Media Draft: Anheuser Busch, Paid Travel, and the Ethics of Beer Writers…

Posted on Posted in Anheuser-Busch, Beer Writing, Media Draft

Perhaps with the idea that no horse is too dead to beat (an unfortunate reverse of the idiom to be sure), an upcoming event (and another debate over at Appellation Beer) has me thinking about the ethics of beer writing. Beyond mere samples and the occasional free meal, the food/beverage/tourism writer’s bread and butter is free travel. Trips paid for by an interested business, be it a brewery, importer, hotelier, or restaurateur, are an effective way of securing coverage of an event or a location. Writers, who otherwise might not be able to afford to visit the location or attend the event, of course welcome the opportunity to attend these events, where they enjoy free airfare, transportation, hotel rooms, and are plied with free drinks and meals. The free trip has long been a part of the marketing arsenal for larger companies seeking to secure coverage. Travel writing has an especially long and seedy history with paid trips, as does the wine writing trade.

In a little over two weeks, America’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, will again engage in this time honored marketing tactic by ‘inviting’ a dozen or more beer media members from around the country to attend the second annual St. Louis Brewers Heritage Festival in Anheuser-Busch’s hometown. Sponsored in part by Anheuser-Busch’s public relations offshoot, Here’s To Beer, this is the second year the brewery has paid for the presence of beer writers. Held May 8-10 at Lindell Pavilion in Forest Park, the event brings together “big and small brewers from the St. Louis area” including Schlafly Beer, Allandale Brewery, Augusta Brewery, Square One Brewery, Anheuser-Busch, O’Fallon Brewery, and Morgan Street Brewery. This year’s VIP media attendees will include magazine publishers and writers, podcasters, website publishers, and a host of freelance writers.

While I applaud with a light golf clap Anheuser-Busch’s efforts with Here’s To Beer and with trying to promote better beer in its hometown (louder applause is reserved for how this signals the continued strength of craft beer), I’m troubled by the free trips the brewery sponsors, the range of which have been written about elsewhere. As part of a continuing series, I’d be interested in soliciting the thoughts of others on the appropriateness of paid travel in beer writing and whether disclosure (or sunshine as it is sometimes called), is enough to overcome the appearance of bias. I have to admit being particularly taken by Ray Daniels’ surprisingly honest preface to this All About Beer Magazine article from maybe a decade ago.

Advanced Warning: While researching this article, the author received from Anheuser-Busch complimentary travel, accommodations, food, drink and general camaraderie with his fellow beer writers. If you think this compromises objectivity, you may be right. If you think that beer writing pays enough for anyone to bring you this kind of information without brewer support then your perception of the beer world is twisted like some M.C. Escher block print. Either that or Mad Cow disease has finally become manifest in America. In either case, you need to have a beer, read the piece and then decide for yourself what you actually think. Jumps to conclusion, knee jerk reactions and other un-pondered perspectives need not apply.

If sunshine is enough to clear the ethical clouds, Ray’s is pretty bright. But is disclosure enough? When a writer acknowledges that a trip is paid, and then says the following, how is a consumer/reader supposed to respond?

Did I just say that Anheuser-Busch is “a stench in the nostrils of the Beer Gods?? I know I did. I went and looked, and sure enough, I actually said it.

I take it all back. Last week, A-B’s beer makers flew me and a dozen other beer writers to their Elk Mountain hop farm in northern Idaho for the hop harvest. (Those are hop flowers in the photo right here. They sure are purty, aren’t they? Like little pine cones filled with beer flavor and aroma.)

I spent two days in the company of the brewers and their beers, where they hit me upside the head with a 20-pound sledgehammer called the Cold, Hard Beer Facts.

I now regret having said such viciously foolish things. These guys are keeping the flame in St. Louis, no matter what the marketing department makes them do with fruit and sugar and horny goat weed. (Just kidding; there is no horny goat weed in Anheuser-Busch products that I know of…I just like saying it.) They trotted out some new specialty beers that are simply fantastic, and they were proud of them.

So were the beers actually that good or were the big portions of the salmon lunch, cooked three ways, that made the writer, Lew Bryson, “moan” the clincher? In this case, it’s assuredly the former in my opinion, but the appearance of bias is clearly a problem (even with proper disclosure).

So in the wake of Anheuser-Busch’s upcoming Heritage Festival, expect to see a lot of coverage in the beer press, on blogs, and over the airwaves about how the brewery is up to great things. Keep an eye and an ear out for whether the writer or speaker discloses that he or she received a slew of free stuff before sharing their thoughts with you. The disclosure should be right upfront. And if it’s there, when you’re done reading or listening, ask yourself this question, “Are you absolutely convinced the person wasn’t influenced by the free plane ride, shuttles, hotel room, day trips, beer, meals, and other activities?” If the answer is yes, then worry no more. If the answer is no, we all have some worrying to do. All, that is, except Anheuser-Busch…

Editor’s Note: Lew’s name was added at his request. The article in question appears on former beer writer Kerry Byrne’s football website, Cold Hard Football Facts

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6 thoughts on “Media Draft: Anheuser Busch, Paid Travel, and the Ethics of Beer Writers…

  1. You know, you CAN tag my name to that piece. I wrote it, I’m not ashamed of it.

    For what it’s worth, I turned down the A-B trip to St. Louis, and told them it was because I had problems with conflict of interest. I can send you a copy of the e-mail, if you’d like.

  2. I started writing about beer in the late 1980s and watched other people who wrote about beer get free trips everywhere. It harkened (is there really such a word?) back to the days when journalists weren’t paid very well and everything was furnished by concerned companies.)
    But my company, in those days the Oakland Tribune under editor Bob Maynard, had a strict no freebies policy.
    I also wrote for the New York Times and once had a story on whale watching killed because I took a free two hour whale watching trip. Didn’t want that to happen again.
    So I stayed rooted in Oakland, traveling only to the GABF always paying my own way. I turned down my share of offers.
    Then about 10 years ago, Interbrew offered me a trip to Belgium. I dithered and dithered and finally decided, what the hell, I’ve never been to Belgium and took ’em up on the trip.
    I didn’t consult anyone at my company (Bob Maynard was dead and a mega-corporation owned the paper).
    When I got back — I wrote a big piece on a great beer dinner in Bruges. We published a note on the story that the dinner was part of a trip to Belgium paid for by Interbrew and the Belgian Tourist Board.
    Since then, I’ve taken a handfull of free trips and each time when I write something, I simply say: Full Disclosure. This trip was underwritted by blah-blah.
    Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable. Yes, it can put one in a compromising position and if you say it doesn’t, I say, hmmm.
    But when the alternative is not going, and it’s a really big deal, I’ll do it. And you know what, these days no editor has ever complained. About the New York Times, I dunno. Their pay was mostly in prestige and a bit short in the cash department, like most print outlets.
    Let’s face the facts. You’ve got to have an independent source of income and badly need a tax deduction, if you’re always going to pay your own way.
    In the newspaper world, with the net crashing down on us, the chances of getting a travel advance for a beer junket are remote, indeed.
    It’s a lousy situation and the danger for beer writers is we can become kind of house pets for the big breweries, etc.
    I don’t know the economics of the beer brewspapers and magazines, but it would be nice if they could pay more, wouldn’t it.

  3. Andy and William,

    I found it refreshing it read your honest comments.

    Currently, I live in the Northwest and have a beer blog that I occasionally submit posts. I make NO Money; I expect no perks. I don’t write to appease anyone, writing only for the love of beer. It’s just my opinions on breweries, pubs, beers and the like. I have no bounds for what I write. No one paying or perking my opinion. Ergo, my opinions are true and NOT purchased or influenced.

    I’m not saying that everyone who gets paid to write about beer are influenced by the perks or the cash, but I feel the abusers are out weighing the honest and sincere.

    I prefer to call some of these writers “Beer Pimps and Whores.” Doesn’t the name make sense? “X” named brewery, pub, event approaches a Beer writer and offers free meals, lodging, beer and transportation. The Beer writer accepts… The prostitution is done. The Whore gets their money and the buyer gets the promotional sex.

    If these writers continue to make this a practice, then don’t they just become Pimps? Someone who can offer positive press for a price. Maybe, the quality of article could be based on the quality of perks? ;-}

    Here in the Northwest we have tons of beer writers and bloggers. For the most part, it appears to be a group of writers and beer fans who want to positively promote ‘everything’ beer in the Northwest and poo poo every other brewing arena in the country. There are a few honest writers, but mostly sugar coated deceptive crap. I guess ones pint glass doesn’t get filled with negative write ups?? Of course, I’d prefer to purchase my own pint and write whatever I like.

    Yes…. Honesty doesn’t pay! I don’t get any invites to any Beer media events; No free bee bottles or pints of beer; No free junkets to AB, Germany or Belgium…. I go to my local beer store and sample the beers like general public…. You know, our true writing audience!!!

    I’m sure there are some writers out there who can be impartial, except the perks, but still write with integrity. That said, most probably don’t want to lose the gravy train of perks. A couple bad reviews or even honest reviews might not get one invited to the next London junket to Young’s Brewery. ;-}

    I’m not very religious, but “…lead us not into temptation.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the public could get their beer info from those who haven’t soul their souls, as well perspective?

    Cheers!

  4. I went to the St. Louis Brewers Heritage Fest, paid by A-B, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In no way did A-B try to lock us in a room like a 90-minute pitch to buy a timeshare, nor was it ever implied that we were brought to St. Louis for the purpose of pumping up A-B. Instead, as silly as it might sound, it really was all about the beer, from the hospitality of St. Louis brewpubs such as Steve Neukomm’s Square One Brewery, to Ray and his son Bob Griesidieck letting everyone know they were ready to revive the history and beer of a very old and famous St. Louis brewery, to a historical presentation by local brewery historian Henry Herbst, to a personal invitation by Steve Schlafly to come by his house after hours for more beer and the chance to meet members of the St. Louis beer community.

    I even pressed some of the beer folks in St. Louis about A-B possibly hovering too closely over the festivities, and as one brewer admitted, “We couldn’t have done this without A-B, and after some hesitancy by most of us during the first year (this 2008 gathering was the 2nd Annual fest), we’ve never felt they were anything but a help.”

    Another brewer was a bit more blunt, “Hell, we’re a bunch of small businesses and could never have pulled this off by ourselves.” And when I pressed further, everyone was extremely happy that A-B had brought the festival to fruition. Some admitted some worries about where A-B was taking all of this during the first year, but this year, the worry—the paranoia—was gone.

    It’s A-B’s stated intention to grow this festival, to celebrate beer, at the moment, St. Louis beer, and not turn the event into a competition like the GABF has become, as A-B Vice-Prsident Bob Lachky noted during the dinner’s opening notes. No medals, no back stage fighting, no accusing other brewers of buying off votes with free swag…just a celebration of good beer. How refreshing.

    I can’t believe that all the brewers I met in St. Louis were A-B pod people. They were happy. The crowds at the VIP dinner were happy. The folks lined up in muddy fields and under tents waiting for their 4-ounce pours were happy. The Mayor of St. Louis and the Missouri Secretary of State who attended the kick-off dinner were happy.

    Seems to me that the only people who weren’t happy weren’t in St. Louis.

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