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.