Confessions of a Former ‘Candy and Beer’ Pairer

Crguk-Wine

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, head quite beery,
Over many a forgotten and cringe listicle built to bore,
While I guzzled, interest sapping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at the newsroom door.
“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at the newsroom door —
Only this, and nothing more.”

Edgar Allen Poe understood the horror of shame as well as any author in the American canon. But he doesn’t write this column; I do. So with the culmination of 2022’s spooky season nearly upon us, it’s time for your humble Hop Take columnist to face a seasonal fear and confess one of the deepest sins of his beer-writing life. It happened in 2019, in a small city in the American South where the morbid poet himself had once lived, just months before a deadly plague would sweep the land. I was working part-time at a daily paper (one of the spookier places to find yourself, financially speaking.) Strapped for copy in these dire circumstances, I committed my grave transgression upon the profession of beer journalism. I wrote a candy-and-beer pairing “story.”

I was simply not so sober, in that balmy late October;
And each separate pumpkin ale empty I tossed upon the floor.
Desperately, I tried to file — vainly writing for awhile
A column of low-brow palaver — palaver to post before
The Halloween issue went to press, and then the store,
Immortalized in print evermore.

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Halloween is a time for many things — JELL-O eyeballs and spaghetti brains, “slutty costume” discourses and fentanyl-fueled moral panics — but it’s not particularly good time for the business of beer writing. Sure, there are pumpkin beers to fete, and the correspondent grievances about their forward-creeping release to air, but if it was your job to relentlessly generate #content for a digital media outlet or *shudder* a local newspaper last decade, those are mere gumdrops in the jack-o’-lantern-shaped candy bucket. The beast always had to be fed, and with 31 days in the month, beating October’s traffic goals required hacky tricks and viral treats to beat. The beer-and-candy pairing story is just that, a rote publishing gimmick prepackaged for brainless consumption by the zombie hordes on Facebook. It’s a remarkably simple recipe, really; even the Sanderson Sisters could handle it. Into the cauldron Google Doc go a few quotes from an expert (usually a cicerone or popular bartender; I pressed advanced cicerone Brandon Plyler of Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company into service) detailing why a handful of fall-ish beers would pair well with popular Halloween candy. Slap a lede up top, a kicker at the end, and there you go: shareable Halloween coverage, ready to post!

Deep into my laptop peering, long I sat there fearing,
Doubting, typing up pairings mortal taste buds would deplore.
And yet my gambit was unbroken, my hackery unspoken,
On candy bars and marzens my readers would be chokin’, with every pour.
Once I completed my post, this ghastly written chore —
It would reap traffic, and nothing more.

Did readers then or now actually want a guide to coupling mass-made confections with local craft beers? I doubt it! But that was never the point. “Everything about the angle of the candy pairing pieces feels like it falls squarely in the ‘content for the sake of content’ column,” Zach Mack, a certified cicerone and co-owner of Manhattan’s beloved Alphabet City Beer Co., tells Hop Take. “I see the use case for pairings, but I hardly think of seriously sweet candy being the best use case [to pair with beer] outside of it being timely.” While a listicle matching peanut butter cups with a stout or Skittles with a lambic was novel enough to farm Facebook engagement last decade, actually eating candy and drinking beer together in real life was (and remains) considerably less compelling.

I find the combination flat-out gross, in fact, though your mileage may vary. I find my willingness to resort to the ol’ Halloween beer pairing ploy a few years back gross, too. Not because I wrote it in bad faith, or because it did any real harm (besides maybe causing a few stomachaches in the greater Charleston area), but because it’s such a lazy way to write about a beverage with beer’s cultural, political, and compositional complexity. “It really trivializes craft beer and reduces it to really base components,” says Alex Kidd, the founder of the popular blog Don’t Drink Beer. “I don’t see high-end winemakers getting paired with Butterfingers.”

Same here. I also don’t see wine brands, even mass-market ones, churning out confectionary product lines of their own (Cupcake Vineyards notwithstanding.) That’s what some craft breweries started doing right around the same time candy-and-beer pairing stories became go-to traffic “gimmes” in media start-ups and legacy newsrooms across the country. One way to look at the rise of pastry stouts, smoothie-style kettle sours, and milkshake IPAs is as a reflection of broadening, mainstreaming tastes. Like candy, candy-esque beers are approachable as hell. “One of the biggest successes of [beers that are] flavor-mirroring is that they really get rid of any of the gatekeeping aspects of beer,” Kidd tells Hop Take.

As someone who considers craft beer’s stubborn cliquishness both corny and detrimental to the industry’s growth, I think that’s good! But knowing how the media sausage gets made — and having made plenty of it myself — I can see the tail wagging the dog. The candy-coating of craft beer, the alco-llaborations, the flavored malt beverage-fication of energy drinks and sodas — none of it can be directly traced back to a specific holiday listicle offered up at the traffic altar, but the aggregate, compounding impact of half a dozen years of that sort of saccharine (ahem) coverage has sent a clear signal to industry players desperate for publicity. “Editors have backed off on assigning the Halloween candy beer pairing pieces at the same rate some PR reps have ramped up their pitches for it,” says Mack, adding that Girl Scout pairings — the springtime equivalent — have shown no signs of slowing. In all the noise, only the sweetest, easiest stuff still commands attention. The media’s participation in and encouragement of these trends created a feedback loop. Kidd calls it “spun sugar on both sides.” I call it a failure to properly contextualize changes in the beer aisle to drinkers increasingly confused and exasperated by those changes. Even though the crutch is slowly becoming less common, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

“Pairing guide!” said I, “thing of yearly seasonality!”
By that media mandate for high-performing fodder — damn the banality!
Tell the brewer with sorrow laden that a pastry stout must be made in
Time for Halloween pitches, for the PR team says this trick is for sure.
Matched with sweet treats, will it sell in stores?
          Quoth the scan data: “Nevermore.”

There are more chilling consequences, too. Candy-and-beer pairing stories are a cringey symptom of a deeper misalignment of incentives among a U.S. beer media that would (mostly) rather celebrate the substance than scrutinize the subjects that make it. “We’re talking about screen time, eyes on a page, that could’ve been anything else,” says Kidd. He’s right: When writers spend man-hours and column inches on sugar-coated pablum, we forfeit space that could otherwise be filled with actual stories — of sexual harrassment in America’s taprooms, of labor exploitation across its supply chain, of the political spending by its macrobrewers — that actually merit readers’ attention. Worse: we forfeit the authority to tell them.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not above a shitpost or several, nor adversarial investigations. I’ve done plenty of both, and will continue to. But I think it’s important to note that like craft brewing, media is a business ripe for criticism. It’s not exempt, and neither am I. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my own complicity in a system that rewards cheap tricks. I offer no self-aggrandizing excuses or exculpatory context. My wonderful editor at the time didn’t force the candy-and-beer pairing upon me; I just took the easy way out, not thinking about the consequences. That’s a Halloween shame, and it’s all mine. Nevermore.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

The past 18 months have been quite the rollercoaster ride for ye olde Boston “Beer” Company (ticker symbol SAM.) With Truly on a tear in early 2021, investors sent the pioneering craft brewer’s stock soaring, but Jim Koch and Co. gave most of it right back with poor forecasting and missed opportunities as the hard seltzer market cooled. (That short, failed foray into Finnish long drink with Bevy and its reported $10 million rollout budget probably didn’t help.) There’s good news from Beantown once again as BBC beat its third-quarter earnings thanks in no small part to another blockbuster quarter from Twisted Tea. SAM climbed apace. But Brewbound reports the struggling Sam Adams brand was name checked by the firm’s execs just three times on the entire call. So… Boston Beyond Beer Company, ticker symbol TWEA?

📈 Ups…

Congrats to Athletic Brewing Co., brewer Zahra Tabatabai, and Lunar Hard Seltzer on their VinePair Next Wave wins!… And to investor/tout Darren Rovell, who hates to say he told you so, but… More on how PepsiCo’s Blue Cloud is disrupting distro tier (and distressing incumbents)… Judge says Mixx maker Bang Energy cleared to tap $34 million worth of credit during Bang-ruptcy… This weed “beer” taste test is a look into craft brewing’s potential THC-infused future…

📉 …and downs

The NBA season is underway, and the Warriors and Celtics are averaging almost $18 a beer… Former craft brewing standard-bearer Stone, soon to be a Sapporo subsidiary, is now making tequila-based Margaritas… Fellow craft pioneer Boston “Beer” Company also has tequila RTDs coming, huh… Drizly is in the Federal Trade Commission’s crosshairs for a data breach exposing 2.5 million usersInstacart reportedly shelving its IPO plans…