The Beer Blogging Brouhaha, Part 2: A Beer Bloggers Conference? #bbc10

It has been an unexpectedly busy day here at BeerScribe.com in the wake of last night’s piece on the state of beer blogging. I can imagine few topics more geeky than the present one but I’ll indulge it for one more post. The first ever Beer Bloggers Conference is ready to get underway in Boulder, Colorado. It is put on by the same folks who run a supposedly popular Wine Bloggers Conference and it is pretty close to sold out with more than 100 attendees.

Despite a brief mention in my earlier piece, I hadn’t given too much thought to the conference but have just taken a closer look at the agenda and I must admit to being a bit puzzled by it. Aside from beer blogging in general, I am left wondering, at its core, what does the Beer Bloggers Conference actually offer attendees? Is it just an excuse to get together with other like-minded beer folks and enjoy a few rounds (which is a perfectly enviable vacation)? Or is it professionally (in the broadest sense here) helpful in some tangible or meaningful way?

Putting aside those who just want a vacation and to drink some beers, what does the conference actually offer? A lot of the seminars/speeches seem to be pretty rah-rah in nature, and that’s great, just not something I’d pay money to attend. For people who all seem to agree there is no real money to be made here, a lot of the conference’s remaining content seems to be related to making money on the web. And I’d be pretty skeptical if I was attending those particular seminars. Frankly, sharing “$10,000 worth of SEO advice” sounds like a load of bullshit to me, not too different from the dozens of spam marketing/SEO emails I receive every day for both of my businesses. So beyond the rah-rah from the usual industry cheerleaders, I’m curious to hear from the organizers, promoters, speakers, and attendees what the content actually offers.

Brewery visits and beer dinners are great and all, but is that the real reason for the conference? I imagine the conference organizers aren’t doing this for free so I think the inquiry is worth making.

Be Social:

Beer Blogging, To What End?

Every once in a while, I have one of those days where several outside forces converge to reveal a singular theme. Today was one of those days. It started with my re-publishing a piece I wrote for BeerAdvocate Magazine on industry writer Harry Schuhmacher. In response to that article, Alan at A Good Beer Blog released a slightly disjointed response (now cleaned up) that, I believe, took me to task for belittling beer bloggers. In that piece, I wrote of my friend Harry:

Far from a beer blogger, Schuhmacher runs a serious business dedicated to providing the beer industry with inside information and breaking news, a point reflected in his publication’s scorching $480 a year price tag.

Now, this first line wasn’t meant as a jab at beer bloggers. Nor was the contrasting point about Harry running a serious business. But perhaps they should have been. I have long been wary of blogging in general and more specifically when it comes to blogging about beer. I’ve been publishing articles on my website for about eight or nine years and converted to WordPress almost four years ago. From the earliest days, I wasn’t quite sure of the purpose served by websites dedicated to a particular individual’s thoughts on a given subject. For one, as I thought about Twitter and beer, it often devolves into a very self-absorbed activity, focused on such inane, personal details as to interest only the tiniest sub-sections of an already infinitesimally small niche. And that’s fine if that’s your aim, perhaps even therapeutic, like that old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin yells at the night sky, “I’m significant,” only to then think, “Screamed the dust speck.” Wanting to be heard is certainly a relatable aim. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to a greater audience of listeners/viewers/attendees, only the frailest ego would require the faint massaging a handful of readers are able to provide.

This was followed up by the reminder that the first Beer Blogger’s Conference starts in Boulder in a few days. In terms of disclosure, I was invited to speak at the conference and even contemplated doing so after some coaxing from the Harry Schuhmacher referenced above (he hates to drink alone). But at the end of the day, having just been in Boulder a little more than a month ago, and considering that the conference doesn’t help defray the costs of its speakers, I couldn’t justify the expense. I love hanging out and enjoying beers with people in Boulder as much as the next writer, but I had to ask, to what end? The conference will be a vacation for some. For the speakers, it’s work. And unpaid work at that for the non-industry folks.

Moreover, the conference raises some concerns in my mind about beer blogging in general. While I’m certainly interested in hearing what the speakers tell the assembled scribes (and perhaps some audio will be released on-line), I’m perhaps more curious about the topics that likely won’t be covered. As beer blogging grows in numbers/importance/influence (assumed for the sake of this point), folks in the beer marketing trade will take a greater interest in cultivating their attention. Professional beer writers (myself included) have learned the hard way of the challenges posed when the worlds of marketing and writing/journalism intersect. And without rehashing the old arguments about whether bloggers are journalists, I think that we in the beer media and the industry as a whole should be concerned about the ethics of beer writing and the attempted influence of writers by beer marketers. I don’t know whether this will be a topic addressed by the assembled speakers (several of whom are industry marketers themselves), and I know it’s not very fun, but I think it would be an important topic for this first gathering.

The trifecta completed with today’s discussion of the Wikio rankings of American beer blogs. I have to admit, I am rather new to the still-foreign concept of search engine optimization and don’t really understand how this system of rankings actually works. I’ve never paid much attention to the popularity of my web site or the amount of traffic directed there. I did notice the insane spike of traffic the site received after the release of my article, The Good, the Bad, and the Drunk at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. 60+ comments later, not including Facebook and Twitter forwards, and it was hard to miss. But besides this, as I don’t view these websites as moneymakers, I have never bothered to learn the details of these things.

Now we have Wikio releasing its Top Beer Blogs list. In terms of full disclosure, my website is not listed amongst the top blogs so feel free to write this off as sour grapes. Since the untimely demise of Real Simple Beer Syndication (RSBS), I have had to transition to Google Reader for my online reading needs. After losing all of the blogs listed on RSBS, I decided to cull my list down to what I consider to be necessary reading, about 15-20 blogs. A quick scan of the Wikio list reveals some familiar names that I follow, but I must confess that I do not know three-quarters of the listed blogs. In perusing a few of the websites, their reactions to the news of their inclusion in the Wikio rankings generally range from mild pleasure tinged with a healthy dose of skepticism to downright shock, along the lines of “Get the %&# out!.” Now I’ve never understood the Wikio rankings, nor what a “wikio consultant” is (and why Pete Brown is the latter and whether that’s related to why he is listed as the No.1 beer blog in the UK), but maybe it’ll all be explained in the coming months.

With all this said, I still have to again ask, online beer writing, to what end? To be sure, I can’t imagine that anyone is making any money at this. I can definitively say that I am not, even after trying Google ads and Amazon showcases (the latter being much better but both are a complete waste of time compared to even the least remunerative paying gig). In looking over how beer blogging websites are monetizing their operations (in the parlance of this odd, burgeoning trade), I think perhaps Alan is doing the best job. By all accounts, he has a healthy readership and solicits or accepts sponsors and ads. Out in the blogosphere (another term I hate), we’ve all hashed over the ethical concerns I have that are related to this latter point and it’s not something I care to rehash here. But he still has a day job (as do I) and I imagine he won’t be transitioning anytime soon.

Of the best known American beer writers, I know very few who do it full-time or as their primary profession. Lew Bryson is perhaps the best (and maybe only) example of a professional, full-time beer writer and having spent several hours with him over the last week, I can attest that he has to work his butt off to make that living pay off. In addition to his freelance beer writing and books, he also writes about spirits and edits a magazine to assist. That’s not just smart business, it’s what is required to make it in the beer writing business.

I started writing about beer online, as separate from my paid freelance work, because I was impressed with the early work of writer Jay Brooks. His Brookston Beer Bulletin was the first beer blog I can recall reading and it was smart, at times funny, and was a value-add to the onslaught of sameness coming from all the beer publications of the time (and often of the present). As Alan seems to want, I can only read so much of what new beers are being released and which breweries have added a new tank or of some random writer’s thoughts on the two dozen breweries and pubs he visited on a cross-country trip before I just stop picking up the free publications. Perhaps I am a particular type of media consumer, one very different from the admittedly niche based beer enthusiast. While interesting in theory, most of what goes on over at sites such as BeerNews.org doesn’t interest me. A few years back things were a bit different when it came to special beer releases. More than ten years into the industry, however, and I don’t really care about new releases. There are just too many breweries to keep track off these days.

So why write online? I publish about once or twice a month, having only twice published 10 or more posts (the other being just 11). And a lot of this is recycled content. If there was a secondary publishing market for this material, I wouldn’t release it online. In the days before the Internet, that’s how many freelance writers made their real money, by reselling previously published articles to new markets. To some extent, along the lines of being heard, I think that I post online because I enjoy having a rolling conversation with the well-known industry folks that I have mentioned (and a few that I have not, most notably Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer.

Perhaps writing on-line is a loss leader. But I doubt it for me. It must to some extent help with visibility and book promotion but I’m not sure it is more valuable than Twitter, which is succinct and about nothing if not quick and easy self-promotion. Perhaps a web site helps build brand recognition. This latter term is one I often hear bandied about with respect to beer writers and I don’t quite get it. Not to pick on a particular person, but Ashley Routson of Drink With the Wench is one of the people who frequently talk about building a brand, specifically her brand, the Beer Wench. A few other writers, such as Don Russell (“Joe Sixpack”) and Lisa Morrison (“the Beer Goddess) (both are friends), have also built what I guess can be called brands. Frankly, these monikers have always sort of felt like shticks to me, especially the Wench one (very successful too it appears), which is probably what they are. And maybe that works, I can’t say. My website is called BeerScribe.com but I don’t put myself out there as the BeerScribe as Michael Jackson once did, via trademark by the way, as the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser. Perhaps I should but I doubt it. Even by way of promotion, the website seems like a pretty big loss and not much of a leader in terms of effort put forward.

Occasionally I think about how to monetize my efforts on the web and I always remember that very few if any media outlets have figured out that troubling trick. I look at the world of wine writing and wonder whether these folks, so often sources of inspiration and direction for both brewers, marketers, and beer writers, have figured it out. And now I’m thinking about just how much money I’ve lost writing this piece, which has taken me a little more than an hour and a half to research and write.

Every other week or so I get an email from an aspiring beer writer asking how to become a professional beer writer or with a book idea to pitch. And I try to help them as best I can, all while wondering what kind of chance they really have at any type of success.

While I find these issues interesting, I’m not likely to resolve them anytime soon. I am fortunate enough to have a day job that I enjoy at least as much as my writing gigs and I have no intention or interest in giving it all up for the world of beer. That point of distinction does seem to separate me from many on the fringes of the beer industry, be they beer writers, bloggers, or homebrewers aspiring to turn pro.

Then my mind comes back to one guy: Harry Schuhmacher. In an unpublished quote, Harry told me:

Our publication is expensive by design, not blunder. And we don’t accept advertising. As the Internet has made news ubiquitous, exclusive information that you can’t find anywhere else still commands a price. And people are willing to pay for it.

I bet he doesn’t sit around wondering how to monetize his time on-line.

Be Social:

The Beer King of the Interwebs: Harry Schuhmacher

Born the son of a Lone Star distributor in Houston, Harry Schuhmacher was surrounded by beer from his earliest days. Derived from generations of beer distributors, Schuhmacher dutifully did his part, ringing plastic six-pack holders over cans, cleaning up bottle breakage, and driving a forklift at the disturbing yet enviable age of five. And things may have continued this way had his father not up and sold the beer distributorship.

In an almost soap operatic turn, the son went from the top of the glass pile to the dusty city streets, forced to make it on his own, with few marketable skills. Well, actually, Schuhmacher had plenty of skills, chief among them an insider’s knowledge of the beer industry. So fifteen years ago he made the fateful decision to start a daily email bulletin for the beer industry. “It was just when the Intertubes were getting popular, and I thought beer distributors and brewers needed a daily email covering the inside baseball stuff that they can’t get anywhere else — gossip, sales trends, who’s screwing whom — that sort of thing,” he says.

Far from a beer blogger, Schuhmacher runs a serious business dedicated to providing the beer industry with inside information and breaking news, a point reflected in his publication’s scorching $480 a year price tag. For the first decade, Schuhmacher focused much of his Beer Business Daily on the big brewers and distributors, but things have changed. He now dedicates half of his coverage to craft and regional breweries. “We’ve grown as the craft brewers have grown,” he says. “It has given me a renewal on my career, because covering the big guys exclusively was starting to be a drag.”

Schuhmacher has always treated the world of craft brewing with respect and interest, and perhaps a mild and understandable skepticism about its future. In his line of work, one so focused on the bigger brewers, such esteem wasn’t always a given. Just a few years earlier, one of Schuhmacher’s main competitors condescendingly wrote in the American Brewer of “the fantasy of the craft brewing revolution.” The competitor helpfully added, “Face facts folks: Wheat beer is not likely to be the next big thing!”

Fast forward a few years and a wheat ale is now the largest selling craft beer in the United States, a point often reflected in Schuhmacher’s redoubled efforts to cover the craft brewing scene.

A bit folksy at times and with a self-deprecating humor that disarms even his angriest big brewery targets, Schuhmacher is helping the industry at large take craft brewers more seriously, something we can all raise a pint to.

Disclosure: Having shared beers a few times and traveled together, I count Harry Schuhmacher as a friend.

Be Social:

Reviews of Great American Craft Beer…

My second book on beer, Great American Craft Beer, is now available to the public and some press reviews and mentions have started to arrive. I’ll try to post them here as I come across them, sometimes with a little pull quote or comment as needed, but mainly for you, the reader or prospective buyer, to get a better sense of the book. A little more information about the book is available on the Running Press website and on BeerScribe.com. Cheers!

Austin American-Statesman

The best book on the best American beer. Here’s your summer beach read: Andy Crouch’s “Great American Craft Beer”

My reading preference is a good book about beer, and I’ve got one for you: “Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beers and Brewers” by Andy Crouch (Running Press, $22.95). Crouch is a…fine guide through the whole world of beer — its history, the brewing process, describing a proper atmosphere for tastings, style-specific glassware, the art of a proper pour and chef’s menus for beer dinners.

Crouch also aims to expand beer drinkers’ horizons while not turning them into bores, and he seeks to gently rein in the extreme beer trend…

Norman Miller, the resident Beer Nut for the Daily News Tribune and Gatehouse News Service

Crouch, who also authored one of my go-to beer travel books, “The Good Beer Guide To New England,” puts together an extremely informative book.

Josh Christie for the HopPress

On the first page of his new beer guide Great American Craft Beer, Andy Crouch writes “with the bounty of amazing beers available in every corner of America, never before has there been a better time or place to be a beer drinker.” Thus begins one of the best cases for American exceptionalism that I’ve read in years – not in the traditional political or social sense, but in the realm of brewing and beer. Great American Craft Beer isn’t just a new book to add to the increasingly crowded family of “beer guides.” The compendium is a love letter to craft beer in the US of A, and that there’s enough to fill a 300+ page book is a testament to a brewing movement that’s barely thirty years old.

If you’ve never read any of Crouch’s beer reviews, you’re in for a treat with this book. Beer reviewers are occasionally (and rightfully) accused of having a limited vocabulary when writing about beer, and the author is doing his best to expand our vernacular. Cotton candy hops, notes of graham cracker, “armpit stinky” – Crouch isn’t necessarily Gary Vaynerchuk, but he’s got the same panache for describing what he smells, sees and tastes.

Great American Craft Beer is a book that has some sex appeal for beer lovers from novices to experts. For beginners, Crouch attacks tasting technique, history and all kinds of beer minutia in a super-accessible way. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool beer geek, then yes, some bits on history and glassware are probably retreads. If you’re on a budget and own a bunch of beer guides already, you’ll want to leaf through Great American Craft Beer to make sure it has enough “new” material to excite you. Still, the wit in the writing, the wonderfully descriptive beer reviews and some of the pieces that are uniquely Andy merit a purchase in this reviewer’s opinion (and I know from beer guides).

USA Today

An interview with the Dispatches department about the book and the growing popularity of American craft beer around the world.

Library Journal

“Rather than an exhaustive treatment, this is a guide to available beer styles via a selection of choice examples of each. In an easy manner, Crouch discusses each beer, noting the flavor accents, color, aroma, and feel. He also includes a list of great beer bars and tips on beer selection. Verdict In recent years, beer in America has become more diversified as the craft beer movement has gained momentum, and Crouch gives the beer lover great suggestions to explore.”

Express – Washington Post

Author Andy Crouch treats beer like a fine wine, not something to gulp at a tailgate party. The book offers both a brief history of brewski and tips on properly enjoying a cold one, but mostly serves as a guide to hundreds of American craft beers — from the dark and roasty to the rich and fruity.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An interview about the book and the resurgence of craft beer in the South.

What’s Cooking on Wine

A recent visit to What’s Cooking on Wine, wherein I discuss why wine tourists to Sonoma and Napa should head up to Santa Rosa to enjoy the real Russian River treasures. Starts around 14:30.


SignonSanDiego.com

“Andy Crouch does an admirable job of surveying the state of our favorite industry, the U.S. microbrews. His new book (Running Press, $22.95) is crisp, clean and a lot of fun to pore over. (That’s pore, p-o-r-e, not pour, p-o-u-r!)”

But the reviewer chides me a bit for not including some of his favorite local beers. While one or two of his selections appear not to have been in business yet (or for very long) when I wrote the book, I look forward to trying them soon. In the meantime, I’ve written a short piece discussing the criteria for what beers I’ve included in the book and which of your favorites I had to pass over.

Masslive.com

In one of the more unusual non-reviews of my book, the local writer suggests you go and buy it based upon the quality of The Good Beer Guide To New England.

Everyone trying to promote craft beer deserves attention from my column. Or maybe I should say almost everyone. Some people just don’t merit any attention at all. But Andy does. If you get a chance, check his book out.

MySanAntonio.com

A number of books about craft beer have recently hit the market. Most are guidebooks or simple beer reviews that attempt to tell you the best beers in the world.

There’s a lot of shifting sand in the craft beer world today, especially in this era of expansion and changing ownership. Understanding styles and what makes one beer superior to another is more important than beer ratings.

That’s why my favorite book so far is “Great American Craft Beer” by Andy Crouch.


LAWeekly

Concludes that “As a critic, Crouch has done a thorough job.” The reviewer takes me to task for the general state of books on craft beer, some of our design and editorial choices, and for spending only two-third’s of the book on beer reviews…

Ohio.com

Cleveland.com

Tulsa World

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Is the Beer Nut Nuts?

I’ve generally avoided the whole dust-up involving beer writer George Lenker of the Springfield Republican (who, like a half-dozen or more folks goes by the moniker, The Beer Nut) and his recent Part I of II rants on beer writers. I read the first one and didn’t think much of it either way (great, he doesn’t like beer bloggers. Who does?). Now I’ve read the second one, at the behest of a reader’s suggestion, and I actually have no idea what he’s talking about. It reads a bit, not to be too grim, like a journalistic suicide note or a flame-out rant someone makes on an Internet bulletin board before signing off forever. With such a nice platform as a weekly beer column, especially in such a vibrant place as Western and Central Massachusetts, it remains more than a curiosity why he (and his editors, which George notes that he has) would let either part of this rant run. Maybe this only runs online, in which case that would make a tad more sense, but not much. In any event, chalk this up to a vanity exercise and a wasted opportunity (or two) to connect with people about beer.

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