The following is a response to a recent National Post column entitled, “How cheap beer and its easy, crispy, inoffensive taste became the drink of choice.“
I read your column today, and I felt compelled to respond.
But before I do so, I must first address your title, even though I know it was likely an editor’s choice and not yours, but beer is not “crispy.” Crispy denotes firmness and brittleness. Wafers are crispy. Crackers are crispy. Your beer is not crispy. The term you are likely seeking is “crisp,” a lazy beer shorthand often lumped in with the words “clean” and “cold” as a way to pile on modifiers that all essentially mean “this tastes like nothing, and I like that.”
Anyway. To your actual article.
As someone who has written fairly extensively about the beer industry in Ontario for the better part of a decade, I felt obligated to speak up because, to me, you’re promoting some unfair preconceptions about craft beer that continue to make it seem inaccessible, and you’re discussing shitty beer as a choice people are making, and it often really isn’t.
First, you’ve opened generally with a premise that suggests craft beer is mysterious or inexplicable. It is not. Specifically, your idea that “the world will never know what caused bearded men across North America to wake up one morning and collectively decide they had an unquenchable thirst for hops.”
Actually, we do. You can pretty handily trace the surging popularity of craft beer in North America to 1978 when then president Jimmy Carter signed Bill H.R. 1337, creating an exemption from taxation of beer brewed at home for personal or family use. Essentially, it made homebrewing legal and a generation of experimental beer makers not content to pay for flavourless “crispy” beer was born. Legislation made cheaply experimenting with beer legal. Cause : effect. Not mysterious.
And as the date of Mr. Carter’s bill might suggest, it didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long, uphill battle against huge mega-corporations and the generations worth of work they put in convincing everyone that beer should taste like bubbly, yellow water. On top of that, it should be noted that it really isn’t just bearded men drinking beer. And it isn’t even just men. Women represent the largest growing demographic of craft beer drinkers in north America.
You’ve also tapped into a misinformed idea of hops, noting derisively that “hops” has become a buzzword synonymous with “good.”
This is not true. Hops are one of the four main ingredients in all beer. It doesn’t mean “good.” It’s not a descriptor, it’s a key ingredient in all beer. There has certainly been a trend toward overly-hopped beer recently, notably here in Ontario, but if you wanted to comment sardonically on this trend, you ought to have published your article in 2011, when this was still an original idea.
As for your ideas about Woodhouse (presumably you mean Woodhouse Lager. That brewery also makes a stout and an IPA), it didn’t magically “become a favourite among city-dwelling, upwardly mobile 20- and 30-somethings with vague creative aspirations and just an edge of something to prove.” (Ugh). It became popular with your “edgy” Toronto demographic because three years ago, Graham Woodhouse, the brewery’s founder, created a brand and a recipe that would appeal to this demographic, then he targeted restaurants and bars that served them. It’s called a “marketing plan.” Full disclosure: I once wrote tasting notes and some web content for Graham Woodhouse and can attest that he has some strategy. He didn’t send his “cheap beer” (which retails for over $70 a case) into the world and hope hipsters would glom on to it as a status symbol.
Also, while we’re talking about Graham, I’m not really sure where you heard the “legend” that Woodhouse lager was “first brewed in a Toronto basement by a lone man [. . .] who would carefully bottle his microbrew by hand before wheeling it to bars to sell,” and your image of “Mr. Woodhouse” with “clenched jaw and the steely resolve of a surgeon as he carefully measured out the perfect amount of hops to add to each neon blue can” is pretty off the mark, too.
In fact, no such legend exists. The first news of Woodhouse (which I arguably wrote for blogTO) explains clearly that Graham Woodhouse used to work at Labatt’s then decided to start a brewery and paid Charles Maclean, an Ontario craft beer pioneer, to develop a recipe for an approachable lager. Not a homebrewer. No clenched jaw. No hops being added directly to a can. Not mysterious.
The rest of your article reads like a pretty straightforward version of the same, uninspired “I like beer I don’t have to think about!” op-ed that craft beer has been battling roughly since Mr. Carter signed that bill back in 1978, and so I won’t explain that “easy drinking” is a descriptor that might just as easily be ascribed to toilet water and I won’t even address your reference to Chef David Chang’s contrarian Budweiser fuckery, because Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garret Oliver already did.
But I would like to shed a little light on some of the perplexing mysteries of craft beer for you.
First, the reason that “Toronto’s high-end new wine bar Grey Gardens, where the wine list runs the gamut from hard-to-find bottles of Enderle & Moll German orange wine to an endless list of pricey offerings from Burgundy, France and Piedemont, Italy,” also offers patrons “the option of ordering an un-ironic Bud Light” and the reason that Hello Goodbye in Vancouver “offers bottles of Corona and Tsingtao adjacent to a sprawling champagne list that includes Moet Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and a $3,000 magnum of Cristal” is not because chefs and restaurateurs think shitty beer offers their customers choice or pairs well with their food or whatever bullshit excuse they might offer up. It’s because beer reps likely provided financial inducement to these restaurants to carry their beer.
Breweries (especially the big ones who can afford it) routinely entice bars into promising them a spot on their draught lineup and in their bottle fridge by providing customized swag, financing the installation of draught equipment and fridges, and, often, just handing them cash.
Shitty beer in good restaurants isn’t a new, anti-hipster-backlash movement. It’s the norm. It’s a problem likely as old as the first beer rep. No one chooses to curate a 900+ bottle wine cellar with Super Tuscans, Bordeax, and Moet and complements it with an all-Molson draught lineup because the Rickard’s portfolio pairs fantastically with foie gras, sunchokes, and hedgehog mushroom in chicken jus. They do so because Molson threw money at that restaurant. Money that craft breweries, by nature of their size, don’t usually have access to. Serving Bud Light isn’t a trend-defying choice to give customers what they really want. It’s actually really boring and lazy.
(Update: April 29th – It appears that the owner of Grey Gardens, Jenn Agg, does in fact openly profess to liking light beer. She actually drinks and serves Coors Light, not Bud Light, as the National Post noted, but it is thus likely that this establishment does not serve this beer as a result of financial inducement. As shocking as that may be to this writer).
One of your final points relates to the fact that “Cheap beer is an underrated culinary wonder beverage of the highest form.” And if you omit the word “cheap,” I’d agree wholeheartedly. Beer offers much more than being a cold, effervescent way to put out the fire on your tongue. Beer, by nature of its four distinct ingredients (sometimes more), offers all manner of variation that might wonderfully complement cuisine– subtle saisons, salty goses, tart, fat-cutting Berliner-weisses, the complexity and acidity of lambics and barrel-aged beers, variations in carbonation–the options are virtually limitless.
Before I opted to write this, I read some of your food writing.
That you are a food writer so dismissive of good beer is one of the reasons I opted to respond, actually. Notably in your writing in Vogue, I saw you’ve written about restaurants increasingly offering “seasonal, sustainably sourced ingredients” and you positioned the local movement as a rejection of the industrial agricultural system. I would suggest that embracing and supporting craft beer is not dissimilar, so it seems odd that the draw of local, independent beer escapes you. In your National Post offering, you posit that “ordering Bud Light over a small batch microbrewery IPA feels a bit like announcing that you prefer shopping at Walmart over your local farmer’s market.”
Not to get too philosophical about it, but it really fucking is like that.
Budweiser is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, a multi-national corporation that enjoys control of roughly a third of all the beer produced on the planet. They did $55 billion in revenue last year.
On the other hand, Graham Woodhouse, a contract brewer with a Labatt background and marketing savvy, is hardly the dude to wave the bearded, anti-establishment, independent craft-brewer flag, but he is a small business owner living in this province who hopes to open an actual brewery in his hometown of Hanover someday. He has seven employees. As recently as January, he only had two. He just bought his second delivery van.
Drinking Bud really is like shopping at Walmart and supporting craft beer really is a lot like supporting your local farmer’s market. And I assure you that it is exactly as scary and intimidating and self-expression-entrenched as that proverbial farmer’s market. If you dig a little deeper, I assure you that you will find embracing craft beer is not all that difficult or mysterious. It’s actually really rewarding.
There is even a growing trend in Ontario beer to return to the “easy drinking” lagers and pilsners you seem to favour, and they’re made in your backyard on a smaller scale without the cost-cutting adjuncts you’ve mentioned. They too are inoffensive, mild, bubbly and enjoyed cold. I strongly encourage you to seek them out. You won’t regret it.
Just please don’t call them crispy.