Friday, April 4, 2014

The Session #86: Is it just about beer?

When I began getting seriously drawn into craft beer six or seven years ago, I naturally began reading a lot about it.  The late beer writer Bill Brand was my favorite beer writer, drawing me into this world with his warm, engaging articles on various breweries and beers, sprinkling in stories about the people, economics and political side of the industry. While I recall reading other interesting beer writers during that time, I also remember finding a lot of beer writing disappointing.

Plenty of articles were written in a heavy, plodding style that made high school textbooks seem like page turning novels.   Some writers clearly knew a lot of esoteric stuff about beer but didn't have the foggiest understanding of how businesses actually work or what the typical beer drinker cares about, resulting in maddeningly naive articles on the craft beer industry. A few writers came across as loud angry drunks who were no fun to share a pint with. There were way too many simple minded "craft beer good, mass market lager evil" articles that failed to capture the real fascination of the craft beer revolution, other than to say "Budweiser sucks".  And if I have to read another "Beer is for Sharing" article reducing beer's awesome social lubrication powers down to this tired schmaltzy cliche', I'm going to strangle somebody.

 Bill Brand shortly before being hit by a
street car that ultimately ended his life.
 (Photo by Jesse Friedman )
I actually thought I could write about beer a lot better than a fair amount of the stuff I was reading, which was one of my motivations to start this blog nearly five years ago.  If there was anything I learned over those five years, it's that writing is a lot harder than it looks.  A lot of hard work goes into doing the research, working out the phasing, wording and composition to write even an average article on beer.  So when Heather Vandenengle asks for this month's Session, "What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer?  Are we advocates, critics, or story tellers?" I found myself thinking hard about the question.

For starters, I'm all in favor of deep philosophical analysis and intense intellectual discussion about anything, but let's not too carried away.   We're talking about beer here.  Not politics, economics, health, science, or technology that affect our lives far more deeply.  Bad governments, poor economic times, inadequate health care, and scientific illiteracy are serious problems with catastrophic consequences.  We've had several decades of bad beer and got through it all right.

Beer is worth writing about because business, economics, science, culture and most importantly people all have a connection to that liquid in the glass.  The best beer journalism seeks to describe these connections, whether that be in the form of advocation, criticism or story telling.  I've found this is often difficult to do myself, but it makes writing about beer most relevant.

As for examples of people I think get it right, I found Tom Acitelli's book "The Audacity of Hops" provided a much needed historical perspective on the craft brewing revolution.  I'm a big fan of Stan Hieronymus's blog  "Appellation Beer" as well as Jeff Alworth's "Beervana".  I've also enjoyed  Brian Yeager's enthusiasm for all things and places beer.  I appreciate Jay Brook's tireless efforts chronicling beer's history, as well as his ability to make the San Francisco Bay Area craft beer community he knows so well completely accessible to the general public in his newspaper columns.   Can a great brewer also be a great beer writer?  I don't know how much outside help Ken Grossman had writing his book "Beyond the Pale" but I've found no better source on the history and business of craft beer, as well as what it really takes to build a great brewery.

There are plenty of other writers beyond the world of beer I have long enjoyed and which I hope in some way have inspired my writing on these pages.  These include non-fiction writers Nate SilverJames GleickCarl Sagan, and Malcolm Gladwell who tell fascinating stories emerging from the data.   I've always been impressed how pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman finds the insights of our culture from its trivial details while being riotously funny at the same time.   When Tony Bourndain isn't causing me to cringe with his aging hipster act, I enjoy his blunt, gritty commentary on food from all over the world, whether five star Michelin restaurants in Europe or some noodle shack on a river bank in Vietnam. Novelist Russell Banks has dazzled me with this flowing, complex descriptive sentences and I've always appreciated the deep, brooding conflicts within Cormac McCarthy's novels as well as the way he creates drama by what is said, as well as what is left unsaid. Growing up in Chicago, I always appreciated the smart, snarky, and sometimes coarse writing of Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. Interestingly enough, Mike Royko was an unlikely early advocate of craft beer.

Reading and learning about things unrelated to beer has helped me be a better writer about beer. If there's one thing I'd like to change about the current state of beer journalism, it would be a better awareness of the world beyond beer.  Beer in itself is a pretty limited topic.  What beer brings to the world is what makes it really worth writing about.


  1. Derrick,

    Another great session.


    Mark Harvey

    1. Thanks Mark. Actually, maybe I should've added your blog in there which is a lot of fun to read.