Into the Navel of a Can of Worms

For the 86th beer blogging session Heather Vandenengel asks:

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 industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

For a long time, ‘alternative beer’ (or whatever you want to call it) was a delicate thing: a handful of breweries and outlets, ready to be snuffed out of existence by changes in fashion, taxation or the global economy.

Vintage Pabst Blue Ribbon poster featuring a typewriter.

In that context, it seemed churlish and counter-productive for beer writers to subject brewers to the kind of scrutiny we expect from restaurant reviewers or film critics. So (to quote ourselves):

A compromise was eventually reached: people like Roger Protz and Michael Jackson would acknowledge that not all small brewers made good beer, but would rarely, if ever, name names. Jackson: ‘If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?’

Though times have changed — we’re not going back to the Big Six any time soon — that remains the easy route. When we started blogging, it was what we felt comfortable with, too — after all, what did we know about anything? Not to mention that writing negative comments about someone’s hard work (their ‘passion’) will, in most cases, piss them off, and it is nice to get on with people you might bump into at beer festivals or in the pub.

For those who are making a living at beer writing, however, it can be more than a matter of social awkwardness: access to breweries and brewers, invites to launches, and corporate consultancy or copywriting gigs might depend on it.

As readers, however, we have to say that someone raving about a beer brewed by a friend and/or client is rarely interesting.

In the same vein, junkets make for bad writing. There are few people who can squeeze worthwhile copy out of being herded round a brewery and plied with food and drink by PR people along with a number of their peers. What results is usually a sudden flood of identikit ‘what we did on our holidays’ articles, often with an eerily-brainwashed Stepford Wives tone.

So what do we want?

As readers, we’d like there to be more writers who ask unwelcome questions on behalf of readers. For example, if they hear a rumour, we want them to stick their noses in, find out what’s going on, and break the news whether or not that fits the timings in the PR strategy devised by the brewery or pub company.

We want reviewers to be as honest as possible in expressing their opinions. (And, increasingly, we do think that withholding an opinion is a form of dishonesty.) We don’t enjoy read link-baiting, mean-spirited take-downs any more than we like puff pieces, but when someone who is unimpressed by 80 per cent of the beer they taste says something is good, we listen.

We want historians to tell us something we didn’t already know, perhaps based on previously unused sources of information, or at least old sources of information used in interesting ways.

And we crave long, thoughtful articles that would be good without the beer, and in which people and places are evoked through careful observation, portrayed as the writer really sees them rather than as they might wish to be seen themselves.

We don’t think there is a huge amount of dirt to be dished — there might be some dubious business practices here and there, but nobody is getting bumped off.

At the same time, not every brewer can be a saint, surely? And, anyway, saints are boring.

When Brew Britannia comes out, you’ll have the chance to let us know if you think we’ve written what we say we want to read. In the meantime, we’d be especially interested in reading comments below from people who don’t write about beer.

9 thoughts on “Into the Navel of a Can of Worms”

  1. “break the news whether or not that fits the timings in the PR strategy devised by the brewery”. I tried that once. Left a nasty taste :)

  2. I reckon you’re over-thinking this. If you don’t like a beer say so.
    But remember that it’s only your opinion.
    (And remember, as Ron pointed out a while back, in the case of Americans who slag off Augustiner Edelstoff, one man’s bland is another man’s *subtle*.)

  3. What results is usually a sudden flood of identikit ‘what we did on our holidays’ articles, often with an eerily-brainwashed Stepford Wives tone.

    Heh. To be fair, most breweries – even breweries with annoyingly fake brand images & a presence in Tesco and Spoons – make at least one really very good beer, and being plied with really very good beer free of charge will tend to make any beer writer, however cynical, feel generally loved-up and benevolent.

    But you do feel there isn’t a disclaimer in the world big enough for some of those posts.

    1. Some of the jollies I went on as a journalist were amazing. IBM had the Bass midrange computing account, so they launched a new AS/400 with a day out at Bass – complete with a free bar for 20 thirsty hacks. Most of us started drinking in the morning coffee break. One guy was really socking it away – IBM’s PRs eventually told him he’d had enough and steered him away from the bar. This was midway through lunch, and I’m pretty sure he was going back for his ninth pint at the time.

      That kind of extravagance was pretty normal. One company – can’t even remember the name, now – was launching a sysadmin’s tool which they described as the ‘Swiss Army knife’ of whatever-it-was; the press kit included an actual Swiss Army knife. The weird thing was, my mag and its rivals were highly commercially-oriented publications – the possibility that we were going to give the “sysadmin’s Swiss Army knife” a bad writeup, or ignore IBM’s announcement of a new AS/400, was basically zero. At least in the world of beer blogging some writers are independent enough – and some brewers are unpopular enough – that it makes a cynical kind of sense to use freebies to win hearts and minds. (Hard as it is to believe that a brewery could be cynical…)

  4. From a reader and drinker’s point of view, I find that bad reviews can be worthwhile, but they can also be completely irrelevant. A writer who, in the name of honesty, went into great detail about every bad or mediocre beer they tried in would be pretty tedious.

    They’re worthwhile, I think, if they plausibly challenge something that you might otherwise have assumed. I’d be interested by a piece that argues that the last few beers from a highly acclaimed brewery that you used to love haven’t been so great, and maybe they’ve let the quality control slip. I’d also be interested in a review that bucks the trend and is unimpressed by something that’s getting a lot of hype (although bucking the trend can quickly turn into a trend in itself.) Or one that says that quite a few beers hopping on whatever the latest trendy style is are actually fairly average. It’s also probably fair to assume that a higher profile subject will also be getting their share of positive feedback, so it feels a bit less like kicking a puppy than doing a hatchet job on some newly launched micro would.

    What seems less interesting, and hence probably isn’t worth the bad atmosphere, is stuff that slates some new micro-thingy that I’d otherwise never have heard of let alone considered drinking. Or stuff that puts the boot into something that I already know is rubbish. Or someone who dislikes something on general terms, like an arch-traditionalist being unimpressed by the latest Mikkeler, or a manic extremophile not thinking much of a pint of Broadside – either of those tells me more about the reviewer than the beer.

    I guess one general thing that makes for a “better” bad review is putting it in the context of positive stuff – “I like a lot of their other beers”, “until a couple of years ago I loved pretty much everything they did”, “they seem to be getting a lot of positive press”, “I think X is a similar beer but done a lot better” and so on…

  5. The junket question is an interesting one–and slightly uncomfortable. I agree that no one wants to read a press release laundered through a blogger. On the other hand, junkets don’t amount to quid pro quo–you can take a brewery’s invitation (along with their free transportation, lodging, and beer) and write objectively. If there is a quid pro quo, it’s that you agree to write about the brewery, not that you agree to write what they wish.

    Pyramid recently paid to have me whisked to Seattle and put up in a hotel next to the brewery. They wanted us to offer some nice comments on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. I did my best to turn the trip into something a reader would enjoy, and I suspect it’s not exactly what Pyramid hoped I’d write.

    Was it a worthwhile effort? I don’t mind giving a brewery a chance to make their case. As a writer, I do like to see what a brewery is doing, hear their pitch, taste their beer, and talk to the brewer. Junkets often make that possible. I guess I’ll keep going on them so long as I think I can still get interesting stories as a result.

    1. Jeff — some writers do manage to get worthwhile material from them, it’s true, but my gut says it would be even better if they invited themselves and paid for their own hotels and dinner. It’s the laundered press release that is the real problem, though.

      1. You do inevitably feel under a degree of obligation when somebody sends you free stuff, let alone when they invite you on a jolly. I try to ask myself, not what the freebie means to me, but what it means to them – have they had to make any significant effort (relative to their type and size of business) to contact me and supply me with (whatever), or was it just a question of firing off a lot of form emails and sending out some spare stuff?

        Of course, this would mean I would be an absolute pushover for the “our driver will pick you up from the airport” style of mega-freebie, so maybe it’s not such a great rule of thumb.

  6. I wholeheartedly concur :) as a voracious reader of many blogs/books/articles and certainly not a writer. What Im after most is honest opinions, which I might disagree with them from time to time but Ill know they are honestly held, and about learning something new or interesting. Its in many ways about just sharing your own passion and experiences of the subject you are writing about with people.

    so I do struggle with the “I drunk some beer, it was nice” style reviews, especially the ones which involve remarkable generosity on the side of the beer providers, they are often like those washing powder ads, remember that last beer we said was great, will this ones greaterer, so for that reason I generally avoid all reviews anyway unless they are written by professional beer writers, not that they are immune, its just they are less likely to proclaim beer of the year on a weekly basis

    And I definitely dont like those identikit travelogue, oh look we all went to the same brewery and it was also very nice reports either, its not so much they all end up writing about the same topic at the same time, its that they never come up with a unique or more interesting take on it. but that in itself is evidence to me that there are professional or amateur (and in photography the difference is always the professional gets paid) people who are writers, and there are people who just write.

    so Id certainly favour more writers tackling topics with a questioning mindset from the outset, a more thorough examination sometimes of whats happening in various areas of the beery universe and not just accept the PR answers & hospitality that goes with some of these things sometimes.

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