Integrity, beer reviews and a bit of tongue in cheek

Oooh I thought.  Free beer.  I like the sound of that.  Well, who wouldn’t?  And all I have to do is write something?  I can write something, I’m sure I can.  Obviously it will have to be good, this is a sort of a competition, and there’s a prize to be won.  Can I write something good?  I can try.

Dave Bailey, of HardKnott fame, put an interesting post out yesterday inviting bloggers to respond with the chance of getting their hands on a rather special-sounding beer they’re just bottling.  This wasn’t obvious from the title, or even the opening paragraphs, but the post drew me in, as I sure it will have done lots of other readers, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly (get the flattery over with) I always enjoy reading Dave’s posts.  Secondly, the title was “Blogging Integrity” and it followed an excellent recent post (sorry, more flattery – hopefully that is the last) on integrity of awards ceremonies.  With the European Beer Bloggers Conference just two days away now, I was expecting stark views on the perils of sponsorship, advertising, and free stuff from breweries swaying the independence of the blogger.  After all, it is an obvious risk, and was nicely picked up by Boak and Bailey in this post here where the emphasis is on being upfront about freebies when writing, which I think is only fair to the reader who can make their own judgement on how much faith to put in the review as a result. 

But Dave’s post wasn’t really about that at all.  It was about HardKnott proposing to give away free beer so that the lucky bloggers to receive it can all tweet and blog about it together when the official “opening day” comes.  Sounds fun.  And all you have to do is write something that convinces Dave of your worthiness to receive a bottle.  Now, I don’t generally review beer in any sort of detail.  Not publicly anyway.  I’ve given appraisals of beers I’ve received from fellow amateur brewers and I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to make serious negative criticism of more than one of those.  I do tweet occasionally about a particularly fine beer I may be enjoying, and sometimes pass comment about ones I’m not so impressed by, but that is all.  As a result I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to consider how I’d deal with the review of a free beer as opposed to one I’d paid for.  I’d like to think I would be able to set to one side any possible bias and give just as fair and honest a review as if I’d paid my own money for it.  But whether it is free or paid for, there is a bigger issue for me anyway – I don’t think it is necessarily fair to write a review of a beer based on a single sample. 

Sure, if it is good and you like it, then one sample is probably sufficient – how often will a rogue “good” beer get out?  But what about if you aren’t happy with it.  Have you had a representative sample?  Did you happen to have a bottle that picked up a defect or infection?  Was it an isolated case or has a whole batch been affected?  Is the beer as the brewer intended and you just don’t like something about it?  If your sample is from a cask the parameters are even greater – taste the same beer from the same cask a couple of days apart and you may well notice quite a difference.  And from the moment a cask leaves the brewery there is potential for the beer to end up not as the brewer intended, if it isn’t handled right at some stage.  So is one negative experience enough to condemn a particular beer or even the whole brewery?  I really don’t think so.

I can give a practical example – I had two bottles of the same bottle-conditioned beer this week.  Both were slightly past their printed best before date, but only by a couple of weeks.  They both appeared to be from the same batch, and certainly came in the same order from the same supplier.  The first one was a “drain pour”.  I could best describe it as a lambic best bitter.  Not a flavour combination I expected, and certainly not one I liked (I am quite happy to drink lambics from time to time, but this was far from right!).  Two days later I opened the second bottle, expecting little from it.  This one was fine.  I didn’t think all that much of the beer, but there was certainly nothing technically wrong with it.  So if I had reviewed it on the basis of the first bottle, would I have been showing the required integrity?  I really don’t think so – I think we owe the brewer the benefit of the doubt, and should always cross-check a bad beer with another sample, preferably from another batch / supplier if that is practical.  And that doesn’t matter whether you received it for free or not.

There’s some more interesting and related discussion from Boak and Bailey here.

Hang on a minute though, I said to myself.  This integrity thing, well, that’s all well and good, not being swayed into giving good reviews to bad beers just because you received them for free.  But what about writing a blog post that is driven by a desire to win a free beer.  Isn’t that just the same?  How on earth can I possibly write a post aimed at convincing someone to give me something for free, while giving my readers (for I know there are at least two or three of you out there, unless one person is making comments under several different names!) the reassurance that what I write isn’t being swayed by the potential prize.  Well, I can’t.  If I’m to have any integrity at all I can’t possibly sacrifice my independent thought in order to get free stuff, now can I?  So to maintain any sort of integrity surely I won’t be able to write anything in response to Dave’s invitation, and therefore can’t make my pitch to win a bottle.  Morally* that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?

Clearly, though, I’ll have to publish this post now in order to explain why I can’t possibly write it… 
* No morals were harmed during the making of this post.  In fact, very few were even found!  Should it somehow manage to attract free beer then obviously I will have to just live with the guilt.

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