Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ethics in brewing

A couple of years ago, I was asked to participate in the Virginia Beer Cup as a judge: to anoint a craft beer as the best produced in the Commonwealth.

I politely demurred, stating that I felt such an activity to be a conflict of interest. Although Clipper City Brewing, for whom I work, is located in Maryland, its beers are sold throughout Virginia. Furthermore, I felt it presumptuous of me to stand in judgment of the work of my peers, from standpoints of both business and artistic.

I have never been invited to judge at the Great American Beer Festival or the World Beer Cup or other such professional competitions. But if I were, I would decline. It is not my place, ethically, to do so.

(Never say never: I did in fact judge at the 1997 US Real Ale Festival. In hindsight, maybe I should not have. I was the brewer for Cleveland's Local Brewing Company at the time, which had a entrant in the competition.

Northern Virginia brewpub Blue and Gold —now closed— won that year with its Union Jack bitter. The US Real Ale Festival, unfortunately, is likewise no more.

Beer writer Andy Crouch recently blogged about ethics in beer journalism: a different topic, of course, but one with similar implications concerning conflicts of interest.

It is my belief that this lack of ethical guidelines has caused beer writing to lack professionalism. This state of affairs contributes to a general absence of respect for the trade of beer writing. And where beer writing is not respected, the subject of coverage, namely the business of brewing, suffers. For a long time, it seems as if writers and brewers didn’t quite know what to make of one another. Sometimes hesitant to interact, brewers expected positive coverage from the writers. In return, writers quietly expected special treatment, be it the occasional free beer, meal, or access to events. The relationship eventually grew quite cozy, with the two groups serving each other’s interests quite well. The problem with this incestuous relationship is that the consumers never figured into the equation.
Positive coverage has so long been the expected standard in beer writing that what little inclination towards criticism or coverage aimed at bettering the consumer’s experience was quickly lost. For a long time, beer writers have believed that criticism means writing that Young’s Old Nick Barley Wine is actually more an old ale than a barley wine (and self-gratifyingly thinking that this is a radical and brave opinion).
More at Media Draft - Ethics and Beer Writing Continued…


  1. Hi Tom-

    Interesting post. So I take it you would remain of the same mind even if the tasting was done entirely blind? I think the GABF does well insofar as it keeps brewers out of categories in which they are competing. As there is no Grand Champion Beer, as with the GBBF, there seems less of a conflict to me. Now, of course, I suppose your brewery would be competing with others for smaller titles, such as Best Small Brewery of the Year. I suppose your view might be the more radical implementation of my arguments about similar brewers. Interesting.

  2. Andy,

    Yes. I think the judging thing has taken on a monstrous momentum - styles over substance, extreme over subtlety, newest over established,etc. And although blind judging must be the norm of any fair judging, I would still refrain from judging such a competition out of respect of my peers.

    And then there's the numerical judging of beers. What's a 97 versus a 96?


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