The “Session” is a monthly opportunity for beer bloggers to comment on one particular topic. Each month, a different beer bloggers comes up with the subject matter. I’ve never participated in a “session”, but Heather Vandenengel, with whom I’ve shared many thoughts about the state of beer journalism, is hosting this week. She’s a fantastic writer, whom I’d call one of the best beer writers in the industry. But she’s also an awesome person and, if someone was going to drag me into thinking way too hard about beer and journalism and beer journalism, it was going to be her. Enjoy.
Topic: What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about the industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and moribund endeavor? And, if so, what can be done about it?
For a few years, some friends and I wrote daily blog posts on Review Brews, a site of our creation. We had a schedule. Beer news on Mondays, Brewer interview on Tuesdays, etc. This went smoothly for a while, but due to circumstances – i.e. life getting in the way of what was, essentially, a hobby – daily posts turned into more sporadic ones. That was okay with us. Review Brews was a fun venture, never meant to last. We met great people, cultivated professional contacts, and made lasting memories. We even made some friends along the way.
Journalism, for me, has been an avenue to satisfy curiosities. I went from knowing very little about the craft beer movement (other than that I was developing an appreciation for these brews) to knowing the intricacies of brewing, hop and yeast varietals, etc. I visited beer bars and breweries and took road trips to these places and for these beers.
My approach to “beer journalism” tried to be as objective as possible. “Tried,” I think, is the critical word in that sentence. I’ve spent years in journalism and it’s hard, at times, not to endear yourselves to your topics. It’s a tricky balance because time governs good or ill will. A good example is a football team I covered about a decade ago. Made up of undersized, upperclass kids, this team made the state semi-finals in Southern California, which is, I should add, an outstanding accomplishment. In my coverage, I went to every game, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking with the players and with the coaches. I knew them all by their first names and them me. They were, accomplishments aside, a really likable team. This doesn’t happen all the time. Way more times, I’ve covered games with no interest in who won or lost. So, as the clock ticked down in a semi-final loss, I spoke to the players – many in tears – and coaches as they reflected on the what-could-have-been’s of the season. I wrote as objectively as I could, to an audience of readers mainly comprised of this team’s family and friends. But, man, I remember thinking, how nice would it have been if they won.
In any industry, there are people with whom you get along great. There are also people who are difficult to deal with. In my writing about craft beer, I’ve found an industry that’s unlike many others. When we talk about finding a dream job and “never working a day in our lives,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, we’re essentially finding a way of making a living through our passions. There are, truly, a small percentage of people who achieve this. What I’ve found in talking with the brewers is that most, if not all of them, are living this passion. It’s a hard journalistic task to not write about this without a positive slant.
It’s an earnest effort, I think, for most people to stay objective when they’re writing beer journalism, but it’s also really hard because you’re at so many things together. And because beer enhances that collective spirit, you end up having conversations with people, you run into them at events and the relationship takes on a different meaning that a simple writer and his subject. It’s the human condition to get along with someone with whom you share interests and there may be no better example in beer (or sports) writing.
I can see this described as cheerleading, but, in most cases, I don’t think it’s the true intent. Are there articles written about certain breweries in which it’s a little more glowing than others? Sure. Are there beer journalists who write solely about breweries that appear on the best breweries lists on popular beer websites? Absolutely. But writers, like the brewers they cover, are in the class of people who are following their passion of writing and trying to make that pursuit their career. It’s a noble pursuit, to be sure, and some writers have more success than others just like some brewers have more success than others. We don’t like to denigrate a brewer earnestly trying to perfect an average pale ale, but somehow we pig pile on the journalist still learning the ropes of their profession. It’s complicated.
Brewers are not unlike most people inasmuch as they like their stories to be told. The most important lesson to learn in journalism is listening. The beer may be hoppy or balanced or malty, the mouthfeel and the finish may be world-class, but the most important journalism relates the tale on a personal level. It’s from this angle that we find ourselves examining the macro perspective of the story. What does it all mean? Journalism isn’t supposed to tell the story as much as promote and insist that the reader continue to find the answers ourselves.
Beer journalists aren’t subhuman. Even bad beer journalists aren’t subhuman. They’re just bad journalists. What happens, I think, is that journalists get pigeon-holed into a niche. This person writes about beer, this person writes about sports, and so on. What makes the journalism profession tick are those individuals who are able – through reporting, listening, through compassionate rendering of a story, through faithful details and quotations – to transcend genre and just tell the world a story. Maybe we need to separate people honestly pursuing this endeavor from the people simply trying to get a free t-shirt or pint glass. Or maybe we need a new definition of journalism.
Without going too deeply, journalism is changing, going more the way of the aesthetics of a story than a simple taxonomy of the subject’s attributes and quotes. There’s plenty of journalism that reflects this, crossing many genres. It can get subjective, too, and that makes many in the old guard mad.
Beer journalism will change when we begin valuing the writers over topics. People can get 1,000 clicks by using certain keywords or certain breweries in their titles. We’re all guilty of the crime of clicking that dangling fruit of a key word (for me, it’s “Best steakhouses in America”). That’s why my media diet consists of – or is evolving to consist of – specific writers whom I know are capable of completing the task at hand: telling a great story. There are so many of them in the craft beer industry.
And that’s why my beer reading has dropped. It’s soured because there is so much parody. We’re all writing about the same things in the same way, with the exception of a few. Thus, I read Beer Hobo. The stuff of Good Beer Hunting is excellent, so I try to find my way there every once in a while. I like Will Gordon who does stuff for Deadspin and, if Gary Dzen does a non-review, I usually read it (nothing against his reviews, I think he does a good job with them, it’s just that I don’t have an interest). People will write about beer so long as there are suds to be consumed and, hopefully, that’s forever.
What’s plaguing the beer industry and it’s coverage is the negativity from all angles. We tend to try to avoid the things in our lives – or are at least instructed to – so why should we speak so negatively about beer journalism? If it’s something you don’t like (or something you abhor with every fiber of your body), stay away from it. No one is forcing anyone to read anything.