On Beer Writing

Miles Liebtag, March 10, 2014

I'm a refugee. I came to beer after finishing coursework for an MA in English literature and after making the surprisingly easy decision not to further pursue a career in the academy. To those I left behind: I'm sorry. You're probably screwed.

I tell people all the time that there are great careers in beer, and for a while longer at least, it seems that that will be true. Though I didn't realize it at the time, or even for the first year I spent as a sales rep in New York, making the transition to beer was the best professional decision I ever made. I love my job.

But it's not intellectual work. While there are certainly interpersonal challenges of communication, for the most part you're relaying fairly straightforward information, providing customer service, and (if you're doing it right) helping people figure out how to make more money selling your beer. There are few opportunities for creativity, fewer for critical thinking. I also spend a not insignificant amount of time moving bottles around on shelves. So many bottles. Kurt Vonnegut might say of a beer rep: "He's not going to write Beethoven's Ninth Symphony." Even if he can hustle a keg. 

So it was with anticipation of a rare intellectual thrill that I went down to Lexington last month for the Craft Writing Symposium at the University of Kentucky. Organized by the university's Composition & Rhetoric department, the Symposium as programmed had a focus that certainly smacked of the digital humanities, though this was not an academic conference. 150ish people of various beer-y extraction crowded into a small theater in the shopworn student center to hear a distinguished panel of speakers hold forth on the form, function and practice of beer writing.

Among the speakers were Stan Hieronymous, author of several works in the homebrewer cannon (including Brew Like a Monk and the recent For the Love of Hops); Julie Johnson, contributing editor at All About Beer, Roger Baylor, founder of New Albanian Brewing Co. and author of “The Potable Curmudgeon,” and Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer. The speakers gave talks on subjects ranging from the current beer writer’s market, the history of beer writing (with many hosannas to the late Michael Jackson), and the intersection of beer and culture. (I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Teri Fahrendorf, founder of the Pink Boots Society, and Jeremy Cowan of Shmaltz Brewing Co., both of whom gave fantastic talks). 

Stan Hieronymous opened the symposium. Avuncular and articulate, Mr. Hieronymous focused the bulk of his remarks on practical advice for the aspiring beer writer: here’s what’s selling, here’s what’s not; here are the subjects that have been damn near exhausted, here are issues and ideas that still might bear some literary fruit. The pith of his argument, at least as it struck me, is that while craft beer as an industry continues to grow and change at breakneck speed, beer writing has trailed behind, often content with uncritical praise and self-congratulation. Craft beer produces enthusiastic consumers who regard successful brewers as celebrities; when those consumers become writers, it’s perhaps understandable that they lose some of their critical distance, especially if they’re covering breweries or people they revere.

But craft doesn’t need more unexamined boosterism. In case you didn’t notice, the industry is doing fineJacob McKean of Modern Times Brewing recently noted that craft beer “is an industry with an almost total absence of real journalism” and that “cheerleading is virtually indistinguishable from ‘reporting’.” Hieronymous echoed those sentiments in his talk, saying that what beer writing needs (and, incidentally, what publishers and editors of beer writing place an ever-higher premium on) is thoughtful, long form work that does more than flatter brewers or describe their beers. We need writing that interrogates, that has both narrative and perspective. Beer writing, as Julie Johnson of All About Beer noted, needs to be held to a higher standard. “Don’t retweet crap,” she said.

So what type of beer writing deserves promotion? Furthermore: what do we want out of beer writing? What can it do? What *should* it do? If all we want or expect from a beer writer is for her to say some positive things about the craft beer scene and then review a couple of IPAs she’s had recently, then, well, I’d argue that beer writing belongs in the little ghetto to which it’s been historically relegated.

Many of the speakers at the Symposium hit upon the different genres of beer writing: historical, travel, personal narrative, brewing guides, style guides, tasting guides, etc. What was hinted at, but not explicitly discussed, was editorial and criticism. And by “criticism” I do not mean beer reviews. I mean writing that thinks and talks about craft beer not as a Platonic, self-evident, untroubled GOOD, but as a complex and ever-changing amalgamation of capital and people who are often in conflict and at cross purposes with one another. Garrett Oliver’s talk was entitled “Beer Is People,” and as he developed that theme over the course of an hour, it became for me less a koan and more an axiom: beer is people, and people are goddamned complicated—far more complicated than what can be contained in a 150-word beer review. What ends up in your glass is not the singular vision of an atomized individual with abject facial hair; it’s the product of dozens of centuries of economic strife and political turmoil; wars, migrations, droughts, marriages, births, deaths, life. “Beer is culture” is a sentiment I hear expressed a lot in various ways; if that’s true, then it deserves a cultural criticism. 

I don’t read a lot of beer writing, honestly. Most of it doesn’t do much for me. I’d read a day-old racing form before another beer review. In one of the more telling moments of the weekend’s symposium, Hieronymous gave this advice on becoming a better beer writer: “Read last year’s best science writing. Then read last year’s best food writing.” The message, to me at least, was clear: beer writing still has some work to do in becoming a fully realized genre unto itself, and in garnering attention beyond the limits of an enthusiastic craft consumer base. To tell stories and ask questions that resound with readers outside of the craft demimonde (which sounds a bit sweeter than “ghetto,” I suppose), beer writers need to reach beyond beer as the prime object of discussion, and make that leap to culture. 

Heather Vandenengel’s recent piece in Serious Drinks, “5 Issues Craft Beer Drinkers Should Be Talking About” does a good job of laying a roadmap for writers who want to do some serious thinking about the shape and direction of this industry. These issues are crucially important to the future of craft beer, but they are, crucially, not about *beer* itself.

Rather they underscore the immutable fact that craft beer is not a cultural vacuum, but is subject to and influenced by the same social and economic forces that shape all of our lives under Western late capitalism. Styles will come and go, new breweries will open and new innovations in brewing will arise regardless of whether or not they’re written about. Where beer writers can have an impact and, dare I say it, make a difference, is in bringing to the forefront of discussion those things that are typically not discussed, or are dismissed as divisive, controversial or difficult: the question of market competition in craft beer, for example.

In an industry that prides itself on camaraderie and collaboration, how does one square all of that pious fraternity with the fact that brewers are, ultimately, in business to make money, and more and more at the expense of one another’s market share? How will craft breweries deal with the increasing volatility of weather as climate change proceeds apace, especially as that volatility impacts the water supply? To that end, what shape will the climate change “debate” take in the context of craft beer, and will there appear (as there has in virtually every other sphere of American life) a vocal minority of climate change-deniers? At what point do politics—and not simply in the wrangling over excise tax rates—enter into the discussion? As Vandenengel notes in the first item on her list of five, gender politics are already a huge and largely unacknowledged issue in the craft world, and one need look no further than the comments at the bottom of the article for an illustration of just how badly we need to have this discussion: 

We have to empower women to like/brew craft beer? Can't we just drink what we want to (whether or not that's beer), and if it's good, it doesn't matter so much the gender of the person that brewed it?

Craft beer is thick with the stink of false meritocracy, where the conventional wisdom holds that all that matters is what’s in the glass, and bugger the social or economic forces that shaped its brewing, marketing, distribution and sale. The problem with avoiding discussions of race, class and gender with evasions about "letting the liquid speak for itself" is that it's part of a rhetorical dogma borrowed directly from those who enjoy the most pervasive and unseen privilege and don't have to think about it. For the liquid to simply speak for itself, all comers would have to be on a level playing field which, verily, they are not. Does a petite young woman command the same amount of prima facie respect in the beer business as a 200 pound man with a full beard? If your answer is "yes" allow me to both applaud your optimism and question your commitment to our shared reality. 

But I digress. As I often do. Beer writing could do with more room for digression, in my opinion. Straightforwardness is overrated. Craft beer is not straightforward; it’s fraught with a lot of questions that can’t be answered in IBUs or with tasting notes. Look through the bottom of your glass, beer writers, and you’ll see the paving stones. And beneath the paving stones, the beach.