Talking About Beer Writing

CAMRA Pint Magazine, 1982.

Last Thursday, Bailey delivered a talk on beer writing from 1960 to the present to an audience made up of members of the Brewery History Society and the British Guild of Beer Writers.

A version of the slides will be appearing on the BHS/BGBW websites in the next few days, once we’ve had chance to make them presentable, but, in the meantime, here’s a précis.

(Note: Given the time available, when putting the script together, we chose to focus primarily on the UK market, and on writing aimed at a popular audience.)

1. In 1960, there were no beer writers, as such. Of course there were people who wrote about beer, but they were either (a) hacks turning out books and articles on various subjects or (b) industry insiders presenting a cosy, consensual, relentlessly positive message in industry-sponsored publications. Ultimately, the Brewers’ Society wanted to raise the profile of beer without necessarily raising its status — the last thing they needed on top of all the other challenges was a body of opinionated, demanding consumers.

2. The first real beer writers were home brewers. When Reginald Maudling removed the requirement for a license to brew at home in 1963, he triggered a boom, and prompted demand for advice and guidance. Books by people such as Cyril Berry and Dave Line were available on the high street and sold in huge numbers. They were also gloriously irreverent in tone, and entirely off-message, frequently complaining about the price and quality of big brewery beer, and criticising accountant-led brewing. This prefigured…

3. The coming of the revolutionaries. In the early 1970s, there was something in the air: the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale (CAMRA), Christopher Hutt’s The Death of the English Pub, Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion and Richard Boston’s Boston on Beer column in the Guardian emerged more-or-less independently and more-or-less simultaneously, with 1973 as the key year. The writing (as in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newsletter) was passionate, engaging and critical, and the Brewers’ Society hated it.

4. Michael Jackson. With his 1977 World Guide to Beer came beer writing as we know it today. So ambitious was his project that he put himself far ahead of the competition and, overnight, became the global authority on beer. He also, however, ushered in a new era of cosiness, preferring to write about beers he liked while ignoring those he didn’t. Beer writers increasingly found themselves allied with small/micro/craft brewers, and thus reluctant or unable to criticise them.

5. Same again, Guv’nor? For the next decade or so, though, there was nothing new. The CAMRA Good Beer Guide owned that market; Jackson re-wrote and re-formatted his masterpiece time and again; while others imitated it, or took a single part and span it out to book-length. (Can you think of any ground-breaking 1980s beer books? If so, comment below.) Multiple attempts to get glossy magazines off the ground failed, because of lack of public interest.

6. The struggle for respect. Nonetheless, in 1988, there were enough people writing about beer in the UK to warrant the formation of the British Guild of Beer Writers. This was just one sign of a growing irritation summarised in a quote from Barrie Pepper: “I found myself being laughed at when I said I wrote about beer for a living.” We also quoted Oz Clarke on the growing tension between the down-to-earth nature of beer culture and the desire for it to be taken seriously:

…the reason I’m now a wine writer, not a beer writer or a cider writer… [is] because it was the only alcoholic drink which had that apparatus of elitism which spawns a tradition of criticism and discussion.

7. Lads, ladettes and the classless society. In Britain in the 1990s, traditional class and gender roles got well and truly jumbled up: public schoolboys pretended to be cockneys, designer beer invaded champagne bars, blokes who’d never cooked before wanted to be Jamie Oliver, and comedy became ‘the new rock’n’roll’. Out of this melange emerged, in the 00s…

8. Pete Brown. The first really new voice in beer writing since Michael Jackson. His books were blokeish but thoughtful, and solved the problem of how to talk about beer intelligently without being pretentious. He made himself an actor in the drama, not an impartial observer, and arguably set the template which a generation of beer bloggers followed.

9. BEFORE YOU DIE! In 1999, 100 Things To Do Before You Die by Dave Freeman and Neil Teplica became a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was followed in 2003 by 1001 Places to See Before You Die, and soon the market was flooded with variations listing buildings, films, books, and even places to have sex. A flood of beer list books began with Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die! in 2005. They work because they are ‘beer porn’, light reading, and engage the reader – who can resist ticking them off? Protz’s books even provide a list with checkboxes at the back.

10. Status symbol. The Oxford Companion to Beer, though rather a botched job, signalled that, especially in the US, beer has become worthy of serious consideration. It also served to raise the profiles of dedicated popular beer historians Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell whose highly-regarded but less well-known books informed some of the better entries, and highlighted the laziness and superficiality of others.

11. Where we’re going, we don’t need… paper. In the future, Evan Rail’s 2012 electronic monograph Why Beer Matters may come to be seen as a turning point in beer writing. Sold as an Amazon Kindle Single, it shifted 2600 copies in its first week and sailed up the charts. Low production costs, and the ability to cut conservative and justifiably cautious publishers out of the loop, makes the ebook format very attractive to writers on niche subjects, of which beer is surely one.

12. When will beer writing really have secured itself a place in mainstream culture? Perhaps when a publisher is overheard saying: “This book about beer has been a smash hit — such an original format! We should get someone to write a version about wine.”

Of course it’s superficial, and there’s a lot more we could have said, but it’s certainly helped us get a clearer picture in our own minds of the broad trends.

See also: this post by It Comes in Pints which summarises all of the day’s talks and gives a sense of the overall narrative.

6 thoughts on “Talking About Beer Writing”

  1. Interesting stuff. You’ve definitely picked out the main points on the landscape of how things have evolved, but I’d be cautious about pointing to the electronic format as everything the future has to offer. The main thing I take from Evan’s success is that we as writers need to take control of the publishing process.

    As you say, eventually the publishing industry will catch on, but by then we should be so far ahead of them that anything they commission or produce will seem tired and stale by comparison.

    ‘Self-publishing’ is no longer the dirty word (or synonym for ‘vanity publishing’) that it used to be, so I think that’s something to be really hopeful about, as more of us find a way to ‘go pro’, one way or another.

  2. It’s not possible to talk about beer writing without talking about bigger trends in media. Looking forward, the greatest challenge will be attracting the attention of an audience already chattering away happily on social media and ratings sites.

    There has been a positive side to this, though–modernity enabled writers like Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell, and you two to take serious historical investigations straight to the public. I’m not a historian, and was never going to dig around in old brewing logs or pore through newspaper articles and 19th-century books. That Ron and Martyn did so has revolutionized our understanding of beer.

    Yes, the 80s were a blight.

  3. I would suggest that bound publications are a bit doomed for a few reasons. Pete B has reported his publishers do not want more beer books. Saturation. We have a mass of identi-text books on beer styles and beer+food confirming there is little new being written of that sort – and less needed. Plus there is just not a market. Beer people for the most part just don’t buy the book. I was impressed however when in the UK this summer how much beer was referenced in the papers. Far more than in NAm. Of the three books I co-published this year, the most bought is the one with the smallest market. Contextualizing Albany NY history of beer into its broader culture was very well received. There may be more room there.

  4. All well laid out and I can quarrel very little with any of it.

    All About Beer magazine might be mentioned as a stalwart (indeed stretching to the pre-craft era or almost) of beer journalism. It tends to be inconsistent, as is inevitable in a consumer magazine of this nature, but does a good job. The writing is (IMO) broadly in the Jacksonian mode.

    I think you might have mentioned Roger Protz, who was and is prolific, non-Jacksonian in tone, and had at least one early foray into beer history with his porter and stout book which preceded, if I am not mistaken, the first books by Martyn Cornell. And a very good book it was, covering for example the history of dispense methods in Ireland by interviewing retired brewers from Murphy and Beamish.

    But in general I see it your way. 🙂

    For the future, who knows? I tend to agree bound books are history. The market was always small, even for Jackson, and is tiny now due to the plethora of good information online. Instead of the typical pocket guide, I see people at beer counters consulting their hand-helds to see what BA, etc., say about this or that. It’s still good to publish these as they help reputation, but for money, not so much I think. (However interested to hear any views to the contrary). E-books may be the way to go.

    Gary

Comments are closed.