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First, let’s talk pubs.

My good friend Velky Al over at Fuggled has been conducting a series of guest pieces around pub culture, asking writers (including myself) to pontificate on their local and what it means to them. You can check out my take here, or view the entire lineup thus far here. It’s been a pleasure reading perspectives from across the globe regarding the fabled public house, and, as with all of Fuggled, it’s certainly worth taking the time to read (preferably with pint in hand!).

Second, we get to some housekeeping.

I’ve gone ahead and made some updates to the Beer in Virginia page, as well as tidying up links and other things around the blog to make it a touch less cluttered. You may not notice a huge difference, but what you find should be somewhat helpful and relatively accurate. As always, feel free to visit the About page and drop me a line if you’ve got some info you’d like to see updated.

I had it all typed up and ready to go, but something was keeping me from pulling the trigger…

Now that World Beer Festival Richmond has been canceled for 2011, I don’t know if it’s even worth posting. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

In 2009, All About Beer magazine announced, somewhat furtively, that they would be bringing their renowned World Beer Festival to Richmond that summer. When I heard the news, I drifted back to my time wandering the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, enjoying rare beers at timed tappings and soaking up all the information I could, a truly unforgettable experience. The excitement in Richmond was palpable. The small but growing beer scene around town became electric with the thought of rows upon rows of stands offering exotic and interesting brews from faraway lands. And all this, right in our own backyard.

We had arrived.

Naturally, we set up a tasting to celebrate. It was originally planned to coincide with the festival. The idea, aside from bringing together the usual suspects from around town, was that the tasting would have also served the purpose of offering out-of-town participants and the All About Beer crew a chance to join us and see what Richmond’s beer scene was truly all about:  homebrewers, commercial brewers, distributors, retailers, beer lovers, and weirdos. An eclectic cast, to say the least.

However, All About Beer’s support for the inaugural festival seemed to be, shall we say, less than adequate. The festival was ultimately postponed for the summer of 2010. The reason given? It was stated that the festival organizers needed more time to plan something truly spectacular, and they didn’t want to rush putting on an event that wouldn’t live up to the standards that World Beer Festival is known for.

I get that. Why put on a half-assed festival? That’d be bad for everyone involved. Disappointed festival goers, injured reputation for World Beer Festival, and a bowl of sour grapes for everyone.

They did, however, send their main man and festival organizer to the tasting. He passed out some plastic tasting glasses from Columbia’s recent staging of World Beer Festival, and some t-shirts with logos, then he was gone. It looked like positive outreach to the Richmond beer community, despite the festival having been put off a year.

So in 2010, All About Beer planned to do it right. They teamed up with a local charity, and an alternative weekly newspaper in town. They offered a tasting at Capital Ale House reserved for members of the media, hoping to educate them, and thus, their readers, about the variety and wonders of beer. They took out ads announcing the festival. Daniel Bradford even made it to Richmond once or twice to say hello.

I worked that year’s festival, pouring sips of beer for patrons at a furious pace, all the while babbling about styles, attenuation, brewery history, and whatever else beer-related that came to mind. I met a host of local people I’d never seen before, raving about beers they had tried or just raving in general. Overall, working the festival was a great experience, albeit a grueling one.

The response to last year’s World Beer Festival in Richmond was a mixed bag. Many newcomers to the beer fold seemed satisfied, their tickets to one session (or both) helping them reach or exceed their desired level of intoxication. But the VIPs, the guys shelling out an extra $35, seemed underwhelmed by most everything except the air-conditioned bathrooms. Some said the festival opened doors to them that they didn’t know existed, while others said they’d seen it all before. There were also grumblings among certain industry types that the festival was poorly organized, and that mismanagement of the event caused them a lot of grief.

Fast-forward to 2011. Less than two months before the festival, there’s been little effort on All About Beer’s part to make the public aware. No one is in the loop on what they’ve got planned; distributors don’t know what’s going on, the public doesn’t know what breweries will be on hand, and it doesn’t seem like many movers and shakers have been contacted to help make it all happen. They’ve also hired new guns tasked with organizing the whole thing. Though they haven’t had much of a presence in town, they’re now making their rounds to either gauge or try to ratchet up the level of support. They talk to distributors, bloggers, and seemingly anybody willing to grant them an audience.

It appears to have minimal effect. The reaction is neutral to cold. The support network just isn’t there this time around. Why?

Why, with a growing army of beer lovers pledging their allegiance and paychecks to “craft” beer, attending the ubiquitous beer dinners and tastings that were, only years earlier, a thing of lore… why is there a lack of support for this festival in Richmond?

You might not be able to find anyone that will openly admit it, but for various reasons, this year’s festival was met with a lot of skepticism from industry types in this town. This may be inching out on the bough of speculation, but I’m willing to bet that most of it stems from feeling cheated, the feeling that All About Beer is bringing their festival to Richmond, playing by their rules, and when they’re done, they just pack up and leave.

So anyway, there I am, at the end of April, sitting at Mekong with the gents from All About Beer, imbibing our favorite beverage and discussing the upcoming festival. These guys want to know how they can make this year’s festival better than last year’s, ways they can improve the overall experience. They’ve invited several bloggers (and perhaps other online media types) to join, but only a few actually assemble. Their PR person doesn’t show. Tacitly, they would also like support from the local online community in promoting the festival.

It was openly admitted by the organizers of World Beer Festival that they sometimes have difficulty getting involvement from breweries. That’s not the first time I’d heard this refrain thrown around regarding the festivals. Now, I can’t say for sure, but it could be the demands and requirements that breweries must meet to dole out samples of their products to the public under the auspices of All About Beer. Some individuals more knowledgeable than myself may be able to speak to that.

Regardless, we offer our advice over the course of the conversation, outlining concerns to the representatives from All About Beer along the way. The main issue I raised was the lack of overt and year-round support for the roughly-defined Richmond beer scene. It’s all fine and dandy to shake hands and kiss babies at Mekong every once in a while, but anyone can do that. Some folks, specifically in the savvy beer market, are smart enough to realize when they’re being reeled in.

In short, it would require a true, sweeping commitment to Richmond as a beer town. But how can you help a town that can’t seem to help itself? With the quick demise of the Shockoe Craft Beer Festival, and a much-rumored but yet-to-be-announced homegrown festival to take its place as the River City’s premier beer event, what’s Richmond to do?

The point is, there are several possibilities as to why we’re not having World Beer Festival in Richmond this year. Whatever the reason(s), the festival has been canceled just days after announcing tickets were available for purchase.

So, now that you’ve gotten your refund, what are you up to June 18th?

I should open up more. Really.

The past several weeks have been a blur of activity, some beer related, some not. But rather than ramble on with excuses for lack of blogging, I’ll give you a taste of what’s been on my mind.

First, a new Virginia brewery has formed. Its name is Broederschap Brouwerij. Broederschap means brotherhood in Dutch. This project is less an actual brewery and more of a homebrew collaboration between myself, Velky Al of Fuggled, and James of A Homebrew Log. It began with an email, which became a flurry of emails and months of preparation, and then into Dissolution Dubbel. Read more about the brew day here.

Second, I look around at the beer scene, and it seems like nothing’s happening. I mean, there’s a lot going on, but not much actually happening. You dig? Perhaps it’s just me becoming desensitized, but I feel underwhelmed and even distracted by “beer news” these days. Am I alone in my perspective?

Anyway, I guess what I’m getting at, is that I needed some time away. Although it’s good to be back, I’m not sure what I’m actually adding to the overall oeuvre of craft beer, if I’m just contributing to the general distraction that is a hobby for most, a profession for some, and a passion of mine.

That passion just has a weird way of expressing itself.

“Independent bloggers are one of the least trusted sources for wine information in the UK, USA and France, according to research published by the Wine Intelligence.”

Interesting observation from the Wine Intelligence. Not wanting to pay the £1,300 for the entire report, I can’t comment on their methodology. But even looking at the scenario from an abstract perspective, how could this apply to beer?

The article further mentions that half of wine consumers put their faith in the advice of their wine purveyor, while a fifth have confidence in the writings of independent wine bloggers. I wonder where professional beer (and wine) writers, and print publications, fit into this equation.

I also wonder what the average consumer looks to get out of beer and wine blogs. What does it really mean, for the nosy novice to the uber-geek? It seems that beer blogs have gained enough clout to be considered worthy of their own conference, but what does the readership gain from this?

Even though I’ve met some fine folks who read this blog, what breeds trust among complete strangers?

Can I be trusted?

Martyn Cornell over at the Zythophile blog makes an interesting observation of the RateBeer Top 100 list for 2011. But at the beginning of his diatribe on the subject, he states that “nobody in the real world cares what a bunch of loopy extremophiles drinks or thinks.”

While I agree with the general nature of his post, that extremophiles do represent a threat to the reputation of better beer at large, I don’t subscribe to the notion that sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate are completely irrelevant, or that no one pays attention to what the individuals on these sites have to say. In fact, I would argue that these websites have exponentially fueled the race for the most extreme beer, feeding into the desire of those that wish to taste the next level, whatever that may be. For better or for worse, these two sites in particular have altered the beer landscape.

RateBeer and BeerAdvocate have influenced many a beer drinker’s perception on what beer is and how it should be enjoyed. And therein, as Martyn points out, lies the problem. Despite the informative and engaging reviews by some members, they may not represent the majority of beer drinkers, and the final tally may be the work of a vocal minority. The rating system can ultimately have a damaging effect on the overall image of beer.

For instance, when I hear someone disparage all lagers, I get the feeling that they have been influenced in some way by these types of “best of” lists, that they are missing out on some of the finer, subtler points that beer has to offer. That’s not to mention the folks who are of the mind to try every possible beer imaginable; often times it seems they imbibe so many different kinds of beer that only the most extreme stick out.

While one would think that an open forum for posting thoughts would lead to a balanced and unbiased overall viewpoint, it actually inadvertently creates winners and losers in the real world. Though one bad review can be drowned out by the voice of the many, that same populist voice can overlook well-made beer that just so happens not to have been hopped 27 times. That echo chamber eventually gains an audience outside its own users. And trust me, industry types pay attention to these ratings, moreso than you’d think.

It’s the by-product of the squeaky wheel getting the grease. Extreme beers command attention, session beers fly under the radar. Two separate audiences, mind you, but I’m sure many drinkers straddle the line with no allegiance to one camp or another. It’s through the growth of the beer rating websites that the extreme camp has been allowed to flourish, and the louder voices will always be heard first.

Point is, if you don’t go into everything with a hint of skepticism, you’re likely to fall for anything. I should hope those looking to learn more about beer will proceed with caution and diligence. Though not everyone will, I have faith that there are enough people out there practicing discernment.

“I hate beer writers.”  – Dan Shelton

The Shelton brothers are no strangers to controversy, and indeed seem to invite it with generalities such as the above quote. With those words, Dan Shelton launched a salvo aimed not only at beer writers, but the craft beer community at large. What Shelton goes on to discuss in the article that appeared in the Valley Advocate is ultimately what craft beer has been founded upon:  a culture of promotion.

The article’s author Mark Roessler paraphrases Shelton’s sentiment that beer writers are “doing little more than parroting the marketing-speak of advertising companies,” and that they “are largely to blame for an industry and drinking public that’s more taken with gimmickry than artistry.”

Beyond that blanket statement, there is some truth. It’s a strong stance to take, and it’s unclear if Shelton is referring to professional beer writers and beer bloggers, another issue that has raised eyebrows in the past. Beer writing being the primary reason for gimmickry in the craft beer world might be a specious argument, but that doesn’t mean it plays no part in persuading a growing number of consumers. Does that necessarily lead to breweries producing “extreme” beer? Perhaps. But the gimmickry could simply be chalked up as a typically competitive American approach to brewing, which is in turn driven by consumer demand for something uniquely bigger, badder, and bolder.

At times there appears to be an inherent bias built into beer writing, that promotion is inextricably linked with prose. Even by discussing topics such as homebrewing, it is in essence a promotion of beer education, which is ultimately beneficial to craft beer in general. Furthermore, such a tightly-knit and familial community is bound to have its issues when it comes to bias and objectivity.

At the end of the day, it’s ultimately up to the consumer. In the era of “content is king,” where that content is more readily accessible than ever before, the onus is upon the individual to determine which products they will consume and the sources from which they will derive information.

A healthy dose of criticism could be a sign that craft beer is growing up.

I ask this question knowing that I will attend some of the events scheduled.

But consider, if you will, that question in the context of several factors. We currently have one true local (as in, within the confines of the greater Richmond metropolitan area) brewery. We were not able to keep the Shockoe Craft Beer Festival alive. We just hosted what was deemed by some to be a rather lackluster World Beer Festival this summer. And Richmond Beer Week is officially put on by only one distributor, with the aforementioned local brewery being tacked on late in the game.

Now, before I start to sound like the Merchant of Doom, I want to say that the lineup of events looks promising. There are some happenings that will appeal to everyone from the novice to the über-nerd. You can check them out at richmondbeerweek.com. Not only that, but Virginia brewers are being given a good opportunity to showcase their wares.

The schedule of events was released quite late, which was probably meant to increase the anticipation and keep people (and other distributors) guessing about what was coming. But the fact is, the other guys knew about it enough to set up their own events during that time frame. So now the consumers, who don’t normally associate the business of beer distribution with the brands they drink, are primarily supporting one distributor, if attending the officially sanctioned events publicized as part of RBW.

All that aside, is it deserved? Has a week-long celebration of beer in Richmond been earned by the suds-swilling citizens of central Virginia? I ask because I’m a terrible gauge of the enthusiasm for beer in the area. To be honest, it seems like locals are always up for a good time that involves a lot of alcohol, but is the support for craft beer really there?

Full disclosure:  I work part-time for a beer importer whose beer is distributed by a company not responsible for Richmond Beer Week.

I’d be willing to bet that most every homebrewer has brewed a beer using malt extract before. That’s an easy bet to win, I know. A good majority of folks start out with kits that contain dry or liquid malt extract, and some move on to the world of all-grain. Regardless, it’s a great way to learn the ropes, and still make some drinkable beer while you’re getting educated.

Now, what about magnifying that on a commercial scale?

There are whole brewery equipment setups dedicated to brewing with malt extract. In fact, some of your favorite beer might just be made with extract. One brand that comes to mind is Cadillac Mountain Stout from Bar Harbor, a beer that was at one time brewed using malt extract. However, it was highly regarded among beer cognoscenti and casual observers alike, so they must’ve been doing something right.

Several questions come to mind:  How many commercial brewers out there brew with malt extract in some way, shape or form? Do you know any commercial breweries that are malt extract based? Does this constitute a grift to the consumer? Are there any really great or terrible commercial malt extract beers out there? Is this even considered craft beer?

It’s something I’ve been pondering lately and I’d love to hear your thoughts on where commercial extract beer falls on the craft beer spectrum.

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