Bad news: this is a blog post about blog posting. There’ll be a post that’s actually about beer later today. If you choose to read on, don’t say we didn’t warn you!
We’ve been reflecting lately on our tendency to self-censor. We used to shelve posts quite frequently, finished and illustrated, because, at the last minute, we found ourselves anticipating a bad-tempered response and couldn’t be bothered to face it.
→ It’s not something we’d be comfortable doing, but Tandleman recently took a thermometer to some London pubs and came up with numbers to support his feeling that cask ale in the capital is generally too warm: one pint came in at 17.2°c!
→ Paul Bailey (no relation) has been posting a series of longish pieces on the family breweries of Britain, based largely on his personal experience as a drinker from the 1970s to the present. This one on Ruddles is a good place to start.
→ Beers Manchester has been undertaking a survey of the city’s historic pubs. Part one appeared some time ago, but parts two and three are new.
Some final thoughts: there are more blogs than ever and we think the standard of writing and research has improved across the board since we started in 2007.
As with breweries, though, the more there are, the harder it is to make an impression, and thus harder to get a conversation going.
Let’s put it bluntly: there is no demand for another blog reviewing readily available beers!
That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it if you enjoy it, but don’t expect anyone else to whoop with excitement.
If we were starting a new blog tomorrow, we would want to make sure it either (a) had a distinct and dazzling prose style or (b) covered something no-one was writing about. Preferably both.
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.
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.
Speaking for ourselves, we’ve never had more energy and enthusiasm for blogging, but we do know what they mean. With that in mind, here are a few things that keep us keen, which you may or may not find useful.
1. Johnny Five needs input!
Read a book, visit a pub, drink something new, go to a museum, watch a film… It doesn’t have to be directly beer-related: we’re sufficiently obsessed with beer that even the most mundane and tangential experience can trigger an idea for a blog post.
2. “You’ve got to have a project.”
An acquaintance of ours used to say that with reference to his love life, but it applies more generally. Maybe it’s a book; maybe it’s a self-imposed ‘mission’; a contribution to the collective wisdom; or a record of a trip abroad; but it doesn’t really matter. The point is, if we have a goal, we have a reason to write a post, rather than putting it off until, suddenly, it’s been six months since we last wrote anything.
3. Try something new to spice things up.
Yes, this has all gone a bit Dear Deidre. When we’re bored of writing, we take some photographs, make a graph, dig up some videos, paint pictures, cook something. We write in a different voice to the one we normally employ. We make a list. Go off topic. Blog about blogging.
The longer the gap between posts, the more seems to be riding on the next one. We try not to agonise too much about whether to post something: we write quickly, read it through, and bung it up. If people don’t like it, so what? You win some, you lose some. It’ll be forgotten tomorrow when we put up the next post, and the one after that.
5. Take a break before you quit.
It’s always sad when bloggers quit. When we really lost enthusiasm in 2010, and thought about quitting, what we actually did was take a break. We decided how long it was going to be and announced it, without feeling the need to apologise. At the end of that period, our notebooks were bulging with ideas for posts we wanted to write. (If they hadn’t been, then that would have been the sign to call it a day.)
Please forgive us for blogging about blogging — we don’t do it often, relatively speaking.
Richard Boston’s first weekly Boston on Beer column appeared in The Guardian on 11 August 1973. In an article marking its first anniversary (6 July 1974) he said a few things that might chime with beer bloggers.
This column has been going for nearly a year, and whereas when I started I thought I had enough material for about three weeks, having now written some 50,000 words I have enough to keep me going indefinitely.
He also describes tottering stacks of ‘notes and rough drafts for articles on subjects ranging from canal-side pubs to beer glasses (why they have handles and dimples in the south and are clear and straight-sided in the north), as well as the results of the search for the best Gents’ and ‘amazing revelations about the awfulness of American beer’.
Every week, he came up with something to say, even if the occasional column seemed rather contrived under the pressure of a deadline.
Thirty years later (Guardian, 23 March 1989) he recalled the column’s success: ‘I had never heard of Camra… but just mentioning them in the Guardian and giving their address caused a surge in their membership so great that they had to take on extra staff in order to cope.’ This seems to be true: when his column went to print, CAMRA had c.2700 members; by September, it was approaching c.5000, by our reckoning.
In the same piece, he recalls why the column ended in 1975: ‘I became bored of the sound of my own voice going on about beer and pubs.’ Hmm. We know that feeling.
We’re ashamed to say we’d never read Richard Boston until Des de Moor told us about Beer and Skittles (1976), a book adapted from the Guardian columns. You can get a copy fairly cheaply through Amazon, or read the original columns in the online archive of The Guardian if your local library provides access.