If you’re a craft beer fan in Alberta, these are good times: the province has more than 40 working breweries, with many popping up in small communities in every corner of the province. And there are more on the way.
There’s plenty to celebrate as we mark the second annual Alberta Beer Week — including the fact we’ve reached a point when a this province’s flourishing beer industry warrants a nine-day party. Everything is awesome, right?
With apologies to Alberta’s own Tegan and Sara, not everything is awesome. Things are mainly awesome, but success and expansion also bring growing pains. It’s inevitable.
The end of minimum production quotas that stunted growth for so many years unleashed a deluge of new breweries in Alberta. Some of the newcomers are outstanding, many are very good and some are promising but still finding their feet.
There are also a few that are bad — so bad, in fact, I’ve wondered a few times recently how they can’t know it. Or if they know a beer is terrible, why did they sell it anyway?
At this point I want to be clear: I’m not talking about subjective commentary on how hoppy a beer should be, or geeking out about whether it’s “extreme” enough. I’m talking about infected beer and beer with identifiable flaws being packaged and sold to an unsuspecting public by some of Alberta’s more recent entries to the beer market.
Recent experience tells me local isn’t always better. Maybe one day it will be, but we’re not there yet.
I’d been thinking about how to broach the subject when this happened: Graham Sherman of Tool Shed Brewing wrote a blog post “firing” a consumer. The target was Ryan Bolin, a knowledgeable, passionate beer guy who has been outspoken on social media about Alberta beer — good, bad and ugly.
I won’t dwell on the controversy other than to say I like both those guys. Ryan’s approach to criticism differs from mine (I’ve told him the same thing, so I don’t think it’s offside to say so here), but he’s not a hater. Likewise, Graham’s response to criticism in this case wasn’t the tack I’d take.
If nothing else, this tempest in a brew kettle opens the door for a discussion about the relationship between Alberta’s craft brewers and a group I’d loosely call the beer writing community (bloggers, tweeters and enthusiasts with a platform), as well as the public.
This may sound harsh, but I’m being deliberately blunt for effect: the latter two groups don’t owe the industry anything. Drinking local beer is virtuous, but it’s not mandatory — and it’s a loyalty that must be earned. It doesn’t come with the territory.
There’s a common misconception that the writing community — the bloggers and opinion-makers — are part of an apparatus that needs to “support the industry.” There are certainly bloggers and boosters who do that, but it’s entirely their choice to use their platform that way. The only group whose actual job it is to “support the industry” is the industry.
That’s not to say that various writers, bloggers and social media gadflies can (or should) say outrageous things and expect to be taken seriously. Leaving aside trolls and anonymous troublemakers, any writer, blogger or Twitter personality trying to cultivate a following in the beer community should learn about the subject so they can deliver honest and fair critiques that help consumers make informed choices. That should be their mandate, not “supporting the industry”.
I get that many craft brewers have poured years of effort and usually a lot of money into making a go of their dream. They deserve to be treated with respect and a writer shouldn’t trifle with an entrepreneur’s livelihood by publishing something malicious or untrue.
But it’s unreasonable for a craft brewer to believe blood, sweat, tears and a hefty loan exempt them from criticism. Consumers constantly make choices and render opinions that impact the livelihoods of millions of people with the products they buy, the stores they patronize and the services they pay for. How is beer any different? (Answer: it’s not.)
Do I have examples of Alberta breweries making bad beer? Can I name names? Yes. I have and I will continue to: anyone who follows me on Twitter or Untappd will know I’ve had problems with some Alberta beers I’ve recently tried. I thought about mentioning them here but it seemed unfair to single them out, because they’re not the only ones.
Is it fair to criticize new breweries? Not always — but they don’t deserve a free pass, either. Opening your doors to the public should be a sign you’ve made something worth paying for. Consumers are spending money, not handing out participation ribbons.
It’s acceptable, and even desirable, for new breweries to go through what one of my beer buddies awesomely called a “calibration phase” when recipes get tweaked and otherwise decent beers get better through small changes. But that’s different from releasing flawed or infected beer. Customers shouldn’t be unwitting guinea pigs while a new brewery figures out how to properly sanitize its equipment or scale up a homebrew recipe.
Using “we’re new” as an excuse for flawed beer also insults many Alberta breweries that have made solid — and in some cases, outstanding — beer from the moment they opened their doors. More often than not, these are breweries that spent a lot of time and money making test batches that would never be sold to the public, just to make sure they were ready for prime time.
Remember that the next time someone tells you a new brewery can’t afford to dump a bad batch down the drain. Bullshit. Very early in its existence, Ribstone Creek dumped a batch of witbier after something went wrong, despite the fact the brewery had heavily promoted it. It must have hurt — both in terms of the expense and the wasted effort. But Ribstone’s owners figured the short-term pain was better than risking long-term damage to its reputation from selling bad beer. The brewery recently disposed of a batch of its Lone Bison IPA for the same reason, showing the owners haven’t gotten complacent.
Drinking local beer isn’t an obligation. It’s a contract — and under the terms of that contract, brewers should be making beer that’s worth drinking.
In Alberta, most brewers do. But some aren’t, and people who point out that unpleasant truth don’t owe the industry their loyalty or deferential silence.
Dialogue — respectful dialogue — will make us all better. To the critics of the critics, be thankful that Alberta’s craft beer industry has reached a point where it evokes such passion. Learn to take the bad with the good. As Elie Wiesel once said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”