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Friday, October 07, 2011

The Future of Beer Writing

The release last month of The Oxford Companion to Beer has provoked a lot of discussion in the beerosphere--pro and, mostly, con. (I haven't seen it yet, but I am concerned that the publisher's comments begin with that inaccurate quote by Ben Franklin.) Start with this review by Alan McLeod and then read Stan Hieronymus' post and the extensive comments thereafter.

I won't try to summarize the discussions except to say that we seem to have finally arrived, now more than four years after his death, in the post-Jackson era. The Michael Jackson era began in the mid-70s and ended with his death in 2007. In that time, he published the definitive guide to world beer (World Guide to Beer and later the Beer Companion), the definitive ratings guide (Pocket Guide to Beer), and the definitive guide to Belgium (Great Beers of Belgium). He played a role in defining style, and he identified the breweries that continue to be considered world classics. The way he thought about and wrote about beer became the template of his era. (That some people regret aspects of his legacy is another matter.)

Jackson, of course, started writing in a very different time. When he discussed, say, Saison Dupont, very few people had ever heard of it, much less tasted it. Now the beer is available at most grocery stores. When people wanted information about beer, they had next to no sources beyond Jackson--though this obviously changed over the years.

Now we have amazing distribution networks that shuttle the beers of the world around the globe. We have hundreds of writers sharing information about beers. We have programs to teach people about beer. And perhaps most revolutionarily, we have the hive mind of ratings sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer coupled with GPS and the larger internet. This last change is key. The Oxford Companion arrives at a moment when very little information is beyond the reach of a Google search. (Based on some of the critiques I'm reading, a Google search may produce more accurate information, too.) All of this was floating in my mind when I read about a Harvard Business School report (pdf)on the impact of sites like Yelp.

For our purposes, I'd like you to look at this graph from the appendix:

Although Yelp tracks restaurants, not breweries and beer, the point is analogous. In this graph, the Zagat/Seattle Times/Food and Wine entries can stand in for a writer like Jackson, while Yelp is the hive mind. If a consumer is looking for information about a brewery or beer, where do they go? In most cases, they'll find the information they're looking for on a ratings site. It won't be as detailed or have the rich context of a Jackson book, but it will be there. You'll get some information and you'll get it fast. In his thirty years of beer writing, Jackson reviewed a monumental number of beers--but probably around 10% of the beers available at any given time.

I think this makes accurate writing about beer more important, not less. Understanding the history, chemistry, and culture of beer is far more edifying than seeing what Dogboy37 from Ypsilanti thought of Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. And yet we will increasingly rely on raters to aggregate and sort information for us. BeerAdvocate is a tool used by an order of magnitude more people than readers of The Oxford Companion.

This post isn't headed anywhere, incidentally, except to note the phenomenon. Jackson didn't write during the age of BeerAdvocate. Writers today do. It is a sure bet that in order to find an audience, books will have deal with this reality and find ways to appeal to folks who are used to finding information instantly online.


  1. The democratization of writing and publishing, driven largely by the web, has empowered amateurs to make judgments about beer, wine, food, service, etc. Are those judgments relevant? I guess to readers they are because the power and reach of Yelp is undeniable. I admit I sometimes use Yelp, but I realize the stuff on there isn't gospel.

    What is a beer writer in the parlance of our time? Is it someone who writes a blog that is primarily promotional in nature? Is it someone who writes for a media outlet or a brewery? I can't answer those questions. But I do know this: the era of the professional beer writer, people like Jackson, Eckhardt and a few others, is being supplanted by an era driven by amateur writers focused on promoting beer and beer culture via articles that typically target short attention spans. Is that reality good, bad or indifferent? It's your call.

  2. People have to move beyond the notion they can find everything via Google. Google Berliner Weisse and the first result is from Wikipedia. It states, "By the 19th century, Berliner Weisse was the most popular alcoholic drink in Berlin, and 700 breweries produced it."

    That number is repeated in the Oxford Companion.

    According to Ron Pattinson's meticulously documented European Beer Guide 82 breweries operated in Berlin in 1800 and 42 by 1816. Go back to 1730 and 426 existed, but most of those would have been in homes.

    Wikipedia cites the German Beer Institute as a source. Pattinson has documented just a few of the errors there.

    But after Wikipedia cites the Oxford Companion as an additional "source" will anybody ever question that number again?

  3. But Jeff, isn't the point more to do with specifics vs generics? In much the same way as you may have a favourite beer blog (or others have come to trust you), so you find a particular world-view that suits your opinions. I'd rather have the opinion of one person that I trusted rather than 100 who I've never met.

    Stan - perhaps the OCB contributor found that (mis)information on Wikipedia, which then added the OCB as a supplementary source? I can feel the knowledge snake eating its own tail....

  4. Stan, I can't help smile at this juxtaposition. You mention how Google leads you to false info and then add "That number is repeated in the Oxford Companion."

    Books have never been a tonic against misinformation. If all the Oxford Companion has done is collect together info as wrong as the internet's, it's not making a very good case for books, is it?

  5. OK, I tried to write a constructive comment, but every time I started, it devolved into a rant about the poor quality of research in beer books written for homebrewers. Sorry, but the descent into hive mind writing is interesting. It's just not something I can talk about without going into a tirade and foaming at the mouth. For a field filled with so many self-impressed know it alls (yes I include myself in that category), you'd think the books would be better researched.

  6. So we just give up on books?

    How do we break a cycle of misinformation?

  7. Zak, I think that's true, but so often, it's not the opinion of someone we trust versus people we don't, it's people we don't know versus no one. There's an alluring comprehensiveness to the ratings sites--which is why millions read them ever year.

    Bill, your comments are always constructive. I always enjoy them.

    Stan, I think books will always offer context the ratings sites lack. Your book on Wheat was a revelation. (BLAM rocks too, but the wheat business touched on many more styles and was a huge eye-opener to me.)

    I think this illustrates a constant in life: there are high-information people and low-information people. I got into blogging from the politics side, and low-info people (you know them as "voters") are maddening to policy wonks. But, before we get on our high horses, it's worth noting that in most spheres, we're all low-information people. We can't understand deeply too many topics--we bump along scanning the first paragraph from Wikipedia and call it good.

    I'm not even sure that's bad. The guy who thinks there were 700 Berlin breweries making Berliner Weisse gets a detail wrong--but he knows vastly more than the guy swilling Hamm's a generation ago.

  8. Stan, no of course we don't give up on books. And I think that authors have upped their game in the last ten years, but there's still a lot of bad info out there that gets repeated over and over. But I think it's also important that people who read these books question incorrect facts and demand sources for blatantly incorrect statements, like "sucrose produces a cidery flavor in beer" (one of my particular favorites).

    For example, in a well respecred and generally well written homebrew book, an author states "commercial brown sugar is just table sugar with molasses added" (not an exact quote but something llike that) and that gets a footnote to an article in Zymurgy from the early 90's. OK, that is true, and it's nice to see the reference. But then the whopper about the sucrose/cider connection is dropped with no footnote. On inquiry to the author, I'm told it's "likely" from one of several $200 books from Seibel, but he can't tell me exactly which one it is (similar to the line that a cetain don't worry have a homebrew professor gave on the same inquiry: I don't know where it came from, but I remember I read it when I was writing my first book). I'm given a potential list of authors who might have said it. Not having a spare $1000 to spend on technical brewing books, I research several papers published by these authors online looking for the source of the mysterious sucrose/cider conection only to find.....nothing. I ask professional brewers who laugh at the ideas and ask where homebrewers get their info.

    Beer writing is getting better because of people like Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson who actually research their subjects and give sources. (Just like other fields of research.) But the bar is still pretty low, largely because of laziness and the lack of academic rigor on the part of the authors.

    Hive mind sites like BA will never produce the anything that resembles serious academic research. Call me an elitist but I prefer to read people who actually understand their material and try to hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to research.

    Just because you have a computer and have entered 1000 ratings on BA doesn't mean you understand shit about beer (as many reviews on BA will show). As bookworm beer enthusiasts we need to demand higher standards and call out the books that perpetuate the neat, tidy historical lies that most homebrewers and craft beer enthusiasts repeat ad nauseum.

  9. Jeff - I wasn't going to pass comment on the nature of internet beer-rating sites, but that pretty much sums up my feelings.

  10. Beer fan sites are not rating sites, they are popularity polls. I suspect there are numerous people (though still a minority) for whom it is kind of a game: very likely they are too young to legally buy beer, so they synthesize the descriptions of others.

    But even those faceless thousands who have actually tasted the beer in question - why would anyone care what some pimple-faced check-out clerk in the midwest thought of Beer X?

    The Internet, or more specifically, the Web, has radically lowered the barrior to publishing. Anyone and everyone can be a "critic", offer their opinion, etc.

    This represents a radical lowering of the standard for trust. As Stan correctly pointed out, misinformation is virtually everywhere.

    I remember when the term "critic" meant a profession, today, it seems to have been diluted to mean an activity everyone or anyone can do.

    No thanks.

  11. I would hope the future includes what we can't forecast.

    Although I understand the dangers in comparing beer and wine, perhaps looking at the wider range of topics and approaches might suggest areas beer writers might explore.

    Books like "The Accidental Connoisseur" and "The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Save the World from Parkerization."

  12. I hope that conversation is the future of beer writing. It's why I like blogs and blog comments.

    Better still is making the real life connection over a beer.

  13. I think this boils down to story of wikipedia vs encyclopedia Britannica. The Oxford Companion is the later....what in the beer community provides the former? Ratebeer? Perhaps we need a user generated site that catalogs beer but does not rate it?

  14. "I remember when the term "critic" meant a profession, today, it seems to have been diluted to mean an activity everyone or anyone can do."

    Depends which direction you are looking at I guess. From a writer perspective, you may see the masses as critics as dilution of of the few formal critics of the past. I look at it more as empowerment of the end consumer - which to me is not a bad thing.

    Funny how you mention the dilution of the beer "critic", yet before the craft beer fan sites, there were no critics in beer writing, only cheerleaders who wrote only about favorable experiences in craft beer while ignoring the less than favorable things/beers.

    Still an issue imo with most bloggers and even more so still with formal beer writers. I recently saw a blogger solicit free beer while saying they will only publish reviews for the good ones. Imagine calling for the opposite and saying you will only write reviews for beers that were bad, and the good beers will be ignored?

    Just as in the past, I still take all beer writing with a grain of salt, because I have grown to distrust it when its all positive. Just like I do with individual beer reviewers who seem to like every beer they drink.