Exposing Bad Beer

Why don't more people write about bad beer? This is a question posed by Boak and Bailey in their excellent consideration of Michael Jackson over at BeerAdvocate. As they evaluated his work and legacy, they noted that Jackson's writing was nearly uniformly celebratory. Not surprising, given that he was attempting to shine a light on small breweries making increasingly-endangered traditional beer in an age of consolidation. But B&B extend the thought:

This is the approach that most beer writers subscribed to until recently, and many still do: focus on the positive, and avoid reveling in the kind of hatchet job that so often characterizes food or art criticism. But readers have grown cynical, like the enthusiast who recently said to us, “The problem with beer bloggers is, they never have a bad beer.” An increasing number of readers expect to hear about both good and bad and roll their eyes in exasperation at what is sometimes called the “cheery beery” tendency in writing. Fundamentally, the idea that a writer might be on the side of the industry rather than the consumer troubles them.

I've largely followed Jackson's approach. There are already too many good breweries to write about (I have interviews, photos, and potential stories about Port City (VA) and Hill Farmstead (VT) languishing on my computer); there seems little point in spending my meager energies discussing bad beer. From time to time I stop at a new brewery that doesn't impress--Deception Brewing in Dundee (OR) and Scout Beer are a couple of recent examples--but those are smaller places trying to find their footing. Why call attention to a place that may well have just had an off day or will soon improve?

If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do. Any merit or unusual aspect is, I believe, of interest to my readers.... Nor since I have the whole world from which to choose, can I be comprehensive. If I despise a beer, why find room for it? This poses a problem only when a beer is too big to ignore.
— Michael Jackson, as quoted by Boak and Bailey

I also don't often encounter bad beer, either. I typically drink at breweries or good-beer pubs. I suppose there are a few bad old breweries rattling around Portland, but not many. With 60+ breweries to visit, why would I spend my time at the Tugboat? Good beer bars thrive on putting, well, good beer on tap so you don't find many duds there. Twenty years of beer writing has also given me certain spidey sense to identify skillful beers like based on knowledge of brewers and beer styles.

But enough of the excuses: Boak and Bailey are right, I should be writing about bad beer more often. I'm actually going to start looking for them. Rather than just writing scathing reviews, though, I'll use it as an opportunity to discuss why I think the beer is bad, because "bad" is in many dimensions an objective evaluation. A good brewer may fail to execute on a vision, which is one kind of bad. A mediocre brewer may compose an uninspiring recipe, a different kind. Or the beer may have faults and off-flavors, a kind of bad that is now rarer, at least in these parts. Beer may be bad because of technical, aesthetic, or other reasons--and there's actual value in discussing the nature of the problems.

It will also give me a chance to discuss bad beer without mindlessly trashing it for failing to meet my personal preferences. This is a fault in the other direction, one that is rampant on the ratings sites. I hope writing about what's objectively flawed or bad will act as an antidote to the solipsistic tendency to regard beer's purpose as satisfying our own tastes--an equally damaging trend.

Feel free to ping me with tips about where to find these bad beers and breweries. I'll keep you anonymous. Bad beer hunting, here I come--

Jeff Alworth8 Comments