A couple weeks ago, in response to my 2012 overview post (here), loyal reader Dave Graham offered a lengthy comment to the article, which you can read here (the link is not directly to his comment, but to the comments generally. It is the last – bottom – comment posted as of the time of writing). In it he offers some criticism of the recent beer bars that have opened and the track record of Alberta’s craft breweries. His thoughts are perfectly reasonable and something I have heard often before.
He also takes me to task in a constructive, friendly way (I hope it is friendly) about my approach to talking about the prairie craft beer scene. I try to respond to as many comments as possible on this site, and initially was going to write a reply right away. But then I got thinking about his argument, and decided to ponder it a bit further. Finally I decided a post was in order, not to respond to Dave per se, but to address the broader point I think he is trying to make.
In summarized form, this is how I interpret his point. He argues that I am too booster-ish when I discuss Alberta breweries and establishments, and that I am not challenging the local industry enough to keep striving for higher standards. His core criticism is found in this quote:
“…your unwillingness to challenge mediocre brews and establishments isn’t helping advance the beer scene in Alberta. You rarely offer constructive criticism of any of the local breweries, and pooh-pooh lazy tap lists such as those offered at Underground and MKT by calling them decent. All this accomplishes is to promote complacency; if the resident beer aficionado thinks it’s OK, then why bother improving? There’s nothing wrong with lighting a fire under people’s asses, pushing them to do better, and calling someone out when they’ve mailed in another ho-hum, uninspired effort. If you’re not going to hold the Alberta beer scene accountable, who will?”
I have read this part of the comment many times in the last few days. And I think it deserves a serious and thoughtful response, which I will try to do. First, however, I just want to quickly note that I disagree with his evaluation of the Underground’s tap list. It is far from lazy. It is imperfect, sure. But that is mostly an issue of what is available in the province – not a lack of effort by the owners. They have come to me a couple of times to give them feedback on their list, and I think they are working quite hard to respond to what their customers are asking for. But I recognize that was not Dave’s main point. I also think he might be unnecessarily harsh in his assessment of local beer. Some very good beer is made in this region; I respect they may not live up to his hopes – and that is fair – but personally I don’t find it hard to get a good pint of regional craft beer. But this is not the main point, either, so I will move on.
I acknowledge I am not quick to use the space in my columns or this website to be critical of regional craft breweries. There are three reasons for this. First, it is a decision on my part not to fill the airwaves/ magazine pages/internet ether with negative comments about small local companies who are doing an honourable thing – making honest craft beer. That doesn’t mean I won’t chastise them for mis-stepping or offer a tepid opinion on a so-so beer. And it certainly doesn’t mean letting them get away with a lack of integrity (which, so far, hasn’t really been an issue). It just means I see no real value in writing a column saying how X beer is not as good as that one I had in Boston or Brussels or Montreal. I don’t believe that helps build craft beer locally (a point I will return to). What I do promise – always – is that the words I type reflect my honest opinion.
Second, I am a strong – almost fanatical – believer that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (to certain limits). I am not here to judge other people’s beer choices. My mission is to offer information, educate and gently prod in the right direction. Not everyone loves Green Flash or Mikkeller; even among beer geeks opinions differ. For me, that means that one person’s disappointing IPA is another person’s great beer. Which, logically, means my job becomes one of describing, offering some assessment of what is going on, and letting the reader decide whether that is their kind of beer. Sure, from time to time, I blurt out an adjective-filled negative rant against a beer, but I am human after all. Plus, I suggest I do not ignore shortcomings in our local breweries – quite the opposite. A careful reading of my reviews of regional beer would reveal that I quietly suggest how they could improve without losing sight of what the beer has to offer.
To a beer geek, a particular craft beer may seem, tame, timid and boring. But to another, it might be full of good flavour and nicely balanced. Neither is wrong; they are just coming from different places. My job is to respect where someone is coming from and help them along. It is the same for beer cultures in general. My job is to accurately assess where a city/province/region is at and figure out a way to move them forward.
Which leads me to my third reason. I think the core of this comes down to a disagreement of what is the best way to advance good beer in the region. Dave, I think, feels that I should be something of a vanguard, pushing and raising the bar, being the voice of the beer aficionado in Alberta. I believe that to a certain extent I perform that role at times. But it is not how I see my contribution to beer in our area, or how we best move the beer culture forward in these parts.
Instead, I see myself as one voice among a chorus of well-toned voices. There are lots of you out there who understand beer, and will vote with your wallets. You don’t need me to tell you which bars or breweries are the good ones – you already know. So for that portion of you, I hope my columns and posts are about a comrade sharing his perspective with equals.
But there is another aspect to my job. For beer drinkers wanting to go on a beer adventure but who are not sure of what the road map even looks like, I want to be a source of information, tips and helpful advice. These consumers vastly outnumber the friendly crowd of long-time beer geeks. For them, what is the value in saying, “the beer scene in Edmonton sucks”, or “sure you might like X beer, but it isn’t nearly as good as Y beer from elsewhere”? I believe that I serve the prairie beer scene more by helping to create a more educated, more demanding consumer and point them to some of the efforts of local brewers. And then THEY can tell the region’s brewers what they want to see more of.
Finally, I take a long view on things like this. Portland didn’t become Portland overnight. It took decades. I am optimistic that Edmonton (and the prairies in general) are headed in the right direction, and that we WILL see more breweries and more quality beer bars – and those people will push the ones who currently exist in a virtuous circle of better beer.
As a final post-script, I might know beer, but I don’t know very much about running a business. I feel it would be a bit arrogant of me to tell Alley Kat or Paddock Wood or Yukon or whomever that they should “up their game” and make more assertive/challenging beer. It is not me that has to sell it. You could argue they are selling the consumer short, and that people are more ready than they think. Maybe. But I think they have a pretty good handle on what it takes to sell craft beer in this town/province/region.
This post has gone on too long, so I will end there. But I hope this provides some insight into how I see my role, and how I think it contributes to growing beer in the region. I want to thank Dave for his comment – because he has a good point and it made me stop and think about what I am doing. That is the kind of accountability any writer – or brewer – wants and needs. And this post, too, is open to response, criticism and suggestions. All comments are welcomed, respected and will receive a fair reply.