Wednesday, February 16, 2005

When “Some” About Beer Simply Won’t Do: The Sins of "All About Beer."

This article originally was published in early 2004.

In February, 2005, a press release arrived heralding the return of Daniel Bradford to the "Some About Beer" family business, his previous position as head of the Brewers' Association of America having disappeared when it was merged with Association of Brewers to yield the Brewers Association. It's too early to tell whether this means anything. Stay tuned.

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‘Round here, in the Curmudgeonly lair formerly occupied by Dick Cheney, we no longer subscribe to the beer magazine formerly known as “All About Beer.”

Instead, we’ve bestowed a new name on the publication: “Some About Beer.” With principled firmness, we’ve refrained from paying its yearly tithe. With relaxed contentment, we’re electing to consult the regional pages of the various “Brewing News” print publications when in need of comprehensive information about beer and brewing.

We feel much better already.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the Curmudgeon does more than drink and think beer. For him, the mother language is important.

Words have specific meanings, and are used for specific purposes. As an example, for one to have “all” of something, one must possess the complete and whole quantity of it. Anything else, and one has only some of it – not all.

Therefore, it is inaccurate and misleading to suggest “all” when what one really means is “some,” or when obvious evidence exists to validate the observation that the entire quantity is in fact absent.

Hence, the magazine’s change of names. If “All About Beer” doesn’t include the entire quantity, then it isn’t “all” about beer any longer.

No, not at all.

To be sure, at its best, “Some About Beer” can be very good. Contributing writers generally include heavyweights like Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt and Roger Protz. Our friend Stan Hieronymus used to contribute wonderful “Beer Travelers” essays. Another friend, “Beer Dave” Gausepohl, currently writes about breweriana. Although the immediacy of the Internet has diminished “Some About Beer’s” value as a timely purveyor of beer and brewing minutia, it remains a good place to begin an examination of the beer writer’s craft.

On the other hand …

Ominously, “Some About Beer” also is the same publication that for several years has featured the infamous “Buyer’s Guide” centerfold. The Buyer’s Guide is billed as an blind, objective comparison of marketplace beers from America and the World, conducted by the vaguely tri-partite-sounding Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago.

However, to read the BTI’s beer reviews in “Some About Beer” is to revisit the lost halcyon world of Soviet social propaganda, wherein a perfect society awaits the visitor – or, to echo the long forgotten Ray Stevens, where “everything is beautiful, in its own way.” BTI awards a failing grade as often as NBA commentator Bill Walton utters coherent analysis … as often as Anheuser-Busch tells the truth about Budvar … as often as Radiohead makes a bad album.

Which is to say, damned seldom.

The not-so-shocking reason for this is that the Beverage Tasting Institute’s real reason for being is to make a profit from its services. The BTI charges brewers and importers a fee to submit beers for professional judging, then gives the donors their money’s worth by reviewing a stupefyingly large percentage of these beers positively.

Everyone claps hands in a circle, dines on sherbet, sugar cookies and lemonade, is assigned feel-good participation “championship” medals designed to dupe the public into believing that genuine merit somehow comes attached to what is otherwise a shameful spectacle of irrelevance, and watches as the sham results go straight into “Some About Beer” as paid advertising – month after month, year after year.

So much for full employment, equal opportunity and civil rights in Donetsk.

Bear in mind that I don’t doubt the blindness of the tasters, just the benign nature of a scoring system designed not to offend producers who paid good money to submit to it. It is worth noting that rumors persist that the process is prone to hands-on corruption after the fact, but these stories need not be referenced to assemble a strong case that the Beverage Tasting Institute and its judging process both are jokes.

Indeed, all this would be as laughable as class-system high school basketball if not for the pretentiousness with which one and all, from BTI to “Some About Beer,” insists on treating a demonstration of back-scratching chicanery more in keeping with an paper-mache exhibit in P. T. Barnum’s museum of grotesque oddities than a beer magazine espousing credibility.

I seem to have digressed. Alas, it is likely to happen again.

“Hell, we serve all the beers – Miller, Bud and Coors.”

Since the New Albanian Brewing Company has no intention of paying someone to be told what we already know – that our beer is good – the ensuing feeling of liberation is such that other flagrant editorial flaws with “Some About Beer” can be explored, an example being the magazine’s January 2004 issue (Vol. 24, No. 6).

For obvious reasons, my immediate attention was drawn to a feature article entitled “Brilliant Beer Bars: Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” In it, 70 luminaries described by the magazine as “writers, industry professionals and beer lovers” were asked for the names of their favorite beer bars, both in their hometowns, and elsewhere in places they’ve visited.

In the final tally, only 28 states out of 50 were represented in the article. Six multi-tap, multi-state chains pubs were mentioned. Six other countries outside the United States also found their way onto the list.

An opening disclaimer warned that the list should not be considered comprehensive, which begged the question of why it would be of any value other than as a cheap, easy tease to casual readers. Actually, “Some About Beer’s” editor, Julie Bradford, subsequently echoed this underachieving assessment in e-mail to the Curmudgeon.

Members of the general reading public enjoy fluffy lists, cooed Bradford before logging off to deposit another BTI check and assemble another fluffy list.

Still … how could the beer-crazy state of Michigan, possessor of the most vibrant microbrewing culture in the Midwest, be entirely omitted from such a collection? What about Bell’s Eccentric CafĂ© and Kraftbrau, both in Kalamazoo, and right across the street from each other?

Staring at this piece of random selectivity from a magazine bearing an official title that alleges completeness, I suddenly felt a stinging slap to the face. Neither the state of Indiana, nor Rich O’s Public House, was to be found on the list of brilliant beer bars. What about the BW3 in downtown Indianapolis? Chalkie’s on Indy’s northside? Herot in Muncie?

Kentucky? Also omitted.

“All” about beer? Hardly.

Several e-mails have been exchanged with Bradford, whose attitude might be summarized as exasperated flippancy. She has defended the “brilliant beer bar” article, the BTI ratings and subsequent adulatory drivel on the topic of low-carb beers as the sort of editorial content beloved by readers.

Lowest common denominator, anyone?

Bradford has offered a dizzying array of semantic thrusts and attempted exculpatory feints, ultimately arriving at a rhetorical shrug: Gee, why would any of this upset someone – after all, it’s just something used to sell magazines, eh?

Somewhere in the distant Rockies I can almost hear “Some About Beer” contributor Charlie “Empire – What Empire?” Papazian chiming in by reminding me to relax and have a homebrew.

The shameless mercantilist Papazian notwithstanding, the problem is that I can’t relax when I’ve been slighted, intentionally or otherwise. I believe the proper word to describe this root motive is “pride.”

Look at it this way.

In spite of my conceptual differences with Julie Bradford, I’m sure that she is fiercely proud of the work she does at the magazine. However, the simple act of empathy seems beyond her personal or journalistic range. She might feel differently if the roles were reversed.

If a major newspaper offered a survey of beer magazines and did not include “Some About Beer,” I’m sure that Julie Bradford would feel exactly the same hurt and annoyance that I did when her magazine failed to include Rich O’s in its listing of brilliant beer bars. I’m sure she would complain to the newspaper, just as I have to her.

Only then, perhaps, would she be able to comprehend. After 12 years of hard work devoted to building a good beer bar in a geographical vicinity where good beer used to be as common as vegetarians lunching on picnic tables by the rendering line at a packing plant, and having succeeded, to be snubbed by people who should know better is a personal insult, plain and simple.

Hell hath no fury like a Publican scorned.

Those who remain ignorant of good beer are excused, but those deriving their livelihoods from good beer have no excuse. Besides, bemused and condescending powerlessness is unbecoming a person who bears ultimate responsibility.

Note to Julie Bradford: By definition, editors are responsible. Did you get that memo?

The myriad joys of divorce.

A few weeks back I received my annual subscription renewal letter from “Some About Beer,” and I took this wonderful opportunity to formally sever my ties with the house organ of haphazard editorial content and “buy a medal” beer rankings.

My e-mail to circulation chief Natalie Abernethy read:

“Some weeks back, I expressed a desire to terminate my subscription to 'Some About Beer' in light of the magazine's inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to publish complete, factual articles, and the inability (or unwillingness) of it editor to understand why this rather annoying and flippant tendency is a problem for people like me who work damned hard and expect to recognized for it in a responsive and responsible journalistic fashion. If ever the magazine actually reverts to truly being 'all about beer,' then I'll be back. Until then, don't spend all those insipid 'beverage tasting payola institute' ad checks in one place, and please stop sending 'Some About Beer' to me.”

Julie Bradford’s response was quick:

“Thanks for your courteous and thoughtful message. We always enjoy hearing from you. We're glad you work damned hard. I'm sure your customers appreciate it, and no doubt you will receive the recognition you expect. Now that she has your information, Ms Abernethy will be happy to terminate your subscription. I look forward to your someday finding our publication worth reading once again.”

Meanwhile, Abernethy wrote to confirm our new business relationship:

“Thank you very much for your email. I will take care of canceling your subscription for you. Your subscription is expiring with our June/July issue, which you will still receive because mail data has already been sent to our printer. So, if you wish to not receive All About Beer anymore just ignore the renewal information you are sent.

“I have also taken the liberty of removing you from our Brewpub Finder online since you do want any affiliation with All About Beer.

“Please let me know if I can be of any help in the future. We are always here for all people in the brewing community. Have a great day!”


Humbled and impressed by Abernethy’s crisp tone of efficiency, I mailed this to Bradford:

“In her prompt response to my message, ‘Some About Beer's’ Natalie Abernethy added:

‘I have also taken the liberty of removing you from our Brewpub Finder online since you do want any affiliation with All About Beer.’

“Blushingly, I stand corrected: At least one person in your organization detects merit in being thorough about something. She should be promoted.”


Bradford hasn’t written back.

Interestingly, her husband Daniel, who serves as “Some About Beer’s” publisher and also finds time to run the Brewers’ Association of America, a trade group for small brewers, recently conferred with Julie Grelle of the Brewers of Indiana Guild as to the importance of Indiana microbrewers to be members of the national organization.

Funny, I didn’t realize the Bradford family knew that Indiana existed.

You certainly wouldn’t know it by reading “Some About Beer.”

1 comment:

BeerPimp said...

Damn, dude. That wasn't just a herringbone you had to pick, but the entire spine of a Blue Whale! Hope it came out alright : D

In all seriousness I have to agree with your passion and irritation over the issues you raised. I sell beer at retail and I recommend Some About Beer but only with caveats, even though we easily sell out of our regular bi-monthly shipment (for the record I point folks in the direction of BA and RateBeer with similar caveats.)

I myself think wistfully back to the daze when the regional newsprint beer rags were all you could find, and you felt darn lucky to find 'em, but the Internet has roused the attention of the growing cadre of monied-under-thirtysomethings, and beer becomes the Foil-edition, Beanie/Pokemon card ya gotta catch (and of course there's the glad-handling at BTI and the Chicago maffia, don't get me started.) That's the way it is *these* daze, and it ain't as fun as it used to be, and it don't seem to be changing any, neither.

What much of it amounts to is a fuggin' High School popularity contest and trust me, there are a lot of us out here who grew out of that way of thinking . . . folks who are not perfectly content and happy to subscribe to Someaboutbeer* or the Prophecy of the Brothers Alstrom at BA, as some of us (sometimes lurking, sometimes not) grew tired of being a sycophant years ago.

Don't let 'em get you down: it's obvious that you have passion for what you do and you aren't lacking for words. But in the end, leave the sycophants to fight amongst themselves, keep on keepin' on and you'll be okay.

Cheers,

The BeerPimp
Flyover Country, U.S.A.

*reminds me of R.A. Wilson's old "some-but-not-all" qualifier, but that is also a tough way to sell a beer magazine featuring good-looking smiling people on its cover to folks who don't always smile so much. It also smacks of "somnambul", as in 'to make one sleepy, or to sleep', and the Bradford's mag does indeed provoke sleep at times.