So Who Really Should Be Writing About Beer?

Stan linked via Twitter via Maureen to one of the oddest bits of beer writing I have ever come across in my years of doing this. It is by a Western Massachusetts based writer George Lenker, who apparently has had a beer column for about as long as I have written this beer blog. Looking at some of his other columns, he seems to have a thing about “amateurs” as well as his own special place in the beer writing trade. His convictions come out in force in his piece entitled “Sober Thoughts On Writing About Beer” published last Thursday in The Republican of Springfield:

…while I welcome everyone’s opinion on beer and craft brewing, I don’t believe everyone should be publishing his or her opinion with abandon, just because the Wild West ethos of Internet allows them to do so. By this I do not mean I want to see the suppression of said opinions; I just want to receive them in a manner that is both coherent and largely devoid of agendas and/or the shrillness that sometimes accompanies amateur beer writing…Unfortunately, some blogs and open forum sites burp up some pretty unbalanced and even incendiary writing at times and I believe this may turn off some newbies to craft beer. Anyone who knows me knows I am not trying to stifle anyone’s First Amendment rights here (as a journalist, it’s my job to defend them) but rather to coach gently those hobbyists whose shoot-first-ask-questions-later methodology of conveying their opinions does more harm that good.

In itself, I really could not care less if George Lenker likes or dislikes anything as I have never noticed coming across him before. I don’t care for the tone of importance though it is (I would hope) likely that here he is writing tongue in cheek to make the point or at least to get noticed. He did, after all, choose to use the phrase “the suppression of said opinions” – the use of “said” in this way usually being a flag for one thing or another. Yet, it is instructive at this particular point in time to consider the attitude that goes into making this sort or any sort of statement on a topic you are interested in. And, to be fair, it is likely due in part of the current pressures on print media. It may, however, also speak to something deeper. So, as a service to the reader who is unfamiliar with some of the issues at play when dealing with this sort of thing, there are some of my basics to remember when reading the work of anyone who writes about beer.

1. Most people have an agenda though many don’t state it. This is true in all things in life and not just writing. It is usually not a bad thing. It’s usually a synonym for “an interest” in something or another. Imagine a world where people did not have multiple interests. These interests pop up everywhere. For example, Mr. Lenker has used the word “superb” to describe the now defunct magazine Beers of the World – though to be fair he uses “superb” quite a bit. Mr. Lenker explains that he has written wrote for that magazine and presumably he has received payment for doing so. He has an interest in the success of that magazine. Good thing, too. For all the money there is in beer far too little of it reaches the palms of those who are thinking and writing about beer. We need more of it. We need more people with interest.

2. Interests can guide beer writers. For example, you will find a number of writers shrink from – and even mock – the writing of a beer review. Sometimes these same people have jobs that involve the selling of beer one way or another. This is good. It is entirely reasonable for someone to not cut the legs out of what is likely the larger part of one’s revenue stream. All that is required in such circumstances is a disclaimer as to limitation of their ability to speak to a subject. The best of us place the reason on the table so they can’t be taken as full authority. Look how well Stan does it in his recent review of a bookwritten by a friend and colleague. We should expect both multiple interest and disclaimers as to their existence. Maybe more than we see them.

3. Interests are inordinately sensitive topics but they are often the definitive factor in creating real value. Over at Knut’s place, Pete Brown and I got into it a bit this week in another “pros” v. hobbyist take on beer writing. He suggested I was challenging his integrity by noting he is a PR consultant to breweries. I was making an observation of fact. And what an important fact. No one else approaches questions of beer branding and its effect on the market so intelligently and consistently as Pete Brown. Frankly, one of the best bits in his new and utterly worthwhile book Hops and Glory is the Epilogue where he describes finding a vestigial use of the brand of a once powerful UK brewer, Allsopp, in Kenya. And, just to be clear, I don’t give a rats ass about branding. Pete’s interest in it makes it interesting to me.

4. Craft beers have relative value. But not everyone wants you to know that or talk about it. That should raise a flag. There may be an interest at play. To be clear, every child is special and, to some but not me, every dog is too. But every craft beer is not special and every craft brewer is not a good one. But things like guilds and associations and people who can write and seemingly accept concepts like “some beer writing may not be helping the cause” don’t like you to think about that too much. For some it is a toggle switch world out there – you are in or you are out. You either support the cause or not. Beware the toggle switch mentality. Further, the task of taking on the determination of relative value of such a complex set of data like the relative quality of beer requires a large set of evaluators. That is why, for all their own difficulties, ratings sites are so valuable. Likewise the combination of beer blogs and internet search engines. Only through these forms of writing and though not being concerned with “helping the cause” will the actual state of affairs be identified.

5. Beer information has great value. And that value has not yet been realized. For whatever reason, beer columns in a paper every week or two has not been a successful format for capturing the imagination of beer consumers except in a few local markets like Philadelphia. Making a commodity of information about beer and capturing it successfully can get you advertising, subscribers, membership fees and above all that brass ring of a job which is about writing about beer. I’ve done that. Beer pays for itself and I pay income tax on my beer writing generated through this site. That is what the ratings sites do and that is what others making money from beer writing do. It is good. Frankly, there should be more of if. And, also frankly, this talk of professionalism is difficult to divide from having a financial interest in the writing about beer.

6. Beer has downsides. The issues of productivity, health, public safety, budget and family life as they relate to being a regular drinker of alcohol have been written about as long as people have been writing. This is not a part of the discourse, however, since at least the days of Kingsley Amis or Richard Boston. In some way, I think Michael Jackson focused the discussion singularly on the wonderfulness of craft beer in a way that persists. This can be described reasonably as being “pro-responsible drinking than anti-anything” but it also raises questions about whether we do not write about difficult or negative subjects out of our own discomfort. These days, there is too much “Hooray for Everything” about craft beer including in beer writing. The lack of discussion of a topic or an angle on a topic may indicate that an interest is at play as well. Associating craft beer with negativity and even human suffering might not help the cause.

7. Beer has serious downsides. It is obvious that beer creates issues about weight. I am fat. Other beer writers are fat, too. Beer writers in the past like Ken Shales and David Line have died young. Was it the lifestyle? Craft beer is loaded with calories and the bigger the beer the bigger the calories. We don’t like to talk that much about it. Similarly, drunk driving is not being properly addressed. I started the idea of BBADD as a bit of a joke but immediately was struck by the discomfort of the response. I knew it must have meant something. We have beer writers writing against mass media descriptions of binge drinking in the UK and writing against MADD in the US. There may be real problems with these topics but we don’t have much writing about getting a handle on what is actually going on. And we certainly do not have the unified voice of craft beer or beer writers speaking out about these results of excess. Avoidance of the negative probably does not help the cause but does it help the consumer?

8. Craft beer is part of pop culture. The craft beer industry is not rocket science and it is certainly not a topic of exclusive or professional expertise. Yet it is a topic of great significance and even substantial financial importance. Think of being a craft beer fan as being similar to being a sports fan. Who in this day and age would accept a sports reporter palling around with team owners and athletes socially while reporting on the games they play? That’s the way it used to be. Who also in their right mind would suggest that (a) fans having an opinion, (b) those fans considering their own opinion as being experienced and valid or (c) fans expressing their opinions could any way be improper. You want people to be passionate about your pop culture product. Craft beer is a pop culture product. The opposite of the fan is the snob, the exclusionary. The craft beer snob is as out of place and illogical a concept as the baseball snob. For an author to suggest otherwise – to suggest that “some beer writing may not be helping the cause” – speaks to such a fundamental misunderstanding of the convivial and democratic role of beer in society that it leads me to question other opinions voiced by that author. And the question of undisclosed interest like the desire to maintain exclusivity under the umbrella of perhaps unwarranted professionalism. Fortunately, there are a horde of other beer writers – some justly earning a living, others writing out of pure passion. They are all out there now with other ideas and better ideas expressed to various degrees of success who enrich the overall discourse as best they can. Rather than being a time of degradation, it is, in fact, a wonderful point in beer writing.

Sure, these are interesting times for professional beer writers. The democratizing dynamics of the effects of beer blogging and beer forums let alone Twitter and Facebook may well have changed their world order. Even so, beware the one who suggests that the world is divided into people who should be granted exclusive commercial right on one hand and “hobbyists” on the other. As I noted a few weeks ago, this was the same complaint made by Bill Gates in the mid-70s at the point when distinctions between open source and commercialized computer software were being defined. As we know, the ramifications of open source are still being played out in the free and open marketplace…. well, free and open as long as it is governed by sensible anti-trust legislation.

These comments just touch the surface. They may even miss the mark. You may not care about them or may take issue with all of them. Think about them if you care to and write about how flawed they are. Or think or write about something else in the world of craft beer if that is your passion. Practice writing and keep at it because no one else can speak for you or describe how you see things. Don’t let anyone stop you if only because you may have an idea that no one has thought of before. That’s my advice to beer writers for what it is worth.

One thought on “So Who Really Should Be Writing About Beer?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    PivnĂ­ Filosof – August 16, 2009 4:49 PM
    http://www.pivni-filosof.com/
    I think all this can be said about pretty much everything that is being blogged about.

    There are “professionals” writing about a topic for one sort of “mainstream” media or another and getting paid for that, and there are the bloggers, most of them people who have something to say about a topic they feel passionate about.

    Of course, there are great blogs and there are really abominable ones, there are blogs written by people giving their honest opinion about a given topic and there are those that are no more than shill. The same can be said about professional journalism.

    The thing here is that people like Mr Lenker feel threatened by “hobbyist” who write for free about the same topic, many of whom perhaps do it better than him.

    And there’s one thing about blogs that you rarely find in the mainstream media, backlinks. Most good bloggers will put links to other blogs, etc. And that is a great way to discover other authors that, otherwise you would have never heard of.

    I also write about beer in Spanish and follow many of the Spanish beer blogs out there. And believe me, I am really glad they exist. If it was for what is written about beer in the mainstream media, people would believe that “Lager is a kind of pale beer very popular in America” (I swear to all the gods that I’ve seen that written in a Colombian newspaper).

    All this rant is to say that there is enough room for everyone.

    Southern Fried Scientist – August 16, 2009 5:39 PM
    http://southernfriedscience.com
    Honestly, his article reads like dozens of others written by “professional” writers who get pissed because people are paying attention to alleged amateurs instead of listening to him. Beyond being an infinitely useless complaint, it shows a profound lack of respect for his own readers. He’s basically saying his readers are too stupid to decide what good beer writing is. Anyone with that attitude doesn’t deserve an audience.

    ed gayos – August 16, 2009 11:40 PM
    the guy who had to spend the night in the garage for taking one glass too many. the experience alone does not make him an authority but what the heck, it’s his hang-over he would be writing about.

    Prof. Pilsner – August 16, 2009 11:42 PM
    Well written, Alan (hope that compliment is not seen by ‘professional’ beer writers as a threat to the fabric) Maybe it’s just me, but reading this piece, does anyone else picture Bart Simpson leaping around the room desperately vying for the attention of his loved ones?

    cheers,
    Prof. Pilsner

    Steve – August 17, 2009 10:54 AM
    http://allgoodbeer.blogspot.com/
    “I don’t believe everyone should be publishing his or her opinion with abandon”.

    Wow, I actually had to pause and read that again (and then again). Putting aside the whole issue of free speech, how different would the craft beer scene be if we had to rely only on “seasoned reporters” such as Mr. Lenker for news and information about beer? Would the craft beer market have grown as fast if there wasn’t sites such Beer Advocate, Rate Beer or any of the thousands of amateur beer blogs? This “amateur beer writing” creates buzz and awareness of new breweries, beers, festivals and has raised some brewers to rock-star status. I don’t get paid for posting items on my blog and I’m not limited by an Editor on what I can say and how much space in which I can say it, so does that mean the information I’m conveying is not valid? I look forward to learning next week how to ensure that *my opinion* does not do more harm then good.

    E.S. Delia – August 17, 2009 3:06 PM
    http://relentlessthirst.wordpress.com
    The article mentions the presence of editors, but I can certainly spot mistakes in several newspapers and beer-related publications (print or otherwise), so these people may not be worth the money they’re paid. Besides, there’s the whole content issue.

    I have in fact glanced at Mr. Lenker’s column from time to time. More often than not find that I can extract very little substance from his “Beer Nut” articles so I have largely ignored them. That’s honest criticism, which doesn’t “help the cause.” At least not one beer writer’s cause in particular.

    But that’s just the opinion of one unpaid blogger. Thrown at you with reckless abandon. How long does it take before I can become a “seasoned” blogger? What spices are required?

    Joe – August 18, 2009 1:25 PM
    http://www.thirstypilgrim.com
    Alan, thanks for a very thought-provoking read. I’ve been both a print journalist and a blogger, and IMO the issue long ago ceased to be about medium… i.e., print writers versus online pundits versus whatever. The much bigger issue is now, and has always been, quality. It tends to rise to the top, even while there is limitless room for passionate amateurs.

    ed gayos – August 19, 2009 1:05 AM
    i agree with joe. the issue is all about quality, both of the writing as well as of the beer being written about. qualitative writing enlightens, and is addressed to the mind; beer of quality refines one’s preferences, and is addressed to the taste buds. In the final analysis, though, beer is meant to be drunk, not written about.

    Eugene – August 20, 2009 5:19 PM
    http://www.beerquestguys.com
    Wow, I think anyone should be able to write about anything.
    Sure there are some reviews out there that make little sense.
    But that is the point let the person reading it decide.
    This is the internet hitting a back button or another link to get away from a bad article is damn simple.

    Alan – August 22, 2009 6:01 PM
    Apparently, these things can get ugly.

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