Beer Don’t Get No Respect

Why does wine get so much more written treatment than beer?

When I saw the headline, “The Problem With Guides to Beer Drinking: There Just Aren’t Enough” on The Atlantic‘s Twitter feed, I was wondering which antecedent the enough referred to: guides or beer drinkers? Author Clay Risen argues it’s the former:

America is a beer-drinking country — we consume about 10 times as much per capita as wine — but you’d never know it from the state of beer-related journalism. Most newspapers have a wine columnist, but few have a part-timer for beer; the New York Times turns to its wine writer, Eric Asimov, for the occasional write-up. That’s not to say there aren’t great beer writers, or great beer magazines, books, and blogs. But compared with wine, they’re few and far between — and, to put it as kindly as possible, not exactly aimed at the mainstream, non-beer-obsessed public.

This is a problem, especially during the current craft-beer renaissance. Newcomers to wine can follow a reliable guide like Asimov or the Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague; good luck finding their equivalents (i.e., deeply knowledgeable but layman-accessible) in the world of beer. And while it’s possible to find entire shelves of authoritative books on the Napa wine scene or the history of cabernet sauvignon, anyone looking for a comparable resource on brown ales or wet-hopping will find, at best, an ever-changing Wikipedia page.

What follows is a discussion of a newly published Oxford Companion to Beer. What’s more interesting to me, though, is the question implicit in Risen’s setup: Why does beer get such short shrift compared to wine?

While most will likely point to the snob factor associated with wine, I’d guess that it’s a related issue: that wine is so much more expensive than beer. It’s not so much that wine’s high cost and therefore relative exclusivity supports a snobbish interest in writing about it but rather that beer’s relative affordability makes reading about it less necessary.

At the retail level, a decent pinot or cabernet is very difficult to find under $20 a bottle and it’s not at all hard to spend $100 if one is so inclined. (For the record, I am not. Somewhere around $35 is all I’m willing to spend at retail; one naturally adjusts somewhat in a restaurant.) At those prices, most of us are deterred from grabbing a random bottle based on a scan of the label. Instead, various wine ratings and the like are looked to for clues.

Conversely, where there are high alcohol and boutique beers that are ridiculously expensive, most of us can find a very wide variety of interesting beers in the range of $8 to $15 for six bottles. Even at the bar and restaurant level, beer is typically between $5 and $8 a pint. So, most of us are willing to risk disappointment in trying new beers and will leap based on nothing more than what category of beer it is and “I’ve never had that one before.”

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    West Coast beer culture has exploded relative to my youth. Back then the explanation was that Prohibition wiped out niche and regional styles. It took a bootstrapping for microbreweries and brewpubs to start, and then for that to permeate the culture. Compare to wine, where the premium products were still made in Europe, and ready again for import.

    Anyway, if we were all drinking the industrial canned lagers, beer wouldn’t deserve much respect, would it?

    Many respected microbreweries are still in “experimentation phase,” and changing their roster. Give it another 30 years 😉

    (That and women don’t drink beer, reducing its social role. Beer is for lunch or a barbecue.)

  2. CB says:

    At the retail level, a decent pinot or cabernet is very difficult to find under $20 a bottle and it’s not at all hard to spend $100 if one is so inclined

    having worked in the industry for quite a while now, i get your point, but also vehemently disagree. the vast majority of people i work with and run into on a regular basis scoff at the idea of paying more than 25 for a bottle, and these are real wine drinkers. one thing ive learned is that price rarely dictates quality, moreso in the wine world than almost anywhere else.

    all that being said, however, nothing will ever beat a tall, frosty Stone IPA. for the person who loves hops, it doesnt get any better.

  3. sam says:

    I dunno. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to talk out of your ass when doing wine “criticism”, and thus the barriers to entry into the winecrit biz are really, really low. See, Richard Quandt, On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software:

    Two things have to be true before wine ratings can become useful for the average wine drinker. Since there are many wine writers, and there is a substantial overlap in the wines they write about (particularly Bordeaux wines), it is important that there be substantial agreement among them. And secondly, what they write must actually convey information; that is to say, it must be free of bullshit. Regrettably, wine evaluations fail on both counts.

  4. john personna says:

    In Desnobbing wine Felix Salmon starts with:

    David Kesmodel reports that US consumers finally seem to be waking up to the fact that there’s no correlation between price and quality when it comes to wine.

    and continues

    Actually, there are two parallel things going on here. The first is that wine in the $9 to $12 range tastes just as good as wine in the $20 to $30 range. The second is that US wine over $20 is massively overpriced.

    I take his word for it.

  5. john personna says:

    (And in a parallel, Trader Joe’s has some acceptable IPAs for $6 or $7 per sixpack.)

  6. Moosebreath says:

    James,

    I see several different reasons:

    1. the snob factor as you mentioned. Not merely in the reputation, but the way they are marketed, with beer as a party drink, and wine a drink with high-end meals.

    2. the fact that historically American beer was dominated by a few large and awful brewers and the marketing still largely is done by those few brewers.

    3. beer varieties are more different from each other than wine. The range from the palest lagers to the heaviest stouts seems larger to me than from the darkest burgundies to the lightest reislings (not to mention the truly different types of beers out these, like fruit-flavored lambics). And very few people like the full range of beer sufficiently to trust any reviewer.

    4. beer tastes far better fresh. Years ago, I was in Prague, and the difference between Pilsner Urquell there and in the US (and it’s one of my favorite beers, even after shipping) was immense. On the other hand, this is not true about wine. As a result, an individual beer has more room for variation based on shelf life, making reviewing more difficult.

    On the other hand, I don’t think price itself is that big a factor. Either we have very different standards on what constitutes a decent wine, or the much-maligned PA State Stores are better at delivering quality wines at reasonable prices than they are given credit for, as I have never paid $20 for anything other than high-end Champagne at a State Store. And a $15 bottle of wine and a $12 6 pack of beer are about the same in number of servings.

  7. Rob in CT says:

    We live in a golden age of American brewing. I don’t know if wine really gets more articles written about it, since I don’t read such articles, but as far as I can see brewing can get every bit as highbrow/snobby as, well, anything. But given the long dominance of Bud/Coors/Miller and other assorted dreck, what was there to say?

    Now, though, I think there is plenty to say, so perhaps this will change.

    p.s. I am quite happy with the cabs, syrahs/shirzes and such that I find for $12-$20 a bottle.

  8. sam says:

    @john personna:

    (And in a parallel, Trader Joe’s has some acceptable IPAs for $6 or $7 per sixpack.)

    Also, Trader Joe’s own wines (Trader Moon label) are really pretty good, and I don’t think any them are priced over $6-7. (Try the the Cab, Velvet Moon. Damn fine.)

  9. James Joyner says:

    @CB: This is interesting. Aside from an occasional find at Costco, I’ve found it hard to get pinot noirs that I like (Willamette Valley, Russian River Valley, etc.) under $20 and find a lot of them are in the $30 range.

    @Rob in CT: Shiraz tends to be a very good value wine. I order a lot of it in restaurants, especially.

    @sam: I don’t know if it’s TJ’s or me. About six-seven years ago, before I got married, I used to really like a lot of their private label offerings. Their Black Cat pinot noir and cabernet, especially, were first rate and dirt cheap. But this was the 2003 vintage, which were almost impossible to screw up. In recent years, I’ve not found their pinots and cabs to be acceptable, although they’re still great for sweeter wines–roses and proseccos in particular.

    @john personna: Yes, TJ’s is a good value for beer. Their house label German-style hefeweisen is among my favorites. Their mix-and-match policy is useful, too, in that you can try six different beers without risking winding up with five bottles of something you don’t like left over.

  10. I didn’t know Brad Warbiany was writing under a pseudonym now!

  11. WR says:

    Another reason is that an unopened bottle of wine will last for years, and vintages from vineyards vary greatly. So a buyer may well be find a seven year old Cabernet or a 17 year-old one–the information in the guides stays current for a long time. Beer is made and sold fresh, and not dated, so the nature of the information is different in a lot of ways.

  12. Rick DeMent says:

    It might be true that more beer drinking gets done in the US comparable to wine, but that doesn’t mean that people appreciate it in the same way. The vast quantity of the beer being drank is the pissy ,… horrible … why would anyone bother to review it lager that dominates the industry. I have to wonder how many beer connoisseur are out there relative to wine. Also the criteria for wine evaluations has been developed over centuries. Is there a comparable consensus of such things for beer ?

  13. PD Shaw says:

    As an owner of a few of the late Michael Jackson’s Beer Books (no, the other Michael Jackson), I think the amount of experimentation in American brewing, including seasonal offerings, makes internet sites such as Beer Advocate, the preferred media.

    And if you like strong hops in your beer, you’re also likely to be better off purchasing regional favorites, instead of buying books on beer unavailable in your market or that doesn’t age well in your market.

  14. Drew says:

    I think you are all incorrect.

    I have no issue with the notion that beers have levels of quality and a spectrum of unique taste levels, and have their place. There is no snobbism going on.

    But the real issue is food paring. A group of us had a very nice multi-couse dinner party in the neighborhood this weekend. This illustrates the point:

    1. Open with champagne, and an appropriate fig and light cheese dish with that champagne. We chose a lighter champagne rather than the “toasty” like a Veuve Cliquot to make it work.

    2.. Second – butter drawn lobster tail in a chipotle corn chowder soup. Beautifully accompanied with an Alsacian Reisling (Alsace so as to not be too sweet). Perfect.

    3. Filet and au gratin potatoes in a cream and mushroom sauce. For this we had three reds: A classic MR Pauillac, a classic Mondavi California, and a St. Emilion (Monbousquet, for those who know wine) for a lighter, but still more than usual for right bank, cab oriented wine. All very nice with the dish.

    4. Desert: chocolate. Some just finished the reds. But I broke out one of my bottles of Suduiraut. (Sauturne) Perfect.

    All the dishes were enhanced by the wine, and vice versa. And you simply couldn’t duplicate this with beer. No chance.

    Its not snobbism. Its just fine dining.

    And for those who don’t think wine quality and taste don’t move with price………….you haven’t had much good wine.

  15. Rick Almeida says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’ve found it hard to get pinot noirs that I like (Willamette Valley, Russian River Valley, etc.) under $20 and find a lot of them are in the $30 range.

    You might keep an eye on B-21 Wines. They often have really good value buys and give great customer service. I tend to stock up on a half case or case when I can snag a really good deal.

  16. reid says:

    @Drew: A few of our local microbreweries host beer dinners, where they claim that the food and beers are carefully chosen. I’ve never been to one (not my thing), but I can believe that it makes a big difference.

    As has been mentioned here, I think the microbrew industry is just young and still growing.

  17. Franklin says:

    @reid: A local German restaurant hosted a special five-course meal with five different beers. It was actually quite nice although I’m going to have to agree with Drew that it probably could have been done even better with wine.

    Regardless, I like both so it’s easy to keep me happy.

  18. Beer is not helped by the draconian and inconsistent beer laws across the country.

    For instance, here in Texas, brewers are not allowed to tell consumers where their beer can be purchased. Wine sellers are not hampered by the same restrictions that TABC puts on beer – for some reason. A brewery can’t sell beer on premises. A brewpub can but are limited by the amount of beer they can make.

    And it’s prohibitively impossible to distribute Texas beer outside of Texas.

    I haven’t seen this book yet, but I imagine he’s hampered by legal reasons why some things are presented in the way they are – and also why there aren’t really good sources for this kind of guide.

  19. Related: Jester King Brewery here in Austin sued TABC in Federal Court last week to try to eliminate some of these rules. They are up against some harsh uphill battles but it’s nice to see this happening.

    Sadly, unless you live in Texas, you don’t get the chance to sample their most excellent beers. They’ll probably never get written up in the book as a result.

  20. reid says:

    @Franklin: Sounds good. It really depends on what you like. (I’m a beer guy, not wine.) Drew’s post just sounded like wine snobbery, as if attempting to do the same with beer would result in wings with Coors Light followed by endless burgers with Bud. The menus for these beer dinners look like fine dining to me.

  21. Rob in CT says:

    James,

    Willamette Pinot Noir sells for ~$18/bottle by me, if I recall correctly. I like the Whole Cluster. Good stuff.

    The claim that you can’t pair food & beer and get a complimentary effect sounds a bit overdone to me, but to be fair, while I like wine, I don’t do wine/food pairings so I can’t really speak to the impact. Maybe I’m missing out and beer really can’t match up in that particular area.

    I find beer pair up well with the seasons. Stouts, Porters and various darker ales are particularly pleasant in a cold New England winter. Spring & fall seasonals (e.g. Punkin, Aprihop, etc) abound. In the summer, you’ve got the wheat beers and then there are general purpose Pale Ale and IPAs.

  22. Drew says:

    “Drew’s post just sounded like wine snobbery, as if attempting to do the same with beer would result in wings with Coors Light followed by endless burgers with Bud.”

    OK. What beers would you pair with:

    Cheese trio – emmentaler, comte, 10-year aged Gouda. Dalmatia quince spread
    Roasted Turkish figs. Late-vintage port and artisanal honey marinade
    Goat cheese mousse, Parmesan crisp

    Butter-poached lobster tail. Sweet corn chipotle chowder.

    I’m open, but I’ve never seen it happen.

  23. reid says:

    @Drew: Like I said, it’s not my thing, so I can’t answer; but if you have an upscale brewpub near you, I’m sure they could offer some ideas. The head brewer and chef work together on these things.

    Oh, and one of my local brewpubs actually does offer a chipotle corn chowder that’s pretty good. Seems like it’d go well with something like a pale ale. I personally get an IPA with whatever I’m eating.

  24. @Drew:

    * An American-style porter or stout pairs really well with cheese – especially gouda.

    *Seafood of any sort pair really well with German wheats/Heffelweizens or Pale Ale or IPAs. The hops bring out the flavor of the lobster.

  25. John Burgess says:

    I find there are cuisines–primarily Indian and SE Asian–for which no wine is appropriate but just about any beer is. With Asian spices, wines just taste like crap. Better Coke or 7-Up than wine.

    I like wine just fine, but because I’m not much of a drinker, a five-course meal (good) with five paired wines (not good) is something I won’t do. That’s too much alcohol.

    Sure, for a feast I can enjoy a small glass of Tokaij with my fois gras, followed by a white and a red with the next courses. But by the time salad and dessert come along, I don’t need any more alcohol, particularly if I’m driving.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    I think it comes down to the old joke:

    Why is American beer like making love in a canoe?

    Because they’re both f-ing close to water.

  27. Drew says:

    “I find there are cuisines–primarily Indian and SE Asian–for which no wine is appropriate but just about any beer is.”

    I think that’s exactly correct, and really makes my point. Gewurtzraminer is often cited as a wine that can stand up to Thai, Indian etc.

    Not in my book. Which is why I think attempting to make the case for beer and fine cuisine is similarly absurd.

  28. Murray says:

    It all depends where you look for.. The U.K, Belgium, Germany and Austria have very diverse and interesting beer cultures. Of course, the later three require being able to read French and/or German. These people have a life and have more interesting things to do than translate their know how in English.

    P.S: Don’t ever ever call “beer” any American product when visiting the aforementioned countries. (The same rule applies to cheese when in Switzerland or France, or Pizza when in Italy).

  29. James Joyner says:

    @Murray: Oh, nonsense. The best American pizza is far superior than any I’ve had in Italy. And while the Germans and Belgians do indeed make some fantastic beers, not only are many of their products now widely available here but they’re being brewed here. For that matter, some of the macrobrew American beers that most of us turn their noses up at were founded by Germans in our Midwest. Similarly, mass brewed European beers such as Heineken and Becks are every bit as shitty as a Budweiser or PBR.

  30. grumpy realist says:

    @James Joyner: and I bet if we were to ask a bunch of Italians, they would have the exact opposite opinion. (You should hear my Commercial Paper prof about Chicago-style pizza, and he isn’t even Italian.)

  31. Drew says:

    You guys just don’t seem to know the inherent differences between American and European cuisine! A quick tutorial:

    Vincent: And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

    Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?

    Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

    Jules: Then what do they call it?

    Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.

    Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?

    Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

    Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?

    Vincent: I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: Antonin Scalia argues that Chicago style pizza, while tasty, doesn’t actually qualify as pizza. I tend to concur. But, while I’ve had some fine pies in Italy, the fact of the matter is that the United States has a massive Italian population and has long since replicated and improved upon the original product here. There are a whole lot of variations on the theme, some of which I find better than others, but there’s some restaurant in the United States that makes any given style as well as you’ll find it anywhere. That’s not American exceptionalism, it’s just a function of a huge, diverse, wealthy population with access to all the world’s knowledge and ingredients.

  33. Moosebreath says:

    James.

    “For that matter, some of the macrobrew American beers that most of us turn their noses up at were founded by Germans in our Midwest.”

    That doesn’t mean they make them anywhere near as well. The difference between the real, Czech Budweiser and the stuff Anheiser Busch makes (and the Clydesdales provide the liquid for) is huge. I recall reading that when the Czech Republic wanted to join the EU, they insisted as a condition that their Budweiser be the only one sold under that name. Bud is therefor marketed in Europe as B Bear (which seems like grade inflation to me).

    “Similarly, mass brewed European beers such as Heineken and Becks are every bit as shitty as a Budweiser or PBR. ”

    No, not even close.

  34. Ben Wolf says:

    For anyone who hasn’t, I strongly recommend trying Boddington’s Pub Ale a try. Good flavor, strong and not much carbonation.

  35. Ben Wolf says:

    For that matter, some of the macrobrew American beers that most of us turn their noses up at were founded by Germans in our Midwest. Similarly, mass brewed European beers such as Heineken and Becks are every bit as shitty as a Budweiser or PBR.

    While I agree Europe makes plenty of piss-poor beers, I’ve found very few domestic brews I like. American brewers have a tendency to extremes: either too little flavor or so much bitterness it tastes like aspirin.

  36. Ben Wolf says:

    @Drew: To be honest I’ve never much cared for Alsacian Rieslings. Moselland Ars Vitis has been one of my favorites for a very long time, and I find it works with almost any food pairing calling for one.

  37. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: It’s purely a matter of personal preference. I’ve always hated Pilsner style beers which, when I was coming of age, pretty much was beer from an American standpoint. But I actually think Sam Adams lagers perfectly drinkable, rather like Shiner Bock, and find a whole range of craft brewed beers from wheats to IPAs to be quite superb. There are a ridiculous number of really good breweries around the country now.

    To be sure, we’re not Germany, where practically every village has a brewery older than America. Or Belgium, with its ridiculous concentration of outstanding breweries. Nor, sadly, do we have anything quite like the pub culture of the UK. But there’s so much variety and quality available here at a reasonable price–and I mean even in Podunk, Alabama at this point–that it’s hard to complain.

  38. Drew says:

    Ben –

    The idea was to keep it a bit less sweet but to withstand the “kick” of the soup.

    Shaetzel Sclossberg Grand Cru

  39. CB says:

    @Drew:

    And for those who don’t think wine quality and taste don’t move with price………….you haven’t had much good wine.

    oh no doubt, oftentimes price IS a good baseline to work from. that lafite will be the best wine youve ever laid lip to, and the price will show it. but speaking generally, strictly from an average consumers point of view, you can find plenty of $10 bottles that taste just as good as that $40 bottle. alot of it is simply comes down to the to the price-quality heuristic.

  40. john personna says:

    The experiments where they have wines first ranked (blind, without naming cost) and then served and ranked again (still blind, but with cost noted) show pretty conclusively that price does matter 😉

    That is we actually do enjoy wine more when we know it cost more.

  41. Clovis says:

    @James Joyner:
    Heh. I was back in Ireland a little while back, went to a place where I first tried Harp, and they no longer carried it. The barman told me I could have a “nice Boodwieser, if ya wish.” Fortunately, there were other options.

    Every couple of years I get out to the Inn at Little Washington. First time ordering a beer there, the waitron almost recoiled. They’ve since upped their selection considerably. If you hit L’Auberge Chez Francois, they do a puzzling (but very tasty) drink of a teaspoon of Amer Picon in a glass, topped off with a Belgian Lager. Quite refreshing.

  42. Ben Wolf says:

    @Drew: I have yet to try an Alsacian which doesn’t carry a metallic flavor. That’s why I find them unsuitable whether sweet or not.

  43. Drew says:

    What’s wrong , Ben?

    “A light nose with dried fruits, a spicy finish and hints of lead and mercury”……………..a problem?

    nyuk, nyuk

  44. Drew says:

    Some of these comments crack me up.

    eg Well, you do a test where you pair a crap (by definition) $10 wine with a crap $30 wine and see, no difference!!

    There are many drikable everyday wines in the $25 – $40 range. Someone eve cited Costco, which is a place, I agree to find them.

    But the truth is “fine wines” pretty much start at about $50. (I know, I know, everyone can cite an article about “94 point Brunello at $35!!” Rare)

    For those who care – if you like Chards, Ramey (especially their name vinyards like Hyde) Kistler, Newton etc do a great job. For Pinot, you can really get going with, say, Belle Glos C&T, but if you want to put the supercharger on think Sea Smoke.

    I don’t even want to get into Bordeaux or good California Cabs. That’s another world.

    But as a general proposition you will be paying $50 to say $150 per bottle. That doesn’t mean that a $25 bottle of wine isn’t enjoyable sitting aroung the firepit with friends. But if you can’t tell the difference between those wines and a $125 bottle……….you are nuts; drink beer.

  45. john personna says:

    Enjoy Drew:

    The Negative Correlation Between Wine Price and Quality

    It begins:

    Back in November I held a Pinot contest which concluded that there was really no correlation between price and quality – or if there was, it was negative. Of course, there was nothing really scientific about a drunken night in the East Village. But now along comes Robin Goldstein, who held more than 6,000 blind tastings of wines ranging from less than $2 a bottle to more than $150 …

    I suppose if you are reeeealy committed to the capitalist “value equals money” universe you might have a hard time with it, but the data are actually pretty pervasive.

    (If you are secure enough, run the test. Buy high, mid, and low priced wines, but ones to which you are not personally habituated. Then try them blind.)