Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — When Conflict is the Interest

One of the wonderful things about niche groups is, well, their niche.
 
The specially-created inclusivity of being “in the know” gives us a feeling of acceptance and uniqueness around something wholly our own. For decades, this has helped create thriving communities within luxury goods and experiences connected to music, food, and video games. These small groups of passionate fans take pride in finding trends and sharing in them, holding onto and nurturing something of a secret before everyone else finds out about it.
 
With changing social and cultural opportunities, these are our modern-day tribes.
 
But boy, for all the fun and excitement our niche passions may bring, they can really fuck shit up.

”Actually, it’s about ethics in journalism.”
 
We've seen really big debates like this get very gnarly from similar starting-points. On face value, a nonchalant comment like "Actually it's about ethics in journalism" seems rather tame, but in October 2014, it turned into a rallying cry in the worst way. Spawning memes and FAQs from Gawker to the Washington Post, “ethics in journalism” somehow found itself at the heart of the argument behind Gamergate, a controversy surrounding a small group of intense video game fans that was not, in fact, about ethics or journalism at all. The phrase simply acted as cover for thinly veiled sexism and harassment toward female members of the community that spiraled out of control.

[Editors Note: We want to be clear that we're citing this sub-culture crisis referred to as Gamergate not out of equivalence (some seriously terrible stuff happened in that scenario), but out of relevance to the baseline argument and disingenuous intent.]

If the argument sounds familiar to beer lovers, that’s because an awfully similar viewpoint is now being used by some of the industry’s biggest names in the latest salvos against AB InBev and its collection of breweries and businesses. And with the tribalism of craft beer already well-established, it's likely to pick up steam, albeit focused in the direction of a long-hated multi-national conglomerate now partnering with a developer and ratings-site founder, rather than more conventional writers and critics.
 
It started with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, who wrote in a blog post on his company’s site that RateBeer’s sale of a minority stake to ZX Ventures, an investment arm of AB InBev, violated the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
 
“It just doesn’t seem right for a brewer of any kind to be in a position to potentially manipulate what consumers are hearing and saying about beers, how they are rated and which ones are receiving extra publicity on what might appear to be a legitimate, 100 percent user-generated platform,” Calagione wrote, also requesting Dogfish beers be removed from the site.
 
There are issues at stake with these claims, made on assumptions put forth by Calagione, without definitive evidence or a trail of points of fact that easily connects dots. Reporting by Good Beer Hunting shows no ill intention to alter data, though it could certainly be used for broader purposes. In an updated FAQ on RateBeer’s site, Tucker notes that “RateBeer's reviews are crowd-sourced and not editorial content and as such are beyond simple influence by the site's managers and employees.” 

Meanwhile, Tucker has repeatedly said that AB has access to the same data as any other API partner, including any breweries and journalists who ask for it. What he has not done is specify the support role ZX may be playing in future product development scenarios.

Taking into consideration that any action at any time for anything in the world is possible, there is no evidence to suggest that manipulation has occurred. Even RateBeer acting as an editorial publication is up for debate, given the company’s claim that reviews are not editorial content.

On RateBeer's About page, a message from founder Joe Tucker references “editorial content,” but it’s unclear what that content is supposed to be. Industry vet Ken Weaver, who’s been involved with various editorial projects as a writer and editor, including RateBeer’s weekly newsletter from 2012-2014, tweeted about the latter recently as a source of contention. But as far as subjective editorial reporting Calagione is referencing, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
 
Each newsletter contains a roundup of stories with a headline contextualizing each story and linking to the original source. The rest of each email includes information about top-rated beers from that week, plus events and releases. An analysis all of 2017’s 12 newsletters shows no questionable editorial choices on the behalf of Tucker or RateBeer. In fact, beer lovers who are staunchly anti-AB InBev would likely be happy with the choices made by RateBeer.
 
Over the 12 RateBeer Weekly newsletters, there were 12 stories that would likely be deemed “negative” toward AB InBev, or at least offer a news story that doesn’t project a biased positive light on the company. For example, the March 29 newsletter contains stories pointing out how AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito lost out on a bonus for the first time in several years due to poor earnings for the company, as well as linking to a story about AB’s illegal pay-to-play tactics in California. The May 8 newsletter had four “anti”-AB stories following the purchase of Wicked Weed.
 
Year-to-date, a timeframe in which RateBeer had accepted ZX Ventures' investment offer, only one story from 12 newsletters could be considered “positive” toward AB InBev: a story in the April 8 edition referencing AB InBev’s commitment to renewable energy.
 
Even when it came to highlighting beer ratings or events, among the hundreds of examples listed across the 12 newsletters, there were no signs of special treatment for AB InBev’s products. None, as best as I could tell, were listed at all. Mikkeller, Trillium, Cloudwater, and BrewDog were among the most-cited breweries when it came to highlighting ratings. An investigation by Paste’s Jim Vorel even showed that “broken” RateBeer rankings that may appear to benefit AB InBev and other large breweries was not actually the case. Rather, it was code that hadn’t been cared for properly by Tucker, who for years has personally, and most of the time, individually, overseen the company.
 
“All brewers were also positively affected by the same failure," Tucker told Vorel of the error, which apparently also benefited companies like Deschutes, Surly, Allagash, Bear Republic, and Dogfish Head.
 
Which points us back to Calagione’s claim and the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which uses as a foundational principle the term “seek truth and report it.” If there’s no evidence of editorial malfeasance, and claims of RateBeer acting as a journalistic enterprise or manipulation of information don’t appear to be true, then perhaps we should hold Dogfish Head and others to such high standards.
 
But, this is all window dressing. “Ethics in journalism” is not what this anger is about. 

Calagione, among many others in the industry, has been outspoken in his dislike of AB InBev and, in particular, their business practices, which include pay-to-play efforts to buy taplines, consolidate distributorships and, in general, put a squeeze on craft beer. He has taken an active role in promoting craft beer at-large and his own brand through projects like the Brew Masters TV show, That’s Odd, Let’s Drink It web series, and Pallet magazine, a publication for which Dogfish Head didn’t have an ownership stake, but Calagione acted as executive editor. The brewery also acted as an advertiser and events sponsor for the publication.

Dogfish Head also benefited materially from its relationship with Pallet, according to records obtained by Good Beer Hunting, through discounts for ads they ran in the magazine. For the November 2015 issue, Dogfish paid $100 for a full, double-page spread, which according to their media kit, was valued at $4,500. There was also a note that this ad would appear in the first quarter of the magazine, giving it prime space in the front of the physical publication ahead of other advertisers. In that same issue, records show that Harpoon Brewery paid the full rate for a single full-page ad, transacting for $2,500. A former ad sales representative for Pallet says this was an ongoing discount for Dogfish Head.  Should this have been disclosed as a matter of ethical inquiry?

At no point did anyone make any claims about Calagione or Dogfish Head violating any journalistic principles—nor is GBH. However, it's clear that even in the non-ownership scenario (Calagione's contended point of difference in his blog post about RateBeer) Dogfish Head received substantial, and obvious, preferential treatment ahead of other small, independent breweries.

Among those following Calagione’s lead asking to have brands no longer listed on RateBeer, was Dan Kenary of the aforementioned Harpoon. "We have seen ABI make the argument that 'who brews your beer doesn't matter,' and we clearly believe otherwise,” he told BostInno. But in April, Kenary joined John Winter (Lone Tree), Hugh Sisson (Heavy Seas), Steve Crandall (Devils Backbone) and Todd Usry (Breckenridge) at a special panel sponsored by AB InBev's High End, in which he and others openly talked about the value of working together to lift up beer as a whole, and not necessarily think in “us vs. them” terms when it comes to Brewers Association-defined “craft” beer and businesses owned by AB InBev.
 
In the wake of Calagione’s request to RateBeer, other breweries like Black Project, Prison City and even Cantillon, whose Jean Van Roy has been open about his displeasure toward AB InBev, have asked to have their brands removed from the site in protest. But they don't call out “ethics” as the root of their decision.
 
But the core of this collective action, citing “ethics in journalism” as a source of protest, is false and misleading. The beliefs shared by Calagione, Kenary, and others are admirable and should be respected. They are correct in that leverage afforded to AB InBev and its subsidiaries gives it business and economic advantages the company uses to try and maximize returns. This is to the detriment of craft beer and independent companies.

However, the parallels of how this “movement” began, and the stated purpose of why it exists, is not fair to beer enthusiasts who take these industry leaders at their word. If transparency in the business of beer is valued, we can point to the hypocrisy of High End brands not showing their true colors, but we should also expect craft leaders to be open and honest as well. Beer’s "Actually" moment is essentially asking to have it both ways: craft can take shots at Big Beer all it wants, but it should also be allowed to live within the mythology it creates: that these breweries are scrappy, disadvantaged, and suffering because of moves like ZX’s investment into RateBeer. Volume growth may be slowing for craft, but as a whole, it’s still doing quite well.
 
If the problem at-hand is that brewery owners hate AB InBev and all it stands for, just say that. Don’t hide behind claims that suggest otherwise. If anything, the position and honesty will be helpful in a politically polarized climate.


[Editor's note: The original title for this story, “Craft Beer Gets its Gamergate,” received some thoughtful and fair criticisms for unintentionally drawing equivalency between the terrible things that happened to people during the video game industry’s culture war known as Gamergate and the decidedly-mild-by-comparison outcomes of the above debate in the beer world. While this comparison was helpful structurally (disingenuous ethics claims, subcultural squabbling, long-standing divisions and counter-claims exposed) we understand how this comparison was incomplete and problematic. Our framing became a distraction of its own, and we changed the headline to eliminate that distraction. This story has been edited to that effect.]


Words by Bryan Roth