Why Doesn't the NY Times Take Beer Seriously?

If you do a subject search on "beer" in the New York Times, you'll find thirty articles published in 2017. That's not very many for a paper that publishes thousands of articles each year, and not a single one of those was a critic's review column. You have to go back to August 18, 2016 for the last time wine critic Eric Asimov did one of his very occasional pieces. He dabbles in beer criticism, having touched on sour beers (2016), gose (2015), lagers (2015), more sours (2014), amber ales (2013), President Obama's homebrew (2012), porters (2012), sour beers (again!) (2011), kolsch (2011), dunkel lagers (2011), pale ales (2010).

It wasn't always this way. If you go back six or eight years, you find a Times much more engaged with beer. Beyond Asimov, the paper did around sixty articles on beer, including a number that delved deeply into the multifaceted world of culture, craft, and business beer occupies.

Last Friday, Asimov offered his latest critical review, this time a round-up of brown ales. There's nothing inherently wrong with brown ales, and a column about them would be perfectly responsible for a critic writing 26 or 52 beer columns annually. But for a paper that has managed to cover eight beer styles in the past eight years, it's hard to make a case for a critic's round-up of a style that ceased being relevant twenty years ago and of which very few examples exist. (Just to drive home the point, this is actually the second column Asimov has devoted to brown ales since 2007, which is hard to defend by any measure.)

It's not just style selection, either. Asimov doesn't seem interested in doing the work to learn where beer is now and what's driving the styles we find on shelves--and resents that anyone should think he'd need to. He demonstrates this with a passive-aggressive pre-dismissal of anyone who would take issue of the attention he was directing at browns.

I don’t care much about fashion, either. But I do care about the beer I drink, which apparently would be considered hopelessly uninteresting by those who follow the latest trends.

This tone of irritation continues:

Current American beer culture seems to revolve around a couple of styles: sour beers, which can be altogether wonderful and fascinating, and American India pale ales, which have dominated the craft beer market for so long that it’s a wonder they have not yet fallen out of fashion.  I cannot say I share the taste for these I.P.A.s, which, with their emphasis on the imperious flavors of American hops, are the equivalent of oaky California chardonnays of the 1990s.

This paragraph might have had more salience had it been written a few years back, but it would have been wrong then, too. Sour beers--which he leaves undefined--are a tiny niche in the beer market and, while they are beloved by some beer geeks, they have made basically no commercial inroads in the past decade. They're still extremely marginal. IPAs, of course, have changed dramatically, and whatever Asimov means by "imperious flavors" does not square with the trend toward fruit-juice hopping. The rise of lagers, pastry beers, NE IPAs, and even the advent of late-addition hopping all seem to have escaped his notice. In 2018 these comments only serve to illustrate how little attention Asimov has paid to beer in the years since the Times asked him to start writing about beer.

(I don't have a problem with Asimov as a wine critic. He's been writing about the subject since 1999 and has been the Times' chief wine critic since 2004 and, by most accounts, is excellent.)

I posted a one-tweet rant about how irritating these articles are, and that was where I planned to leave it, except that Stan Hieronymus responded with this:


Of course, Stan's exactly right--and that's a big problem if you care at all about beer. The Times has several million print and digital subscribers and gets hundreds of millions of page views a month. Eric Asimov is by far the most-read beer writer in the world, despite the fact that he has written eleven beer articles since 2010. In short, the world's most-influential beer writer doesn't really care about beer.

I wouldn't bother with this if it were any other publication. But the Times is a special case. Its reputation for erudition means it has a rare kind of credibility. In forwarding someone who has little interest in beer, passes along dated and inaccurate information, and whose critical apparatus is unformed, the Times sends the unintentional signal that beer isn't worthy of serious attention. This article is damaging because millions of people have just been exposed to the idea that sour ales are popular, IPAs are bad, and brown ales are something to which they should pay attention. Not taking something seriously is worse than ignoring it altogether when you have a megaphone as large as the New York Times'.

I take beer seriously. It's not the most important thing in the world--or even in the top 100. But it's as serious and important as wine, or food, or the New York Jets, all of which are afforded the respect of serious coverage by the Times. (Can we all agree that beer is far more important than the New York Jets?) The Times either needs to assign a trained critic to write about beer or quit covering it altogether. This is the worst of both worlds and it's beneath the paper's own standards.

Jeff Alworth5 Comments