no clear ‘them and us’.

There were early attempts at objectivity, such as CAMRA-founder Michael Hardman’s scathing What’s Brewing review of the beer at the Fighting Cocks brewpub at Corby Glen, which began brewing in 1975. Unfortunately, with only a handful of new breweries in operation, it just looked bad-tempered and seemed counter-productive: many members felt that CAMRA ought to be encouraging to new ‘real ale’ breweries, even if their beer was terrible.

A compromise was eventually reached in the world of beer writing: people like Roger Protz and Michael Jackson would acknowledge that not all small brewers made good beer, but would rarely, if ever, name names. Jackson: ‘If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?’

And that, twenty-five years after Jackson wrote it, is still the prevailing model. It avoids conflict; it keeps beer writing positive and airy; and ensures beer writers continued access to, and even sponsorship from, breweries. (From our experience, brewers do not, on the whole,welcome feedback’, as is sometimes claimed…)

We’re increasingly uneasy with that.

Perhaps it is time for beer writers to accept that conflict with The Industry is necessary and even desirable. If nothing else, as we know from the world of food writing, eloquently vicious reviews have considerable mainstream appeal, and a few soap opera-style personality clashes would probably attract more attention to beer than any number of glossy cross-industry campaigns.

But we’re not quite ready to be eloquently vicious ourselves. Not quite.

50 thoughts on “End of the Kid Gloves Era?”

  1. The funny thing is, it shouldn’t even need to be said – reviewers, writers, critics should be honest. But sadly it’s never that simple, as people always have an agenda. (Eg, when I used to work as a film journo and editor, I knew a lot of publications, and a lot of writers, who really weren’t honest as they were intent on keeping a sweet relationship with the PRs.) I guess supporting small breweries even if their fare isn’t good is a kind of positive descrimination, and that’s a whole can of worms.

  2. One of the reasons I pay for all the beers in my annual Beer Advent Calendar is so I can stick the boot in if I see fit. To be properly independent and express your honest opinion, you’ve got to work out how much you’re willing to give up the freebie/press junket/sneak preview sample. A few bad reviews down the line and it won’t be long before you’re off people’s mailing lists anyway, which is another consideration. While some writers will always get sent invitations/samples, etc whatever they write due to their high profile, many more might find their inboxes becoming eerily empty if they stop pulling punches.

    1. In a different country and different industry culture, obviously, but…I’ve found that bad reviews have not cut off the supply of beers (or whisky, for that matter) in my mailbox. Review them honestly, and let the samples go if you must. I do this because I like beer, and I’ll be out drinking them anyway. I don’t get free samples at the pub, after all.

  3. I have never had kid gloves on in the first place. If it i good in my opinion, I say so. If it isn’t I do too, though of course I have had flak for doing so.

  4. I don’t think anyone holds back from criticising established independent breweries. There is still a reluctance to criticise micro-breweries but, if you don’t own your own pubs, it can be difficult to distinguish indifferent beer from indifferent cellarmanship.

    Also I will freely admit to a reluctance to name names and really lay into pubs for what might well just be a one-off poor experience.

  5. Interesting post.

    This is a real issue for those of us who write in the trade press – if I say anything negative, it’s considered downright rude by the brewers concerned. It seems to be generally understood that we are there to be cheerleaders for the industry, which makes me uncomfortable.

    In the last couple of weeks the editor of a magazine I write for on a freelance basis was approached by the MD of a drinks company and asked to get me to tone down critical comments on my blog. The editor quite rightly responded that he had no control whatsoever over my blog, but that the MD even felt he had the right to ask the question is astonishing. Another writer on the same magazine was asked firmly to tone down critical comments of a leading regional brewery in a piece for the mag. A year or two ago, another well-known beer writer got one of those all-too-rare gigs for a national newspaper celebrating Britain’s beer revival. He was immediately approached by at least one regional brewer demanding to know why they hadn’t been included – as if, in their position, they had some kind of right.

    This is why blogging is so important. It’s free from the commercial pressure increasingly being faced by magazines and newspapers, free of “You’d better not criticise us, because if you do we’ll pull our advertising from your magazine, and then you’ll be screwed.”

    It’s not just beer that’s like this – WORD magazine ran a scathing review of the last Cranberries album opposite a full-page ad for the album. The record company pulled all its advertising in protest – I’m not sure if others followed suit, but six months later WORD was dead.

    I might be making a slightly different point here but it is a real issue. Back to your main point, I think most of us who write about beer do so because we’re passionate about it and want to see more people drinking it. That means I write about good stuff and mostly ignore bad stuff. But I’m never quite sure about if this is the right approach or not. You certainly need a thick skin if you go down that route – just last night I got a comment on a four year old post slating a pub from the father of one of the staff. He wasn’t happy with me at all. That should never put you off, but it does show how quickly you lose the cuddly consensus.

  6. You know my position on this, I’ve made very clear in my blog several times. But just for the sake of repeating myself. Bloggers, writers and reviewers are first and foremost consumers, and we should act as such.

    There’s also the issue of fairness. I’ve come to believe that by keeping quiet about the bad stuff (or even about the stuff we don’t quite like) we are not being fair to those who actually do things well (or that we believe they do).

    We also should stop caring about the feelings of brewers and pub owners. They are selling something, they should learn to live with the fact not everyone will like it.

  7. I think the real triumph of blogging has been when it’s taken on the disingenuous, rather than those who’ve tried to make good beer but failed.

  8. It’s a strange ol’ game. If I can cross the divide to cider…

    As everyone knows, this market is also seeing a rash of new entrants, with many different approaches, styles and ideas about what ‘cider’ is all about.

    The problem is, although I blog, I’m also a producer. It’s a small, interconnected industry at times, and I’ve always lived by the rule: don’t speak ill of another cider maker.

    But at times, there are some instances of cider that do dis-service to the entire rest of the industry. Either just poor cider, the rough stuff, or pretending to be something it’s not, or inappropriate “Cock Shriveller” naming. Those in the industry are aware of what goes on – and I suspect true for any industry you care to name. So while this may be openly discussed in private (if there is such a thing), it’s not considered professional to speak publically about it.

    So while opinions on flavours and styles are just that – opinions – when it comes to deeper issues in the industry, I have to ponder whether papering over those cracks is actually a positive long-term strategy. If you like: asking the question is fair enough.

  9. As a customer, my respect for a review or reviewer is dependent on accuracy.

    If a newspaper informs me a film is brilliant and I pay good money to go see it and find it terrible, I don’t take that advice anymore.

    If a CAMRA rag recommends a pub of the month and it is either a shit hole, has crap beer, piss poor service, narky insulting landlord, not even fucking open, then I stop seeing their awards as being a recommendation for me but an irrelevant political internal thing they have going on.

    If a beer blogger tells me some undrinkable piss is ambrosia of the gods then I stop trying what they recommend.

    You do no favours by soft peddling crap. Crap is crap, Good is good.

    1. I’ve often wondered about this. One particular pub in my CAMRA branch was given a Pub Of The Season award last year. I went in and found it only had 3 of the pub-owning brewery’s regular ales, and empty pump for one guest and a wall full of economy spirits (High Commissioner being the house whisky). Oh, and an “adult toy” machine in the men’s toilets.

      I went in incognito as, apparently, my entire family is banned from the place due to some disagreement my cousin had with the landlord in his previous pub.

      I couldn’t see what the local beards saw in the place Though it would of course be entirely wrong to suggest the branch were given “incentives” to promote the place/

      1. I think there are many valid criticism it is possible to make of CAMRA, most of which come from a narrow world view or dogmatism of a small number of active members. The assumption of corruption is however largely bollocks.

  10. One man’s atmospheric, characterful pub is another man’s grotty dump, though, Cookie 😉

    1. Sorry Mudge, a grotty dump is a grotty dump, but some people like grotty dumps. The thing is a restaurant or film reviewer isn’t trying to promote the activity, they assume a preexisting interest on the basis that you are reading it and either try to offer information that is useful to a customer or simply entertainment knowing most readers won’t really go in such a posh gaff and pay those prices.

      If you are trying to promote the activity, you are already compromised in terms of giving a fair and honest review and that will be apparent the minute the punter takes your recommendation and suffers disappointment.

      You are better off being one or the other.

  11. Thinking about Cheshire breweries, I’ve raved about Red Willow (I’ve practically drooled about ’em), given Tatton an appreciative nod or two & been constructively critical (I hope) about Dunham Massey. There are two other very successful small brewers in the area which I never write about, in one case because the beer’s just a bit bland and ordinary, in the other because I find it so characterless as to be positively revolting. But I never refer to them by name, for just the reasons Protz gave (reiterated by Pete Brown’s comment on that AT-J post). I wonder, though – would it be more constructive to raise red flags occasionally? Apart from anything else, anyone who reads this and drinks in Cheshire is going to be putting names to those descriptions now, and I’d hate them to get it wrong.

    (NB I’m defining Cheshire to exclude Stockport, which is of course a County.)

    1. I’m not a fan of the idea that everyone has to be relentlessly positive for the good of “the scene”. But I’m not sure how often bad reviews are actually useful…

      There’s a case for “don’t believe the hype” type reviews of the latest hot thing, or alarm bells if a beer / brewery / pub that used to be consistently great starts to go downhill and seems to be trading on its reputation, but just writing “I tried this obscure beer from a new micro and wasn’t much impressed” isn’t much use to the reader – we weren’t that likely to try the beer in question anyway given the sheer amount of stuff that’s around these days, and if we did see somewhere we might still try it just in case our tastes differ from yours.

      On the other hand, a positive review can encourage us to actively seek out a beer that we wouldn’t otherwise have tried, which is a good thing.

  12. Any mention of “Cheshire” will immediately have my ears & taste buds twitching…

    So while bloggers could maintain a tactful silence over these suspect brews, doesn’t that exhort those brewers to try even harder to push their wares, thus creating even more Emperor’s New Clothes around their product? The uninitiated will then read all about it in a dentists surgery type magazine and assume it must be ‘good’. Whereas the experienced tasters cry into their pints even more…

    Or is that just me? 🙂

    1. In the case of the breweries I’m thinking of, the uninitiated will see them on the bar at Spoons and on the shelves at Morrison’s & Tesco. I suppose the question is how many people are going to be put off decent beer by drinking something offensively bland.

  13. What if the beer you hate is actually brilliant and you’re just a really crap judge? Surely that nagging doubt in the back of your mind should prevent you saying anything too outrageous.

  14. Whitness the fact that a lot of bloggers who go with the, “if I don’t have anything nice to say, I won’t say anything at all,” shtick. Bog to that- bad things (as entertainment shows us) make for good writing and might even save others from experiencing the same pitfall.

    I’m hugely anti Rogue’s VooDoo collaboration beers and I don’t know one person who has said anything nice about it. So, flying off the handle rude and hating isn’t appropriate but if you dislike something, he honest and clear as to why not and there is likely to be support to your case.

    XOXO

  15. Wow, lots of interesting responses. Thanks, everyone.

    A further question, then: it would certainly be dishonest to say ‘this beer/brewery is excellent’ when, in fact, it is terrible; but is it dishonest to say nothing at all? A lie by omission?

    py0 — yes, certainly consideration for us.

    DaveS — our thinking has tended to be that *not* being mentioned at all, e.g. in our lists of top ten Cornish beers, is a signal of sorts. Maybe bad reviews en masse are useful, though? I.e., people will save themselves a few quid by avoiding a beer they’ve heard is bad from more than one source.

    1. But a few quid is not much, and there’s no accounting for taste. There are lots of beers I personally enjoy that get bad writeups and lots that get raved about that I’ve found unpleasant, I’m very glad I wasn’t put off from trying them for myself.

    2. As py0 says, I’m not that bothered by the odd bad beer. And I’ll avoid bad beer as much by reading a review of something I do want to try as by reading a review of something I don’t.

      I think bad reviews are probably most helpful when they go against the consensus and maybe make people stop and think for a minute. Eg pointing out that much as we all love brewery X, most of their last few beers have actually been a bit crap and they aren’t necessarily buy-on-sight material any more. Or that while I’m as excited as the next geek about the new wave of Imperial Milds, some of them are actually pretty awful and it’d be good if people remembered quality control rather than jumping on the bandwagon as quickly as possible. Also, there are times when it can be quite reassuring to find out that you aren’t actually the only person it the world who doesn’t love something.

      1. No room there for calling out a mediocre brewery that’s not particularly fashionable or wildly popular, doesn’t claim to be setting any trends, doesn’t get in the papers, doesn’t get blogged about… but does get its mediocre products on the bars and the supermarket shelves.

        Maybe the success of mediocre brews isn’t worth complaining about. I’m just a bit grumpy after last night’s pre-cinema family meal at Spoons (La Tasca was full). I had a choice of a brewery I avoid like the plague, Abbot and Double Maxim; I went for the Double Maxim, which was frankly off – I told myself brown ales are supposed to taste a bit sour, but this was way past that (and it was cloudy). So the continuing success of the >ahem< Brewery was directly responsible for me getting a duff pint. That, and a Spoons with a surprisingly narrow range & surprisingly poor cellaring, obvs.

        1. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to lay down the law on when you are and are not allowed to slate things – just suggesting a couple of situations where bad reviews are for the greater good.

    3. As stated before, I completely believe that avoiding distasteful reviews is near as bad as a lie.

      Although there are times when a writer has certain limitations by the trade press, as Pete Brown pointed out, “if I say anything negative, it’s considered downright rude by the brewers concerned,” the consumers who look to that writing have a right to accurate reporting.

      If a beauty spa was giving people infections and damaging customers, it isn’t fair to pad the report so that the company and employees aren’t portrayed poorly. One doesn’t have to be rude to accurate.

  16. Excellent stuff. I have to agree with Max, PF. There is a tension between the benefits of getting to know brewers and associate with them and the independent role of the consumer. You would think sometimes that brewers forget where their cash comes from. This is compounded by the muddling of citizen bloggers, as it was in the beginning, with trade blogging. Yet, these grey areas are natural and often entered in a topic which is on the one hand pop culture and convivial and on the other when taken as a whole filled with large sums of cash. It does not help when even the market roles of participants get blurred, in large part through the phony conception of “community” being layered upon a marketplace.

    So, yes, we ought to as the consuming blogger be diligent and exact even when goofy and also ethical and undeterred. And participating in as well as patient with the marketplace. Poor Pete B went through a very odd process back around 2008-09 with others trying to think about what is a beer blogger, trade writer and journalist. The difference here is a re-assertion that would appear to be more natural in 2004 or so that the citizen blogger is the consumer and only the consumer. Which, if we are going to be rigourous, does require me to point out how much I like your title for this post.

    1. Alan — we linked to that Tweet in the first line of the post! We’re compulsive credit-givers, us.

  17. So, as an embarrassed citizen blogger, my options are (i) change the topic, (ii) accuse you of hiding the acknowledgement or (iii) flatter us each for being so supportive and clever on the same idea.

  18. Obviously bloggers and writers should be honest. But whether we really need to speak out against poor beer I’m less certain about. I’ve had lots of terrible beers, and there are Norwegian brewers whose beers I avoid, but why shout it from the treetops? I don’t really see the point.

    Of course, if you’ve got a bigger point to make than simply “beers from X” suck, then by all means, go ahead and make it, even if you have to say something negative about their beers.

  19. I don’t think there’s a lot of controversy here, really. What Pete says is really the nub of the issue–if you feel a beer is bad and you don’t acknowledge that when writing about it, you’re letting your readers down. That’s true whether the reason is because you’re chicken, because you want to be buddies with the brewer, or because your publication is putting the screws to you to write ad-friendly copy.

    And with folks like Alan and Max beating the drum, I think we’ve heard this call to action before. But here’s my quandary. I live in a state with 150+ breweries, and a few of them (ten, fifteen?) are not very good. They’re all small fry. I haven’t written about all the breweries here because I don’t have the time to do it. So, heeding the call, should I be seeking out these wee little breweries so I can write harsh reviews? What exactly is the blogger’s job here? I have written pointedly critical things about breweries and their beers. I was even compelled to do it of one of those small-fry breweries because it happened to be in my neighborhood. But there’s way too much to write about as it is, and I don’t feel inspired be the the douchey blogger who cruises around picking on little breweries that are struggling because they make bad beer.

  20. The reviewers I enjoy reading are those who:

    1) seek first to describe objectively the style and taste of the beer; and

    2) express an opinion but in a nuanced way.

    The reason I think it is wise to avoid shouting from the rooftops about poor brewing is, often, people disagree as to what tastes good. E.g. I don’t like a taste I feel is characteristic of a lot of stout, an acerbic, dryish, burnt vegetal taste I think comes from use of raw grains. But scads of brewers use that material in stout all over the world, they like the taste after all, and certainly their customers. And maybe I’m not right about the taste, maybe what I don’t like has some other explanation.

    An ester I think out of place may greatly please another. A tart edge to a beer may strike me as wrong but is liked by another, maybe even sought by the brewer. After all, a whole range of sour styles has been revived in recent years, somewhat to my mystification, but that is neither here nor there, is it?

    This is why I feel it is best to critique only gently or hold one’s counsel, because then too sometimes a criticism may come off sounding uninformed.

    Gary

  21. Should we, perhaps, extend the same courtesy to bloggers as to brewers? Call them out on reviews driven by the feverish excitement of having found a new favourite brewery, when the truth is that the beer itself is actually pretty mediocre?

    1. We have occasionally noticed brewers and bar owners joking (with some bitterness) about starting blogs to rate and review bloggers and thought, ‘Why not?’ We wouldn’t mind being reviewed/criticised. (Although we’re not charging anyone for this crap; the book, on the other hand…)

      1. But why wouldn’t the blogging community want to be self-policing, making sure that the information being disseminated is all broadly correct? Or more pertinently, why do I have to keep spending money on beer in order to verify that my first impression was right (it’s not very good), when lots of other people are saying the opposite?

        (There’s quite a large amount of devils advocacy in this response)

        1. That’s a very, very good question. When we asked for suggestions on what to order the other day, the names of several breweries came up whose beer we *know* we don’t like, and suspect is objectively unreliable/bad.

          As Cookie says, there are certain bloggers whose tastes we know are out of kilter with ours so we don’t follow their advice. Others are so brazen about freebie and junket hunting that we don’t even bother reading them — guess they’re the ones that need calling out?

          Out of interest (and we promise we won’t cry…) have we ever given the big thumbs up to a beer you think is rotten?

          1. In response to your second question, I don’t think there is anything that I’ve seen you recommend that I haven’t agreed with – although now I’m tempted to go back and look for an example of us disagreeing (although that’s a job for an evening, over a beer, of course)

            With regards finding an opinion you trust, my question then is, what of the “casual” reader, who might stumble upon a blog via a Google search? How are they to make sense of the morass of skewed opinion and whimsical neophiliacs? Surely that’s the whole point of blogs as citizen journalism? (That has a question mark, but I suspect isn’t an easy question to answer)

  22. Zak — to some extent, this gets sorted out by ‘the crowd’ over time: the better (i.e. more honest, reliable, interesting) blogs get linked to more often, and so rise to the top of Google results, or gain more of a following through Twitter, or whatever.

    Although that video review bloke has tons of followers, doesn’t he, so maybe I’m wrong?

  23. You can also over estimate the importance of commentators. It is rare to see anything positive about McDonalds in the press yet it remains the most popular restaurant chain. Customers don’t care what is written about it, they have made up there own mind.

    Likewise with Carling lager, It remains popular despite being derided among beer writers.

    People flocked to see Fast & Furious 6 regardless of what Mark Komode thinks of it. I can’t wait for number 7.

    Most commentary is a narrow circle of people talking to each other and themselves. To a large part it doesn’t really matter what anyone says about anything. Whether it is Pete Brown in a published article or someone on their own hobby horse blog.

    1. “You can also over estimate the importance of commentators.”

      That is true.

      Having said that, we know how many people visit this blog, and they can’t *all* be bloggers and beer writers.

  24. Also, even a small part of the beer market – given it is so large – can shift good coin for brewers who get buzz on social, or in other, media.

    Gary

    1. On the homepage, do you mean? That’s formatting for quotations. With these theme, the background colour changes depending on the post type, e.g. gallery, audio, video, and so on.

      We can change the colours and/or disable the background colour thing; or we might just not bother using different post types much.

      We’ll see.

  25. If we review a beer and we think it’s crap (as in rubbish, not off) we will say so. I publish all my baron ratings regardless of score, in fact some of the best audio reviews are from the 1/5s…

    Our scoring remains the same whether we are sent the beer ‘for free’ or whether we buy it ourselves – good beer gets talking about, bad beer gets talked about.

    If a brewer disagrees with our score or considers the bottle to be sub-par then we are happy to re-review the ale but we will never give it a better score than we feel it deserves.

    I think more people should name and shame when a beer is just downright rotten but should also mention where the beer came from, stillage & dispense has a lot to do with it too.

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