Cheap beer is not a “drink of choice”

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.

Hi Claudia,

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.

18 thoughts on “Cheap beer is not a “drink of choice”

  1. Niggling, nitpicky little correction to the NP article (one of many things Claudia got wrong): Grey Gardens have had Coors Light on tap since they opened.

    The reason for this is, to quote Jen Agg on twitter: “BECAUSE ITS WHAT WE LIKE TO CHUG AFTER A LONG DAY! SILVER BULLET BABYYYYY”

    I whinged about this a little in my Yelp review of Grey Gardens where I referred to Coors Light as carbonated sorrow.

    Anyway my point it’s almost certainly not there because Coors paid them to put it there.

    I maintain that this is a singular flaw in an otherwise perfect restaurant. There are times when you want to crush a Coors, sure, like right after you mow the lawn and you’re full of self loathing or you need to put out a small fire. But for me that time will never be alongside an amazing meal.

    So it’s a little different there, but I do think it’s a fair generalization to say that wine and cocktails certainly (and cider, in the case of Grey Gardens) all seem to be held in high regard. But somehow when it comes to beer, boring pale macro agers are welcome where serving cheap plonk from a box would be scoffed at. Odd.

    Anyway Claudia comes off as very insecure and contrary in that article for no real reason.

    1. Someone else mentioned Jen Agg’s professed love for light beer on Facebook under this post so I admit I googled to track down the verity of the claim. She does seem to publicly profess to digging on Coors. I’ll concede it’s possible she is the rare exception of a quality restaurateur that chooses shitty beer by free will.
      But that’s just fucking weird. There is no shortage of Ontario pilsners and kolsch-style beers that are much better suited to thirst quenching than the corn-syrupy Coors Light. Yuck.

      1. I made a similar point in my Yelp review which was answered on their Instagram account as follows:

        Much like Claudia’s take on all this and David Chang’s and really like so many restaurants who put a lot of thought into food and wine but turn a blind eye to beer, it strikes me as a perplexingly inconsistent ethos.

    2. Thank you so very, very much, Jan Vogels, for the description of Coors Light as “carbonated sorrow.” Perfect!

  2. Yeah, people with sophisticated cuisine pallets preferring cheap beer is one of life’s biggest mysteries. Personally, I can’t even taste macro beer anymore. It’s just a liquid to me. I can’t imagine preferring a macro beer over a Steam Whistle or a Side Launch Wheat with the appropriate food pairing.

  3. “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.”

    Ben – could you name a couple of your favourites? I’d like to try some of these offerings

    1. Hi Mike,
      Sean makes some good recommendations below (I’m literally drinking a Mountain Lager as I type this), but I’d also add 2017, the Helles Lager that Amsterdam did this year, Muddy York Brewing Co’s Helles (which I can’t remember the name of right now), the woefully underrated Pickup Truck Pilsner from Thornbury Village (which used to be called King Pilsner), any number of Ontario cream ales that would do the trick (Muskoka’s cream ale, Cameron’s Cosmic Cream Ale, London Ontario’s Anderson Craft Ales does a cream ale). Lastly, for some reason it get’s overlooked constantly–perhaps because the company is too big to be cool these days?–but fresh draught or a fresh can of Steam Whistle pilsner is still a beautiful thing to me.

  4. Mike W, look for Side Launch Mountain Lager, Rhythm & Brews Vinyl Tap, Blood Brothers Blood Light, or Bellwoods Stay Classy, as examples of local craft lagers and light session ales. I would personally argue that any kettle-sour fills a similar niche (berlinerweisse, gose), but sours are not for everyone.

  5. Fantastic post. Although admittedly I’ll thoroughly and unapologetically enjoy a shitty macro-brew from time to time as well (I’ll just never seek it out).

  6. Once more for those in the back… Not all beer has hops. MOST beer has hops, but it is untrue (both historically and currently) to say that all beer does.

    1. True, though if it’s sold as beer in Ontario, then legally it must contain hops. I’ve toured Beau’s in the past, where they explained that because of this they have to throw a single hop pellet into every gruit that they brew.

  7. As a craft-beer-loving woman, I would like to print out this piece and share it with everyone I meet drinking crispy Bud Light instead of a delicious local beer.

  8. Tooth & Nail’s Vim & Vigor, Amsterdam’s Starke and Left Field’s Cannonball should be added to this list of Ontario’s crispiest lagers that are never so hops-riddled as to ruin the taste of any possible food you might conceivably pair them with.

    1. Dear god. Two of my favorite beers and I forgot them! Great additions. I actually haven’t tried Cannonball. Added to my list. Thanks Matt.

  9. Glad to find a good beer resource a little outside my area geographically. It gives me a little more insight to the craft brewing community in another part of the world. Looking forward to reading more.

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