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. Thanks for the link and thank you so much for your talk – it was a fas­ci­nat­ing day and we real­ly enjoyed it!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

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