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Today’s beer ethics forecast: partly cloudy

Right or wrong, black or white
Cross the line you’re gonna pay
In the dawn before the light
Live and die by the shades of gray

– Robert Earl Keen

Do you care about beer writing ethics? Do think those the last three words even belong together in a sentence? Or do you figure we’re all here for the free beer and any free beer is a good beer?

Pete Brown writes today about “Blogging, ethics and payola – what is OK?”

A timely coincidence for some of us, because there is a move afoot to revive the North American Guild of Beer Writers. You can get a glimpse of this by following @nagbw on Twitter. And a glimpse is likely all you’d want. Lots of emails flying about, inside baseball beer communications1 chatter, including about ethics.

For a taste, look at the longest lasting discussion to ever break out here. It started with a Kenneth Tynan quote — “A critic’s job, nine-tenths of it, is to make way for the good by demolishing the bad.” It turned into a conversation about much more, again including ethics. I found it interesting (and participated) and since I’m paying for the rent here I guess that justifies it.

For me it’s a matter of trust. Ethics matter for the same reason getting the facts right matters.

But do those who don’t write about beer in print or cyberspace care?

1“Communications” because typing bloggers/writers or writers/bloggers and discussing where they overlap leads to whole ‘nother conversation.

12 Responses to Today’s beer ethics forecast: partly cloudy

  1. Steve October 13, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    I think that if it was blatantly obvious that a beer writer (BLOG or otherwise) was being heavily influenced by any one brewery, or even distributor, I wouldn’t be inclined to follow him/her.

    But it seems to me that every writer I follow is more inclined to embrace the wide diversity of beer and breweries in the world, as do I as a beer drinker. Sure, we all like a freebie now and again, and I often received them from salesmen when I was on the purchasing side of the biz, but it never swayed my choice when fitting the project to the vendor.

  2. Bill October 13, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    I care about ethics when the writers involved are professionals. I care in different ways depending on whether stories are being broken or beers/places are being reviewed. I think for professionals writing online, every post/entry/story should have a link to a “full disclosure page” that lists for whom the person is paid to write, has a statement on accepting hospitality/product, etc.: there are guys who get mad at commenters for pointing out real or perceived conflicts, saying things like “it’s no secret I write for X.” But it IS a secret if the reader doesn’t know that and isn’t familiar with someone’s body of work.

    That being said… looking at the comments on the link you provided re: the longest lasting discussion, and looking at the ones about the most influential beer writer, I might come to the sad conclusion that even were the beer-writing world rife with secret payments and bribes and such, from a practical perspective, it wouldn’t matter, because from a critical-influence perspective, professional beer writers’ opinions probably aren’t influencing the U.S. market too much. Maybe they influence folks who are new to beer? I read the folks I read because they write well and/or interestingly, but can’t recall a specific beer they’ve made me interested in trying since Lew Bryson detailed the creating of Victory’s Baltic Thunder.

  3. Steve October 13, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    “…but can’t recall a specific beer they’ve made me interested in trying…”

    Now that you mention it, Stan’s recommendation of Mission Street Pale Ale has me thinking twice about my next choice at Trader Joe’s! But since Stan has written enthusiastically about so many beers, I can’t start to question some TJ’s kickback. Not at this time anyway… 😉

    • Stan Hieronymus October 13, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      Speaking of TJs. I picked up a 6-pack of Mission Street yesterday. Despite the fact that once again I witnessed an accident in the crazy lot in front (always feel like I am a sitting duck). Despite the fact that TJs won’t pay for Firestone Walker to ship it cold, that they make it impossible tell how fresh it is and that it costs me $6.99 now (was $5.99 in New Mexico – oh, for the days it was $4.99).

      But to Bill’s “full disclosure page,” you mean list publications written for?

  4. Jeff Alworth October 13, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Stan, Lucy emailed to ask if I was interested in getting involved in the NAGBW. I am, and emailed her to express interest; I’ll also do it publicly here (rather than via a private email). Such a thing would be a valuable way of pulling together the community of writers and putting down some ground rules about what’s ethical and what’s not. I know people imagine bloggers are on the sketchy side of the ethical continuum, but the whole of beer writing is pretty deeply influenced by free beer and personal relationships and could use a formal body with formal guidelines to lead the way.

  5. Bill October 13, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Yes, publications and companies. One guy I follow wrote or writes for a beer distributor’s in-house newsletter as well as for numerous consumer publications and business publications. If he reviews beers for a consumer publication/website, it would be best to disclose his ties to a company that distributes some of the beers he’s reviewing. Two others get to interview a lot of brewers for various publications, and review beers now and again on their blogs/sites — it seems to me to be a smart thing to disclose that they have professional contact with the makers of the beer.

    For reviews, honestly, I think blind reviewing is the way to go. Wine Spectator goes to great lengths to separate advertising and content, and reviews wines blind. I’ve never got the sense that happens at beer publications, and know it’s not done that way for the vast majority of blogs, even when the folks in question are professional writers. I’d guess that many ethical concerns on the critical side would vanish were tastings done blind.

  6. Steve October 13, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    “Despite the fact that once again I witnessed an accident in the crazy lot in front…”

    Do the TJ’s spotters purposely look for these sorts of locations? I frequent 3 different stores in our area — they’re all in odd strip malls with insanely impossible lots to navigate. One even relocated from one mall to another, but kept the same sort of parking situation!

    The price we pay for good and inexpensive beer!

    Sorry… off subject a bit…

  7. Stan Hieronymus October 13, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Jeff & Bill – I don’t think you can overstate (or overrate) the impact of personal relationships. This has always been true in journalism when you have a “beat.” And they make it really difficult to establish “rule of conduct.”

    Bill, that’s one thing that concerns me about disclosure pages. Sure, somebody should list if they do work for people within the industry, then turn around and write for consumers. But that’s not really full disclosure.

  8. Bill October 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Stan, I don’t understand your second paragraph in comment #8. I’m just a reader, so I might be using “disclosure” incorrectly, but the pages I’m describing at least give the reader info. I understand that most pro beer writers have to write for lots of folks to eke out a living (or host events or teach beer classes or bartend for all I know), so conflicts will be hard to avoid, but best to be upfront — especially on a blog, because many folks won’t know to go back X months to see the last time the conflict was mentioned.

    Re: your first paragraph — in a more established market, the reporters and the reviewers would be separate people. But that’s not the case with beer writing, so perhaps there are problems. Newspaper publishers have rules of conduct — do they vanish once you get to niche writing publications?

    I wonder if part of the problem is that so many of the publications are cheerleading publications. I would never expect to read “Brewpub X is making lousy beer” in, say, Ale Street News. This might make it difficult for beer writers to gain true acceptance in mainstream publications.

  9. olllllo October 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the FTC and blogging disclosures.

    The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

  10. Stan Hieronymus October 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    olllllo – That in fact is one of the topics for discussion right now in the various nagbw forums.

    Bill – Sorry not to be clear. “Disclosure” works fine, since you are discussing various other ways somebody who writes may work within the beer industry. So you don’t expect me to note that in 1993 I wrote for this publication and that one, in 1994, etc.

    Let’s say that you cover entertainment as a decent size newspapers (a beat that’s totally disappearing) and that include reviewing local production. Beyond passing judgment on the quality of the current pass at “Waiting for Godot” during the course of the year you might also write a feature about the director, find an interesting story related to one of the leads, stuff like that. You may develop no relationship with the people, you might grow to despise some of them, and others will become your friends. Those relationships carry much more weight than if they let you eat from the buffet (trying to find something similar to sending beer) during dress rehearsal.

    I’m not sure that’s any better explanation . . .

  11. Bruce October 13, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    The ethics of beer blogging has been a concern of mine for as long as we have had running and it DOES get to be a hazy line sometimes.
    We have been given free beer of course, and have willingly drank it. When the time comes to write about or review that beer it can be difficult to put it’s “freeness” out of your mind. I think we are mostly successful but it still worries me..
    No body pays us to run the site, in fact it costs us money every month. We do run some google ads on the site but they sure don’t pay the rent and never mind the cost of most of the beer we buy to review or the trips we make to get some of it.
    Seems to me a free beer now and again isn’t too much to hope for.

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