Over the weekend, Portland hosted what I assumed was going to be a fairly dull conference (or is that redundant?) on beer blogging. The issue here is that we're talking about beer blogging--not exactly a topic that requires a lot of training or expertise. As the panels rolled by, what emerged was something entirely different. Turns out it wasn't a bloggers conference after all: it was an exploration of how to communicate craft beer.
That is, after all, one of the central issues that's confronted the industry since 1980. How do you simultaneously educate potential consumers about what beer really is, reconstitute beer culture, and, oh yeah, sell beer? A huge part of this quandary involves communications of various kinds. We've made some progress in three decades, but it's a nice wake-up call to interact with people from around the country in all phases of the industry (the conference is attended by brewers, importers, marketing people, and distributors). I'm reminded that Portland is not the United States and that if you were to run a national poll asking people to guess what an IPA is, only a fraction would have any idea. (Never mind who George Hodgson was).
Social media plays a pretty important role in all of this. The mainstream media never did really cover beer adequately, and now they cover it almost not at all. Information now travels via tweets, through Facebook, indirect vectors like Groupon, and sites like Yelp and BeerAdvocate. Bloggers play their role, too. If you're looking for more in-depth information on breweries or beer, you're likely to find it on a blog. If you search a brand of beer, you'll almost certainly to find blog posts on Google's first page of results.
Much of this is critical stuff. One of the best panels of the fest featured Mississippi blogger Craig Hendry's effort to drag the Magnolia State into the modern era. The issue there is almost entirely one of communication: Mississippi's laws reflect early-20th-century thinking on beer, and Craig's been doing yeoman's work to change views and the laws. Fascinating stuff. (I think we ought to hold next year's conference in Jackson, MS and blow the roof of the joint.)
Karl Ockert, long-time brewer at BridgePort and now technical director of the Master Brewers Association of America, had an absolutely amazing presentation about a new initiative called the Beer Steward Certificate Program. In putting together the materials, the MBAA took the opportunity to entirely re-think the question of beer appreciation, and they came up with a pretty radical conceptual framework. I'll post about that later this week, but the upshot is that MBAA are trying to figure out a better way to communicate beer appreciation.
I talked a bit with Allan Wright, organizer of the conference. He was already thinking about next year's event and wondering how a panel might try to reveal the importance of distribution in the beer industry (surely one of the least-understood aspects of craft brewing). He's also pondering the question of brewery size and beer quality--one that becomes ever more pointed as consolidation picks up speed.
My sense is that communication is a constant. If you read the British blogs, you know that getting the word out about new trends, new research, and providing just basic, accurate information is sometimes an uphill battle. A "bloggers conference" may not address that in a significant way. A beer and media conference like the one we just attended--it could be a great shot in the arm for people trying to get on the same page about the very big task of communicating the manifold issues confronting craft brewing.
Photo of Ben Love speaking at the 2011 Beer Bloggers Conference by Matt Wiater. See more photos from the conference at Matt's Flickr photostream.