Earlier this year, we embarked on a spot of chin-stroking in consideration of the validity of rating beers. Today, we bring The Pondering Pint back and look at the state of craft beer in the Australian media.
In February last year, Fairfax's Good Food section ran an article entitled 'The Rise of Boutique Brews' by Mark Chipperfield, a "journalist, travel writer and beer sleuth" according to his website. Within the article were a few things that raised eyebrows in the beer world, with a reference to "Maris Otter hops" the one that comes most readily to mind, closely followed by Stone & Wood Pacific Ale's "cherry" aromas. One wouldn't have thought it would take too much sleuthing to discover that Maris Otter is a variety of English malt, not a hop. Then again, beer does have four ingredients so it can get confusing.
Ignoring the fact that the term "boutique beers" needs consigning to the dustbin, for the most part the article was welcomed by beer lovers. After all, here was a relatively rare sight: craft beer presented positively in the mainstream media.
If memory serves correctly, it was also some time last year that craft beer in Australia broke through an invisible glass ceiling and became, if not part of the mainstream, accepted as "a thing" by the mainstream; not a fad that would pass or a wave that would collapse as the first one did in the 1990s. And with acceptance has come change: wider selections of beer in more pubs, bars and restaurants; a broader and larger pool of drinkers; Asahi, Coca Cola, Coles and Woolies launching their own "craft" brands; and far more coverage in the media, to name just four.
Yet, despite this growing acceptance, it seems that craft beer still has an image problem. This isn't so much that people don't understand that there's a difference between how people typically approach craft beer and the beer drinking that goes on in Fitzroy Street in St Kilda or Kings Cross. Thankfully, slowly but surely, the idea that some people actually drink beer for flavour and enjoyment and take an interest in its provenance – rather than launching into a session with the sole aim of falling over – is getting through.
The image problem comes down to the fact that, as "craft beer" becomes click bait worthy and media outlets scramble to pump out stories on it week in, week out, the knowledge and education of many of those commissioning, writing and editing these stories isn't growing in line with their frequency. There are exceptions: Will Hawkes' articles for Fairfax (compiled by email from London rather than by someone actually in Australia, which is in itself an indictment of something, we're just not quite sure what yet) are as authoritative as you'd expect from a British Beer Writer of the Year; or the use of beer industry folks' opinions by Luke McCarthy here, for example. But the regularity with which articles are being posted online only to be ridiculed is becoming, itself, quite ridiculous.
A recent online list entitled 'Ten Best Bars in Melbourne to Get Craft Beer' ("SEO terms achieved, boss!") made so many errors that one person commenting on Facebook started listing them before concluding: "I can only assume there are more mistakes, but I stopped reading." He needn't have worried as those commenting on his post took up the challenge for him, with one pointing out that the author even managed to spell "Lager" as "Larger" at one point.
NB The referenced article from November 17 has now been removed. The founder of the online magazine that published it contacted The Crafty Pint to explain that the article was put online in error due to a technical issue before it had been seen by editors. The corrected article will appear online at a later date.
We've already posted a follow up to this Sydney Morning Herald article from a fortnight ago, while perhaps the greatest ire in recent weeks has been reserved for this week's hard-hitting "investigation" in the Herald Sun entitled 'Rich and pour: beer snobs pay $23 a pint'.
It's an interesting one because the article does offer some balance to its headline and opening gambit by seeking input from a couple of beer bar owners / managers and a beer lover. But elsewhere it's easy to see why it raised hackles.
For a start, its headline features the deliberately antagonistic term "beer snob" – a term we've only ever seen in the headlines of newspaper articles – and follows this in the first line by throwing "hipsters" into the mix and implying that only said snobs and hipsters drink craft beer and that they pay $23 for their pints. Still, presumably the "hipster" / "craft beer" one-two is click bait gold at the minute.
Then there's the fact that the article is pitched as an "investigation" by the paper. It's an investigation that appears to consist of sharing one beer with a bunch of people in one bar that's walking distance from the paper's Southbank office, embellished by a couple of phone calls. OK, staffing levels are falling, sales are down and time is tight in the media world (as ABC's journos and regional offices are the latest to discover), but this is to investigative journalism what sticking a fork into a snag on the barbie to see if it's cooked through is to gourmet cuisine.
However, the main issue seems to lie with the premise of the article, the message it wishes to send and the means by which it looks to support its message: essentially, that a retiree who drinks at the Moonee Ponds Bowling Club and a former AFL player who once worked in a pub (and is usually found in the corporate areas at sporting events, in case you were wondering) think that rare, exclusive beers (such as the one chosen in the article) served in appropriate glassware by knowledgable bar staff are too expensive or, as the article points out, are sold for "ridiculous" prices, costing "more than the hourly minimum wage".
Perhaps the reporters might like to take the approach to other investigations, maybe offering a taste of Penfold Grange in Riedel glassware to an alcoholic off Smith Street before returning their goon bag?
"You like it? Great. But did you know a bottle costs more than a junior garbo earns in a week?"
We jest, of course, and humour is often the reaction to such articles – whether error-strewn, lazy or badly conceived – with which such pieces are met: "Oh, look what they've said in this one!" But at what point does the ongoing misrepresentation of craft beer stop being a laughing matter? At what point do we demand the same level of knowledge and diligence from editors and reporters that you would expect elsewhere in the pages of a reputable news organisation?
At what point do we need to inform media outlets that craft beer is not solely the preserve of beer snobs or nerds, that increasing numbers of people of all ages and both sexes enjoy it? That craft beer is not a homogenous thing? That you can find excellent craft beers for around $20 a six-pack (as acknowledged in the Herald Sun article)?
At what point do we educate journalists and their bosses that craft breweries are often tiny operations being run by people who devote themselves, their career and their livelihood to beer with a similar passion and for similar reasons to those that drive a musician to write songs, a painter to dedicate their life to an easel, a baker to create sourdough bread or a journalist to seek to inform? Or that there are readily available resources such as this site and beer experts out there who are approachable and can ensure that what is being published is accurate? That there is a thing called the Internet that will tell you what Maris Otter is and dictionaries that contain both the spelling of and definitions for "lager" and "larger"?
In terms of full disclosure, this is a matter that's close to The Crafty Pint heart; its founder is a former newspaper journalist and faced the same issues while working at papers in the past: watching specialists removed and sub-editing outsourced as struggling businesses were streamlined only for standards to decline and errors to mount. What's more, five or six years ago when we starting pitching beer articles to the likes of Epicure, it was a struggle to get anything printed as there was little awareness of, or interest in, craft beer. Now that we're too busy to write for newspapers, it's painful to see so much opportunity being so frequently wasted.
However, the failings of the media are only one part of it. That the current situation exists is also down to a failing on the part of the beer world, The Crafty Pint included. It's up to the craft beer industry to ensure that the right information and messages are out there and, especially, that they are reaching the people who, in turn, have the means to reach mass audiences. Our own audience, like that of the broader craft beer world, is growing quickly, but until we're part of the massive it should be a prerogative for those that care to help educate journalists. There are brewers, publicans, suppliers, small business owners and an increasing audience of drinkers who deserve better.
On which note, the recent glut of articles such as those above has, at least, sparked us into action with the wheels of a new project put into motion. It's something we hope will address the problem at its source and help inform and educate time- and resource-strapped media organisations so that future coverage is improved. While we get this up and running, perhaps the beer community can look to hold media outlets to account, pointing out any errors (in a polite and friendly manner, of course) rather than merely pointing fingers on social media and laughing.
The Herald Sun article got us thinking on another level too. What its message hints at is something at which all "beer snob", "hipsters drink craft beer" and similar articles also hint. It's the same message driven home by much of the marketing surrounding the country's mainstream lager brands. Namely, that you're a wanker if you drink craft beer. That it's for elitists or arseholes trying to look cool. That if you're a good, honest, true blue Aussie then you'd never countenance drinking such a ridiculously overpriced girl's drink. Indeed, it would be easy to deduce that drinking anything other than your "local" lager makes you un-Australian.
Yet surely this message has things 180 degrees the wrong way around. What could be more good, honest and true blue Aussie than striking out on your own and setting up a small business to follow your dream? That's what the majority of craft brewers in Australia have done, often abandoning other more secure careers to do so. If this is the case, then surely it follows that if you're a good, honest, true blue Aussie, and want that to be reflected in your choice of beer, you should support small breweries?
Here at The Crafty Pint, we believe everyone should be allowed to pour whatever beer they like down their throat (or none at all). What's more, this is in no way a judgement piece on the quality of beers from brewers big or small; the brewers of XXXX Gold or Carlton Draught achieve quality control, consistency and shelf life their craft counterparts dream of, for example.
As far as we're concerned, if you like the taste of Brand X mainstream lager, drink it. If your decision-making process at the bottlo hinges on maximising bang for buck, grab a carton of whatever's cheapest – which will probably be a mainstream lager brand. But if your decision is in any way guided by a desire to drink something that's in keeping with being a good, honest, true blue Aussie then logically you should be supporting small, local businesses set up by just those sort of people rather than a multi-national business whose profits trickle offshore.
Put it another way. If these "elitist", "beer snob" articles were applied to another sector of the food world, let's say beef – it's only one letter different, after all – then wouldn't the message would be:
"Hey, beef snobs! Stop buying that expensive meat from your local butcher who personally knows the farmers supplying their produce and makes their own smallgoods, you elitist hipsters. Head to the supermarket and buy the cheapest meat on the shelf.
"Forget about where it comes from, what might be in it, how far it's travelled, who raised the animal, how it was raised and what it was fed. You can save two dollars a kilo. And that's the Australian way."
UPDATE (December 9, 2014):
The Crafty Pint has been contacted by one of the journalists featured in the above article who has requested that we publish the following statement. We have agreed to do this in full:
A recent column in The Crafty Pint mentioned the work of journalist Mark Chipperfield. The publishers accept that Mr Chipperfield is a respected and highly professional journalist who actively promotes Australian craft beer around the world. We apologize to him for any hurt caused.