[This blog post has become a bit of performance art because of Andy's comment. Having edited again, I find my point of view oddly Jacksonian. So, please response either as to form or substance (or both... or neither) as you deem appropriate. Note: post-comments underlined and even the monkey head is new.]
I was a little put off by Andy Crouch today. Just a little. I know he didn't mean it but when he wrote this sentence in his piece today about beer trade writer, Harry Schuhmacher, he may have known I would shake my head:
Far from a beer blogger, Schuhmacher runs a serious business dedicated to providing the beer industry with inside information and breaking news, a point reflected in his publication’s scorching $480 a year price tag.
"Far from a beer blogger"? You might as well say "far from a pastry chef" for all that means. I was reminded of why Andy had veered off the mark during my lunch with a pal, a regional rep, the keg hauler. It is all very well to understand things at a macro level and sell "breaking news" (aka often pretty much what everyone knows 24 later) to management. It is also all very well, for example, that Andy has leveraged an interview about session beers on one of my favorite food shows, NPR's The Splendid Table.¹ It is all very well but has huge limitations, even if serious business, because the utility of these sorts of communications is particularly restricted when it comes to understanding beer. As a result, it is not useful to place one form of communication about beer above another. The comparison is like saying a sonnets are better than essays. So, for now, shall we just say two cheers for the macro beer commentators? Works for me.
Why two cheers? Well the main thing is I don't live my beery life at the macro level even if I do think about it from time to time. I have said it before but beer primarily exists in the theatre of the mouth - and not some generic statistical mouth either. It's only understood in the immediacy of experience. During our lunch, the keg hauler and I really were talking about issues related to getting someone to buy a glassful and, later, buy it again. We talked about how one place was selling three fifty litre kegs a week of one brand all of a sudden and how that must mean 70 to 100 people making separate personal decisions to switch. He works on that sort of frontline. It's the same frontline that the Canton NY grocery store owner I met on Friday, works.² These are the guys thinking hard, working long hours and weeks, making decisions that affect what I am offered when I go to a local taverns or walk down the beer aisle. They are also in a serious business - but, for me, one that is perhaps more instructive than viewing larger trends. These guys remind me of my old boss who ran a flower shop in industrial Cape Breton. He had to figure out how to sell bouquets of flowers to coal miners. Serious business. By comparison, a commentator at the macro level may make general observations and analytical conclusions based on the aggregated decisions and efforts amassed from all the regional reps and grocery store buyers but that, with all due respect, is a form of following as far as I am concered. So, yes, two cheers it is for the clever follower. It is serious business as Andy says but it is a different sort of business. Honest to goodness cheers but just two. For those frontline guys, however, I have three.
Is this all a pretext to say that beer bloggers live on the same frontline as the regional rep or beer store owner? Am I suggesting that the beer blogger also deserve the full three cheers for what they do? Not all. My relationship with this medium is somewhere between ambivalence and frustration, even with this sort of thing from time to time. Beer blogging does provide some of the most useful examples of the personal expressions on beer and beer culture therefore it's valueable but it can be too much about the naval gaze or, to be more charitable, it is about only one's own experience of the beer. Yet that is inherent to the form of writing.
That being said, this post is still turning out to be a pretext for something? Yes, because I have hope that the serious business of the specific and the general, the micro and the macro can be communicated. So if there is pretext to all this, even if perhaps longwinded pretext, it is because I wanted to give Lew Bryson that elusive third cheer for how his writing best exemplifies the bridging together of both the marco and the micro. Look at this article in the Scranton Times-Tribune on Lew's new book, including his succinct analysis of the NE PA craft beer scene:
Mr. Bryson said so much has changed, even in five years. Local, nonmainstream beer is becoming mainstream. Consider the "nanobrewery" in Plains, Breaker Brewing Co., literally, in a garage. It has a "Yuengling problem," Mr. Bryson said. The brewery can't keep up with demand. "People in Northeastern Pennsylvania want good and they want local. The Wyoming Valley can support four places like Breaker," he said. "Look at what people are drinking. Remember when Cooper's and Elmer Sudds were the only places to get nonmainstream beers?" There's also The Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, covered in the book's "Gritty Survivors" section. Mr. Bryson laments why Lion's products, of which he is a fan, are not in every bar and fridge in NEPA. "Their beer has gotten demonstrably better," he said. "I'm waiting to see if their marketing catches up. It's crazy that people in Wilkes-Barre think of Yuengling as the local beer."
Themes and details. Themes and details. Implicitly based on as many long hours and as long weeks as the keg hauling regional rep. This is no slag against Andy or even the value of a $480 annual subscription to something. They earned their place. But if I am looking for what is really going on, I want to talk to someone who can tell me what kegs got hauled where and what is going on the grocery store shelf this week while giving me the context, too.
¹It airs on 13 November so remember to start warming the tubes the day before. Tune in. It should be great.
²And apparently, all of a sudden, asking me what I think, too. Happy to help.