Is The Beer Blog Dead? And Did The Beer News Aggregator Kill It?

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I’ve just received the first email from the new BeerPulse service that Adam Nason is putting together and it sort of captures the new world of the online blogosphere in my mind, one in which original content is largely aggregated from other sources, including mainstream media. It also immediately raised to mind a few issues I hadn’t previously considered.

Perhaps it is my own self-selection, but it seems (and I am largely without empirical proof on this one) that the cause of beer blogging has slowed considerably in the last year or two. I’m not sure whether you’d see this reflected in the attendance logs for the Beer Bloggers Conference, but that zealous crowd might not be particularly reflective of the larger amateur beer writing community. You can, however, observe the creeping inclusion of corporate beer bloggers into the conference’s attendance ranks, so that skews attendance upwards.

The Sessions beer writing project turned 5 in March, having now endured 64 sessions (I have somehow escaped ever having participated). Oddly enough, BeerAdvocate Magazine is now celebrating its 64th iteration as well. And as one of its columnists, I can honestly say that some months the ideas do not come without a fight. Perhaps writing online about beer has just grown stale (I still hate the term ‘beer blogger’ as it comes across as a pejorative when uttered by most people, myself likely included. I still correct people when they apply it to me, especially as this article constitutes only my second original post on this site in the last 6 months — so I figure real bloggers would object). I’m coming upon 10 years of having published articles about beer online, having registered in July 2002. But my website even back then was largely about reprinting my previous print writing. So I’m not sure I have ever really adopted or adapted to beer blogging in its traditional sense.

It also seems that the number of contributors to the Session seem to have dropped off some over the years. But, again, that is a small, hard-core crowd, as it is with the Beer Bloggers Conference. So it is hard to judge whether that has any merit. In the end, it just feels to me as if the quantity and content of beer blogging has diminished in the past year or two. Perhaps the novelty has worn off or people have just gone back to just drinking beer.

So back to BeerPulse (formerly I briefly had the chance to meet Adam while in San Diego for the Craft Brewers Conference and his site is a valuable addition to the craft beer information marketplace, especially his original reportage. But beyond his original material, BeerPulse has received some criticism for being an aggregator service, namely one that simply republishes/redirects to content and original reporting on craft beer found elsewhere on the net, with only a quick aside or comment lead-in.

Thinking about the new BeerPulse service and direction, I’m left with one question:

Has the news aggregator killed beer blogging or has it just run its course?

It does seem to make the whole process of engaging with the world of craft beer a lot easier (and frankly lazier for the receiver of information). I wonder whether such services have a negative impact on the participation by so-called citizen or amateur bloggers, who now compete with local television affiliates, newspapers, and corporate media purveyors for scoops about their favorite breweries.

To be clear, BeerPulse certainly provides a service in its aggregation efforts. I could of course set up hundreds or thousands of Google Alerts for every conceivable brewery, beer, bar, or event combination and then sift through the results, but that sounds like a horrible way to spend some time. So I’m happy somebody else does it for me. Back when the mainstream media spent little time covering the craft beer segment, one only had to keep up with individual beer blogs. While that seemed like a chore, and in the days before Google Reader, beer tech saint Jonathan Surratt put together the excellent but now-defunct Real Simple Beer Syndication. I still miss RSBS because it didn’t allow me to filter which blogs I reviewed. They were all there for the perusing. While I once at least scanned the headlines for hundreds upon hundreds of beer blogs, I now self-select and only take a look at about 20 beer blogs.

Of course, I could be very wrong about the current health and continued success of beer blogging. I do receive a couple of emails every week from aspiring beer bloggers asking me to take a look at their blog. So, for once, check out the blog from today’s emailer, Ben from Toronto (whose post recounts how someone I’ve never met called me an idiot a few times regarding my thoughts on beer cocktails).

And there are of course plenty of beer bloggers who have been at it and stayed at it for a considerable length of time, including my Internet brother-by-another-server Alan McLeod. Why not check out what his bedside table beer book library looked like in 2003, comprising his first beer blog post. It’s pretty amazing that he has been able to continually write a handful of posts every week, often in an entertaining and engaging fashion. I couldn’t have done it for a month let alone nearly a decade.

And I think Alan summed it up best with the last line from his first post:

“Funny, suddenly I can think of something I’d rather be doing than typing…”

-Article for once was not previously published in BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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On Bars And Beer Gardens…

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A folding chair and a patch of dirt is all I need to be happy. Oh, and a can of beer of course. While shiny new gastropubs and deluxe beer bars open from coast to coast, a few choice spots are celebrating a return to simpler times, when drinking needn’t be surrounded by trappings more befitting the QE2.

And so it was that I found myself sitting under a shady oak tree, in a dirt and gravel mixed yard, seeking refuge from the merciless Texas heat. Of all the great drinking moments I had in 2011, chilling at the aptly named Friendly Spot outside of downtown San Antonio was unparalleled. The open-air style bar uses a converted ice house as its core, a throwback to an earlier era when such rudimentary refrigeration operations kept beer cold for customers to take-away. Sitting in what one Beer Advocate called “a park with a bar” while enjoying a Ranger Creek Smoked Mesquite Porter is about as good as it gets. In this glorified backyard, with its laid-back, no frills charm, all of the pretense so perverting modern beer drinking falls away, revealing only the comfortable, essential core experience.

While ice house bars are a particularly Texas invention, other cities around the country have their own dialed back character. In my hometown of Chicago, neighborhood bars have long influenced the city’s unique personality. A place still replete with bars (as opposed to restaurant-pubs where food must be served), where you can stop by for a drink by yourself and not catch side-glances of disapproving judgment, is increasingly difficult to find. But even this history is now under attack, with local politicians and interloping yuppies less inclined to have a hundred-year-old public house mucking up the property values of their just built condos. The loss of the engaging spirit of the neighborhood pub will leave Chicago a new achromatic, dispirited shade of itself.

Community drinking experiences needn’t always start with long-standing, brick-and-mortar operations. As with many ideas that shift from West to East in the United States, San Francisco is engaging in a remarkably simple yet creative civic experiment to bring use to vacant spaces or lots awaiting funds or permits for further development. Considered a placeholder until the construction of a permanent structure, the city’s Proxy project allows creative grassroots entrepreneurs to create temporary and pop-up communal gathering places, ranging from coffee stands to full-scale beer gardens.

Similar in concept to the wildly popular food truck movement, these low-cost operations allow proprietors to quickly open their spots without many of the start-up hassles that plague more established outfits. The concept is brilliant for its revitalization of unused parcels, such as vacant tracts and under-used parking lots, and for its ability to build a communal vitality otherwise absent from urban voids. In a time where temporary is the new permanent, as the Atlantic recently put it, such creative bureaucratic thinking also encourages hard-working entrepreneurs to engage the public in a host of new creative ways.

Moving beyond entrenched pubs and novel new spaces, governments can help create more interesting communal spaces through a relaxation of alcohol licensing. Born of puritanical restraint following Prohibition, America’s liquor laws have long appeared peculiarly prudish to international audiences. Belying the continuing governmental hesitance to allow a relaxation of tight-fisted blue laws, some municipalities, from Asheville to Austin to Denver, have demonstrated that softening restrictions on beer and wine licenses has led to the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in respectful new spaces.

Divorced from community and public culture, drinking becomes less than it should be. When alcohol becomes socially acceptable to consume only when chaperoned by food, going out becomes a near-entirely utilitarian experience, one that is goal driven, namely to eat, drink, and then leave. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a plastic chair in a shady yard, enjoying a beer, surrounded by other cheerful citizens.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Redefining Local In A New Era Of Craft Beer…

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Support Your Local Brewery. Drink Local, Think Global. For more than a decade, brewers have doled out countless bumper stickers, coasters, and stickers with these and similar slogans promoting their community-based beer offerings. And the campaign served them well, helping to build a connection to area consumers. After years of communal camaraderie, things are about to change.

If 2011 was a year for celebrating a return to local beer, 2012 will be a year when consumers and brewers seek to redefine what local really means. This past year saw dozens of breweries, including many well-known names, retreat to their home markets due to supply issues, in what I’ve previously called the Great Beer Retreat. From Allagash to Great Divide to Flying Dog, capacity restrictions and demand in closer-to-home markets has drawn mid-range and some smaller regional players to rethink their growth and distributions strategies.

While these larger breweries were busy trying to send beer to dozens of far-flung markets, a host of smaller, nimbler craft outlets, including hundreds of nano-breweries, have crept into their once safe home markets. Many larger players publicly heralded this new wave of craft brewing entrepreneurs, while some privately questioned their abilities to sell enough beer of sufficient quality to survive. As many have grown and continued to prosper in their hometown markets, the inevitable competition for local tap lines and shelf space has taken hold.

As these smaller players continue their dueling dance for hometown beer dominance, another force looms large in several markets across the country. In many industries, cash is king, but not so in the beer business. For brewers, stainless steel reigns supreme. That and the warehouse space in which to install shiny new fermenters or dinged up, used conditioning tanks. In this age, if a brewery can leverage the debt load and possesses the physical space to support growth, it has a good chance of dominating the game. And there are a few breweries that have amassed sufficient size as to wreak some havoc with the whole concept of what is ‘local.’

The issue is coming to a head in the little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where two western craft brewing giants will be opening new breweries. With its growing craft beer reputation and excellent garage breweries, Asheville is making a lot of noise for such a small brewing town. But when word started leaking out that the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing were visiting sites around the town, the local brewers started to worry. Talk of tax credits and development deals started to swirl around as attempts to entice the two brewing giants, whose combined production is well north of 1 million barrels annually, to make North Carolina their second brewing homes.

Trying to hawk the localness of beer has always struck me as an odd selling point as next to none of the raw materials involved in production actually come from the region and nearly every production brewery sends beer far from home. The hyper-vigilance of some local brewers also seems misguided at times. In the case of Asheville, it’s understandable that local brewers grumble when a seemingly carpet-bagging West Coast brewery swoops into town and charms millions in tax incentives out of county representatives. But who’s to say that setting down roots doesn’t make Sierra or New Belgium ‘local’, especially when they’ll employ hundreds of North Carolinians?

As the credit and stainless steel crunches hit breweries bent on expansion, the stratification of craft brewers will grow deeper, likely straining the communal ethos that has been so central to the craft beer industry’s identity. Already big breweries will expand quickly, while smaller operations beat retreats back to their home markets and dream of stainless days to come. It may be time to redesign some bumper stickers.

-Article appeared in Issue 61 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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