With April will come the 50th issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Quite a feat for any publication but especially one in the notoriously fickle niche of beer. Over the last decade, we’ve seen beer magazines come and go, some glossy, some very basic. The market remains a difficult place for beer publications (and at least one glossy magazine is currently teetering on the edge of calling it a day), which makes the BeerAdvocate model such an impressive feat. And more good things are set to come, with a substantial expansion of editorial pages planned, something that is nearly unheard of in print publishing these days.
For BA’s 50th issue anniversary, I had originally intended to write about the state of beer writing in the United States but, as often happens, I became sidetracked into a different but related topic area. As the topic corresponded in part to the state and nature of this blog, I figured this was as good a place as any to offer the thoughts.
I often find myself reading books by wine, spirits, and food writers. I have collected hundreds of them and browse a few every month to see how the other half lives, works, and writes. And in truth, despite receiving subscriptions to many of the beer magazines, I rarely do more than quickly flip through them. This is because most of what passes for beer writing in the United States revolves around simply giving the writer’s personal views of a product. Perhaps I am a particular type of media consumer, as I have suggested before, but others’ views of beer at the micro level do not interest me in the slightest. I just don’t have a need for the 1,000th review of Boston Lager or even the 5th review of the latest White Birch offering.
The other type of beer content that we often see, both on-line and especially in the so-called beer rags (Celebrator, Ale Street News, and the bi-monthly Brew Newspapers), is the announcement of upcoming beer releases and events. These offerings aren’t so much writing as calendar additions and press releases set to full sentences. These serve the purpose of alerting consumers, whether they be simple craft beer enthusiasts or more likely beer tickers, to the upcoming availability of a seasonal or special release. It appears that such content, which I’m not sure can properly be classified as beer writing, is growing in popularity (or at least volume) on the web. Too often such announcements simply turn into another episode of “Pining for Pliny” and celebrating rarity for its own sake. In the sub-culture of beer nerds, such content definitely has a place. Again, I’m just not interested in it.
To be fair, product reviews and announcements also constitute a marked portion of wine writing (but oddly not of spirits writing), yet the medium has somehow evolved beyond the limitations of the review and invited a broader investment of time, circumspection, and perspective. The world of wine especially has invited writers, both enthusiasts and professional, to develop their own voices. In the world of beer writing, there is far too little opinion offered (and I don’t mean regarding a particular product’s body or aroma), especially backed by any experience or individual voice. The world of wine writing offers this in spades and captures a great deal more of my reading time even though I probably drink fewer than a half-dozen glasses of wine in the course of a year. I don’t particularly enjoy wine but I have become surprisingly conversant in varietals, producers, and debates over various issues in the industry due to the breadth and quality of wine writing.
A few months ago I got into a fair amount of trouble for some comments I made on the subject and exercise of blogging about beer. And while I had intended the comments to relate to my own experience in the medium and not so much to that of non-professional writers, it struck a particular nerve with these bloggers. Over the last few months I have attempted to spend more time reviewing the work of citizen beer bloggers. The result, sadly, is not a more profound understanding of the medium but a reinforced confidence and parallel to my views on beer writing as a whole. I’ve simply not come across many unique or distinctive voices in this new online community of writers. It tends to be more of the same sort of repetitive and highly personalized content experienced in the wider market of beer writing available to consumers.
With this said, I should highlight a few writers whose sites offer something a little different from the usual beer content.
I have long respected the increasingly professional work of Ron Pattinson over at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. If you enjoy reading about beer history, politics, and a lot of old, insider numbers, his site is well worth the time spent digging in to each subject.
I also think that many writers need to take off the beer blinders directing their focus solely to product reviews, the white noise of beer writing. The bottles, cans, and pints we enjoy came from a place run by actual people, but you wouldn’t know it by the writing about the beers. One area in which wine writing (both online and in print) puts beer writing to shame is in its avowed dedication to providing the narratives and back-stories of the vintners, growers, and owners behind the wines. We rarely do this in the world of beer, instead preferring to name-check celebrity brewers or re-interview the ten most familiar names.
This is an area where citizen beer bloggers really have the opportunity to shine and provide a service to the industry they cover/write about/lavish praise over every day. I read every brewer, brewery owner, or publican interview that I come across on the web because I want to get to know the people behind the brands and places whose names I see in press releases, tweets, or on Facebook. For those bloggers who do not have a background in writing or journalism, personality profiles provide the easiest way to get your foot in the door and to develop the skills necessary to provide a beneficial service to your readers. And while brewers may not always be used to telling their stories, they are a near-uniformly friendly lot and would be foolish to turn down any chance to publicize themselves, their brands, and establishments, even to new writers.
The folks at The Full Pint do this well in their Brewmaster Spotlight as does Drink Craft Beer in its Interview section. I wish these sites did more of this type of content. Another creative (and effective promotional) interviewing tactic is the Beer Wench’s Beer Blogger Interview series. People want to read about other people, not just products they don’t have in front of them and may not be able to buy.
For those content to simply regurgitate press releases and new product announcements, I’d suggest looking at the model being developed over at BeerNews.org. If this guy ever figures out what he actually wants to do, I think we could see some exciting things there.
I’ve also enjoyed some quirky blogs, including one dedicated to understanding the science of beer flavor. Appreciating the underlying foundation of beer and flavor is always a challenging and worthwhile pursuit for the dedicated beer enthusiast.
I also continue to worry about the creep of advertorial beer writing. There are now dozens of sites across the Internet that somehow manage to convince breweries to pay to have the site’s owners review their beers. While I have long decried this practice, craft breweries, in some apparent desperation for attention, seem to be supporting this unfortunate beer shill business model.
I remember being genuinely excited when I first experienced the RSS beer heaven that was Real Simple Beer Syndication. Confronted with hundreds of beer blog entries every day, I thought for sure that some distinctive voices would result. Over the years, I find myself coming back to the professional beer writing set (not that its members are all top-notch either) for readable content. Perhaps the retread nature of so much beer writing was initially necessary as beer writing established itself. For whatever reason, the wine world has also long attracted talented writers of literature and non-fiction, daring to try and capture their passion for the grape in a new writing form. But more than 30 years into craft beer movement, the industry is still sorely lacking such commensurate writing talent.
I’ve also lamented that people covering the beer industry, like Minnesotans and clothing store clerks, never deign to offer a critical or constructive word to those around them. Beer writing is often one long, seemingly endless love song to craft brewers despite some obvious age spots appearing in the mirror. Beer writers, especially citizen bloggers, shouldn’t hesitate to fill this void with their own viewpoints, when supported in their content.
It’s time for beer writers (both professional and enthusiasts) to take the training wheels off their pens, pencils, and keyboards. It seems that we have all been content to merely step in the footprints left by the pioneering beer writers, especially Michael Jackson, despite the entirely new world of beer that we inhabit. I am hoping to witness a new era of beer writing because, in part, I believe that it is essential to the broader growth of the beer industry. When done right, such writing should serve as a catalyst for the growth of the industry, both philosophically and production-wise.
I remain thankful for the opportunity to contribute to a publication such as BeerAdvocate Magazine, where dissenting opinions are tolerated if not encouraged. And I hope to continue to offer a hopefully different and distinct perspective to the world of beer.