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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What We Write About When We Write About Beer

Over the past month, I have been part of a four-person team judging magazine articles for the North American Guild of Beer Writers' annual contest.  We had 34 entries that were published in probably ten different publications, and they ranged from very short reviews to lengthy pieces on styles, equipment, or process.  One entry on a bit of brewing history ran on for thirty pages.  When you immerse yourself that deeply into something, you have a chance to see patterns and habit--not all of them good.  (I've written a few articles this year, and I recognized my own culpability in this.)  So as a public service, here are a few takeaways about how we can write more interesting, less repetitive stories.
  • Vary the structure.  This is how the vast majority of stories unfold: 1) anecdote about how a brewery does something, 2) expository about the subject of the article, 3) more brewery anecdotes that buttress the theme.  This is a classic form, and it's going to be hard to break the habit, partly because we like stories.  But so many of the anecdotes are repetitive--they start with a description of how some brewery does something, as if it's a wholly unprecedented.  Craft brewing is no longer new and exciting--we need to seed our articles with something more unexpected.   
  • Vary the quotes.  Gary Fish is doing something right.  He was quoted in tons of the articles we reviewed.  So were Ken Grossman, Jim Koch, and Sam Calagione.  We really need to do a better job of finding different voices to speak for the brewers.  
  • Be more critical. Critics rightly fault writers for fawning over breweries, but we do it subtly and inadvertently.  Many of the articles we write begin with the narrative as brewers would tell it, and then unfold from their point of view.  We select a topic, go interview a bunch of people, and then write what they say.  This is reportage, but it's not great reportage.  As writers, we need to figure out a way to write about beer so that it's not just a kind of soft promotion.
  • Find new ways to talk about beer.  The extended world of beer has a nearly infinite number of subjects to discuss, and yet we tend to pull out the same tired templates to discuss things.  I haven't quite figured out how to address this one, but it's a real issue.  If we were to go back in time to before Michael Jackson wrote about beer and entirely reinvent the way we write and talk about beer, what would it look like? 
For those of you who read beer books, magazines, and blogs, what would you like to see change?  Where do we need to go as we evolve?


  1. Writing for a beer publication (I write for Northwest Brewing News), it's hard to voice concerns or criticisms; I suppose that's a challenge in any realm of 'objective' journalism. I'd like to see more (and write more) Gonzo-style beer reporting, a la Zappa or Lester Bangs or Dr. Thompson or, frankly, the Don't Drink Beer guy. Any deep conversation about beer leads elsewhere. The ability to extract humor or vulgarity from a visit to a brewery requires looking at the cracks and crevices, the edges of the frame. It also takes gumption and the willingness to put yourself on the chopping block. Humor definitely belongs in beer.

  2. You really can't be critical if you're writing for a publication. They depend on advertising dollars and don't want to alienate anyone. I get that. It's fine up to a point. Blogging is another matter. There should be more critical reporting on blogs. It doesn't happen because a lot of writers see themselves as promoters and don't want to jeopardize their relationships with brewers and breweries. That might cause curtailed shipments of beer or an end to free event tickets. There are a lot of big egos and thin skins in this industry. Criticism isn't very popular.

  3. I was trying to figure out a way to communicate this without writing a thousand words. I don't mean you have to be critical per se, but you also don't immediately have to adopt the point of view of your source. So let's say you're writing about barrel aged beer and you decide to talk to a brewer who does it. He's going to give you a quote talking about how great barrel-aging is and how sublime his barrel aged beer is. You don't have to let that become your thesis. You could talk about how barrel aging is a big trend and barrel-aged beers command a lot of money on the market BUT there are a lot of beers that plainly suck ass thanks to ill-conceived flavor combinations or unintended infection.

    You could dig deeper and talk to a chemist who could tell you what's happening when oxygen interacts--and maybe tie some of the malign effects back to wicked-harsh brett beers, for example. We never do that--I never do that, but I'm going to start. That's more what I mean--and I know beer pubs would be totally happy to run those more nuanced pieces. (Based on discussions, I think they'd kill for them.)

  4. I couldn't agree more, especially with #4. I judged the podcasts; while there were fewer entries to review than your category, I found a similar thread running through all of them.

    I'm not sure if people are scared to take creative chances, or if we're somehow mired in a stuck mash of imagination, but there's a systemic problem with discussing beer (not just writing about it) and harping on about the same issues. I know I'm guilty of it, even though I actively try to vary and swing my voice around.

    I'd also love to know which publications are looking for more nuance beer writing. I know a guy who'd like to pitch some ideas :)

  5. I don't think I'm the best writer, but when I'm coming up with language for Beers Made By Walking I look to geography and environmental education for some clues on how to shift some of the language a little. Perhaps an interdisciplinary approach is what I'm suggesting? My 2 cents.

  6. "The extended world of beer has a nearly infinite number of subjects to discuss, and yet we tend to pull out the same tired templates to discuss things."

    I agree with all of the points, but I'm curious if you could provide some examples of those "tired templates."

    For myself, I think the best writing -- beer or otherwise -- focuses on people. And preferably, people with a goal and a conflict that prevents them from achieving said goal.

    The problem -- and I've fallen into this all too often -- is that for many people that goal and the conflict are one in the same. Tired of corporate America, a passionate homebrewer decides to turn pro. You really have to dig deeper to see what makes each person's story unique, because it's not always apparent on the surface.

    Oh, and I dig the allusion to Raymond Carver. ;)

  7. Perhaps without knowing it, you raise two points. One is about the quality of entries to the NAGBW competition and one is to the general state of beer writing. Certainly they overlap, and may indeed be representative of each other, but bear with me.

    I took second place in last year's NAGBW competition for best blog. I chose not to enter this year for two reasons. Mainly, the "best blog" category is far too nebulous of a category. I submitted my entries based upon news reporting regarding legislative issues in my home state. The winner won on the strength of truly excellent literature related to beer. It's impossible, really, to compare the two in a competition. The category is simply too broad.

    Second, one of the judges posted on his personal blog after the competition (and I'm paraphrasing) that the winner was great and everything else was crap. Clearly he had a particular idea of what a blog should be and anything that did not fit it wasn't worth his time.

    I also write for a paying publication and as others have noted, its purpose is to highlight great things in beer, not criticism. That's fine. I can judge for myself the purpose and function of any given beer related publication. In my case, I've successfully converted my space in to storytelling. It might not be criticism, but is better than blind cheerleading.

    Honestly, part of the problem is there is a very, very small group of connected beer writers who believe it is them and nothing else - and refuse to let any others enter the group. Truth be told, many of those in that group really are head and shoulders above everyone else because they are indeed professionals and are quite good at their craft. But there is good beer writing out there coming from quadrants which do not enjoy any manner of recognition or "traffic."

    Then there is the problem of having great ideas, but little time (or sources who won't go on record) . . . but I digress.

  8. If it was my post that caused you to draw that paraphrased conclusion, I am sorry: But the discussion I wrote was about the structure of the program, not the entrants directly. I was considering that the category was, on the one hand limited by definition but also free to all. This did lead to some unskillful entries for sure. But not all but one as crap. Yet I am not seeking to resolve the dischord by saying this so much as acknowledging your view and confirm that the first crop and its processing lead to some questions from not only a successful entrant.

  9. I think a variety of approaches are needed. I do feel the traditional "taste description" beer book is dead due to the onset of rating sites and extensive blogging resources. However, people can put the focus on recent or older beer history; beer ingredients (e.g., Stan Hieronymous has done great work here); and beer education including for restaurants, bar staff.

    The only way I see conventional beer writing having a high (Jackson-like) profile is if a different style is adopted which pleases a lot of people, e.g., a commenter above mentioned gonzo/Lester Bangs-styles of writing, that is great if someone can pull that off in the beer world. Not all beer writing has to be in the detached, sometimes professorial tone you encounter. Another approach is to focus on the business side of it more, Jackson never did this except by the by.

    Lots of ways to skin the cat but repeating the formulas of previous decades in book form is not likely to attract a wide readership IMO.


  10. Well put, Jeff. With regards to the points raised in the comments, I happen to edit one of those publications that's actively looking for more nuanced writing. To date I have not assigned any stories based on advertiser content. I don't plan to change this policy—thoughtful criticism is welcome and encouraged, as are articles that dig deeper and include perspectives from people outside the beer industry. I'll take history, culture, geography, science and business related pitches over long form beer reviews and fawning event coverage every single time.

  11. Great points, but I also feel your intended audience needs to be factored in. Not all beer writing is and should be geared towards beer aficionados and geeks. I write a column for the local newspaper in Honolulu, where there is a nice beer scene, but the overwhelming majority of residents are not serious beer drinkers. I focus most of my columns on simple education and exposure to help people take the leap into more interesting beer choices. There isn't much room for critical or in depth conversation here since the audience is the general public.
    In more sophisticated beer markets, writers for mass publications may be able to dive deeper into subjects and topics, but for most of the country that may not be viable. I think there is space for some writing that is still focused on the 90% of Americans you are not craft beer drinkers. This is the hardest audience to write to because if you get too critical or geeky, you may turn them off.
    Your intended audience is crucial in determining how you write.

  12. I'm among those who've been long lamenting the lack of criticism in beer writing in general, and blogs in particular. At the same time, I understand that some people prefer to focus on the positive aspects of the industry. I'm cool with that, because it can still make for good reading. What bothers me, however, is the fanboyism, which is also understandable, but not less annoying. Fortunately, it is easily ignored. There's plenty of good beer writing around and, more importantly, there seems to be more writers who are trying to find new ways to talk about beer. It's a natural process, I believe. Speaking for myself, it comes to a point that you get bored with writing the same stuff every time--tasting notes, for instance--so you either find new things to say or at least new ways to say the same things, or will eventually stop writing when don't have to. I've chosen former path, with more or less success with the material I'm producing, but at least I feel I'm trying to do something new, and having more fun in the process, which brings me to this other thing:

    Often tend to take the top way, way too seriously, and I've been guilty of that. It's not economy or politics we write about, it's beer.

  13. There is so much social history to write about. It has been done so badly for so long. We just need less of people thinking that the fact that they love or hate something matters.

  14. waialuagoldens: "Great points, but I also feel your intended audience needs to be factored in. Not all beer writing is and should be geared towards beer aficionados and geeks."

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. We beer writers get so immersed in the scene that we sometimes fail to recognize that not everyone is so knowledgeable. I think back a month or so ago to the Wall Street Journal's piece on barrel-aging beer, which was met with sarcastic remarks from the craft beer community that took the information as old hat and responded with comments like, "Barrel-aging beer? What'll they think of next!"

    Craft is growing tremendously, but still only around 10 percent of the market share in the nation. There is certainly a place still for educational pieces aimed at folks who aren't as far along in their beer journey.