Wednesday, December 19, 2012

REWIND: "Charlie Papazian? Spare me, will you?"

First published on August 15, 2007. I'm rewinding it as background for this: As the Budweisers still battle, let's look back to 1997 and "Anheuser-Busch, Gone Home."


While in Madison, Wisconsin, joyfully prepping for my very first Great Taste of the Midwest craft beer extravaganza, I experienced two separate Charlie Papazian sightings, and as expected, neither time did I feel the adrenaline necessary to rush forward through a mass of humanity to ask the presumed legend for his autograph.

That’s because I don’t necessarily agree with the apparent majority view that exalts Papazian as deserving of cuddly legend status, at least not without a close, dispassionate and contextual examination of his role in the beer and brewing revolution.

I believe that such an examination proves that Papazian whiffed time and again in his most important at-bats, and I’m just a wee bit prickly about it.

The old-timers among you will remember that back in the early to mid-1990s, when craft brewing was young, I was often outspokenly critical of Papazian, documenting my reasons in the pages of “Walking the Dog,” the now defunct print version of the FOSSILS newsletter.

In fairness, I always freely credited Papazian with advancing the tenets of homebrewing, and consistently acknowledged that his mantra of, “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew,” more than aptly held its own as sound advice considering the vagaries of the hobby itself. However, I held that when applied to the larger, evolving and often hostile market that commercial brewers were then entering, such serial passivity was detrimental to the radicalism necessary to successfully pursue our aims.

That a homebrewer like Papazian became a contributing factor in the commercial realm – someone who was looked to for leadership – certainly speaks both to the universal need for a front man in times of crisis as well as to Papazian’s own sizeable ego and ambitions. The burgeoning Colorado-based fiefdom he built and nurtured, from sideline to day job, purported to speak for homebrewer and professional brewer alike, but the maintenance and perpetuation of the fiefdom curiously seemed always to take precedence over Papazian’s willingness to speak out, speak openly and speak forcefully.

Instead of leadership, we were handed appeasement.

We asked Papazian to speak out against megabrewery attack ads deriding craft beer and homebrewing, and there was nothing but silence as the megabreweries responsible for the lamentable condition of the American brewing industry continued to occupy cash-driven pride of place just beyond the Great American Beer Festival entryway and captured yearly style categories expediently invented to give them something to blush about as they wrote the checks … and Papazian cashed them.

How did that help the movement, Charlie?

Most galling of all, in 1994, we asked Papazian to join Britain’s CAMRA and speak out publicly against Anheuser-Busch’s marauding aggression against the Czech Republic’s Budvar brewery, and the response was the same: Stone-deaf obstinance, except this time Papazian found the words – the legal jargon -- to expressly forbid us from quoting his words of refusal to say the truth aloud, and to threaten us with a lawsuit if we did.

Now that’s leadership. Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" would have been bolder, and might have even put the ball into play.

Through it all, the Papazian cult of personality has continued to grow and prosper, and as it pertains to individual brand building, I’m all for self-aggrandizement, but when it is parlayed from a position of assumed collective authority that seldom has been taken for a spin outside the protection of the master’s Boulder garage, it’s far less impressive to me.

A savvy self-promoter? Of course.

The creative builder of a beery Rocky Mountain empire as a means of career advancement? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, these achievements, while noteworthy, simply do not combine to produce a great leader.

I’ll remember Papazian as an appeaser first, and a merchandiser second, and there is precious little evidence to suggest that I should change my opinion at this late date and elevate “leader” anywhere near either of these judgments.

Happily, craft beer’s multi-directional market explosion has made the notion of monaural industry leadership largely irrelevant, and while we need some of the things that one of many technocrats at the refashioned and improved Brewers Association offers – indeed, my company is a dues-paying member – a decentralized and strengthened craft beer movement no longer needs a “great leader pretend” to practice self-advancement while shirking the duties of the helm.

Quite a few readers, perhaps even most, will disagree, and I fully expect to be taken to task for these words, but so be it. Sometimes matters get personal, and this is one of those times. When I sincerely asked this great leader for help, he ignored me, insulted us, and was a coward when it came to quoting him. It may have been good politics at the time and somehow preserved the privileges of the brewing charlatans in St. Louis, retaining them as valuable sources of cash to mock the movement for better beer that we started precisely because of A-B’s offenses.

However, Papazian’s duck-and-cover did nothing to gain respect from me.

As a rule, I don’t hold grudges.

Papazian is the rare, and perhaps chief, exception to the rule.

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