Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Most Overrated Brewery: A Hype Worth Discussing

About a week ago, a Beeradvocate (BA) member started a forum thread asking other members to weigh in on his nomination for the most overrated brewery. His initial post said:
What brewery out there gets too much hype for what they bring to the table? My money goes to Dogfish Head. Their IPAs are solid but most of their "big" beers really aren't anything special and some are downright bad.
Listed among the nearly 500 replies which followed were a wide variety of breweries, each collecting a fair amount of agreement and disagreement. If nothing else, the discussion once again proved how varied our palates are.  Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was one which made the list a number of times.

Things got a bit more interesting when Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head, added his two cents, decrying the thread as a far too frequent attack on those breweries who "dare to grow."  Here's part of his response:
Yet so many folks that post here still spend their time knocking down breweries that dare to grow. It's like that old joke: "Nobody eats at that restaurant anymore, it's too crowded.” Except the "restaurants" that people shit on here aren't exactly juggernauts. In fact, aside from Boston Beer, none of them have anything even close to half of one percent marketshare. The more that retailers, distributors, and large industrial brewers consolidate the more fragile the current growth momentum of the craft segment becomes. The more often the Beer Advocate community becomes a soap box for outing breweries for daring to grow beyond its insider ranks the more it will be marginalized in the movement to support, promote, and protect independent, American, craft breweries. 
Calagione went on to explain how Dogfish Head has focused on created "weird" beers it knows will please some and disappoint others. He says the Brewery puts no more marketing or hype into its regular lineup than its occasionals.  As for hype, Calagione said they only advertise in a few beer magazines and through social media.

Breweries and beer fans linked to Calagione's response and cheered his attack on beer snobs. As a member of BA, I get it.  I have a love hate relationship with the site.  I find parts of it valuable and parts of it infuriating (or at least rather disappointing).

Many of the forum discussions on BA are quite useful.  Headed to a new city and want to know where to go to find good craft beer?  Post a request for info and you'll usually find helpful responses.  BA has also proven useful for finding other local craft beer fans and beer trading partners.

On the other hand, like any such site there are the "trolls" - those who incite inflammatory discussions for the pure enjoyment of it.   The "most overrated brewery" topic trends toward such an effort.  You'll also find members who rate a beer poorly (say, a 1 out of 5) while simultaneously acknowledging it isn't a style they like.  Huh? You tried a beer of a style you admittedly don't like and took the effort to write up a review to give the beer a low rating?  That defies common sense.

Fortunately, if you've got a decent head on your shoulders, you can separate the useless from the useful on BA with relative ease.  Ever read the comments to a controversial topic on your local newspaper's website?  Yeah, it's kind of like that.  Really, it's a certain category of members and discussions I take issue with, not the site itself.

But I also don't believe Calagione's response deserves a universal pass, either.

From my distant viewpoint, Calagione is a master of hype.  Dogfish Head is well known for creating "weird" styles of beer.  I've got some in the beer fridge. Their penchant for creating unique styles of beer and their constant experimentation generates an impressive amount of press on its own.  Dogfish Head doesn't need to advertise; its business model paired with its success generates the press.  Plus, ever seen Discovery's television show "Brew Masters"?  Here's Discovery's description of the show:
Sam Calagione, craft beer maestro and founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, and his partners in suds travel the world searching for exotic ingredients and discovering ancient techniques to produce beers of astounding originality.
Okay, so maybe Dogfish Head doesn't do much direct advertising, but don't insult us by suggesting the brewery doesn't engage in significant "hype" from a variety of sources.  I'm not bothered in the least by the hype. Many of Dogfish Head's beers I've tried deserved the praise.  It is a fun brewery to follow and it's the nature of the art that there will be misses among the hits.

What bothers me is the underlying message in Calagione's response.  Yes, some people on BA and elsewhere spend too much time "knocking down" various beers and breweries.*  Yes, craft beer as an industry segment is still a small percentage of the whole.  But we do get to criticize.**  Some breweries aren't making good beer. Some beers aren't worth the hype. Our criticism of them isn't going to damage the craft beer industry or its potential for growth.  After all, a mountain of criticism hasn't taken down Bud Light or any of the other "adjunct lagers."

Big beer is losing market share because people are recognizing the vast quality and variety available with craft beer.  Big beer is turning to craft-like products to try and stem the tide.  Conversely, the majority of tap rooms for Montana's 30 breweries are wildly popular gathering places to enjoy good-to-great beer with friends and family.

We should complain when poorly made craft beer is taking up room on our tap handles and in our beer aisles.*** We don't need to hand out "attaboys" to every craft brewery just to maintain an all-for-one, one-for-all hype of the craft beer industry.  With 1,700+ craft breweries in America and 800+ more in planning, some aren't going to survive. Poorly made craft beer is not going to bring in new craft beer lovers any more than it will help maintain and grow the craft beer industry. Constructively directing new craft beer fans to well made craft beer will do far more good.

No brewery gets a pass because of the hype it has generated.  No beer gets a pass because of who made it.  The trick is to make the criticism constructive, something not common enough among BA and similar sites. It takes critical thinking to decide for yourself. Ask yourself why do I not like this beer.  Is it not my style?  Do I not like this hop? Is it poorly made? Was it handled wrong?  On the other hand, take a moment to ask yourself why I do like a particular beer, too.

Enjoying and experimenting with craft beer takes a recognition of your own palate and an appreciate that others have different tastes.  It also takes critical restraint when describing a beer you don't enjoy.  As we like to say on Growler Fills:  Like what you like, explore something new wherever you go, and enjoy the journey.

* Truth be told, a BA member started a "most underrated beer" thread four days prior. Another member started a "most underrated brewery" thread twelve days prior.  Seems there should be room for discussing the most overrated if we're going to be fine with discussing the most underrated.  It's the manner in which things are discussed that deserves the criticism.  The devil's in the details, as always.

** A point with which I'm sure Mr. Calagione agrees.

*** An experimental or seasonal beer that doesn't hit the mark, or one that is significantly different than recognized beer styles does not meet my definition of poorly made.


  1. Constructive criticism really is necessary in this space. Just because they put the effort into a beer, which is impressive regardless, doesn't exclude them from high standards. Still, I can only think of two or three breweries in MT that are duds compared with all the others making great beer. And then there's probably another two or three that I'm on the fence about but that others would claim are the best in the state.

  2. I agree. I have found beer I enjoy at nearly every Montana brewery I've tried, which is most of them. At a couple breweries, I like nearly everything they make. At a couple, I'm not a fan of the regular line up, but love the seasonals. And, true, there are a couple of them that really are duds. Something as simple as using the same yeast for all a brewery's ales, for example, can impart a common flavor that one person loves and another hates. Not liking a brewery's beer doesn't mean the brewery sucks. It could mean that, but it more likely is plenty fine beer that doesn't happen to fit your palate.