Whether we agree with them or not, beer critics are a necessary evil in the industry.
I try to be a voice of reason, yet still ask the difficult questions. I try to be positive yet broach negative topics. I try to bring things to light that many would rather see wither and die. To those that don’t know me or see the idea behind the difficult questions that bring the negative to light, these things can come across highly negative. The truth is though that I am trying to bring a problem to light so that it can no longer exist in the shadows of the unexamined. I regret that this will come across to many as particularly negative, and to some as even an attack.
I’ve seen a few published pieces lately that I have found particularly disturbing. Whether implied or directly mentioned, we’ve seen many “experts” or “critics” interviewed, profiled, questioned, or cast light upon, and they have been found wanting. At least those that have been give at least some close examination. Many seem to lack a true understanding of beer, and this has led to collegial discussion as to the nature and credentials of some of these critics.
We shouldn’t fault people for opinions, but we must note that opinions are far different from facts. Its my belief that a professional critic should give as many facts as possible along with their opinions, yet in many critiques I have read this is generally lacking. While there may be many reasons for this, I think that this comes down to a few main reasons, namely ego/arrogance, laziness, and lack of education. These three are certainly intertwined, and likely play in combination when used to describe beer critics.
- Ego/Arrogance – This is often the basis to a critic’s belief in being an authority and thus basing their opinion as an Argument from Authority. Essentially a critic will say that I have been doing this professionally for so long that I know what I am doing and you should believe me. (Essentially the opposite of scholarly writing that states “here is what is known on the subject, so look for yourself as sources are pointed out”
- Laziness – This sin is one that many critics never admit too, although there are certainly some that are honest enough to. Basically the argument for not furthering their understanding of their subject matter is that they have been ‘so gosh darn busy’ that they never seem to get around to upgrading their skills and knowledge on the topic. I have always believed that if something is actually important enough to someone, they will find the time.
- Lack of Education – Many folks involved in writing about beer are largely under-educated on the subject. They have done little reading, coursework or collaboration with others willing to learn. To me, this is one of the greatest wrongs that any critic can do. Substantial and recognized experts in almost any field look to educate themselves and further their knowledge in their chosen field. From a musician that studies great composers to a chef that reads ancient tomes of their art to the scientist that reads all the major scholarly journals, these experts are always looking to learn more. Moreover, a truly earnest expert has no problem admitting to a lack of knowledge (they are always looking to fill these information gaps) and if necessary deferring to a better source. [To look at it another way – anyone that asserts that education is not important likely is lacking in education. Knowing what you do and do not know is difficult for many people, and bashing the educated is far easier for the under-educated]
I read a great article a while back that highlights many of the above points. While I don’t agree with many of the authors assertions, he did get lots of responses that are interesting to read. He agrees with many of the people that responded to his questions that education and training are not particularly necessary. While I won’t go too far into the piece, I will note that many respondents have little good to say about education while at the same time also possessing very little. Oddly, they seem to hold the belief that writing means good reporting and that an education would somehow (quite illogically) veto the ability to communicate effectively on the subject.
So what is the argument that is being made? Many critics suffer from these sins in some way or another, and we should be demanding far better. More importantly, I think that any true critic has a personal responsibility to address these faults and further their knowledge.
For any critic or beer expert with a measure of authority and a public voice there is a responsibility to educate thyself before addressing their message to the public. The public should be presented with a polished and informed product (the discourse of the critic) that represents the skills, education and training of the critic, and these pieces of information need to be upgraded regularly in order to stay informed and relevant. Being concerned about the ability to communicate over the knowledge of the subject matter is simply illogical and insult to those that try to take in the message of the communicator.