Glum About Beer Writing

Detail from the cover of Beer in Britain, 1960.

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 thoughts on “Glum About Beer Writing”

  1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

          2. 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

      1. 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.

          1. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. 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

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. It’ll be nice to meet at last, I hope the talk isn’t too depress­ing. It looks like it’ll be an inter­est­ing day.

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

  8. 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?

    1. 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.

  9. 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’ 😉

  10. 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.

    Gary

  11. 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.

    1. 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.

  12. 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?

    1. 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.

  13. 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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