The Continuing Education of Willamette Week
I have not been shy in criticizing local weekly rag Willamette Week and chief beer writer Martin Cizmar in the past (like right here), and with the release of their 2013 Beer Guide in this week’s issue, nothing has changed. While there is a lot to like about the pullout guide–I even contributed some “fact checking” to the effort–it’s still rife with problems. In the words of one brewer, whom I shall leave unnamed, “Please, please stop writing about beer. My beer. Anyone’s beer. Thanks.”
Some will ask why I criticize Willamette Week’s Beer Guide when it’s an overall positive for the local craft beer industry. They have a point. My main problem with all of WW’s beer criticism up to now is that it seems like it’s an ongoing on-the-job-training session for everyone there, except for the occasional contribution of Brian Yaeger. In how many industries do you think you can be hired for and keep a job while not knowing anything about it and even directing others?
The big story in this standalone pullout magazine is the writers’ picks for the Top 10 Oregon Beers of the Year. It’s full of worthy choices like The Commons Urban Farmhouse as beer of the year and the outstanding Double Mountain Devil’s Kriek (#10) or the amazingly complex Piledriver from Hopworks that came out of left field…in 2011. That’s it for beers that may make mine or most beer geeks top list. There are lots of other good beers like Breakside’s Aztec (#5) and Oakshire’s 25 (#9), but then just some off the wall choices, like Fearless Loki Red (wtf?) and the strange (Barley Brown’s Citra Hot Blonde #6) or the gimmicky Cascade Oblique Black & White Coffee Blonde Stout (#2).
I can’t believe we have a Top 10 list with two chili beers and neither one of them is from Burnside Brewing, as if I need to remind you of the gold medal-winning Sweet Heat or International Incident or that crazy salsa themed beer they collaborated on with Breakside. For that matter, what about Upright Fatali Four? Martin Cizmar says they concentrated on beers that were pioneering or influential for the list, but I can’t find a single entry on here that fits that description. Cizmar says “Oblique Black & White Coffee Blond Stout is not pioneering enough for ya?” The day when blonde stouts become a recognized style by the Brewers Association, I will admit I am wrong–just before I shoot myself. Though, to be fair, I did enjoy that beer well enough, despite its obvious grab for novelty. I doubt most if not all of the brewers who made the top 10 would claim to be pioneering or influential. I love The Commons Urban Farmhouse Ale, but it’s not exactly pioneering in Oregon, where we have many examples of the style. Or the terrific Double Mountain Devil’s Kriek or Hopworks Piledriver–both are really takes on the hundreds of years old lambic style of cherry beer. Of course, top 10 lists are subjective and are made to be debated, that’s the fun of them. WW’s list is nothing if not that.
On to the larger issues I have, which relate primarily to the sub-section titled “Geek Speak,” a glossary of of beer terminology. I personally sent many corrections back to WW on the terms included here. A couple of them were changed, but others to my befuddlement have gone unchecked. To its credit, the subheading or the section says it is “mostly accurate,” but again, who gets to keep a job that they knowingly and fully admit they only “mostly” do right? The purpose of this particular section seems to be snarky and funny, but mostly it misses (I thought that was the Portland Mercury’s job). I am glad to see they took my suggestion of recognizing that “Cask” could mean two different things and added a definition just for “Cask Ale;” however, it is still incorrect in stating that cask ale is “warm and flat.” That’s a huge misconception, cask ale is by definition naturally carbonated and should be served at cool but not cold temperatures. You could almost overlook this common misconception if it were not for the fact that I actually pointed out to them that it was wrong and included a link from the UK’s Real Ale group. There is also the def of “ABV,” which they purposefully mis-define as “Alternate Beer Value.” The part I find especially annoying is two different terms for “Fresh Hop” and “Wet Hop.” Rather than get into the debate on what constitutes each, they get the fresh hop definition right on the mark: “hop flowers dumped in brew right after harvest instead of drying out first.” I was very stoked to see them get that common misconception right, but confused for a separate “Wet Hop” definition that says “Some of them real sticky, icky, icky hops.” What the fuck does that even mean? That’s not even a definition and is a cause for unnecessary confusion and just becomes a waste of space.
Speaking of waste of space, the final pages “Top Of The Hops: The musical equivalents of notable hop varieties” is the definition of it. While reading their comparisons between Citra hops and Lady Gaga, I can’t help but wonder if they could have used this page for useful information like the blatantly missing reviews of Hood River breweries like Double Mountain that didn’t make the cut for the section on Portland area beer reviews that comprises most of the pullout.
What is worth reading? The comprehensive writeups on Portland breweries are very useful information and would make for a handy guide to anyone trying to get to know our brewery scene. They do a great of including the obscure brewers like 4th Street in Gresham, Tugboat, The Mash Tun, and even Philadelphia’s, along with the big names. Most of the reviews are short but balanced, not particularly taking a stance on whether they think a place is good or not. That is, until you get to the scathing writeup on Stickmen Brewery & Skewery that recommends sticking with their guest taps. I also found humorous an obvious mistake by a writer who knows nothing about beer in the Ram Restaurant & Brewery writeup where the author notes, “Don’t expect dry-hopped, crystal-malted uber-beer.” Really? Dry hopping has become pretty common with even the most corporate of brewers, and I am pretty sure even in the most mass-produced of beers a crystal malt or two has found their way into a recipe.
There is also a great piece by Brian Yaeger on the history of Widmer’s Hefeweizen that includes some great stories from the brothers and longtime publicans and industry luminaries. Also useful is a guide to homebrew shops, grocery stores with good beer selections, and even pockets of great beer outside of the Portland area.
One thing is for sure is that Martin Cizmar and his team have done an incredible amount of work putting together the beer guide. It’s clearly a pet project for Martin and that shows. I am also honored that he asked me to look over the guide for accuracy. Plus, it’s hard to rip into the guide when it comes inside a free weekly paper. But I wish they would get some real beer writers and pros working on this and concentrate on being accurate rather than snarky. Can you imagine a guide with contributions by Lisa Morrison, Fred Eckhardt, the original WW beer writer Jeff Alworth, Abe Goldman-Armstrong, and Christian deBenedetti…all professional and local beer writers. That’s not to say there are not a few fine contributions from noted writers like Lucy Burningham and the previously mentioned Brian Yaeger, but most of it is written by folks who don’t know the difference between an ale and a lager. I just feel that’s the kind of top of the line beer journalism Portland deserves.
So what’s the overall verdict? Is the Willamette Week 2013 Beer Guide an indispensable resource and terrific promotion for Portland’s world class beer culture, or is it half-assed beer journalism from folks who don’t know anything about beer? The answer: it’s both.