Blogging and writing

Glum About Beer Writing

Jeff Alworth’s post about the state of beer writing, and Alan Mcleod’s response, come at a fortuitous time for us.

We’re preparing a talk on ‘The birth of modern beer writing – 1960 to the present day’ for delivery at a seminar being jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers and the Brewery History Society. We’ve been collecting material on this for a couple of years now — references to beer writing in odd places, newspaper articles we’ve stumbled across — and it’s good to have an opportunity to pull it all together into something coherent.

It is, however, making us feel a little glum, because what is emerging is a story of lurching after trends in publishing; struggling for material; and, even more so, struggling for an audience. It seems to us that most people, even if they like beer, don’t want to read about it as much as we and others want to write about it.

(When we were signing books at a food festival recently, we heard several variations on, “A book? About beer!? Ha ha ha ha ha! I like drinking it but I don’t want to read about it!”)

And when Jeff asserts that, ‘The extended world of beer has a nearly infinite number of subjects to discuss’, we find ourselves, reluctantly, disagreeing.

There’s certainly more-or-less fresh territory to be explored, and even new angles to be found on familiar subjects, but beer is not as rich a seam as food, or music, or film. (Maybe Tom Fort had a point.)

To some extent, perhaps that’s why beer writing and ‘craft beer’ have, over the years, become somewhat symbiotic — the former needs the drama, complexity and variety of the latter to justify its existence, and the great hope for the future of beer writing is that everyone becomes the kind of geek who wants to think, talk and read about what they’re drinking.

32 replies on “Glum About Beer Writing”

It’s hardly surprising that beer writers 1960-2005 were struggling badly, given that they were writing about a subject that very few people really cared about. However, in so doing they probably made a major contribution to changing this (as you acknowledge).

It’s true that most people, even those interested in beer, don’t want to read about it. That’s the true for music, food, and film, too.

As for unexplored subjects there are vast expanses barely, or not at all, covered in English. The trick is finding either unexplored territory or seeing new angles. You guys have been particularly good at the latter, so I’m surprised to see you sounding so down about it.

And, what is more, you should remember that there’s a growing influx of new beer enthusiasts all the time. To them, all subjects are new. I think us “old hands” should never forget that what is old and trite to us is still news to the vast majority of entusiasts.

Steve — no, not seen a copy, and, from what we’ve seen, we’re not sure what it’s offering that we can’t get from our usual diet of blogs. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to look over a copy when we’re in London at some point soon.

The stability point is important here: how long will it last? CAMRA tried twice to launch glossy magazines in the 80s and got nowhere; Beers of the World had a good run, disappeared, came back a bit, and we’re not sure of its current status.

Broadly speaking, these things seem to be driven by the desire of writers rather than audience demand.

Steve – I managed to get a copy when I was in London a while ago. It’s a very nice publication, crisp printing and interesting content. My initial (usual judgemental) reaction was that it was a bit of a “hipster” set up. But actually I really liked what I read and will take out a subscription for it.

They seem to be quite small, only one issue which I think they got kickstarter funding for. It looks like an interesting project, I’d certainly like to see more it their work.

Hey Guys

Love your blog!

And thanks Jess, for the review “it was a bit of a “hipster” set up. But actually I really liked what I read”

We were amazed too that there is no beer magazines in the UK, compared with the US and AUS where there are several thriving ones, so we thought we would have a crack at it.

We feel that the reason some of these mags haven’t been so successful in the past is that we have so many brilliant, up to date blogs and that many of these mags haven’t really provided any benefits over these bloggers.

With our publication we aim to add to provide something that you can relax with, sit down with a coffee or a pint for a bit and escape from screens and computers, something to keep, savour and enjoy.

As Real Ale has made a comeback we feel so can print, and we would love to have you guys feature in our publication (if you DM us an address on twitter we will send you a copy to have a look at)

Cheers Simon

Co founder of Hop & Barley

All true, but the number of people interested in food and music vastly outnumber those interested in beer.

It’s also not clear how many people actually *read* those culinary books. I think a substantial portion of cookbook sales is gifts to people not necessarily thrilled with what they receive.

I don’t think having a cookbook really counts as “reading about food”, though, any more than having an instruction manual for your digital TV recorder means you like to “read about consumer electronics”.

Apart from restaurant reviews and recipes, I don’t think that writing about food and food culture is that much more common than writing about beer and beer culture…

I think the big difference about beer writing to me is that going to the pub is (still just about) part of our everyday culture, and that really is interesting. It is very relateable. Yes, food has almost limitless variety, but I don’t really care about reading about a restaurant I will probably not go to. Whereas I find pubs, and the drinking culture fascinating.

I drink wine too, but reading about wine. I might take note of a recommendation to pick up in the supermarket but that’s about it.

But I do seem to be the only person in my group of friends who gives a shit about the whole thing.

Does your talk exclude Andrew Campbell’s book? I would think him a definite influence on Michael Jackson: he seems to have started the modern consumer-oriented way to write about beer.

If you did cover him, can you give any information on who he was, his other work, etc?


Gary — no, someone else is covering the period up until 1960, but we have looked into him out of curiosity and haven’t turned up anything.

We suspect it was a pseudonym for someone better known, or known for writing in another field, who didn’t want to be associated with beer. We think that, much as we love it, it was probably a hack job turned out in a few weeks between other assignments.

I can see 1960-2005 as being a tough formative period, but I don’t feel apprehensive about beer writing’s future.

It’s not totally unsubstantiated optimism, though. I just think that we need to take control of the publishing process.

The good writers know what they want to write. Laughing nay-sayers aside (who aren’t necessarily worht the sweat to win over anyway), your comment noting the popularity of cook books shows there’s a market for accessible publications about complicated ideas and techniques, culture and history.

Publishers keep wanting more cookbooks to publish because they’re popular. But publishers generally don’t know what people want beyond measurable data on what’s already selling.

I think loads of people do want to read about beer, a lot of them just don’t know it yet. We just need to re-align the process. Go straight to the reader, leave the publishers for dust, and take responsibility for the livelihood of beer writing.

There’s precious little funny beer writing out there, or so it seems. Far too much that’s worthy, heartfelt or grumbling, but funny? Not much at all. And I think that’s a problem. For a drink so associated with joy and laughter, I find it bizarre no one is out there having a ruddy good laugh at it without necessarily just taking the piss. Perhaps it’s the symbiotic relationship between beer writers and those who make it that’s too blame. Or maybe it’s because no one really wants to stick the satirical boot into an industry that was on its knees so recently in the memory. I suppose we’ll know the scene is established enough once we can start laughing about it. One of the reasons food writing became so popular is the fact you were only an undercooked steak away from a deliciously snarky put-down. We could use a bit more of that.

Most people I know who like going to the flicks don’t read books about films; at most, they may read reviews in the press. The same applies to TV: most people watching their favourite shows don’t own any books about them. Most football fans I know don’t usually buy books on football – and so on. I don’t buy the Good Beer Guide, even though I’m a CAMRA member.

Most drinkers don’t read beer blogs either. When I tell people how many hits I usually get each year, they’re impressed, but divide the figure by 365 and it works out at around 45 a day, although right at the moment I’m pleased to say it’s running at more than 60, but neither figure constitutes a mass audience.

No point in getting glum about a fact of life.

Shouldn’t be depressing, but it won’t be mindless partisan cheerleading either. (Hopefully no-one expects that from us these days.)

Dave S — have to disagree, I’m afraid. Cookbooks are much more than just functional lists of recipes, especially the best-sellers. They’re aspirational lifestyle porn, basically, usually with a dose of travelogue and/or cultural trivia thrown in.

Beer has yet to find a medium for engaging people as effective as the simple recipe — nice photo, bit of prose to whet the appetite, and practical instructions so you can live the dream. The nearest we’ve got is the capsule beer review and… well, who cares?

Absolutely. I love cookbooks, but I never use the recipes. I like reading the introductions where the author is going on about street markets in other countries and telling jolly anecdotes about where they first ate this or that dish.

Right, that’s put the mockers on the final panel debate which I’m chairing, might have to change the title of ‘How do we ensure that beer writing has a glorious future’ to ‘Don’t bother’ 😉

I think beer writing has changed, due to the Internet and blogging. The taste and style description-type book is finished, IMO. That function is performed daily in blogs and on BA and RB. However, beer writing is needed to focus more on specialized areas: recent and more distant beer and brewery history; studies of beer ingredients; studies of the business of marketing and selling beer which includes training staff who serve beer. There can never be a figure as commanding today as Jackson, quite apart from his own individuality, due to the sea change in the information media.


Do you think there is any potential for a B2B magazine, or a B2B/consumer hybrid? Just a couple of paid reporters covering the new wave brewery sector could probably unearth all kinds of interesting and new stuff. Breweries would pay for it, or their suppliers might via advertising. Beer geeks might buy it to be in the know.

If you’re starting a B2B publication you need a big mailing list and deep pockets. The mailing list is absolutely essential – after all, what’s the alternative? street sales? – but it doesn’t have to be huge; let’s say 1000 addresses. It’ll take a bit of work to get them – addresses are harder to come by since the Data Protection Act came in – but it’s still not an insane target. Then you need to take an educated guess on how good those addresses are – both as potential subscribers and as valuable advertising targets – and find a combination of subscription, subscriber numbers and advertising income that makes sense and adds up to an achievable break-even point. This is quite a balancing act. A sub price that makes the sums come out right may be too high to enable you to build a subscriber base big enough to be worth advertising to, in which case you won’t be able to rely on advertising income and the sub will have to go even higher, scaring off even more potential punters and so on. If you go for a low or zero sub, on the other hand, you’re putting your magazine’s future entirely in the hands of the advertisers, and that may give them more influence over the mag than you would like – or even more influence than your readers like, with the result that the subscriber base declines and your advertisers lose interest.

If you manage to get the figures to work – and there’s no guarantee they will – it’s time to start spending money. (Almost forgot – while all this is going on you should also have recruited some journalists and a designer, found a printer and produced one issue of a magazine, with the second in the pipeline. And it should be really good, of course.) What you do is split your mailing list into ten blocks of 100 addresses. Month 1: send the magazine out, free of charge, to everyone in block 1. Month 2: blocks 1 and 2 get it free. Month 3: blocks 1-3 get it free, but block 1 also get a letter telling them their special free trial is coming to an end and inviting them to subscribe. Month 4: blocks 2-4 get the magazine, with block 2 getting the ‘subscribe now’ letter.

And so on. Keep that up for 12 months (paying salaries and production costs all the while) and with any luck you’ll have a decent-sized subscriber base, with a steady stream of renewals coming in (at least, as long as you keep reminding them). Meanwhile, 25%/50%/75%/100% (delete as appropriate) of the magazine’s income will be coming from advertising sales (oh, you need an advertising sales team as well).

Magazine publishing is an incredibly chancy business, while also being enormously labour-intensive. The amazing thing is that it can actually be done profitably. At least, it could be done – almost all the IT magazines I’ve written for closed down in the 00s.

Yeah I was thinking controlled circulation, sent free to licensed brewers (who would be relatively easy to find addresses for). Equipment manufacturers, raw materials vendors, general SME service providers e.g. accountants, software, lawyers, maybe designers as advertisers. Training and events would be an important revenue stream, as would sponsored advertorial or themed roundtables. Could be digital only to reduce overheads somewhat, although a shiny print mag kind of feels right for this market. Not sure where the on trade fits into the picture.

Key question is, would a couple of professional reporters tasked with getting out there and filling 48 pages of original editorial content per month have a positive impact on beer writing – pushing it beyond soft focus profiles and think pieces? By uncovering more raw information and hard news, would it help reinvigorate the blogosphere by giving it more to chew on?

Controlled circ is a bugger – it means getting the mailing list audited, which is expensive and will probably leave you with a smaller (if cleaner) mailing list. Not much point doing it unless (until) your un-audited circulation is up in the thousands.

Events do go well with publishing, but they also need resourcing. With all of these add-on ideas you face something like the ‘rocket fuel’ problem (you need fuel to lift the rocket, but the fuel makes the rocket heavier, so you need more fuel…). You can double up to some extent, particularly if you can get the “startup” atmosphere working for you (“wow, here we are doing these amazing things!”); you can do wonders with a young team of magazine designers/event bookers/show staff (BT, DT). But fairydust only goes so far; you’ll have to keep them sweet one way or another, which will eat into your profits. No free lunch!

More mundanely, I’m not sure about starting with 48 pages of editorial, either – I’d have said 48 pages total would be the place to start, meaning 15-20 pages of editorial; if ad sales take off you can put on a page of editorial for every additional page of advertising.

But, to be honest, all this is on the basis that the business publishing sector is in a healthy state & worth getting into, which the IT trade press suggests it isn’t.

Good points – I forgot that CC is not free.

If anyone did it, it would probably have to be an established publisher at one of those sweatshops where the group editor of three mags is 25 and on 25k. Somewhere where the resources are already more or less in place, basically, and maybe a failing title needs replacing.

But maybe you and I are both focusing too much on the model we know – are there brave new online models? A crowdfunded “Chief Reporter” position, perhaps, selected democratically via the Guild for a one year term of service? The breweries would have to be receptive to it, of course, but that’s true of any magazine.

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