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.

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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.

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