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The end of beer writing as we know it?

In commenting on the demise of the British-based magazine Beers of the World writer Adrian Tierney-Jones has written such a lovely headline that I have to find an excuse to repeat it: “Beers Of The World finito: the end of beerwriting as we know it?”

If you live in the U.S. you likely never read this magazine, which could be found occasionally at the random Barnes & Noble. I think I last saw it in Prague last November because Evan Rail brought a few copies along when we met for dinner.

Just two things before I get back to “long form” writing (“Brewing With Wheat” and today I’m writing about the epic battles between bakers and brewers for control of wheat production — OK, it’s not really that sexy):

– Adrian concludes that magazines devoted to beer have no future in the U.K. and that “makes me think that maybe this is the end of beer-writing as we have known it since the 1970s. We are all beer bloggers now.”

– Therefore it seems like a good time to point to a post from Alice Feiring, a wonderful writer who happens to specialize in wine.

He wrote, “As I’ve been saying for a while now: blogs didn’t kill journalism. blogs killed writing. The art of writing is now essentially fully devalued. It’s a hobby.”

Think of it before you jump all over us. The popularity of the blog has reduced writing to a 500-word postage stamp norm, and usually given away for free. For free. Free, the industry standard. While a digest of words can be a fun exercise in craft, the indulgence the 2000- to 5000 word article was nirvana.

and (edited for length) . . .

Oh, to once again be paid to fret and angst over the specific word and nuance. To work with an editor, to banter back and forth and develop and like a dancer stretch for that point on the stage with utter conviction.

I long for the days when there was craft, there was grammar and there was poetry . . .

And so bloggers who have jobs that pay the bills other than writing, please take no offense. No offense is meant. But this is a lament, from those of us who have bet our lives on the written word, for those of us who have no fall back plan (actually, journalism is my fall back for fiction) whether the subject is art, music, politics, literature or wine, our lives are changing. No one goes into writing to make pots of dough.

At a time when American beer commands more respect than it has in its history there are, thankfully, a growing number of publications focused on beer. And we’ve got cleverly written blogs rich with beer citizen journalism.

Sure the grammar could get better (and we won’t even start on the poetry . . .) But I’d like to think we’re at the beginning of beer writing as we will know it, and I’m not even sure what form that might take.


16 Responses to The end of beer writing as we know it?

  1. erik July 31, 2009 at 8:00 am #

    Hear, hear.

    I find it ironic that Ms. Feiring published this lament on a blog.

    She does have a point – many blogs don’t spend much time getting their writing right, and the topics covered can definitely suffer for it.

    On the other hand, there are many times when a blog can cover something in a quick 500-word jot that doesn’t need a full-blown 5000-word article, however well crafted it might be. Blogs can react quickly where someone working with a weekly or bi-weekly publishing schedule cannot.

    I’d rather that blogging not get mixed up with journalism. They are different mediums, but both good and important, and we (the States) most definitely seem like we’re on the upswing of both when it comes to beer. It’s wonderful.

  2. Stan Hieronymus July 31, 2009 at 9:37 am #

    As somebody a) who gets paid to write about beer and b) came to blogging early I would hope that beer bloggers and underpaid writers get along better than the principals is this nasty little exchange between wine types.

  3. Alan July 31, 2009 at 11:31 am #

    And, oh, for the day when being paid to fret and angst over the specific word and nuance resulted in consistently better writing. That day? Never was. Most column writers are and always have been at a par with a good blogger and are given similar time and resources to accomplish the task.

    Blogs and newspaper columns are pretty much of one class of writing – good and bad of each are good or bad in the same way and for the same reasons. And as it was in the beginning of journalism with Addison, say, so it is now – there is no need of an exclusive professional class of writer for that sort of craft. As Stan says, they can get along and even (horrors!) intermingle. All hail the advent of the semi-pro leagues! Let the spoils be divided by the open marketplace.

    Long writing is a far different matter when complex and detailed arguments had to be made requiring the kind of time that might be what is lamented. But that is different again, isn’t it? Isn’t what is really being lamented is that middle range sort of essay, the 3 to 8 page article on a subject. Again, though, for beer – did anyone actually ever write that sort of thing at a quality level? What periodicals were out there which carried them? I can think of Richard Boston in the Guardian in the early 70s but really even those are shorter pieces. Are there others? Hasn’t beer been mainly a book or short essay sort of topic?

    So many questions…

  4. Zak Avery July 31, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    It’s a genuine shame about the demise of BotW, but with The Oxford Companion to Beer scheduled for publication in 2010, does anyone else think that beer is about to get a serious credibility boost, and that a new age of interest in beer and writing about it is about to dawn?

  5. Jack Curtin July 31, 2009 at 12:28 pm #

    BOTW was an interesting magazine to write for when they first started and, with exchange rate, pay was pretty good. I did two stories early on and then had several proposals “held” and “still under consideration” when I finally gave up.

    I’m of the school which believes good writing, in any form, will find an audience and that good writing is still being done, perhaps even more often on blogs than in print in the beer world. And I don’t know that length is any criterion for quality. While I would revel in the sort of time and space given writers at a place like The New Yorker, I also am in tune with Mark Twain’s apology to a friend he was sending a letter: “if I had more time, this would have been shorter.”

    I’m with Alan on how blogs and columns are pretty much the same thing. And I’d suggest All About Beer as a venue where the mid-range essay can still find a home.

  6. Stan Hieronymus July 31, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    I think it is important that topics can be examined in depth.

    For instance the insane number of posts Ron Pattinson has given us (and I consider them a gift) on Berliner Weisse.

    Too many magazine articles (and I plead guilty here) get long because they are adding breadth. Instead of gritty detail about how single artisan might make something and why that matters to customers we find out how ten different people make something. Or do something.

    There are times that breadth if appropriate and times that depth is. Right now I think we are seeing less depth because it takes more time.

    And just to be clear, a agree that length is not a criterion for quality. You should be able to tell a story in 25 words, right?

  7. Jack Curtin July 31, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    Oh, I’m not against length–still get paid by the word in some markets, for one thing–or examining topics in depth, just not agreeing with the argument which I (perhaps mistakenly) inferred was that longer is better. And Ron Pattinson is as an excellent example of how blogging has _not_ reduced writing to “a 500-word postage stamp.” I was saving him for my coup de grace in a follow-up but you came at me from a different direction.

  8. Stan Hieronymus July 31, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    So you are suggesting that we make up game cards with pictures of every blogger on them? Then at some point you’d play Ron Pattinson and try to trump it with Martyn Cornell and all hell would break loose.

  9. Jack Curtin July 31, 2009 at 3:41 pm #

    Whatever works.

  10. Alan July 31, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Sadly, Martyn has suspended his blogging. But if I have the distinction of being sufficiently venerable at this beer blogging stuff, it is only to see so many betters join in to the point that I wonder if I should be in the card deck let alone above 5. Martyn is one of the face cards.

    Yet if this bloggy explosion of expression and information has told me anything over the last 6 years is that beer may well be apt and maybe even uniquely tuned for this amateur/semi-pro/pro stuff.

  11. Bailey August 2, 2009 at 2:00 am #

    Hmmm. I suppose a lot depends on whether you think creativity (music, writing, whatever) is something people do because they have an uncontrollable urge, or because they want to make a living.

    A lot of writers who bemoan their ability to make money at it because of free competition sound to me like they’re saying: “I want to get paid for having fun — it’s not fair that all these people are *just* having fun and undercutting me!”

  12. Bill (It's Pub Night) August 3, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    Stan: your last comment is correct: we’re just at the beginning of (beer) writing.

    The technology of writing is only about 3000 years old; the printing press is not quite 600 years old; the internet is about 30 years old. Those are small fractions of the 200,000 years that homo sapiens has walked the earth.

    It’s a relatively new development for people to make a living at writing. Even in the early days of printing, writers were either independently wealthy or earned their living in some other way, and some kind of passion drove them to write and publish their works. Perhaps we’re returning to that mode, and writing as a career was just a flash in the pan, like the career of “scribe”.

  13. Jack Curtin August 3, 2009 at 5:06 pm #

    If we’re returning to the old days, I want a wealthy patron who is entirely hands off. Okay, a young and beautiful patroness, we can probably reach an accommodation on the “hands” thing.

  14. Jeff Alworth August 4, 2009 at 9:57 am #

    One thing print doesn’t allow is this kind of exchange. Let it stand as a case-in-point for why blogging is useful. The exchange of ideas, where the reader becomes the writer and contributes information and insight to a post, is a substantial advance.

    The world of beer is an outlier, though, it must be admitted. It is a rare sphere where people are genuinely supportive, interested, and constructive. The wine world, by comparison, has struggles for authority. We may disagree about beer, but with rare exceptions do people in the beer world imagine that anyone has the kind of authority that they can dictate standards. Beer writing, from blogs to print to tweets looks more like a coffee klatsch, where everyone offers an opinion.

    Maybe it will change, but for now, it’s a nice place to be.

  15. Alan August 4, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    I agree with Jeff – and, further, do not believe that puts the authority of fact at any risk. There is a great collective desire among beer bloggers to increase the total pool of objective knowledge as well as subjective experience. It may be harder to justify patrons in such a world order but I have wondered for some time why more bloggers do not attract some level of patronage from local craft brewers and craft brewers associations… let alone the logic of Jack’s desire to be a plaything for an obliging patroness.

    This is quite separate from the concurrent loss of resources for paid beer writing as with the demise of “Beers of The World” – though some bloggers may well rise to the level of citizen journalist. I don’t think I do but I am not interested in that focus. Overall, I think blogging is in addition to pro beer writers. The minor leagues. The problem with print and beer writing is just the same problem all print is facing.

  16. Jeff Alworth August 5, 2009 at 9:41 am #

    Alan, to add to your comments, let me tell you what it’s like here in Oregon. Beer bloggers are very much integrated into the ecosystem. Absent reliable print sources, we have become the main way breweries get information out. We now all receive press releases and get emails and tweets. There’s a harmony here because bloggers always want fodder and breweries always want people to know what’s going on.

    Interestingly, because the bloggers have no investment except their interest, we tend to write about different things. The result is that each blog tends to highlight different parts of the beer scene. One blogger (Angelo at Brewpublic) does a lot of brewer intereviews. Bill, who commented upthread, is interested in offbeat bars and technology. Jon Abernathy (the Brew Site) lives in Bend and does a lot of Central Oregon blogging. Matt at is a photographer and captures (beautifully) intimate moments from major events.

    We all do a fair amount of reviewing, too, and I think we’re pretty honest. This is a service to the breweries, too, because we’re like the lead whisperers–beers get talked about, and the ones bloggers like tend to get talked about a lot, creating a kind of currency for those beers. It doesn’t move sales much, but I think breweries like chance to see their beers lauded online. (And they’re very good about not lobbying us to positively review or promote beers–no brewery has ever approached me for something like that.)

    I think the main reason we blog is because it feels like a larger community and it’s fun to participate in the dialogue. That’s more than a little different from the reason I used to write a beer column in the dead-tree press.

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