Session #86 — Beer Journalism

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Another first Friday, another round of The Session, the monthly beer blogging shindig. Every month a different host asks a question or suggests a topic on something beer-related and invites beer bloggers to give their take. I’m the lucky host this month and wanted to know:

What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers?

Reading over the announcement, and the first few early posts responding to it, I’m afraid that I came off a bit harsh. I didn’t mean to ask “Why is beer journalism so bad?” but rather “What could, and should, beer journalism be?”

But it is true that beer writing is often subject to complaints of fanboyism (or fangirlism) and fluff, and in the months since I suggested the topic for a session it seems like I’ve heard more of those gripes surface. I also feel like I’ve read and had several conversations about beer writing in the past few months that often end in the same conclusions: beer writers need to dig deeper, find the stories that aren’t being covered, and report the heck out of them.

So by the time April and this Session rolled around, I wasn’t quite sure what more I could add to the conversation, for it seems that everyone from beer writers to brewers to consumers know what they’d like to see from beer writing: less fluff, more hard questions.

What I’m interested in then is the how of it–how do we support and demand better, more investigative beer writing? I wanted to cover this more from a perspective of a reader than a writer, but since making the leap to full-time freelancing I’ve found that I’ve been mulling over the same questions on a personal level: how do I cut through the fluff to write about the stuff I actually care about and would want to read myself?

It’s perhaps easy enough in theory but after a recent crash and burn attempt at covering a more challenging story, I’m taking a few steps back to look at how to approach it. It feels like it may require an overhaul of how I’ve written about beer and breweries since I’ve started, which consists mostly of brewery profiles, beer and bar recommendations and interviews, along with a few longer feature or trend stories. I’ve enjoyed writing those too, but after a few years in this industry I know that there are so many more stories that I should be covering and haven’t been. I think it’s possible to juggle both–the Top 10 listicles that pay the bills alongside the pieces that really mean something–but it requires time, determination and patience. (I like to think of it as how a brewery’s hardworking flagship beer funds the time-consuming, money-draining barrel-aging labors of love.)

I do think that the outlook for publishing great, longform beer writing is pretty good, from mainstream outlets to dedicated beer magazines. I love seeing the responses on social media after a great longform beer story, like the New York Times Magazine one on Evil Twin and Mikkeller, goes up because it shows that there very much is an audience for these kinds of stories–and I hope that editors and publishers notice that, too.

I’m not sure I have  yet answered any of my own questions, so I’ll try now. I know Ted Gioia’s piece for The Daily Beast, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting” (in which he argues that music journalists are writing about everything except the music) ticked off many of music journalist friends, but his argument holds true for beer writing as well: “Without smart, independent critics who know their stuff, everything collapses into hype, public relations, and the almighty dollar.”

So, alas, I too come to the same conclusion. Beer journalism needs independent, knowledgable reporters who can cut through the hype and the noise and dig up the damn story.

I also asked if everyone could share a piece of beer writing they’ve read and enjoyed recently. Jaed Coffin‘s “Beer Geeks in Paradise”  for Maine magazine on Allagash Brewing’s feel-good weird-vibes company culture was a delight to read. It might be because I’ve always admired that distinct company culture, but he captured it very well, focused on an aspect of the brewery that most drinkers don’t see, and put the growth of the brewery as a whole into perspective. I also loved Pete Brown‘s “Why are pub landlords in low spirits?” in The Guardian, in which he gets behind the bar, listens to pub landlords, cites stats and gives a well-rounded look at why pub ownership is far from glamorous.

That’s all for this round. Thanks to all who participated and look for the roundup post to go live on Monday, April 7.

4 comments

  1. […] be suggested by nearly anyone. This month’s question was put to the web by Heather Vandenengel of Beer Hobo, and poses the question: “What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft […]

  2. I wonder where the general media’s grasp of craft beer (it’s so popular! it’s growing!) aligns with the Average Joe/Jane and their interest. Part of the problem certainly comes from providing easily digestible stories geared toward people who *may* be interested, but I wonder if even trade publications are taking it too lightly these days. I still see plenty of interesting or informational stories, but, as you say, there’s more out there.

  3. […] you, thank you, thank you to all who participated in this month’s session on beer journalism. Here is the roundup, as promised, and please let me know if I’ve left […]

  4. Great insights, Heather. I think we do need some more serious critics. But as you put it, the real key is knowledge. There’s a lot of misinformation bouncing around, and very few people to keep it in check.

    I think a lot of people also get hung up in the idea that the only way to write about beer is to do so journalistically. Nonfiction is a beautiful beast of a genre and essay, memoir, science, philsophy, history, and more. All of which can be done with creative flair and storytelling, in the hands of a capable writer.

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