The first thing I’d like to say is that I don’t really like the term “craft beer”. I’m starting to see it like I saw “molecular gastronomy” ten years ago – a fairly broad and inaccurate term that doesn’t really describe anything that well anymore. That being said, it serves its purpose for what I’m writing. If you don’t like the term either, deal with it while you read this.
A few days ago an article was published online on the National Post website, praising the likes of Bud Lite while broadly and inaccurately lumping all craft beer into the category of “hops”. There was some thorough and thoughtful criticism, and some excellent responses to the flat out incorrect content in the piece; and then there was some criticism that wasn’t so nice. I’m not going to get into any of that because it isn’t the issue I have with the article. This is:
Why is this acceptable to do to beer? Why is a food writer, someone who is supposed to have a broad knowledge and appreciation for all aspects of food and drink, writing an article praising the virtues of mass-produced beer, while at the same time slagging craft?
Is this what stands for food writing in 2017? At a time when we’ve never been more food obsessed; at a time when bookstores are overflowing with titles on every gastronomic subject; at a time when the internet is at anyone’s fingertips, how does an article like this even exist? A food writer is supposed to be an expert on the subject of food and drink. That’s why they’re paid to write about it. And I know, they’re supposed to have an opinion. It makes them fun interesting to read. I could see someone like Jeffrey Steingarten writing a piece praising grilled cheese sandwiches made with wonder bread and processed cheese as something objectively delicious. And I’d agree. The man wrote a very thorough, entertaining, and convincing article on ketchup in 1992. But if at the same time he was applauding the grilled cheese he dumped on Eric Kayser Baguettes and Roquefort as hipster and trivial, it would be an idiotic and unnecessary angle to take.
What makes a writer feel the need to take this route, and why is it ok to do to beer, but rarely done to other segments? There’s nothing wrong with liking lite lager and to shout from the mountain tops why you like it so much. But why generalize and put down craft at the same time? Is it the food writing equivalent of a politician carrying around a Tim Horton’s cup to seem more relatable? Maybe it’s a ploy? Maybe the author wrote the article because they know it’ll rile up a bunch of beer geeks like me, who will then go mention their name on social media, gaining exposure. No publicity is bad publicity, right? Maybe newspapers and magazines are courting big brewers with large marketing budgets as advertisers, and commission articles like this as a sort of “Bat Signal”? Maybe the print media companies are on the take, and the big brewers came to them with the idea. When David Chang penned a similar article in 2014, the same thing crossed my mind about GQ. An article like that doesn’t really benefit anyone other than the brewers of mass-produced beer. Who knows? What I’m fairly certain of, though, is the big brewers would like it an awful lot if they could go back to what things were like a few decades ago when people thought beer was “just beer” and didn’t really care about it. Then they could go back to not having to care, too.
I care a lot about what I drink. But unless I have to share with you, I don’t care what you drink. If you grew up in a town where a brewery making adjunct-laden lager was part of the local community, gave a lot of your neighbours and family jobs, and you like it because of nostalgia, drink it. If drinking Blue is a connection you had with your grandfather and it makes you feel all warm inside and reminds you of simpler times, drink it. If you like the way the mountain changes colour on the label of the bottle when it gets cold enough, drink it. If you really just like the taste, drink it. Who cares? I get it. You like it, and you’re allowed to drink what you like for your own reasons.
What I don’t get is what an article like this is looking to accomplish? Why it is being published? Look at it from any other perspective of food. If the author was waxing poetic about the virtues of low-rent Pinot Grigio for the same reasons – it’s light, easy to drink, and pairs with everything, would the Post even have entertained the idea of running the article? The author mentions the Bud Lite on offer at Grey Gardens alongside the orange wine and Burgundy, and the Corona and Tsingtao beside the sprawling selection of Champagne at Hello Goodbye, as if they’re points of pride and the sign of a good restaurant. Well, what if instead of Bud Lite, it was Blue Nun? Or what if the article was praising a pastry chef who uses Amedei couverture for their chocolate dishes, but also offers a Jersey Milk bar on the dessert menu? What about a chef who only sources meat from local farms who naturally raise the highest quality animals, but also serves boxed chicken nuggets? What if Cheese Boutique were selling Kraft Singles? All of those situations sound pretty dumb to me, and not worth putting on a pedestal as if they were some sort of heroic, down to earth deed for the people. Products like Bud Lite, Jersey Milk, and Kraft Singles aren’t poor quality in their own right. Few people realize how difficult they are to make, and the collective consistency of these sorts of products is a wonder of modern engineering. But people seem to have no trouble recognizing the difference between, and occasion for, these and their artisanal counterparts. Yes, there are over-hopped, not very enjoyable ipas. There are also over-oaked, tannic cabernet sauvignons that aren’t very enjoyable. The fact that either exist don’t make the case for the mass-marketed, easy drinking versions to be exalted as if they’re worth half a shit in comparison to the properly made, benchmark versions.
So why is it different with beer? I unashamedly love a Dairy Milk bar, and I could probably write two articles about that. But I wouldn’t see the need to imply single estate chocolate from Pierre Marcolini as something pretentious and fancy in the process. And I don’t see any other segment of food and drink getting this kind of treatment? So I’m going to ask again, why is it different with beer? I think there are a few different reasons, but a big part, I think, despite the rise of craft, is people don’t want to have to take the time to educate themselves on beer. We’ve spent a long time with big breweries telling us through commercials and marketing that their beer is the best and the only one you need to drink. Everything else is the emperor’s new clothes, so don’t bother seeking anything else out to broaden your perspective or learn something new. And this is fine, you don’t have to. Unless, maybe, you want to be a writer of a specific subject, say, I don’t know… food and drink. Then it might be a good idea to educate yourself so you don’t come across as a twit when you write an article. To like something, you’re entitled to your opinion. When critiquing something, you’re entitled to your informed opinion. Hoppy beer makes you feel like you’ve eaten 14 hot dogs… what does that even mean? Read a book. (I’d recommend something by Stephen Beaumont)
Scarborough native Jesse Vallins is the executive chef at Maple Leaf Tavern and Port Restaurant, and a co-founder and partner at Merit Brewing Co in Hamilton. He’s spent the last two decades cooking in some of the Toronto’s best restaurants. His passion for the industry has led to in-depth study in all aspects of the restaurant world, as well as stages in top restaurants both in Toronto and internationally. When he’s not working in his restaurants, Jesse teaches and develops curriculum at Toronto’s George Brown College, and contributes content to online publications like Serious Eats, and, of course, Good Food Revolution