A Good Beer Blog

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Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


Comments

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Win Bassett -

Your argument that this is a "pleasure trade" and that, in part, is what makes beer critics different from those in others lines of work. Are book reviewers, movie reviewers, etc., not doing it for pleasure as well?

Alan -

I think there is a difference between intellectual pleasure and physical pleasure that beer and all foods illustrate. It is not a lesser pleasure but sufficiently distinct that the rules should differ.

Stan Hieronymus -

The newest idea is that beer writing is either personal or technical. Being a pleasure trade, participating in the discourse can't be considered to engage at the level of journalism or criticism as it might in other areas.

What is it that journalists do? It can’t be reduced to just one thing. That may be a different thing going forward, but you haven't convinced me "beer" shouldn't be included as a permissible category.

Alan -

[But am I trying to convince you? What is it you take I am doing?]

Journalist are a sub-set of writer that implies writing that is both public purposed and objective. They also have to be published in a journal. How much beer writing actually even achieves those elemental three characteristics? Little. Most beer writing of any value has other natures. Technical writing, personal essay, rhetorical trade communications.

Alan -

By way of exercise, could any of this be so seriously applicable to beer writing? Whose writing would be fairly subject to this review?

Win Bassett -

Why wouldn't all of that be applicable to beer writing?

Alan -

None of it could be related to beer writing (by which I take you to mean "not beer journalism") as writing of less serious nature is not subject to professional oversight and, frankly, the mass of beer writing is so incestuously derivative, overlapping in analysis and laced with trade positivism that it simply is not of the same class as journalism. It is, in both senses, amateur even if a cheque is exchanged.

Which is not a bad thing.

Win Bassett -

Regarding, "incestuously derivative, overlapping in analysis and laced with trade positivism," I agree, and I'm guilty of all of the above.

Regarding, "not subject to professional oversight," some beer writing is--most notably, print.

How do we resolve this? The North American Guild of Beer Writers doesn't seem like it will be revived anytime soon. We're all too busy debating our trade on your website :)

Alan -

If it is not bad, you cannot be guilty.

By which I mean, if all of beer writing were technical texts, criticism, histories, PR memos, personal essays and academic writing... would we miss or even be able to identify the gap left by beer journalism?

Win Bassett -

Like everything else in life, a healthy variety of all is needed.

Stan Hieronymus -

Alan - We pretty obviously have a different view of what constitutes journalism. Curiously, I come from print but am bothered that your description doesn't include broadcast.

You also might be saying - I'm not totally clear - that when one assumes the role of advocate s/he abdicates the role of journalist. Again curiously, I come from a background where advocacy was frowned upon, but recognize that throughout much of history journalism has not been objective.

And we haven't even got to beer. This seems like far too complicated a discussion to continue in blog comments, and one better sorted out in person.

Alan -

I guess that I would want you to put some parameters around what you expect from the word first, then, Stan as when I raise it you press against it fairly firmly. Also,

- how did I exclude broadcast... and please give examples of beer broadcast.
- how does the relationship between advocate and journalist overlap. You actually seem clear on that point.
- Are you suggesting that advocacy and journalism ought to be overlapping?

Bottom line: why can't I write about this? I appreciate this is your career but I have a career, too, and can talk about law freely. I can also assure you this is one of the least complicated discussions I will have this week. I can't go into detail because as a lawyer I have to protect the privilege of my client. But you may want to review this public document if you have any doubts on my capacity in a comparable field.

One more point. Can you point me to any other writing on beer writing that I have not seen? I have a difficult time understanding how something of interest like this has avoided being set out anywhere.

Pete Brown -

Very simple answer from my point of view:

- when blogging it is totally personal, emotionally led, as you describe

- in books it's still very personal (for me) but the priority is on craft and rigour in research and writing rather than spontaneity and immediacy.

- ditto comment journalism

- paid for, commissioned feature led journalism - I strive to be objective and factual and maintain the same standards you'd expect in any journalism

And I'd suggest this broadly applies in most subjects as well as beer?

Alan -

That is a very good summary, Pete. And I am not poking at you when I ask this but in each of the four categories you will have a mouthful of beer and, I think I can suggest, you will engage with that mouthful. Does the experience differ based on which of the four routes of writing you are on at the particular moment? And is the pleasure that brings comparable to the pleasure watching and suffering along with perhaps with your favourite football team, Barnsley isn't it? Like the Toronto Maple Leafs, good beer can let us down. But we stick by it. We root for it. Can we - and if we can how do we - separate those threads when writing. Or is that necessary if many ways of writing are utilized in relation to beer that might, for example, not have such high place compared to say politics or business writing?

Stan Hieronymus -

Alan - I did not intend my comments to be adversarial. Certainly you are entitled (is that the right word?) to write as you want about beer writing. But I'm also entitled to disagree, in this case with the idea that "beer writing is either personal or technical" (not totally excluding journalism but just about).

I should have stuck with the part in quotes, because debating "what is journalism" is something I've spent (sometimes wasted) thousands of hour doing. When did newspapers become objective? Are they really? Are we better off when they are advocates and we understand that going in? It's endless. And we haven't even got to ethics.

Certainly one point of discussion is how past experience (that mouthful of beer, growing up hating the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team) can influence what you write. You don't think that people who write about politics or business have the same issues? That gives me an excuse to recommend reading "The Boys on the Bus" by Timothy Crouse, which you can usually find cheap on used books stores.

Anyway, my answer is that as a journalist you make sure those experiences don't influence what you write, or when they do you inform the reader.

And my further point is that if "beer journalism" is to get better (whatever that might be, but the need for "better beer journalism" seems to be a prevailing theme) then it must be approached as journalism itself. That's the standard.

Alan -

OK, that is fine and there is nothing wrong with adversarial as it is a construct that can allow a discourse to move ahead with discipline.

My point and thoughts are not that journalism per se is not wrong but not necessary as an explanation of what actually is going on. I do think beer makes one a homer. But if beer makes one that, how can we really expect objectivity? I do have friends in political journalism and politics - a hazard of an undergrad with a journalism school as well as law degrees. But in the political and business journalism, the line between subject and object is better defined or at least more able to be observed. You will have, for example, open discourse about the tendencies of both NPR and Fox.

But, unless we are all political creatures, it is the objective description of a thing that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes intoxicating that challenges me. But it only challenges me if "journalism" is what we call it. It is not about the writing, therefore, but the labelling of the class of writing.

Alan -

To a certain degree, this is an example of what is good about subjectivity and even conflicted interest.

Stan Hieronymus -

Alan - All politics is local, all beer is local. Those were the good old days.

And we must always be aware that objective is subjective. After all, a reporter chooses what to include, who to talk to, what to describe and what adjectives to use.

So classifying stories is no easier than defining beer styles. I would say your example, plus this one might be classified as memoirs, as would many tasting notes.

As opposed to stories such as these:

- Something Is Brewing in Austria

- 3 years after InBev deal, a new Anheuser-Busch

However, there are also the "mash ups" that include both reporting and experience. (Pardon the link to my blog, but I knew where to find the example):

In that example I think it is the responsibility of the journalist to be transparent, but it doesn't hurt if the reader is a natural born skeptic.

Alan -

So here's an interesting point. Is the InBev story beer journalism or business journalism? When I think of beer writing, I would not include that as there is nothing about the product particularly being discussed. I would not look to a food journalist, by way of analogy, for a discussion of the business dealings of Wolfgang Puck.

Is that a definitional difference that we are lodged upon?

Stan Hieronymus -

I would simply call it journalism. Sort of like beer and craft beer. You save a lot of time stewing about the definition if you just call it beer.

Of course it is fair to ask about the impact "a mouthful of beer" may have on a story. But it doesn't automatically "disqualify" an article/blog post, podcast, etc. from being considered journalism.

I also think there is value in a food journalist/beer journalist understanding the role of ingredients - which means tasting them and the product - and process. To report if changes, for instance, that improve the bottom line lower the quality of what goes into the mouth. Granted, you could commission a panel of tasters, but would you "understand" it as well? In the end you have both a consumer story and a business story.

Alan -

Well, then I think we have a significant difference as I can't get past that it's the mouthfuls of beer that I am exploring. And it does not help me identify who in beer writing is actually a journalist. No one is disqualified by the mouthfuls but business journalists take no mouthfuls of the business.

And, with respect, I am not sure I have ever seen a report on this sort of thing: "...report if changes, for instance, that improve the bottom line lower the quality of what goes into the mouth..." Unlike, say, an computer firm story which matches management decisions with consumer reactions. Blackberry for example.

Alan -

Alan's Bias #1: Alan considers journalism not related to the consumption of beer to be not beer journalism.

Effect of Bias#1: Scope of "beer journalism" restricted.

Pivní Filosof -

First of all, thanks for the shout. Now, if you'll bear the opinion of an amateur who gets paid a bit here and there, I think there is beer journalism, an example of that is what I, and other people, do for Beer Connoisseur Magazine. I write a few hundred words of local beer news, that's it. I get to choose what goes in there based on what I think is most significant, but I do not discriminate based on my personal tastes. Whether that makes for interesting reading or not, that's another thing.

Blogs, on the other hand, and by and large, should be subjective. Firstly, because blogs, by nature are basically editorials and secondly, because reading someone's opinion is often more fun that reading a report.

Alan -

Alan's Bias #2: With respect, Alan considers events notice writing is no more journalism than the community newspaper's column on a church outing and who made which egg and tuna salads.

Effect of Bias#1: None. Alan is right.

;-)

Another Alan -

What's the purpose of drawing the distinction between beer journalism and regular journalism, or even beer journalism and beer writing? Is it an importance thing? An undue need to categorize? I ask not to suggest there's something wrong with the attempt, but to get some sense of what the end goal is.

Pivní's point that "blogs, by nature are basically editorials" is well taken, but does that necessarily mean they aren't journalism? One of Alan's favorite things to do is to level criticism at our frequent "trade positivism." Sure, that is editorial in nature, but it does cause us to think differently - and think critically - the next time we start to engage in it. Is that form of criticism journalism, or merely a useful beer writing exercise?

Do we limit the definition of journalism to those who are legally protected by shield laws? It's a relatively easy way to draw a distinction. Yet, I don't see how that excuses the rest of us from plagiarism, copyright or similar violations.

My own efforts are part events calendar, part news reporting, part criticism, part cheer leading and part commentary. Amazingly, that's the exact same makeup of our local weekly newspaper, which includes a fair amount of beer related discourse. (I'm guessing I and the weekly are both losing money on our efforts.) Are they treated differently because it's their job?

Does the fact that I try to weave in as much personal experience as possible to make it . . . um . . . .personal . . . create some immediate disqualification for journalism? If I'm an attorney and choose to write about beer laws, does that change the equation? Presumably it goes to the credibility and not the admissibility (lawyer joke there), but does it change the category of the efforts?

Lots of questions. Not a single answer.

Alan -

What I am really trying to do is get a handle on what is being written and if it (1) bears classification and (2) resembles the classification it has been granted.

I think it is all a useful writing exercise and that each sort of writing is of use, too. Just not sure where journalism fits in but bear in mind I truly have Bias #1 and Bias #2. By the end of this my confession will be complete by the time I reach Bias #37.

So, in the end, this is really about me.

Jeff Alworth -

I've been meaning to post on this all day--glad to see it's still at the top of the blog.

A lot has been said that I might associate myself with, but what the hell, I'll start from scratch.

Objectivity. There isn't any. Or, if there is, it's because you've got a reporter so green he doesn't know anything about the subject he's tasked to cover. (Not unusual, especially for beginners.) In beer, the problem is that everyone who comes to the subject already likes beer. Bias. But take politics. Reporters are very often biased toward talent. So, even when a candidate is on their team but is hapless (Romney, Kerry), he suffers from their scorn. They tend also to be attracted to "truth-tellers," though that's usually a different flavor of good politician. You give me a subject and I'll show you how the humans writing about it are biased.

It's also worth noting that the idea of objectivity is a peculiarly (North?) American instinct. In other countries, actually admitting to the bias and writing from that perspective is admired.

Transparency. You can aspire to a level of transparency--and here I think blogs kick the lazy arse of the complacent MSM. You don't necessarily have to have a confessional voice, but bloggers offer readers insight into their minds--and readers can therefore make more informed judgments. Links aid in transparency, and again, blogs have led the way.

Journalism. Stan touches on this, but I think you've been a bit lax in your definitions, Alan. Journalists write different kinds of articles. Back in the day, when I wrote about beer for a weekly paper in Portland, my main venue was a column. But they also asked me to write business pieces, new-openings pieces, and other random journalisty pieces. Each one has its own expectations and biases. Even that business piece Stan linked has quite a bit of embedded opinion and assumption.

Transition. The last thing I'd note is that things are changing. Even among the most staid of the old mainstream outlets (NYT, New Yorker, WSJ, etc), the landscape is radically different from twenty years ago. We now accept a much more personal voice. Reporters regularly make public comments about the subjects they cover (on FB and Twitter and, increasingly, their in-house blogs). The sophistication of business and politics and their very loose affiliation with what we might think of as objective reality--these are challenging the old ways of reporting. I would say it's largely for the good. There was a time when we thought reporters were objective and news was reliable, but we were rubes and suckers.

This is a little bit of a provocative example, but I don't actually mean it to be a provocation. I've just been reading a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates lately. Anyway, imagine a newspaper article from about 1950 that touches however glancingly on race. Would we now consider that article to be larded with the bias of its time (invisible, possibly, to the reporter)? Of course. Reporters have sometimes done their best, but they're only human.

Alan -

Good stuff.

I don't believe I am lax at all, Jeff, but I agree there is much that you and Stan are calling journalism that I think doesn't earn the distinction. Is that mean spirited? Not really. You have me thinking. I just grew up with guys and family writing for summer jobs, went to a small college with 25% or so journalism students and watched career paths. So for me, a journalist is a good reporter and a reporter is a full time paid writer for a periodical. That is where I come from in all this.

I think what really catches me is not the objective / subjective so much as the meaning of news. The article cited by Stan has a lot of information in it but I can't give a hoot about it. It is not relevant to me. I don't care about stories about mergers and acquisitions or management moves in the brewing industry. Two reasons. They don't affect me and they are identical to stories about mergers and acquisitions or management moves in other businesses.

When I look at the range of writing about good beer, the interesting stuff is in the other categories of writing. It's not about blogs v. newspapers. Its about news v. histories. Criticism as opposed to personal essay. For me, journalism is the least of these as it applies to good beer. But in large part because I would describe so little of it as journalism - and the bit that I would being the stiff that is not all that compelling.

Alan -

So is this journalism? This?