Blogging and writing

The Best Beer Reading of 2016, Sez Us

This is a purely subjective list of the most illuminating, amusing or interesting beer- and pub-related blog posts and articles from the last 12 months, all of which we shared in our weekly news round-ups.

Before we get to the links, though, here’s a bit of state-of-the-nation reflection.

First, it’s hard for us to agree that beer writing is dead, past its best, or otherwise in trouble. (As per Alan McLeod, here.) Seriously, if you think 2008 was a golden age for beer blogging, go and read some beer blog posts from 2008 (not ours, please, we beg you) and clear your head. (Alan is right, though — there was more chat back then.)

Today, there are lots of beer blogs, many of them turning out pieces that, with barely an edit, could happily appear in print alongside the work of professional journalists.

Bloggers are challenging themselves, seeking out first hand information, interviewing brewers, raiding libraries and archives, and taking some lovely photographs as they go about it.

As it happens, the fun, informal, personal school of blogging that ruled almost decade ago is still with us too, but with new voices and perspectives, as long as you bother to keep your RSS feed up to date. (We recommend Feedly.) If we don’t link to this kind of thing often it’s not because we don’t read or enjoy it — it’s because a single post in that style rarely has much meat on it. But they soon pile up to form an extended work expressing a particular world view or argument. Look at Martin Taylor for example who takes us to pubs in the four corners of the country and brings them to life with a few observations and camera snaps, or Tandleman whose blog amounts to a rolling manifesto for cask ale quality.

If we have any wishes for the direction of beer writing and blogging in 2017 — not that it’s our place to attempt to direct the ship, obviously — they would be:

  • Fewer reports of opening nights or product launches organised by PR agencies.
  • More blogging about actual BEER rather than the personalities of other bloggers.
  • But also more posts responding directly to other bloggers’ arguments, rather than dropping hints.
  • Fewer posts about how Town/Brewery/Event/Beer X is over-hyped.
  • But also fewer posts about Town/Brewery/Event/Beer X which has already been written about twelve times and, you know, probably is over-hyped.
  • And, as the antidote, more posts profiling towns/beers/breweries/events we should know about, but don’t.
  • Finally, let’s have more writing about women in beer that isn’t about the issue of Women in Beer, if you catch the distinction.

A final thought: there was a challenge implicit in this year’s BGBW Award’s announcement to the effect that too much beer writing is for other beer writers, or beer geeks, rather than reaching out to the interested outsider. That’s probably fair. We can’t promise to rise to it during 2017 — we’re not sure we know how to do anything other than nitpicking and obsessive these days — but we’ll certainly bear it in mind, even if it just means taking care not to assume knowledge on the part of our readers.

And if it’s your new year’s resolution to start a beer blog… do it! Here’s our advice, for what it’s worth.

Now here are those sweet, sweet links we promised.

1. How to Start A Brewery

Elusive Brewing fermenting vessels.

Andy Parker at Elusive Brewing took the time to write an account of the challenges of starting up a new brewery in a climate where people are fretting about market saturation and where cash melts away at every turn:

As a small brewery, your costs per barrel will be significantly higher than the big brewery in the area (and especially the regionals/nationals) so you’ll certainly have to work hard to establish a customer base. Of course, demand for ‘artisanal’ products with more flavour and a story behind them is partly what’s driven the ‘craft’ brewing boom in the UK, so it’s not all bad news. The best advice I got here was to absolutely focus on making the beer the best it can be. If your product is going to be more expensive than the brewery down the road it needs to be simply better, or more interesting, or have a local connection – something to make pubs want to buy it and drinkers want to drink it. If quality isn’t great, you might sell the first few batches but you can be certain those customers won’t come back for more.

Part I | Part II

2. Living With An Alcoholic
Anonymous Drinker in silhouette.
Adapted from ‘Anonymous Drinker’ by David Goehring, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Mark Johnson‘s post isn’t an easy read but there’s no denying its raw power and honesty — how do you have a healthy relationship with beer when your own father couldn’t?

From legal drinking age I was attending beer festivals with my Dad or joining him and his friends for exploratory journeys to dig out pubs and cask beer wherever we could, often with the Good Beer Guide accompanying… These days out – and an unfortunate support of Huddersfield Town – were how me and my Dad bonded. It was all we had in common, but they happened to be two of the most important aspects of my life. The enjoyment I had from these days made me ignore and deny something I’d known to be true long before I was eighteen.

3. Screaming About Home Brew

Men sharing home brew in Norway.

It’s hard to pick just one piece by Lars Marius Garshol who has once again written a slew of eye-opening, educational and often rather beautiful blog posts about farmhouse brewing. Our favourite, on balance, was this from February on the strange feedback rituals that accompany brewing in rural Norway:

Some places, the visitors would make no comment on the beer while in the brewhouse. Late that night, leaving the brewhouse, they would stop on the way home and scream. The louder the screams, the better the beer. In some areas people had fixed places where they’d always stop to do the screaming. If the beer was poor the screaming would be half-hearted at best.

4. Cask Ale in the Chicago

Two brewers pose with their brewkit.

This piece by Stephanie Byce for Good Beer Hunting really got us thinking: if a bunch of cool young Americans thing cask is where is at, isn’t it weird that our own cool young brewers seem so ambivalent? It lodged in our minds and certainly influenced the way we thought about CAMRA’s Revitalisation project.

Present Tense’s vision comes straight from England—a brewhouse and taproom that serves each of their beers on cask. While there are several breweries that serve Cask Ales throughout Chicago and across the country, Thorpe and Jackson feel they lack the attention to detail that serving a proper pint deserves… ‘There is no one exclusively only doing cask ales [like] Present Tense,’ [John] Hannafan [Director of Education at Chicago’s Siebel Institute] continues. ‘There are some doing special casks for events or one-off specials, but not on the scale which Thomas [Thorpe] and Tyler [Jackson] are envisioning.’

5. Lager: Lost for Words

Lager in the tropics.

In a post that we’ve referred and linked to numerous times, because it gets to something essential, Joe Tindall reflects on why lager is so hard to write about:

The complexity of a barrel-aged imperial stout means that tasting notes write themselves. Drinking one, there’s so much going on that you hardly have time to jot down one thought before another hits you. Lager is comparatively simple – this is a large part of its appeal, but it doesn’t make for great writing… There are certain stock phrases and descriptors I keep going back to in my blundering attempts to describe the lager experience, of which crisp is probably the laziest. I know what I mean by it – a suggestion of freshness as well as refreshment, like biting into a juicy, crunchy apple. But in this context, the word has a whiff of corporate copy about it…

6. The Science of Hazy Beer

Clear and hazy beers.

Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey is a scientist by profession so when she turned her substantial brain to the question of haze in beer the result was a weighty, lengthy, thoughtful post that truly seemed to be strive for objectivity:

It began to seem that more often than not, where haze was absent so was the flavour that I was looking for in an IPA. Is there a connection between the level of haze and the hop flavour in a beer? Is there something missing from these filtered, totally clear beers? Is it yeast? Does filtering out all of the yeast also filter out some of the flavour? If hop flavour compounds bind to yeast in the beer and then get centrifuged and/or filtered out, are we losing some of that hop flavour along with the haze?

7. Englishness Squared

A pub beer garden in early summer.

Alec Latham, in case you don’t subscribe to our email newsletter, was our Golden Pints blogger of the year. This post about early summer in the pubs of St Albans is an exercise in prose style as much as anything — we love how Alec pushes himself to really write — but is also acutely observed:

The beer garden represents a tunnel dug through my life. It started being excavated back when all the action happened under the picnic tables rather than above them. Those were the days of lime cordial, dandelion & burdock and the Topper, the Dandy or Beano. It runs under where I took my first sips of woody bitter when it needed to be ordered by my dad or uncle. .. Our iconic three-piece tables that come into their own in Summer see and hear everything. The wood absorbs more spirit than beer maturing in Glenlivet casks but it’s of a different kind: when folk get together around them, it’s like people getting into a rowing boat – the structure leans and rocks as bottoms plonk themselves in and the conversation and eye contact is intense.

8. Champion of the World

Portrait of Dany Prignon.

Breandán Kearney, the 2015 BGBW Beer Writer of the Year, continues to turn out in-depth brewery profiles that go beyond the obvious surface gloss. This piece on Dany Prignon of Brasserie Fantôme, published on his own website Belgian Smaak, is one of his very best, full of startling details:

Speaking with him face-to-face in anything other than French can be frustrating, yet online, he’s very active on social media websites with a surprisingly good grasp of English… And it’s odd that as the owner and production manager of a brewery, he doesn’t even drink beer. ‘I don’t like it,’ he says, as if this assertion were completely normal.‘I taste it, but I prefer soft drinks.’

9. Pride
The Old Nick, Toronto.
By and © Dominic Bugatto via Torontoist/Flickr.

For Torontoist Robin LeBlanc wrote movingly about gay pubs and Pride in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting:

For those not in the know, the Old Nick is a pub on Broadview and Danforth that has been around for yonks. It is proudly and unabashedly female-owned and queer friendly… Sitting beside me at the bar was a 69-year-old man named Tim… Tim had the privilege of experiencing [Pride] in its early days and didn’t go out to it as much anymore, but because of ‘what recently happened,’ he felt a sense of importance to attend this year’s festivities.

10. Drunken Archery
Illustration: Two men playing a drinking game with knives.
Illustration by Owain Kirby. SOURCE: Hot Rum Cow. Used with permission.

For Hot Rum Cow magazine Malcolm Triggs wrote about bizarre, dangerous, bloody drinking games in history:

[One game from China] was an ancient variation of lawn darts, which, like kottabos, shared much in common with beer pong. Images of zodiacal animals were pinned to targets in a courtyard. If a player’s sign was hit, he would have to drink; if he missed, he’d have to take a drink. Rules were strict: one report even claims a player was killed for failing to comply, but this isn’t exactly hard to imagine considering the circumstances. ‘Play continued until no one could hold a bow,’ says Guillaume. ‘I can’t think of a worse combination.’

11. The Meaning of Hoppy

Duvel Tripel Hop 2014

Joe Stange continues to write one interesting piece after another for Draft Magazine. This piece on how Belgian brewers are responding to the idea that beers need to be ‘hoppy’ in the age of craft beer is particularly fascinating, and hopeful:

[Hoppier] Belgian ales have not taken over the local cafes, although they are easier to find than before. And with a few exceptions they are not cynical imitations of foreign craft beer. Instead, they adopt ideas about bolder hopping and fold it into the Belgian scheme: intricate mash regimes, high attenuation, relatively expressive yeast, and refermentation in the bottle… So maybe you weren’t worried about it, but Belgian brewing culture isn’t in any immediate danger.

12. The Mancunian Candidate

Manchester montage.

Matt Curtis (from Lincoln, based in London) went to Manchester as an outsider but spoke to all the right people when he put together this comprehensive profile of the city for Good Beer Hunting:

Manchester was once also home to the world famous Boddingtons Brewery—the straw pale and super bitter beer it used to produce typified the regional beer style… ‘That chimney really spoke to me of Manchester with the name proudly down the side,’ Peter Alexander says. Alexander’s been the chairman of CAMRA’s Rochdale, Bury and Oldham branch for more than twenty years. He’s also the deputy organizer of the Manchester Beer & Cider festival, CAMRA’s annual flagship event in the north. ‘Iconic is overused, but that was an icon if ever there was one.’

13. Whatever Happened to the Porter Louts?
Whitbread Chiswell Street Brewery, 1792.
Whitbread Chiswell Street Brewery, 1792.

In a long post on his blog at Zythophile Martyn Cornell does what he’s best at: using his knowledge of history to shine a light on the 21st Century scene. Specifically he asks, ‘Will Big Lager One Day Go the Way of Big Porter?

Until very recently lager was still increasing its share of the UK beer market, up from 67 per cent in 2002 to 74.8 per cent in 2014. Last year, however, saw the first dip since the early 1990s (when the growth of the ‘guest beer’ market after the Beer Orders of 1989 gave a brief boost to sales of bitter), albeit by less than 1 per cent, as ‘ale and bitter’ pushed up its share to 21.5 per cent of a falling overall market, down 4.7 per cent to 4.25 billion litres (or 25.97 million barrels, in old-style money). With a growing (though still tiny) proportion of even the lager market now ‘craft’, are we seeing Big Lager start to slide just the way every ‘big’ style has in the past?

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That’s it for the highest of the highlights but do check out our blog roll (right or below depending on how you’re viewing this page) and the News, Nuggets & Longreads archive, where you’ll find plenty more blogs, magazines and websites worth checking out.

11 replies on “The Best Beer Reading of 2016, Sez Us”

I would suggest that what would “appear in print alongside the work of professional journalists” is exactly what you include in your list of complaints – the dreary samey, the juiced superficial, PR soaked dullardry and C grade beer grade celebrity auto bigging up.

BUT you hit on the very point. There was more substantive discussion or what you call “chat.” It’s the HTML-tastic cross linking and discourse that makes (made?) for good blogging. Few do it anymore. We now sit in an era of mannerism. If you like what you being served from the same menu it will feel interesting, I suppose. I don’t generally look for short piece magazine style writing as a source for anything of much value. But it makes some people some income. So it’s done. Many (but not at all all) of those you list above do well avoiding that general trend. But which approach will have the best chance of triggering your wish list?

[BTW, you can’t go back and look at many 2008 good beer blog posts given the mass deletions of the last few years. ]

Excellent summary. I would propose two more that stood out to me from “within the circle”:

Jeff Alworth’s 500 Years of Rienheitsgebot was Jeff at his elegant best:

Just some phenomenal beer blogging in a very pure sense was John Duffy’s USA Tour Diary in The Beer Nut during November. As someone who lived in New York for 6 years and has visited Portland several times, his observations and the amazing breadth of beers he tried, and bars he visited, were remarkably concisely documented but thoroughly dissected at the same time. I’ve read (and written) far more words about a handful of the beers, bars and breweries he covered, but communicated far less than he managed. A literal tour de force:

The quality of beer writing is definitely up in the past decade. Inarguably. Like beer itself, there’s a lot of self-promotion (largely because, as with beer, the marketplace is more crowded) and style over substance, but there’s also a lot more quality: more in-depth pieces, more philosophical pieces (bloggers now set that particular table), more news-of-the-world pieces.

Chat is gone, true. Social media didn’t exist a decade ago, and now discussion happens via Twitter and Facebook. But bloggers still read and respond to each other (you two gave me a jumping off place for a post a week ago)–perhaps more than they ever did.

I used to skip 75% of the posts online because the content was almost always a superficial opinion offered by a beginner. Now I have to click through and read a lot more.

I offer my year-end thanks to you for curating so much (Stan gets a nod for this as well.) Longreads over coffee is part of my Saturday routine.

Happy 2017!

Cheers, Jeff.

‘I used to skip 75% of the posts online because the content was almost always a superficial opinion offered by a beginner.’

Often an overly-confident opinion at that.

Thanks to you both for hosting. I’m hoping very much to actually meet some of the other bloggers in the flesh next year. I wouldn’t be aware of their work if you hadn’t re-posted it.
A quick observation: the best things I have read about beer this year have been free and online. Might this precede a boom in monetised beer magazines or be its downfall?

People are barely willing to pay for serious political journalism, let alone articles on What People Reckon about beer, especially when there is so much decent stuff available free. What that probably means, unfortunately, is more magazines like Ferment (which, BTW, we’re sure is a fine publication in its own right and certainly has a fine line-up of writers) that only make sense as part of a marketing strategy for a commercial organisation, like the glossy supermarket foodie magazines.

Thank you for your very kind words, B&B. I’d like to say that your own blog is one of five or six I find unmissable – as is the contrarian Mr McL, an essental antedote to all the frippery and puffery.

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