Thursday, January 21, 2010

Boulevard Brewery - Is the Emperor Wearing Clothes?

John over at the Wort Hog posted a provocative piece raising questions about Boulevard Brewery's adhesion to craft beer ethos, prompted by a review of the Brewery's FAQ. While you may occasionally stumble across a negative review of a specific beer, rarely do you see a respected Kansas City beer writer like John pen something so critical of the state's largest craft brewery itself.

Specifically, he points out that earlier versions of the FAQ forswore the use of aluminum cans, citing "tradition" as the reason, only to delete that entry after adopting aluminum bottles. He also identifies two "shockingly" false claims that remain in the FAQ; one is that Boulevard will never make fruit beer, and the second is that Boulevard will only be distributed in the Midwest.

Most damningly and provocatively, the discrepancies cause John to raise 5 questions:
1. Did Boulevard ever truly hold the snooty values communicated on its FAQ?
2. If they did, why are these values so easy to abandon?
3. Does Boulevard truly value the craft beer ethos many see in its Smokestack series?
4. If so, how easily will Boulevard abandon that apparent value?
. . .
5. Is the Emperor wearing any clothes?
Those are some serious questions to raise based upon sloppy FAQ writing.

While I admire John's willingness to ask hard questions about a brewery many of us tend to treat as a regional treasure, I think he's going way overboard in seriously questioning the values of Boulevard Brewing.

First off, let's tackle the aluminum can question. The now-deleted section on aluminum cans was wrong-headed in the first place, but it was never a "value" of the brewery to be wedded to brown glass bottles. I'm not privy to their formal values statement, if they have one, but their "value" is tied to producing a high-quality beer experience, not favoring one container over another. A dismissive statement about aluminum cans on an early FAQ is not a value, and it's neither shocking nor unethical to abandon it when environmental and market reasons bring a reason to rethink the prejudice. (Aluminum cans are drawing more and more advocates within the craft brew industry, and I'm working on a post about the topic for the near future.)

As for the "fruit beer" issue, I think John is a bit mistaken when he acts like the statement is contradicted by his point that "Boulevard has been making a seasonal beer with fruit added for over a year now". I assume that John is referring to the orange peel used in making Zon beer, and there is a world of difference between a witbier like Zon and a "fruit beer", which is intended to be a "harmonious marriage of fruit and beer".

(I was surprised to see Boulevard eliminate an entire category of beers from its intended repertoire when I saw John's quotation. In context, though the statement comes in the form of a terse "nope" to the question "Will Boulevard ever make fruit beer, 'light' beer or non-alcoholic beer?". I think they should clarify that statement now, and reclaim the potential of entering into the wonderful craft-brew world of cherry stouts, raspberry ales, and Magic Hat #9.)

Finally, about the distribution issue. A few bottles of the Smokestack series found on the coasts does not demonstrate an abandonment of fundamental values. Indeed, the FAQ makes that point clear when it states that the limited distribution area helps them remain "dedicated to bringing back fresh, flavorful beers in a variety of styles". In the case of the Smokestack series, a narrowly focused niche beer like Two Jokers or Seeyoulator might well require a broader network of adventurous beer drinkers to allow for those styles to sell. There's no conflict with a value; there's an adaptation of strategy.

In sum, John at The Wort Hog is wrong when he attempts to spin some sloppy editing in a FAQ into a question of values. The loose language John excavates from old FAQs does not represent "snooty values", and the editing of that language does not reflect any abandonment of values. I see nothing to justify an accusation that Boulevard is prone to abandon the "craft beer ethos" represented in its Smokestack series.

On the other hand, it's refreshing to see someone step out and raise these questions. Boulevard Brewery is a dominant force in the regional beer scene, and beer bloggers ought to be stepping up and questioning on a regular basis whether our emperor is wearing clothes. Local beer bloggers have already been accused of "Homerism" and the claim is not entirely without justification.

I'm confident that, in this case, the emperor is wearing clothes. As beer-lovers, we owe it to ourselves and to Boulevard to make sure it remains fully clothed.

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Blogger emawkc said...

I could't get passed the 5 questions list before saying to myself "Really, this guys is so serious about beer that he's deconstructing an online FAQ to try to, what, make himself look like an expert in something that nobody cares about?"

This is the beer enthusiast equivalent of a 70 minute video reveiw of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

In other words, get a life, dude. If you like the beer, drink it. If you don't, don't.

1/22/2010 10:30 AM  

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