opinion

Avenue Adjunct: a paean to lagers

Welcome to a new feature: Avenue Adjunct.

In addition to Original Levity, one of the main channels for my beer writing is a regular column in Avenue Edmonton I’ve had for nearly three years. A lot of times, there are interesting things that don’t make it into the final product, either because of space limitations or because they’re a bit too arcane for a general audience.

Avenue Adjunct will be a home for those odds and ends that didn’t make it into my column: a digital domain for additional context, opinions and digressions worth sharing with readers.

It’s a privilege to have the latitude to choose my column topics, but April’s column about lagers was a particular labour of love because I enjoy them so much and feel they often don’t get the respect they deserve.

One of the things about writing for a magazine is that it requires long lead times. When I wrote the lager column in the early days of 2020, COVID-19 was a distant threat and the coronavirus pandemic was not yet upon us.

Beer in the time of COVID: a recent BOIP (Beer Over Internet Protocol) with beer pals. Thanks to Kurt, aka @watershedbrew, for the pic.

When the column came out, my initial thought was that it hasn’t aged well: I’m extolling lagers as the ultimate beer for socializing at a time when it’s absolutely necessary for all of us to keep our distance from each other. If anything, this seems like prime time for cellar beers — an opportunity to wring some enjoyment from our forced confinement by sipping and contemplating the rarities and classics we’ve been holding onto.

That may be so. But it also struck me that the time when we eventually emerge from this and begin reconnecting over a beer will be a time for lagers. It will be a time to raise a glass with friends, take a sip and ask them how they’ve been. And then listen. Then, you might say how you’re doing. Maybe you’re on your second pint by then. The beer is part of the conversation, an element of that shared experience — but the conversation isn’t about the beer.

The best way I’ve heard someone describe this yin and yang of beer came in a conversation between two beer industry friends of mine: Matt Mercer-Slingsby, co-host of Drink this Podcast, and guest Christina Owczarek during an episode of the show recorded in 2019. They posited that there are two kinds of beer. On one side, there are beers that are the moment: big, bold, complex or unique beers that command your attention and demand analysis. On the other side, there are beers that are part of the moment: the beer that makes finishing a tough workout feel even sweeter, the beer you sip beside a crackling campfire, the beer you pull out of the fridge and crack open for a friend who pops by for an impromptu visit.

I have plenty of the former in my cellar — “Holy shit!” beers that I know I’ll enjoy someday. But the beer I’m looking forward to the most is the next one I have with a friend, face-to-face. More than likely that beer will be a lager, and maybe it won’t be memorable in and of itself. But it will be no less beautiful, in its own wonderful way.

Proud to be #notsponsored

There’s an age-old argument between reporters and editors that goes something like this:

Editor: What’s going on with [Issue X]? We should do a story.

Reporter: (groaning) You’re kidding, right? I wrote an article about that a few weeks ago.

Editor: So what? Nobody remembers.

Now that I no longer have any skin in that particular game, I’ll admit the editors were usually right. When I worked in newspapers, I can’t tell you how many times I received angry emails or phone calls from readers accusing us of not covering an issue … and I had written a front-page article, like, a week before. (And this was back when people read newspapers!)

The moral of the story being, it’s common for writers to overestimate the audience’s collective memory and/or attention span. While advertisers have long understood the importance of hammering home their message through repetition, creative types — maybe out of a misplaced sense of vanity — bristle at the thought of no one remembering their golden prose.

I related this story to a friend who asked why I recently started using the #notsponsored hashtag on social media posts, considering I’ve already been pretty overt about my editorial independence from the beer industry in my bio and by posting a written sample policy here on the site. Like the editor in that newsroom parable, I believe it’s presumptuous to assume that everyone who encounters Original Levity somehow knows who I am and/or what I stand for.

Part of my recent rethinking of Original Levity was to embrace it as a multi-platform brand with different kinds of content in different places for different people, instead of being mainly a blog that had some social media accounts attached to it. There are people who follow me on Instagram and Twitter who have never visited this site, and maybe never will. (And that’s OK, by the way.) I like Instagram, but let’s face it: it’s also a fertile breeding ground for shady influencer marketing, so I wanted a way to set myself apart in terms that social media users will notice and understand. And so, I adopted #notsponsored.

This is probably a good time to add that I’m not slamming creators who post sponsored or branded content and are open about it. Advertising and partnerships are often what makes it possible for bloggers and outlets to tell stories about exciting places or things. Far be it from me to tell anyone else how to run their business if they’re running it ethically.

Ideally, there would be no need for a #notsponsored hashtag if all influencers clearly labelled sponsored content as such. There are guidelines in Canada around disclosure — but the consequences for influencers who don’t follow them seem mainly centred on being held liable for amplifying an advertiser’s false or deceptive claims about a product, as opposed to sanctioning people for hiding a relationship with an advertiser.

The problem is, for many businesses the very appeal of influencer marketing lies in disguising the fact that it’s advertising. The beer industry isn’t immune: there are breweries that compensate people in cash and/or free stuff in exchange for artsy product shots and hyped copy that create an illusion of cachet and passion for the product. It’s important to point that I’m not talking about the common practice of breweries sending samples to a wide group of people for potential reviews, with no strings attached. I’m talking about business arrangements between breweries and influencers to talk up the beer. It’s a transaction — a hidden transaction, at that.

Independence and transparency have been my modus operandi in all my years of beer writing. #notsponsored is another way of letting people know my philosophy, but the most powerful demonstration is through action. #notsponsored is a hashtag. Honesty and integrity aren’t.