Friday, April 4, 2014

Whither Beer Journalism?

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” G.K. Chesterton famously wrote in defense of hobbyists and amateurs. He wasn’t talking about beer writing, but “badly” does describe how a lot of the contributions to this relatively new and growing field are being done these days.

For years I’ve been saying to anyone sober enough to listen that one of my aims was to help make modern beer writing live up to the quality of all the great beers actually being brewed. That’s still what I try to do, but part of me also thinks the easily accessible arena of beer writing is actually part of its charm.

You don’t need any costly degree in beer “journalism.” You don’t need a government license. You don’t need to be sponsored by a member in good standing of the Ancient Order of Beer Scribes. You don’t need the approval of any guardian of public taste and decency. If you want to do it, you just do it.

The wide open nature of beer writing is for me what makes it simultaneously exciting and exasperating. No barriers to entry means no hoary gatekeepers vomiting up the same tired socioeconomic groupthink or politically correct bullshit (which I believe is the unacknowledged reason traditional journalism’s readership continues to plunge). A more diverse commentariat gives you — in theory, anyway — a gloriously wide range of opinion, whether orthodox or not.

On the flip side of the coin, the fact that literally anyone can set up shop as a beer writer means that literally anyone does. The result is often, as mentioned, a lot of less than stellar writing on the subject, whether it’s riddled with mechanical errors, reads like PR fluff, adopts an inane point of view, or is just flat-out wrong or uninformed.

To take the most obvious and ubiquitous example of “meh” beer writing, no one I know much cares what Random Internet Guy thinks about a particular beer. Talk of lacing, smell, body, and all of the rest of the typical rote steps of evaluating a given beer is not especially engaging, even when it’s coming from somebody whose opinion one has reason to respect. Besides that, when there’s so much subjectivity in beer “reviewing,” what is one supposed to take away from it? Or, stated a bit differently, are the "best beers in the world" really mostly just variations of palate-wrecking double IPAs and booze-bomb barrel aged imperial stouts?

Yes, there is an undeniable need for beer writing to evolve beyond the mundane and the mediocre. And already we see signs of increasing professionalism. The North American Guild of Beer Writers exists. There is an annual Beer Bloggers Conference. This past February, the University of Kentucky even hosted a craft beer writing seminar featuring marquee names like Stan Hieronymus and Garrett Oliver. And, also, there’s the fact we’re now openly discussing this hitherto neglected subject.

So let’s get real. Beer is much more interesting than a bunch of reviews and rankings make it out to be. As a beverage, it’s as old as recorded history. It was here when the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. Shakespeare wrote about it. American presidents brewed it. Today it’s one of the most popular things to drink all across the world. Surely there is much more to say about it than that it’s “dank” with “good head” (hurr, hurr).

However, and most importantly, beer is fun. So while I anticipate and applaud the advent of smarter, more insightful, and more informative writing about our favorite beverage, I also dread the loss of playfulness, sincerity, and spontaneity that too often accompanies increased professionalism. In other words, I would hate to see the Serious People come in and ruin it for everyone by turning beer into just another Serious Subject to be assayed only by those who are deemed Serious Enough.

There are, of course, serious subjects in the areas of beer and brewing that are fully worthy of being broached. But let's let beer writing as a whole continue to be a full participatory sport. Let Chesterton’s great-grandchildren keep doing it badly. Let those who have any talent for it find their audiences.

For readers of all this beery prose, as in any other marketplace, caveat emptor. For we writers of same, let’s keep challenging ourselves and each other to do a better job, one that is, ultimately, at least as good as what’s in the glasses at our elbows as we set fingers to keyboard.

But let us — all of us — always bear in mind: For heaven's sake, it's just beer.

P.S. Heather Vandenengel, who instigated this brief essay, also asked for examples of what we consider to be good beer writing. For that honor, I nominate Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting, specifically his "GBH 2014 New Year's Resolutions for Craft Beer." It's this sort of thoughtful, informed, bullshit-free writing I can really get behind.

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