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Monday, August 22, 2011

Communicating Beer and Social Media

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.


  1. The conference sounds very interesting. I wish I could have attended.

    A question: Was it your sense that most of the bloggers in attendance blog more or less full-time, or do most beer bloggers still hold day jobs, so to speak?

    For myself, I have to make my "real" job the priority, and blog around the margins of that. I'm wondering how other beer bloggers balance blogging and other demands.

  2. No, definitely most were not pros. That would have been an interesting topic. I know a minority of bloggers have the hope of doing something with it, but many people are just joining the conversation as very interested non-professionals. Personally, I think the non-pros are the most important component. They many write less frequently, but their voices are untroubled by concerns of money.

  3. I get the feeling that the majority of beer bloggers today are professionals in other areas (many in tech) and blog on the side for little or no money. If brewers win over the common blogger and entice them to write about their brews often then you've got a great marketing weapon at little expense.

    I personally work full time in the IT tech business and blog on the side. It's the army of common man bloggers that are becoming the mainstream and a powerful tool for brewers, distributors and retailers to embrace.

  4. Craig's Mississippi presentation was definitely one of my favorites as well (I also really liked Jay Wilson's ending keynote). Overall though I think you hit the nail on the head---it's not (just) about blogging, but about communicating craft beer. And building relationships.

    And I particularly like the comment/idea that the bloggers are the craft beer industry's "mass media."

  5. My impression is that citizen bloggers carry a lot of weight within the craft industry. They provide free publicity and they are highly motivated primarily by their love of good beer. The industry loves it. No cost or very low cost promotion.

    People who read citizen blogs know they are not generally tainted by money. In my mind, most citizen bloggers have no clear idea of how they might make money, although some of the discussions provided insights into that. Most of them seem to have day jobs.

  6. I just recently started beer blogging and did not attend the BBC up in Portland. I'm actively seeking beer bloggers who went, so I can read up on what I missed.

    @SoggyCoaster I am a part time beer blogger, and hold a full-time day job. I blog about craft beer because I enjoy it.

  7. If you didn't make it to the conference, then eventually there will be a great blog post ,like this on almost every topic discussed. BUT, what you won't get be reading is the camaraderie of the community and the great networking opportunities. We can create online communities but nothing solidifies and makes it strong than in person interactions.

    Plus, we always end up doing something that might be hard to do on your own. Visiting a hop farm during the hop harvest with dinner on the farm. That was incredible!

    Don't *think* about going next year. Instead, clear your calendar and go.

  8. I'm also a part-time blogger

    What started as a personal passion blog and documentation of my own beer journeys has turned into a ton of fun. It gets a lot of appreciation from the craft beer community and keeps me engaged beyond the blog itself. Now it sort of feeds itself, not monetarily, but with access to, and recognition from, beer makers that I so admire. It's a wonderfully recursive relationship made possible by blog tech like Tumblr.