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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Willamette Week's Big Fail

Many newspapers and magazines have an institutional voice, and although I worked for Willamette Week for three years I never got theirs. Media criticism is tiresome, but WW's epic "President of Beers" project serves as such a rich metaphor that I have to wade in. 

First, the set-up:
Willamette Week acquired a craft beer from all 50 states to figure out which state has the best flagship beer. We then assembled a team of 12 beer tasters who blind tasted each beer in random order, then independently rated them on a scale of 1-100. We averaged the scores to elect the President of Beers. 
How did we determine the flagship? Mostly, we picked the largest brewery in the state’s signature brew. Sometimes we went with the best-known beer from the state or a beer that represents the spirit of the state. These aren’t the “best” craft beers from each state—they’re just a little taste of the state in liquid form.
WW is now busy reporting the results, from the worst beers to the best.  (Full disclosure: I was invited to be on the panel of tasters but wasn't free the day they did it.  Further disclosure--I used to write a beer column for WW, but back in forgotten mists of time.)  The idea is actually intriguing--and certainly worthy enough topic for driving sales (or clicks).  I was drawn in enough to start reading.  Of course, I mistakenly began by failing to get the point, though, foolishly engaging the selection criteria. For example, I noticed that:
  • Yuengling, PA's choice, isn't a craft brewery;
  • Boston Beer, the MA selection, is not brewed in MA;
  • It's just harsh and wrong to saddle WA with Mack and Jack's.
I could have gone on and on (in addition to the states I mentioned, TX, ME, and MO were all bizarre picks--and we're only through 28 states) , but I threw those as examples to WW's Martin Cizmar, who responded to my complaints this way: "I honestly think any 'serious' discussion about what beer was picked is pretty stupid, unless someone is arguing that there is some other beer that really defines the people and place better. It's pretty simple: We picked beers that tell a state's story in beer form. It's supposed to be fun."

So this is exactly where I don't get WW.  On the one hand, it's just supposed to be for fun (read: no criticism), but on the other, they seem to be taking it pretty seriously.  (Spoiler alert: they're even flying the winners to Oregon, which my keen powers of induction tell me means Oregon is not the winning state.)  They went to a hell of a lot of trouble to track down beers from every state, but apparently no trouble at all to figure out which beers they should be trying to track down.  But the thing I really don't get is the extreme hostile/defensive prose stylings that I guess are supposed to track as comedy.  Such as this comment on the state of Georgia:
The very contradictory state of Georgia, home to OutKast, the Indigo Girls, Chick-fil-A, Michael Stipe, Tyler Perry, the Duke boys, and a bunch of redneck motherfuckers. [bold mine]
WW has always struck me as that high school striver a notch below the sanguinely popular who works far too hard to look like he's not trying.  Unlike Portland's other alt weekly, the Mercury, which joyfully embraces D&D and old people, WW is too scared of looking uncool to embrace anything someone else might think is uncool.  Instead, it picks on the weak and overcompensates with extreme statements (potty language!) like the one above.  It's painful to watch. 

I will throw a bone to John Locanthi, who wrote some of the entries.  (So did the ever good Yaeger, but he needs none of my praise.)  He hits Fat Tire right on the nose:
This crystal clear, pale amber ale comes with a sweet, malty aroma. The deceptively light appearance masks a full-bodied beer that coats your throat and mouth. Fat Tire doesn’t have a strong flavor—it isn’t particularly hoppy, and only vaguely sweet—but it lingers, long overstaying its welcome.
I've seen no buzz about the series, which is another element of the fail, but if you've had a gander, your thoughts? 


  1. I took a look yesterday after you posted the link. Checked out their choices - and commentary about beer from the state where I recently lived (New Mexico) and one where I live now (Missouri). I decided I invent enough ways to waste time on a daily basis and didn't need their help.

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  3. I commented on twitter when you first mentioned this a week or two ago, but I never imagined finding something dumber than top 25 lists until this popped up. It's a mish-mash of styles, breweries, and opinion in the most remarkably dumb way.

    edit: Removed my previous comment due to terrible grammar.

  4. I find that a lot of the "reviews" have sort of boiled down to "This isn't enough like an IPA for my tastes". Which is pretty stupid given the "flagship beer" concept they are using.

    Really, though, if nearly every column requires a disclaimer about "oh, we wish we could have reviewed [this other beer from this state] which is much better, but the rules forced us to have this crappy beer instead", maybe that's a sign that the rules were poorly conceived.

    Also, they tasted all 50 beers in one day? Really? I highly question how far a shake the later beers and the more subtle beers can get in such a setup.

  5. Agreed on the poor attempts at humor through insulting various regions of the country based on the authors' prejudices. Also, stretching the thing out to well over 50 days, but only doing it online and not really publicizing it seems rather amateur-ish. That said, some of the reviews are thoughtful and well-written (others, unfortunately, didn't even get copy-edited).

  6. I'm glad to see you take this joke of a project on. To me, Willamette Week is nothing more than a childish joke of a rag working hard to entertain the 20-something crowd. I get a kick out of an article here and there, but it's mostly a journalistic wasteland, as supremely exemplified by this poorly conceived, horribly executed project. Someone (maybe Ezra?)posted some notes on how they were conducting tastings a while back...a complete joke. Back to the old drawing board, folks.

  7. I try not to feud with local bloggers—especially when it's not about something interesting—but since I did take time to answer the three examples offered here in the same e-mail which my quote comes from, I think it's a little disingenuous of Jeff to toss his complaints out without sharing my specific reply.

    Which was this:

    "Out of respect, I will reply to your specific questions:

    1. Mac & Jacks is the largest brewery in Washington State. They call African Amber their flagship. It's probably the best selling Washington-brewed beer in Washington. I cannot imagine any argument for that being "harsh."
    2. Sam Adams gets credit for creating the model large American craft brewers use today, and that lager is the point of their spear. Do a word association game with "BOSTON" and "BEER" on anyone and see if you get something else. I addressed this a bit in my Ohio post, about my own state's beer, which I could have easily played games with. But I picked the first thing people think of. The Massholes got the same deal.
    3. "Pennsylvania" + "Beer" = "Yuengling" to everyone in the mid-Atlantic. Shitty old state, shitty old beer. I have not for a split second questioned that any other beer better represents that place or those people."

    If there's anything I've been disappointed in through this project, it's the way some "beer people" have, willfully or otherwise, failed to grasp the concept, which was POPULAR BEERS from EVERY STATE in a BLIND TASTE TEST. (As a loyal Merc reader, I know you love those caps.)

    Also, I really appreciate the kind words for our hard-working intern, John Locanthi. He did great work, which we're toasting down at Lucky Lab this afternoon.


  8. Disingenuous? Are you telling me WW prints entire emails in their articles? Is it disingenuous when you excerpt? I think it's pretty common and understood--and after all, you can, and did, post your reply here.