Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Write About Beer?

This month's session will be my first time participating in the monthly beer writer's roundtable, but it's a topic I couldn't pass by: beer writing. Hosted by Heather Vandenengel (her blog: beerhobo), we're instructed: "It’s time for a session of navel-gazing: I’d like to turn a critical eye on how the media cover the beer industry. And, for a broad definition, I’ll define media as newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV, books and radio."

First, let's just be honest about why most of us write about beer. I mean, if we're going to complain about beer journalism's faults (something I have done many times), we should be honest about why the rest of us are doing it at all. We write about beer because we are writers and we really like beer and thus it just kind of happens. Most writing, I would argue, comes from a sort of directionless desire just to write, regardless of whether one actually has something to say. (Journalists, generally, are assigned a story, and I doubt most people write about all the horrible and or aggravating stuff that journalists normally write about because they are enthusiasts of political corruption or oil spills or what-have-you.) But me, a beer writer, well: once I passed a critical threshold of passion for beer, clearly that was the thing I would write about. And since I have a blog, I can write about whatever I want!

So the real question is: what is there one can say about beer that isn't fluff or opinion, or both? Writing is becoming more specialized, and culture is picked apart with far more fervor than it was in the days of newspapers and radio programs. But outside of analyzing every detail of True Detective or Breaking Bad — things which are indisputably vital to the maintenance of society — can we say anything worth saying about our passions, or have we created a bunch of self-sustaining cottage industries that enable us to take turns gushing about our favorite things with people who share very similar opinions, and are only waiting for their own turn to speak?

The last decade or so, most media attention ladled out to craft beer was a welcoming pat on the head by some trend-piece. Part of the reason beer journalism has sucked is that it's taken years for the media to accept that beer is just as complicated as food and wine and whiskey, if not more so. That it is a microcosm of larger agricultural and economic trends. To truly understand beer, one must catalogue a very large array of ingredients and processes and techniques, transmogrified through the magic of fermentation. No one can possibly know all there is to know about beer. I certainly don't. But it helps to write from a place of wishing to spread knowledge. And fortunately, online media is more and more specialized, allowing us who must write about beer to find what useful things there are to say about it. The future of journalism seems likely to be divided up by (and to rely on) highly specialized freelancers, now that the internet has made such a division of expertise possible. While journalism is generally viewed to be in decline, there are strong advantages to this — much of what we read is no longer day-by-day event reporting, and it makes sense to have people in the know covering specialty subjects.

Still, though: what specifically is there to write about? Inarguably, beer is a fun thing to write about, so naturally lots of us are jumping for the opportunity. And beer does affect people's lives, day to day, in a low-level way. It is part of a larger, and very important, shift in the function of local economies and local food systems. But as one of the oldest technologies known to man, fermented beverages aren't poised to change the world as suddenly and dynamically as even the most obnoxious tech trends. Writing about beer is largely a passion project or pop culture observation, and of course the writer's enthusiasm (or condescension) will show. What can we say that's actually meaningful? Why would anyone want to read about what that you drank last night? One hilarious comment quoted by Heather in her introduction to this session kindly states that all beer writers are "subhumans" pushing well-written yet "sanctimonious brown-nosing fluff." (My main argument with this commenter, and a point I hope he has since realized, is that this is true of all writers, certainly not just those who write about beer.) But he continues: "Beer journalism has almost always been a tepid affair; a moribund endeavor due to its singular objective to flatter and promote, without ever scratching beneath the surface.”

Let's break it down by what we're writing.

Reviews - Probably the most primal form of beer writing; humans seem to have an innate desire to start ranking anything we enjoy. In some sense, reviewing or recommending beer is the rawest form of beer writing, because theoretically you are simply writing about a beer, devoid of any context but how it tastes. By educating and spreading awareness (theoretically), this form of writing could possibly be among the most useful, if it were also not the most ubiquitous. (And of course I'm guilty too.)

Who's Reading? - Again theoretically: anyone. We're all out to find new beers we might enjoy. But at this point, with so many people writing beer reviews, the noise generally outweighs the benefits. One way I think beer reviews and recommendations can still be useful is to clearly establish your tastes and preferences, so a reader can get a sense of why you like what you like (and what you don't.) Context is everything. I can often tell that I will enjoy a beer just as quickly from a negative review as a positive one. When injecting opinion into anything, it's important to note subjectivity.


Recommendation Lists - The old: "this is a style, and here are 10 beers of that style you should try!" list. Theoretically similar to beer reviews, but rarely as critical in practice, the line between 'recommendation' and 'marketing fluff' can quickly be blurred.

Who's Reading? - Most likely readers exploring new realms of beer, but most beer nerds probably skip these. I'd say the same concerns apply as with reviews: establish where you're coming from, and understand who you're writing for. Subtly increase the reader's knowledge while providing a simple 'in' for them to quickly try out something different, in case that's all they're looking for.

But beyond recommending beers for others to try, still: what is the conversation? If you've got plenty of beer in your fridge already, why bother reading about beer at all? There must be more to say than just what's in the glass. Which is not to knock the basic format — it's all about providing enough information for the reader to understand why you're recommending what you're recommending.

Moving on.

News Bites - Sites like BeerPulse provide necessary news coverage of developments all across the industry without much depth or context. Exceedingly useful, but these usually don't involve a ton of deep insight, by design.

Who's Reading? - We need these services, because if we don't know what's happening, we can't say anything about it.


Regional Beer News - In many ways the broadening of the former category, regional beer news probably has the potential to be closest to traditional journalism as any of these. Opinion need not creep into these reports, but the localization makes them more relevant to readers. In my area, Chris O'Leary does a great job with this type of reporting at Brew York New York, though there are countless examples across the country. Most newspaper reporting on beer likely falls into this category.

Who's Reading? -  Similar to news bites, this sort of reporting is vital. While the localization allows a writer to inject a bit of personality, are we still actually saying anything here, or just putting up a sign to lead people in the direction of their next beer? With a blog, I think it can actually be advantageous at times to break objectivity and add commentary — provided, of course, you're trying and able to inform, rather than rant.


Profiles and Features - Where regional beer news mostly just takes a look at what's happening, and who's new, there's a difficult-to-classify realm of beer writing focused on exploring the backstories and personalities behind breweries. Not so much recommendations as elaborations, such pieces can help promote what a brewery is trying to do, while making it easier for drinkers to find new and interesting spots they might not have heard about, or just wanted to know more about. The most notable example of this type of beer writing at the moment would be the sorts of features that Beer Advocate does, as well as the photo-features of Good Beer Hunting, though very many beer writers delve into this genre at some point (including myself.)

Who's Reading? - I don't read much as much food journalism as I should, though I need to, just to get a basis for comparison. What do readers want from these feature pieces? Pretty pictures? Recommendations? How much criticism? And how many small-to-midsize breweries across the country can one read about before they start to sound the same? The inherent regionalism of craft beer often makes me wonder what the average person can really get out of beer coverage. Why would someone want to read the intimidate details of another small 7 bbl brewery out in California that they will never likely try beers from unless they happen to be in the area on vacation? What do people want to know about a brewery in the first place? If they're breaking new ground, doing something noticeably different, that's one thing. But how many people want to read the philosophy of another small brewery launching with a pale ale, a wheat beer, a pilsner, a stout and an IPA? Maybe there's a fascinating personal history there, or maybe it's just another business venture by some people who happened to have the resources. But if we pass on writing about breweries that we don't find interesting, are our profiles not themselves sort of reviews?

Man, beer is deep.


Industry Trends and Observations - A great deal of beer blogging probably falls under this category. It is a bit nebulous... but most beer blogging is rather nebulous. Content typically includes a bit of the previous categories, but with more analysis, more of the writer's personality, and maybe a few recommendations too. These are the craft beer commenters, giving an insider's perspective... mostly to other insiders.

Who's Reading? - Insiders and craft beer nerds want to read this stuff, but is there much appeal outside our hardcore demographic? Either way, I don't think there needs to be. Every industry needs commentary, and the beer industry is so dynamic — and so steeped in culture — that there's plenty of room for analysis. After all, beer news is limited by nature ("Hey look, a new beer and / or beer event"), so it may be that informed commentary is one of the few things worth writing about beer. There are plenty of good examples of this, and I particularly enjoy blogs like Boak & Bailey, Stan Hieronymus's appellationbeer.com, Bryan Roth's thisiswhyimdrunk. and lots of articles in larger publications.


Homebrewing - While most of my time spent with food-related blogs online is at recipe sites and guides for the DIY crowd, homebrewing and beer recipes form just one small corner of the beer writing world.

Who's Reading? - In my experience, homebrewing blogs seem mostly apart from the rest of the online craft community. Not that many cooking recipe sites offer restaurant-industry analysis either — I'm guessing that "making at home" and "industry analysis" are simply viewed as entirely different realms, even when they're covering the same resulting product. But here's why I started writing both homebrew recipes and beer reviews, industry rants and whatever other nonsense you find on Bear Flavored. While no one had any reason to believe I wasn't brewing completely mediocre beers, and hopefully you're all still questioning whether any of my advice is worth taking, I could hope to at least flesh out why I was writing about the beers I did, forming the opinions I did, and expressing the tastes I expressed. Context, hopefully useful information, and yes, some opinions.

Why do I write about beer? Because I'm a writer who is slightly obsessed with beer. But as brewer, I hope I can just share some occassional realization that may be of use to someone else. And as someone still passionate about the rhythms of the whole industry out there, I hope my own learning experiences can provide context to the stuff in my glass. Or your glass.

And maybe, looking back through each category I've thought of (not to say I've thought of them all — sure I neglected a few niches, and I didn't even attempt to tackle radio / TV / film) maybe that's the height of our calling as beer writers. The best we can do is to spread useful information, but there's a limit to the audience truly interested in learning detailed brewing specifics. (Which is why homebrewing blogs remain a small niche within the beer blog community.) The broadest and most helpful thing we can do — for those with a more general curiosity, especially — is to bring context.

Beer reviews and lists may fade from memory faster, but every beer could have something interesting to say, in the right place at the right time. And there needs to be, somehow, some exposure to the fact that craft beer is not homogenous. Quality varies — we don't have to be brutal on a brewery when they slip up, but I'm sure people would like to know why something might taste off. And beyond quality, there's still a need to acknowledge that we don't all have the same tastes or the same palate anyway, making the need for context in reviews and recommendations even more important. If writing an article about how hoppy beers are very prevalent in America today despite many people not having acquired a taste for them, simply pointing out "lots of people still don't enjoy hoppy beers," doesn't really explain anything useful to anyone, while explaining the framework of hoppy beer, the contextual reasons for some hoppy beers tasting different from other hoppy beers, may enable a new enthusiast to narrow down a beer that they will actually enjoy. There's a lot to know about beer — add to a reader's understanding, don't narrow it.

When there are thousands of breweries around the world mostly offering some variation on the same ten styles, a better story is needed now than just "Hey, there's beer here." Twenty years ago, "Did you know that some people make local beer?" was a novel tale; we have to work a little harder now. And we should, because there's a lot more to say. Add new details. Draw new lines. Dig up history. Make the beer world bigger, broader, more inclusive. Some stories will get told again and again, but the ones that find some memorable context will be those remembered.


5 comments:

  1. Reviews and Recommendations- Finally some context to tasting beer! See brewhorn.com or go to the Apple App or Google Play store to download beer tasting context immediately.

    Profiles- http://craftbeercoach.com/brewery-biography-series/ Sitting down with one brewer / brewery owner at a time to delve deeper into the individual behind the brand. The brand or beer is not discussed unless the interviewee brings it up.

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    1. Thanks, cool sites! I'll definitely be reading through those interviews.

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  2. Beautifully analyzed, Bear Flavored! It's important to think about these things, and I feel like we all have some stake or another in the direction of our beloved industry. For some greater than others... Many wonder why I read so often and love digging deep into these questions, which I love doing not just for philosophical and taste bud purposes, but it's running a student pub and ordering for the cellar like Ia few friends/coworkers and I do to run a full pub every week and maintain the student union, or running a brewing club and financing through running beer tastings... So it's so important to keep all this in mind. Heck, I've asked myself whether I really knew what the craft beer bubble is or not, or if it was just a kind of self-serving closed circle, or if it was something deeper (don't worry, I've settled on the latter). Thanks for sharing this, I thoroughly enjoyed the breakdown - it'll help me considerably in maintaining and launching my blog, too.

    Maybe I'd add just one subcategory to it all: what about those of us who are serious bug nerds and are obsessed with the microbiology? Like BKYeast, Bootleg Biology, etc... There are some who just want to plate and culture stuff and watch the world ferment. :)

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    1. Haha, glad you enjoyed it. I would lump the bug nerds, so to speak, under the homebrewing category, which I guess I should have broadened to just a general "fermentation / brewing information" category, even though homebrewers I think are the main readers. It's definitely a distinct subset of homebrewing, but the same idea — geared towards us hardcore nerds and not the casual beer drinker or even trader.

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  3. It's interesting reading this piece and trying to figure out where our blog falls. We do some of the types you touched on but we have a category of 'Misc' that we can't even describe. Beer fiction, satire pieces, social commentaries and more fall in this black hole for us.

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