Beware False Friends

No matter whether you’re learning about Bach or learning about beer, false friends can trip you up.

Last weekend, Mags and Seb attended a concert of the newly organized Bach Akademie Charlotte. They enjoyed the program, especially the playing of the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, a talented local ensemble directed by two sisters, the recorder player Frances Blaker and the cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdieck.

Seb peruses the program of the Bach Akademie Charlotte.

One of the pieces on the program was J.S. Bach’s cantata, BWV 54, Widerstehe doch die Sünde (Stand firm against sin). During the cantata’s opening aria, the soloist sings the German words, “Widerstehe doch der Sünde,/ Sonst ergreifet dich ihr Gift,” which can be translated as “Just resist sin / lest its poison seize you.”

The German word Gift is a classic example of what linguists informally call a “false friend.” This term refers to a word that looks or sounds the same in two languages but has a different meaning in each. In German and English, Gift and gift are false friends because the German word Gift means “poison,” not “present.” Many other languages refer to this concept with a term that translates as “false friends”: Spanish speakers talk about “falsos amigos,” French speakers refer to “faux amis, and Germans speak of falsche Freunde.”

In Bach’s cantata, sin is another type of false friend. It appears one way and then acts another. The text in the recitative after the opening aria characterizes sin in the following lines: “Von außen ist sie Gold; / Doch, will man weiter gehn, /
So zeigt sich nur ein leerer Schatten / Und übertünchtes Grab. (“On the outside it is gold; / yet, going further in, / it shows itself as only an empty shadow / and a whitewashed grave.”)” These lines conclude with a linguistic falscher Freund: The German noun Grab means “grave,” not “an attempt to grasp.” You can hear this line, as well as the rest of the cantata, here:

The term “craft beer” can be a false friend. In a recent interview with All About Beer Magazine, Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Head Brewery, explained the issue. “[T]he world’s biggest breweries are marketing beers as if they’re made by little American craft breweries, but selling them at cut-rate prices,” he said. “I just wish all breweries would market their beer with greater transparency and authenticity in terms of who truly owns the brand.”

Calagione is not alone in his desire for transparency. In the most extreme cases, people upset with big companies posing as craft brewers have turned to the courts. A federal district court judge in San Diego recently dismissed a class action lawsuit alleging that MilllerCoors had deceived consumers by falsely marketing its Blue Moon as a craft beer. VinePair lists six other times big brewers have faced lawsuits for misleading the public about the origin of their brands.

The Brewers Association is trying to cut through this confusion. The association, in which “More than 4,300 U.S. brewery members and 46,000 members of the American Homebrewers Association are joined by members of the allied trade, beer wholesalers, retailers, individuals, other associate members and the Brewers Association staff,” has a detailed definition of a craft brewer. To meet this definition, a brewer must be small (producing less than 6 million barrels of beer annually), independent (no more than 25% owned or controlled by an alcoholic industry member that is not a craft brewer), and traditional (having “a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”). Brewers that meet the BA’s definition of “craft brewer” may be granted permission to market their products with the Independent Craft Brewer Seal.

Professional opinions on big beer entering the craft market are varied and often divisive. Steve Crandall founded Devils Backbone, a brewery acquired by AB InBev (which also owns brands such as Budweiser and Corona) in 2016. He told Business Insider the acquisition has promoted craft beer: “It’s allowed us to hire many more craft beer-loving employees, invest in our local community through new facilities, and partner with other craft breweries on things like safety initiatives for brewers of all sizes.” Other brewers’ attitudes can be captured in the opening word of the Bach cantata, Widerstehe (Resist). Last year, the Brewers Association launched an unsuccessful crowdfunding campaign to “Take Craft Back” by raising $213 billion to buy AB InBev.

The middle ground between these conflicting positions is to realize what the Bach cantata makes clear: words don’t have the same meaning in every situation. When approaching “craft beer,” don’t make a judgment based on a marketing phrase. The best way to ensure a satisfying drinking experience is to learn about your beer and the people who make it. In beer—as in music, language, and life—only information and experience can show you who’s really your friend.

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