It's no secret that I have not been a fan of local weekly rag the Willamette Week's weak (watch the pun!) beer coverage since arts editor Martin Cizmar jumped with both feet into the spent grain bucket. I tolerated and got a few laughs out of the initial review of Logsdon's Seizoen, but then became irate at his take on Hopworks Abominable Ale. My disagreement with Martin's fundamental misunderstanding of seasonal beers and beers from the Pacific NW in general caused one of my infamous rants against the crappy beer coverage in mainstream publications in my post Willamette Week Delves into Beer Reviews, Fails Miserably. Since then, Martin and I fought a secret cold war over each other's honor before burying the hatchet. (Don't tell Martin, but I won). So, OK, I have to give the guy credit, he is trying, and with the help of professional beer writer Brian Yaeger, edjumucation is just a few short years away in Portlandia. Still, WWeek's 2011 Top 10 list of Oregon beers still makes me cringe (Bridgeport Summer Squeeze, really?!?).
Since then, Martin Cizmar may have softened up with his newfound celebrity after being featured on CNN for returning his boy scout badges. (That's honorable and all, but I once tried to return half of Chick-Fil-A sandwich after finding it between the car seats, that was much more challenging.)
But I digress! I was shocked and humbled when Mr. Cizmar invited me to join an esteemed critics panel at WW offices a few weeks ago. The panel was for Willamette Week's The President of Beers, a story currently being featured in a long running series on the paper's website as they count down from #50 to #1.
|Martin Cizmar (left) and his much more professionally dressed intern John Locanthi|
Lisa Morrison, aka the Beer Goddess, writer and host of Beer O' Clock Radio
Brian Yaeger, freelance beer writer extroardinaire
Sara Pederson, publican and owner of Saraveza
John Locanthi, WW intern
Ben Waterhouse, Ex-WW Restaurant Guide editor
Hilary Evans Berg, editor of Oregon Wine Press
John Chandler, web editor of Portland Monthly
Anne Marie DiStefano, Portland Tribune food and drink columnist
John Lovegrove, the guy who visited 50 Portland area breweies in a single day
Also present was the infamous Grand Poobah, Fred Eckhardt, but he only made it about a 1/3 of the way through the beers before he had to leave.
The President of Beers project is a flawed but noble competition between craft beers from each of the 50 states--in the end, one was to be crowned King. The flawed premise stipulates that one beer will be picked from every state as its flagship to represent it in a blind tasting panel of critics. As Fred Eckhardt pointed out as we were seated around WW's boardroom table, there is no fair way to judge these beers against each other, as many are different styles and may have undergone horrible conditions to be delivered to the offices. Not to mention, who decides which beer is each state's flagship? Of course, these are much too serious questions for a high concept task created more out of the fun challenge of the whole thing than anything. As we settled into our rolling office chairs for the long haul and editor Ruth Brown poured 1oz samples while a photographer shot each bottle individually, I pondered the history of the WW's relationship with craft beer...
|Enough boxed wine to get through 5 day workweek|
|"Willamette Week's 1994 Guide to Microbrews"|
The coolest thing discovered, though, is that the paper actually once covered beer with competency. Apparently, one J. Alworth actually wrote a beer column for a time; I wonder what happened to that guy? Martin Cizmar pulled out a discovery of his from the archives, a WW paper pullout from 1994 entitled 'Beervana'. This pretty cool guide to Portland's beer scene had all sorts of writeups on many beer bars and breweries I had never heard of (alas, I am a young buck) and others I remembered fondly (the Rose and Raindrop). There were also some funny quotes from personalities of the day, like this one from local news anchor Tracy Barry:
I was surprised to look over the list of contributors to this pullout and not recognize a single name. I would think even if some of these writers' careers at WW were limited, I would see their beer writing in other publications, but I guess that shows you how much things have changed over the years.
Let's get back to the blind tasting, though. First we started out strong, with 1oz samples poured into paper ramekins that reminded me of the cups your dentist gives you to spit your fluoride rinse into. The cups and snack bags quickly began to pile up. It soon became apparent that our panel's tastes were vastly different, with critics from across the room proclaiming their love for beers I found subpar and many just rating things at an altogether high level between 60 and 90 on an entirely unnecessary 100 point scale.
While I don't think I lost my sobriety, I certainly noticed as we rounded the corner into the final 20 or so beers that the conversation became jovial and our attention to the tasting waned. I have to admit, I lost track of what beers I was tasting a few times, as I suspect others did as well. In the end, after tasting everything blind we were presented with the master list. This enabled us to compare our reviews with beers we know, love or hate, and finding our ratings in discrepancy is a humbling thing. The Willamette Week is revealing the results of the overall scores in frequent blog posts from #50 to #1, when the king will be crowned. When this series is all said and done, what will we have learned, or what will it tell us about the beers in each state? Nothing. But still, it was a noble experiment that shines a bright light on craft beer, and I am honored to have been a part of it. So, cheers to the Willamette Week for trying to make craft beer mainstream again, I applaud the effort and offer a toast to them.