The Continuing Education of Willamette Week

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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.

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

22 Comments

  1. Brian Yaeger

    March 21, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Two things first. #1. Mr. Fact-checker, why the hell did you let Martin (or whoever) allow my pronoun in Kurt’s quote, “it,” to be replaced by the clarifying bracketed “[the Weizen]” (pg. 52) when “it” refers to the Hefeweizen? That honestly upsets me almost as much as Fearless’s Loki Red making the Top 10*.

    #2. HUB released Piledriver in bottles for the one and only time on May 19, 2012. #FactCheckThat!

    Beyond this, this all seems like a pissing contest. Aztec and Citra Hot Blonde ARE both great beers. So are Sweet Heat and Fatali Four. None of those 4 would make my personal Top 10, but it’s interesting you single out the two from two breweries you receive paychecks from. Not saying that obfuscates your appreciation for those beers, but it’s no coincidence either. PS: you mean subjective, not objective (which means unbiased fact). Curiously, you didn’t knock (or comment) on Ale Apothecary’s Sahalie, an absolute shot to the heart by a collaborative arrow by Cupid and St. Arnold.

    As for the unnecessary Geek Speak section (it’s only bothering you. Let it go.) and leaving out Hood River’s awesome breweries, who in their right mind considers Hood River part of Portland Metro? I believe the very easy to get behind criteria, criterion really, was that the brewery fall within the Greater Portland Area starting with a 503 area code. You need to dial 541 to call Double Mountain. It would’ve fit on pg. 61 under breweries to the east, but c’est la vie. This coming from a guy who’s well-documented calling Double Mountain one of my favorite breweries.

    As for your critique of the great story on Widmer Hefeweizen, yeah, I can’t argue with you there….

    On your last part, you jogged my memory about the first meeting I had with Martin when he said he had an idea for a beer guide. I confess I went into it thinking I might have a larger role in its creation. I had visions of assigning stories to those beer writers you mentioned and more (dare I say, yourself even.) That didn’t happen. My story ideas were shot down. That’s OK. It wasn’t the first or last time that’s happened. But in the end, I am very pleased with the final product. I think Martin did a great job on the whole. The PDX beer geek/blogger community knows he’s not exactly the lost Alström brother. But he is making a concerted effort to fast-track his beer IQ, which sometimes reveals itself in not so flattering ways.But when I first delved into this culture, I wasn’t exactly Cicerone material (not that I’ve taken the exam and am certified now). Nor were you. Nor was Jeff, who has earned the right and respect to pen The Beer Bible. Everyone has the right to slam Martin when they see fit (and they exercise it freely and often). I’m sure he’s a big boy and can take it. But his objective (as in mission, not unbiased fact) is to cover Beervana not as a die-hard insider but simply as a Portlander. Even in a city where we collectively drink craft beer 40% of the time meaning we are the most craft beer savvy city in the world (sorry rest of world, but facts are facts…) most people do not live/breathe/drink beer culture the way a small/vocal group of us do. And those people deserve a resource like WW’s Beer Guide, if only for the brewery capsules and pub crawls. You wanna put out a better one? DO IT. Just please hire Martin to be your proof reader before you hit publish.

    • Samurai Artist

      March 21, 2013 at 9:30 am

      like I said part of the fun of things like this is the ensuing debate.

      I am not wrong on Piledriver by the way. Wait, yes I am, on further inspection it first came out in 2010 not 2011 as evidenced by my story on it then http://www.newschoolbeer.com/2010/08/hopworks-debuts-piledriver-barrel-aged.html. Though yes the exact same batch was released a 2nd time in limited bottles in 2012 only at the brewery.

      Yes, I second guessed writing Burnside and Upright in there because I knew someone would say i am biased. But, I really do think those are superior examples and I think not saying that would not be being honest. I didnt’t mention Sahalie or Widmer Milk Stout and others because they dont warrant much comment. Both are fine beers that I cant get excited enough to care about one way or the other.

      And about including Double Mountain. No it’s not in the portland metro area but neither is Long Brewing and that’s included and it does not even have a public tasting room. Hmmmm whats more out of place, a super popular Oregon brewery just an hour out of town with a brewpub or a brewery without even a tasting room in a small town rarely traveled also about an hour out of town.

      And of course your right that it’s not all about the most die hard craft beer savvy folk. But The New School is so thats the point of view we typically take. Also it’s of my opinion if your going to be more educational and introductory to less uber beer geeks than you should probably present accurate information, in particular those glossary terms.

  2. Aaron C.

    March 21, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Lemme get a copy of that.

  3. vwjulie

    March 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Sometimes, when you get to high minded, it turns off the folks who just love a well crafted brew, no matter their lack of historical knowledge or brewing methods. They just wanna drink a tasty ale without someone leaning in their saying, “Really? You like that? What’s wrong with you?”

    • Todd

      March 21, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      I say critique on brother. Folks out here are so freaking sensitive. I want honest perspective, feelings be damned.

    • Dan Hughes

      March 21, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      beer geekery or beer snobbery….?

    • Samurai Artist

      March 21, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      I totally get what your saying vwJulie, if so than yeah this is not the post for you. Just skip ahead and check out one of our other fine stories on new brews or events

  4. Todd

    March 21, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    Yeah, I don’t really know how you can excuse WW for such sub-par work. Much of it reads as if it’s from an out-of-town perspective. I suppose newbies and older folks will find this useful, but in a beer-crazy town, this doesn’t cut-it. I don’t see anything wrong with holding WW to a higher standard. I would be embarrassed.

  5. Christopher Baker

    March 21, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    The WW has gone downhill overall. I used to enjoy reading it. Not anymore.

  6. Kevin

    March 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    It would be polite in a post like this to link to the online content on the WWeek webpage so that readers can go to the original source and determine for themselves who they agree with.

  7. Jeff Alworth

    March 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    I think you’re being a little unfair. Mainly your critiques amount to: “I would have made different decisions.” No top 10 list is ever “correct.” The Geek Speak thing is silly, but obvious–no harm, no foul. Anything this sprawling will have a few mistakes, and ding them for that–but recognize that as bloggers, we’re on very thin ice when we start throwing stones at those who err.

    I’d call this a pretty damn impressive return to serious beer coverage by a local paper–and long overdue.

    • Samurai Artist

      March 21, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      of course it’s a little bit of “I would have made different decisions” isn’t that sort of what all criticism boils down to?

    • Jeff Alworth

      March 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      Not entirely. They could have just gotten stuff blatantly wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time a paper had done that. (I was bracing for the worst and was quite pleasantly surprised.)

    • Pete Dunlop

      March 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      The top 10 list is a mess. Some of those beers aren’t even readily available. What were they thinking? Never mind.

      On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the presentation. The photos are excellent and most of the pub entries are, as well. This type of attention to beer has been absent at the WW for a long time. Even during Jeff’s time there, the beer coverage was trending down. I’m glad to see them making an effort. I hope it will be refined as they move forward.

  8. ElGordo

    March 22, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Of course they included a Fearless beer. Cizmar’s afraid Ken Johnson would put out a hit on him if they didn’t.

  9. Anonymous

    March 22, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    I enjoyed both the beer guide and this critique of it. Thanks. You Three of your big critiques are the exclusion of Upright and Burnside’s chili beers in the top ten and not including Double Mountain at all. Don’t you do work for Burnside and Upright? That would be an important point of disclosure above. A.C.

  10. T-Bone

    March 22, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    Doesn’t the fact that many readers here seems to know he does some work such breweries as Burnside & Upright tell you something? Does he need to spell it out each time? Hardly a secret.

    • Pete Dunlop

      March 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm

      This site has a lot of general readers who aren’t as connected as most of the people making comments. Ezra ought put some sort of disclaimer on the site homepage or in every post that reflects on brands he has a financial interest in. This is not a difficult thing and it removes any perceived conflict of interest.

    • Art Vandelay

      March 26, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      are we talking about a beer blog, or a peer-reviewed journal?

  11. Wally

    March 23, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Anybody read the Doc Wort interview? Pretty funny…

  12. Michael Lopez

    March 23, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Sure – technically The RAM Restaurant/Big Horn brews a beer or two every once in a while that might be dry-hopped and include a crystal malt. I think, however, that the critique on that specific line comes off as far too petty. What I wrote was more of a general statement on the simplicity of a place like the RAM – their clientele is not one that necessarily enjoys some overwrought, “super” beer with a long list of seemingly complex ingredients, of which Portland has plenty. People go to the RAM to drink a cheap, flavorful beer in a style they are familiar with – they are not necessarily seeking out the next trendy beer when they drive out to the parking lot of Clackamas Town Center for a drink after work.

    • charlie

      March 26, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      Sorry Mike. I hate to say it, but I agree with Ezra on this one. Save yourself a little dignity and admit you used terminology without knowing what it meant.

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