The James Beard Foundation Awards are like the Oscars for food. Any one who is any one in any sort of culinary capacity in the United States has pretty much won an award since the first ceremony was held aboard a luxury cruise ship in 1991. The Beards recognize greatness, from chefs high-end or low, white tablecloth French cuisine or American BBQ restaurants, dumpling shacks or burger stands. Pastry chefs have their own category, and bakers got their own in 2015. It extends to beverages as well. Wine people win all the time, as does the spirits industry of late. Really, the only folks who don’t win all too much are beer folks.
2019’s semifinalists were announced last week. This long list will be whittled down to around five nominees per category, and then winners will be annouced at a black-tie ceremony in May. Still, out of 21 categories and over 400 nominees, only six nominees total could be considered even tangentially beer-related. (Admittedly, it would be quite unlikely for a beer-focused nominee in, say, the Outstanding Pastry Chef category.)
Is this enough? As beer becomes a bigger and bigger force in America, with more than 7,000 breweries in the country, beer bars in nearly every neighborhood, and beer now even being placed prominently at culinarily significant spots like Eleven Madison Park and Blackberry Farm, you have to wonder a few things, such as:
Are There Enough Nominees?
Things didn’t get off to such a bad start when the Beards began. Interestingly enough, two brewmasters would make the cut when Red Hook Ale Brewery’s Paul Shipman and Anchor Brewing’s Fritz Maytag got nods for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional at the second-ever awards in 1992. (“Beer” would not be added to the category name—Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional—until 2012). Both would lose to winemaker André Tchelistcheff. Maytag would quickly become the Susan Lucci of the category, getting nominations—and remain the beer world’s only representative there—in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. In 2003, Maytag would make the final five for the 11th time, and finally snag the beer world’s first Beard award.
Unlike chef and restaurant nominations, which increasingly hew more on-trend and even cutting edge, beer nominees seem more like career achievement awards.”
Beer would be ignored for most of the rest of the decade until Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione would ping-pong back in forth in getting nominations every other year or so—Oliver in 2009, ’10, ’12, and ’13; Calagione in ’11, ’12, and ’13. Finally, in 2014, we’d get our second beer Beard, when Oliver would defeat a star-studded fivesome that included Calagione, Buffalo Trace’s Harlen Wheatley, Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper, and cocktail historian David Wondrich. Calagione would get nominated the ensuing four years, before becoming beer’s third winner in 2017.
But Are They the Right Nominees?
Those most recent wins were surely milestones, but I’d almost argue they were bad picks. Don’t get me wrong, Garrett Oliver and Sam Calagione more than deserve James Beard Awards, but Oliver should have won in, like, the late 1990s when he was first championing the idea of beer as a fine dining pairing. The same goes for Calagione in the early Aughts, when he turned “extreme” beer (high-ABV, strange ingredients) into the thing everyone in the industry actually strived to create. Unlike chef and restaurant nominations, which increasingly hew more on-trend and even cutting edge, beer nominees seem more like career achievement awards. It would be similar to just getting around to giving Wolfgang Puck an Outstanding Chef award.
(As an aside: I was stunned to learn that the man who may have single-handedly created the American beer consumers’ lust for hops—Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada—has been a semifinalist nominee just once, in 2012, while Boston Beer’s Jim Koch has nary a nod.)
Where are the beer innovators of today? The IPA is not just the biggest force in beer, it’s one of the most significant beverages of 21st century drinking—yet no state-of-the-art hop bombers like The Alchemist’s John Kimmich or Tree House’s Nate Lanier have ever made the semis. Nor have any stout virtuosos like Firestone Walker’s Matt Brynildson or Toppling Goliath’s Clark Lewey. Literally the best brewer in the world—that’s not just my opinion, RateBeer has crowned him that for five straight years—Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead has never been nominated. If none of these beer types are making the final five short list—and, thus, needing to rent a tuxedo for the big event—admittedly quite a few savvy beer picks are at least making the longer semifinalists list.
This year’s semifinalist group of 20 notably sees The Answer’s An Bui, a Vietnamese immigrant who has almost reinvented the beverage with his ingredient-stuffed “Andall” beers. Another inspired pick is Jeffrey Stuffings of Austin’s Jester King—in the last few years he has been at the forefront of spontaneous fermentation and has literally (re-)written the rules on it. Either would be outstanding choices to make the final five and even win a Beard, as both truly representing the zeitgeist and ambition of the beer world today. Past nominees have also leaned toward more exciting picks, like Evil Twin’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø (2016, 2017, 2018), wine barrel-aged sour maestro Vinnie Cilurzo (2017), and heavy metal stout maven Simon Floyd of Three Floyds Brewing (2013).
Still, it seems beer iconoclasts can make the final 20, but the Beard stops there.
What About Bar Nominees?
It’s even tougher if you’re a beer bar. Though the category is called Outstanding Bar Program, it should be called Outstanding Cocktail Bar Program, as those dominate the list. (There’s a separate Outstanding Wine Program for wine bars and restaurants.) This year, Philadelphia’s Monk’s Café is the only bar on the semifinalist list of 20 that predominantly serves beer. A worthy inclusion, but it probably should have first been nominated around 2011 or so, when its owner Tom Peters began introducing the country to the then-ignored Belgian lambic style—à la Cantillon—which was soon to become a sensation.
There is typically a token beer semifinalist, it seems, each year—Teresa’s Next Door in 2018, Chesapeake & Maine in 2017—but there’s never been a single beer bar finalist. The closest would probably be Atlanta’s beer-friendly Holman & Finch, which is truly more a whiskey-fueled restaurant. So, of course, a beer bar has never won this award, which first appeared in 2012. Don’t get me wrong, the cocktail bar winners over the years have been truly outstanding (PDT, The Aviary, Maison Premiere), but not even a nomination for, say, the iconic Toronado, the dazzling Edmund’s Oast, or Michelin-starred Band of Bohemia.
Perhaps it’s time for there to be a seperate Outstanding Beer Bar and Brewery category? With brewpubs becoming such significant community hubs—even offering world-class dining options in some cases (see: Jamilka Borges of The Independent Brewing Company snagging a rare Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic nom this year)—it only makes sense.
Self-servingly, though, all I really care about is: Do I have a shot at a Beard?!”
And, uh, Writers?
Self-servingly, though, all I really care about is: Do I have a shot at a Beard?!
Well, beer writing too has been mostly ignored. There has never been a beer book winner in either the Beverage category (introduced in 2009) or Wine & Spirits (introduced at the first awards). There have only been three meager beer book nominations since 1991—our ol’ buddy Garrett Oliver with The Brewmaster’s Table in 2004 as well as The Oxford Companion to Beer in 2012 and Jay Harlow’s Beer Cuisine in 1992.
It gets a hair better when it comes to the journalism awards. A few beer articles have won in the last two decades-plus: Benjamin Myers “It Must Be Spring—Bock Is Back” snagged a win in 1996, Michael Skube’s “Experiments with Hops, a Welcome Development” took the medal in 2000, and I suppose you have to count Besha Rodell’s “40 Ounces to Freedom” (about malt liquor) as a beer win in 2014. It has actually seemed over the years that you have a better shot to get nominated in Wine, Spirits, and Other Beverages if you write about those “other beverages.” Coca-Cola, the Pumpkin-Spice Latte, and even seltzer articles have all been nominated in the last few years.
Steadily, though, things are improving. My buddy Dave Infante won with beer articles in both 2016 (“There Are Almost No Black People Brewing Craft Beer. Here’s Why”) and 2017 (“The Great Craft Beer Sellout”) and I remain so incredibly jealous of him. Throw in Rodell’s win and that makes three beer journalism wins at the last five ceremonies.
Hopefully, beer journalism will win again this year.
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo