Writing about beer can be tough. When I first posted on this site five years ago I heaped praise on a certain craft beer, at a certain chain restaurant, for its ice cold goodness. Over time I learned beer is better when you can actually taste it. Then, later, I came to accept that not all craft beer is good, and maybe that particular pint really was at its best nearly frozen. On the day I drank it I really enjoyed that mug of beer – and shouldn’t that be what matters? Maybe? Probably not.
Posting publicly should involve a degree of self-doubt. I’ve been publishing facts and opinions for more than a decade, mostly in a field where I was the acknowledged expert. In the beer industry there are people that know more than I, but even the ones that have been doing this much longer are limited in what they can share with any certainty.
And that shouldn’t be a shocker.
First of all, beer’s history – which long predates Christianity – is still being revealed. In London, for instance, most of the early commercial brewers were Dutch speakers whose paper trails didn’t survive to see translation. So though it’s widely believed porter was first brewed in 18th Century England, in The Netherlands there are records of poorter or poorterbier that date back as far as the 14th Century. Poorter was a term for an inhabitant of a city, or “a citizen” (“poort” means “gate,” so a poorter was one that lived inside the city gates). Is poorter the origin of what we now call porter? No one knows, since no one seems to have unearthed a recipe for the old stuff yet. Despite the heavy Dutch influence on English brewing history, it really could just be a coincidence.
Then there’s the taxonomy. Here in Ontario there are several definitions of “microbrewery” and “craft brewery.” The Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment considers those terms interchangeable, but reserved for producers of less than 300,000 hL per year (the Ministry hasn’t updated its definition since the Ontario Craft Brewers Opportunity Fund expired 12 months ago). Ontario Craft Brewers – which receives funding from MEDTE through the Ontario Microbrewery Strategy – list their ceiling at 400,000 hL. The Ministry of Finance sets the same cap at 50,000 hL for taxation and markup purposes, but the LCBO (an agency of Finance) supports the OCB definition in their marketing considerations. Brewers Association (United States) defines a craft brewer as one that produces no more than 6,000,000 barrels per year. Translated, that’s more than 7,000,000 hL, or nearly 18 times the OCB’s allowance. Confusing, right?
Further complicating matters for beer writers is the incredible pace of modern development. Not only are breweries springing up like grade nine boys during slow dances, but technological innovations and gimmicks, experimentation with new styles and changing attitudes make it nearly impossible to stay on top of things. Add to that the marketing budgets of self-interested beer companies and it’s difficult to get to bare facts.
Despite all these challenges, in a world of declining opportunities for paid journalists a dizzying number beer articles get published. My rss feed is littered with previews of beer weeks, summaries of beer fests, announcements for distant beer releases and reviews of beer clubs I’ll never be able to join. Stumbling upon a truly thought-provoking piece is as rare and enjoyable as finding an oud bruin in Ontario.
Though I love to share my own thoughts, I won’t be looking to join the legion of professional beer writers any time soon. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was grateful for the opportunity to write for the Toronto Standard, even though it was unpaid. Now it seems the largest craft brewer in America is paying someone else to place their content in the same space I used to contribute researched articles.
I do have much more to say, but I’ll keep most of it here, where I can monitor the feedback and revise the content. My earliest posts were almost as embarrassing as my junior high slow dances, so they’re long gone. Over time I might wipe out a few more. That’s the beauty of blogging.
To the other writers that love the beer and continue to publish the stories that go with it, opening themselves to criticism and rebuttal, I raise my glass to you. I know it ain’t easy. It is appreciated.