A healthy distrust a.k.a. a Nate Heck soliloquy

nate heck salem beer works(Salem, MA) – As someone who follows beer quite closely, I’m always surprised to find opinions of those in the craft beer industry that go against the grain.

When I do I sometimes post them here; it’s a way to help balance the stream of news posts that you see here promoting the new wares of craft breweries. These private conversations are probably common but public statements are usually guarded behind political correctness (generally wise for anyone operating or representing a business in the year, 2011). So this blog remains remains pretty imbalanced for the most part…

The snippet below is one of the only instances of candor that I’ve seen recently. It comes courtesy of an interview with Salem Beer Works’ Head Brewer, Nate Heck at the Clown Shoes Beer blog back in August. Though it was published a few months earlier, this follows the same theme as a blog post from Four Peaks Brewing published recently. It’s presented here only for awareness and discussion and doesn’t represent my opinion one way or the other…

With the inevitable tipping point somewhere off in the distance, I can’t help but wonder whether there will be more public statements by brewers that not all is peachy in the world of craft beer. I encourage you to read the rest of the interview and comments at the original link.

You call yourself a bit of a cynic in regards to the craft beer industry. Why? BEGIN RANT:

It’s really hard to answer this question, for some reason. It feels a bit like trying to reply to “Have you stopped beating your wife?” But, I’ll give it a shot, nonetheless. I have spent most of my adult life making beer. I love what I do and of course, I love beer. However, it seems like over the past few years, something has changed and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what it is exactly.

I guess I’m cynical because I see a lack of appreciation for the history of brewing. Lots of people seem to think that craft brewing started when Sam Calagione started DFH, and believe that “Beer Wars” are the gospel truth about the beer industry and that Stone Brewing doesn’t market their beer.

And that is also something I’m cynical about…the evangelical aspect of craft beer. People feel they have to convert the unwashed Bud drinking masses. Beer is not some binary thing. You can enjoy an ice cold PBR AND like Russian Imperial Stouts…at the same time! *Gasp!* The blasphemy!!!

There’s also a nouveau riche thing going on with craft beer. It seems to be all about ostentatious display of IBU’s, ABV, etc., etc. It’s the whole Double Black Barrel-Aged IPA, beer mad lib thing that is completely boring to me. Communities like Beer Advocate advocate that phenomenon more than they advocate the full spectrum of beer appreciation. And just like the arms race brewers have to out “extreme” each other, dudes who review beers do the same thing. No longer is it good enough to say that a beer has a citrusy aroma or a grapefruit hop nose. Now, it’s grapefruit “pith.” Really?! Pith?! Come on….save the pretentious “notes of vine-ripened figs, off-set by a pumpernickel bread crust and grapefruit pith” for the wine world! It’s friggin’ beer, people! ”I hand wash my chalice with spring water, an Indian cotton wash cloth and handmade soap and and store it on a pillow made of the finest crushed velvet between my tasting sessions.” Beer is social and beer is fun and sometimes drinking one out of a red plastic cup is perfectly awesome!

I’m also cynical about the whole “celebrity brewer” thing. And I know quite a few wanna-be celebrities in this area and they make my stomach turn and my eyes roll!

The whole beer-food pairing thing is pretty lame, as well. Beer isn’t wine! Don’t have a geuze with nachos. “Ah…but I find that the notes of figs and grapefruit pith are the perfect complement to a braised leg of lamb and fingerling potatoes.” Give me a break… As a pub brewer, I suppose I should be more into the pairing thing, but I think it’s pretentious, ridiculous and adds nothing to the beer culture, except for pushing it ever closer to the wine world.

Let’s see…what else am I cynical about? Craft fans seem to ascribe a false virtue to the small brewers and false vice to the big brewers out there. We laud some brewers’ success and vilify others for theirs. And the argument usually, and ignorantly, falls along the lines of “the big guys don’t care about beer, only profit.” And, “I know Sam Calagione and/or Greg Koch makes beer because he’s passionate about it.” Try opening a brewery in San Diego or Wilmington and see just what a couple of swell guys Sam and Greg are! Craft fans have taken up the mantel that they are fighting the big guys out there. In reality, however, Mercury Brewing is competing more fiercely with the likes of Wachusett than they are with Anheuser-Busch. But, David versus Goliath is a much easier and intriguing tale to tell if you’re a small brewer, even if it’s not entirely correct.

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38 thoughts on “A healthy distrust a.k.a. a Nate Heck soliloquy

  1. Well done. He makes many great points I have to agree with. Sad that the many idiots on BA will think this is garbage and continue to think that high ABV, limited release, and high IBUs is what makes a beer great.

  2. MANY good points that will certainly get many beer nerds all worked up.

    Im of the thought that everyone should learn to appreciate ALL beers which I believe to be one of his main points.
    Pabst is an amazing beer and one of my all time favs!

    People always take themselves FAR too serisouly and beer nerds are definitely NOT an exception!

  3. While I agree with a couple points (yes, drop the ‘pith’ language flavor profiles – beer tasting is about flavor discovery, not an exotic word competition). However, I think someone’s been bitten a little by the jealousy bug. Nate mentions Sam of DFH and Greg of Stone multiple times, reminding of me of an elementary school boy pushing a girl because he’s secretly got a crush on her but doesn’t know how to show it. There’s nothing wrong with the ‘celebrity brewer’ idea. This branding has done more for craft beer than any cynical rant from a sideline player will ever do. The more that people can associate themselves with the brand (ideally the beer culture and the face of the company), the more they’ll buy the beer.

    Lastly, I think it’s pretentious to say that beer should in no way resemble the wine culture, such as with pairings. A palate is capable of discovering so many wonderful flavors, whether it be food, beer, wine, coffee, etc. To say beer and food shouldn’t be paired is knucklehead talk. It’s unfortunate that a good brewer is holding onto his own archaic, preconceived notions that beer is just fun, social, and should never expand beyond that. Yes, it IS fun, it IS social, but it’s also creative, artistic, thought-provoking, and able to blow your mind with any number of food pairings. For some reason Nate’s kryptonite seems to be that the wine and beer worlds should *gasp* overlap – blasphemy!!! He mocks those that say PBR and Russian Imperial Stouts shouldn’t mix, yet he’s ignorantly fighting that the beer world should never resemble that of the wine. Nate, give ME a break. It makes for a more educated beer drinker (uneducated drinkers = higher alcohol related incidents) and it brings more wine drinkers over to the beer market (unless, that is, you don’t want the ‘wine snob’ money).

  4. On one hand. I think he has a very valid point about brewers these days pushing barrel aged over the top monstrosities, and the entire snob aspect where you can not enjoy a pale lager in a plastic cup.

    Then he goes and says things like beer and food pairings are lame. Which I could not disagree with more. Beer tasting and pairing with foods can be as elaborate or as simple as a person wants it to be.
    The diversity in styles and flavours in beer deserve just as much respect as wine. Saying beer is not wine doesn’t mean anything, and I find it a bit dissapointing coming from someone who is a brewer and lover of beer.

  5. I do think that BA can get out of hand with regards to promoting certain extreme styles. I don’t like barleywines. There. Problem solved.
    I love beer and food and think he is an ass for dismissing the work that somebody like Garret Oliver or Sean Paxton do. I have had plenty of memorable experiences with pairings, which can not be diminished by saying that is wine’s world. Beer and wine share fermentation, should we stop drinking beer because they share that?
    I disagree that craft beer lovers can be shit-beer lovers. I am constantly disappointed by people I know who claim to love craft beer and then smash a couple of PBR’s. Its kind of like claiming you love Bach, but then jam a Ke$ha song or something. In my opinion there is a disconnect in philosophy between the two worlds.
    I understand that big beer brewers can be passionate and that craft beer people can be zealots. However, I will gladly take the side of people who are working to push their creativity more than pushing profit.

  6. Without going into an excess of detail (where to begin, really…), Nate Heck is certainly not alone in questioning or combating a lot of these listed “bad habits” of the craft beer industry.

    Many young beer drinkers lack the context of beer history and appreciation (etc. etc.), the extreme beer focus is partially a marketing byproduct, and many of the internal value systems that craft beer drinkers have grown up with are misguided to some degree (I will shamelessly mention my article on adjuncts coming out shortly in All About Beer).

    Rants, sadly, don’t fix these things. People will either agree or disagree with any given rant, but they aren’t convinced by them. What I’d like to see is more beer writers taking on these tougher industry questions, while also providing both the necessary historical context and evidence to actually teach people something about the industry instead of just bitterly railing against it.

    Again, I do sympathize and agree with a number of the points made above. But I wouldn’t if I didn’t already agree with them beforehand.

    (This is to say nothing of the hypocritical nature of encouraging a better understanding of the craft beer industry while railing against beer pairings and pretentious connoisseurship. Pick one.)

  7. Wow–as an “industry insider” I find myself on both sides of this argument. I can plead guilty to both vilifying the “macros” and touting the “beer and pairing” phenomenon. But as a brewery owner, and a marketing professional I think I have enough of a puppet strings perspective to know full well that Sam and Greg and many others are businessmen, pure and simple. They did not luck into their success just because they love to taste and talk about great beer. These sorts of successes take careful planning and dedicated implementation which I respect nearly as much as I lust after my dearest Mr. C.

    My own company’s stated mission is to make Michigan’s most drinkable lagers, and while some may vilify me as a “lowest common denominator” brewer I believe that making the tent of beer aficionados bigger and more welcoming to those more used to drinking their malt beverage from a red plastic cup–teaching them that there is much more to beer than that–is an honorable goal. My best selling beer is an American Premium Lager, but close on it’s heels are my Vienna Red, Dark Oat and Hoppy Lagers–so beer drinkers learn by introducing them to hand crafted beers with a product they are comfortable with then move on to more unique flavors and tastes thanks to my taps. Hence, we encourage people to pair beers with cheeseburgers, brats, pizza or whatever the hell they want, but then again, I drink Cabernet with fish, so what do I know?

    cheers and thanks for opening up this conversation!
    E.T. Crowe
    Beer Wench (Ann Arbor)

  8. I think there is a healthy validity to the calling out of reviews and the faux knowledge culture that is developing on sites like Rate Beer and Beer Advocate, and worse random blogs were people make up complete bs without any real claim to know what the hell they are talking about, but his disdain of guys like Calagione and Koch wreaks of someone who has petty jealously that these guys are becoming famous. That jealously comes out loud and clear with the bizarre reference to nouveau riche he directly links to IBUs, high ABV, etc. etc which is all barreled and boring to him anyway.

    It is all said as if they have been faking their way through beer with zombie beer fans just dopey enough to follow them.

    The crapping on pairing beer and food, give me a break. Don’t freaking pair it then. This all comes off very wah, why not me.

  9. To echo what was said above: good points except the pairings. Yes, it is a bit wacky to pair nachos with gueuze, but there are many more reasonable, delicious, simple pairings.

    What I have been thinking about recently is the hoarding that goes on with these extreme beers. Breweries have to put limits on purchases because some jack will buy all in sight. I’m in favor of sharing; get 2 bottles (one for now, one to age), and let the rest be for others to try. For me, one of the greatest experiences is to share that odd, rare, or unique beer with someone.

    Exorbitant ebay sales, well…that’s a thesis for another time.

  10. “Don’t have a geuze with nachos” might be the best beer quote ever. And it is very solid advice.

  11. Every word. Truth. I wish I could have said it as clearly. I don’t know him, but every freaking word resonates. I just wish I had said it myself. Word.

  12. i agree with alot of nate says other than the beer pairing thing.

    one thing that really brings my piss to a boil about the whole DFH thing is that the brewmasters show is more or less like an adult cartoon show. it’s basically just a vehicle to sell beer. that’s fine and dandy, but i don’t think they properly increased supply with the demand for their product.

    i help run a beer bar/retail and it’s the biggest pain in the ass when customers come in and want bitches brew when you only have one case of it. honestly i wasn’t overly impressed by the beer and this show has people so deadset on a product that they are unwilling to try out another better product.

    i agree with the whole “trying to educate budweiser drinkers” thing. other than telling people that most light lagers are more or less the same thing, i really couldn’t give a shit about trying to “convert” the masses to craft beer. i really hate the holier than thou stance that alot of craft beer drinkers take. christ, i wish i didn’t like craft beer sometimes it’d save me alot of money.

    i think i’m generally cynical though to begin with but i agree with this guy alot. i really enjoy the whole regional brewing thing, ie being able to go some place and get beer that i can’t get where i live. maybe i’m just jaded but i feel like certain breweries who have expanded greatly have done so at the quality of their product.

  13. one more thing,

    there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a russian imperial stout and being able to enjoy a PBR. in regards to this quote

    “I disagree that craft beer lovers can be shit-beer lovers. I am constantly disappointed by people I know who claim to love craft beer and then smash a couple of PBR’s. Its kind of like claiming you love Bach, but then jam a Ke$ha song or something. In my opinion there is a disconnect in philosophy between the two worlds.”

    you can like Bach and like a Ke$ha song. it’s not like Bach and Ke$ha are mutually exclusive. i can enjoy going to a nice restaurant and i can enjoy a jr. bacon cheeseburger from mcdonalds. people get so hung up on having “good taste” that it just becomes an annoying act of pretentiousness.

  14. Interesting assessment. I can’t help feeling that there is an element of jealousy in there somehow.

    Anyone who thinks Stone don’t market their beer is an idiot, and I suspect this section of the beer fraternity represents a very small minority.

    The accusation that people think Sam invented craft beer is also way off. However, DogFish Head have a lot to be thanked for because whilst they may not have invented craft beer they have certainly contributed to its rapid growth over the past 20 years.

    Oddly, if I didn’t know better I would have said that Nate’s views are very British (as am I) in that he pours scorn over those who are successful and those who diversify. He also objects to people having the audacity to have faith in their product, by telling everybody else that they thinks its good. This is what we get in the UK. Success is something to be kept quiet; don’t brag and keep it to yourself. No one likes a show off.

    The thing is, what if you have a great product and you have a different vision for your beer and your company? Are you supposed to say ‘You know what, this 13% Imperial Stout is amazing, but it has a bit too much flavour and is very strong. I shouldn’t call it a beer just incase people get confused’.

    It sounds to me that Nate has some old school ideas about beer that he just can’t shake. I wonder if his views on Stone and Dogfish Head extend to Alesmith, Three Floyds, Russian River etc or whether they are solely aimed at those companies who have a multi-million dollar turnover, quirky and successful marketting and CEO’s who have no problem with being in the public eye?

    The point about the plastic cup is perfectly legitimate mind you, and sometimes beer snobs can be a bit tedious. However, I’d rather have a soft drink than a bottle of bud, because Bud is s**t

  15. Kudos to Heck for sticking out his neck! Who are we to take sides, this is “beer”, let’s not turn this into politics and labeling your/my “opinions” as right and wrong. I love beer and beer culture because it is so diversified. I also feel everybody has their right to pick their own favorite beer without somebody telling what is good (even if it means they choose to band-wagon). Each person is also title to their own opinions about the industry. Embrace this beer diversity by sharing a pint over the conversation.

  16. I agree with most everything stated here.
    Look I understand that the small brewer wants to define his product as more “special” or in a class by itself to carve out the $ from the big guy…
    but the pretentiousness of language and hiding behind the frugal variables such as bitterness units or alcohol content and regaling conversations about oxidation, etc etc only show just how low the stakes really are.
    I went through an extended period of thinking every beer was its own “experience” and all it did was take away from the social event in context. worse.. it BECAME the social event.
    The unspoken downside was my partners spiral into alcoholism disguised as a “passion” for these treasures of taste and eloquence.

  17. He’s quite right to be skeptical overall, and he’s dead wrong about food and beer pairings; his issue should be with the poor quality of the writing that documents pairings, not with the pairing notion itself.

    Clown Shoes … are they the ones putting out that absolutely offensive Tramp Stamp beer? There’s my rant.

  18. Random Point: He is “anti-extreme” blah-bitty-blah, but he has brewed an habanero Black IPA? Seriously?

  19. Excellent!

    I have always said – “beer will never be wine”. This is often dismissed as, a knock against beer. Quite to the contrary.

    Beer is much more food-friendly than wine but people just take beer too seriously and I have nothing against Sean Paxton or the The Beer Chef. More power to them.

    I can listen to Mozart and knock back a Coors Light if I want to. I have 50 cases of wine in storage but I am and always will be a beer drinker!

  20. Luckily there’s room for all of us when it comes to brews.

    Personally, my response to this will be to use the term “pith” as often as possible (being pithy, one might say).

  21. I have a “healthy distrust” of anyone who rants against the extreme creativity of brewers while also proclaiming that they drink PBR and Imperial Stouts.

    Are you letting everything in the ‘fridge or not?

    I won’t stop the double imperial beer with figs from being made and I won’t stop the industrial water lager from Bud being made. What I will do is be upfront with those I talk to about MY personal taste opinions.

    That opinion is that Ke$sha and Coors Light are not music or beer.

    PS I will still try Nate’s beer. The passion is to be commended even if the thinking is skewed in my book.

  22. Wow!!! I had no idea that a rant that came as a request from an old friend would end up here and generate this much conversation. That is very cool! I guess explains why I’ve suddenly gotten all these new Twitter followers. Sorry I don’t Tweet more, everyone. I guess my rants aren’t 140 character-friendly! Thanks to everyone for their input, especially you boron.

    First and most importantly, I wasn’t ranting against the creativity of brewers or the beers that they make. I love the creativity of brewers.

    I was making an admittedly somewhat hyperbolic argument about things that I disagree with about the beer “culture” in this country, from parings, to a lack of appreciation of brewing history to half-truths and myths being echo-chambered into truth.

    To Chris with the Brew Dog URL, I am not heaping scorn on people’s success. Quite the contrary. And I have no problem with clever marketing, or quirky CEOs in the public eye. I do have a problem however, with quirky CEOs in the public eye who tell everyone that they don’t market or advertise, or that that they are, 15 or 20 years into their growth, the little guy…when in fact, they are bigger than 99% of the breweries in the U.S. (Bud, Miller, Coors, Boston Beer & Yuengling included)! Furthermore, I have a problem with the selective lauding of said success. We love some breweries because they are successful and hate others for the same reason. My point is that we should be careful what we with for. We all want to be the ones who say: “I remember Ke$ha when she was playing in small clubs,” but are the first to call her a sell-out when she hits the radio and plays shows in arenas.

    Random response…I’ve never brewed a Habanero Black IPA! That was the Fenway location!

    I can see that my views on pairing are probably the most disagreeable thing I said overall. And I’m cool with that. I guess I’m wary of Ciccerones at high-end restaurants pitching $20 bottles of beer.

    Lastly, to Sean’s point at the end about disbelieving that someone can actually claim to like PBR and imperial stouts, I’m not sure why that is such a hard thing for you. I go by Michael Jackson’s sentiments that there should be a beer for every occasion and an occasion for every beer.

  23. He raises many good points, is opinionated, and has a likeable face.

    I think we’ve found our next big beer celebrity, folks!

  24. I liked the rant, and even like some of the replies. My issue is with the statement…

    “I’m also cynical about the whole “celebrity brewer” thing. And I know quite a few wanna-be celebrities in this area and they make my stomach turn and my eyes roll!”

    so Nate… who are you speaking of, or was this a general statement about the celebrity status of some brewers that have become more successful due to, not only brewing good beer, but also being in the public eye. almost seems like you wish you were 7 feet tall so you can see it all from above and look down on such behavior… oh wait, YOU are 7 feet tall!

    Great read and keep on brewing, whether its watered down lager or vienna red, imperial stouts, gueuze or otherwise… I love it all!

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