Writing About Beer

Carla and I spent most of this past weekend in Lexington, KY attending a writing conference focusing on craft beer. We did the Cincy Winter Beerfest Friday night, then got up Saturday to drive down to the UK Student Center to spend the day listening to an amazing lineup of speakers (shown here as listed in the program):

As if this wasn’t good enough — and a conference would do well to have any of these folks be the keynote speaker — the organizers decided to pile on and have Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewing, editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer and author of The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food as the actual keynote speaker.

Yeah, it was a pretty good conference.

It was actually pretty intense. So much so that when the day was over I didn’t really want to socialize. Or I did and I didn’t. People came in from all over the country to be there for it. Really interesting, fun people. The opportunity was there to hang out afterwards: a pub crawl was organized. But I couldn’t do it. I wanted to think about what I heard. It needed some time to sink in. I wanted to have a beer. So Carla and I went over to Blue Stallion Brewing and had dinner, then went back to the hotel. I’m an introvert at heart. Big crowds drain me. We’d just finished out Cincinnati Beer Week and the Cincy Winter Beerfest. We both needed the quiet, but I did especially.

We swung by West Sixth Brewing on the way out of town and, besides having a nice lunch and some tasty beer samples, we talked a lot about the conference and about what we heard. We talked about the 5B Conference we didn’t have this year and what we might want to do with it in the future. The genesis of this post (and another one) came along and I was so moved to take action on it I went out to the car and grabbed my laptop to start writing it. I wrote maybe a half-dozen dozen sentences and realized that writing a blog post at a bar while eating lunch and drinking a beer was a much better idea in theory than in practice. So we finished up and drove back to Cincinnati.

I took more than a little bit away from each speaker. Given my former life as an academic (and still involved in education and training), that’s a batting average that never happens. I’m lucky in my day job if a meeting with six speakers has one intro worth listening to (and there’d better be donuts). This lineup? Amazing.

If there was a patron saint of this gathering it was Michael Jackson. He’ll always be the gold standard of beer writers and I believe everyone on the panel knew him personally to one degree or another. They shared stories and more than one of them got choked up in the process. I’m sorry to say that my serious beer journey began after his death, but his words live on, so he does as well. He’s still teaching, and it’s a better world as a result.

Another theme that I think every speaker spent considerable time on was storytelling. Stories have beginnings, middles and endings. Some attempt to illustrate a truth through the progression of dramatic theses, antitheses, and syntheses. Stories have characters, plot, structure and voice. Beer writing? Recipes and technical discussions for the most part. A typical beer review or blog post (and Hoperatives is not excused from this) reads an awful lot like a press release or a freshman chemistry paper gone very wrong. Just last week Chris over at Queen City Fresh wrote a really nice piece that I think does a lot of what the panelists were saying ought to be done. It told a story and painted a picture of someone important to beer in this town who doesn’t make beer. You should go read it.

Stan Hieronymus talked to us about taking a journalistic approach to beer writing and a fair bit about the writing market (punchline:  don’t quit your day job). He cautioned about becoming so close to the business as a writer that you become gun-shy about describing things with some detachment. Julie Johnston spoke about the early days of All About Beer magazine and some of the early stories it covered (including reporting on a rumor that a brewery called Sierra Nevada was in the planning stages). She talked about how the beer scene, such as it was at the time, was comprised of brewery ephemera collectors, homebrewers, and who she could only describe as the “beer guys.”  The latter were mostly folks who loved imports and (where still possible at the time) regional styles of beer. She talked about how the magazine helped build a vocabulary and common point of reference for people all over the country that turned the “beer guy” into the beer connoisseurs and beer geeks we have today.

Garrett Oliver would return to talking about the power of language in his keynote by decrying the use of over-technical language in everyday beer discussions and the misuse of language among professionals who ought to know better. He set the tone for the first part by showing the now-classic video Shit Beer Geeks Say: “I can really taste the contract in this.” “This beer is really infected.  Unless it’s a lambic … in which case it’s fantastic.” We’ve all been there. On the other hand, one of the most tweeted comments he made was “Black IPAs are bullshit.” Not the style, not the beers themselves, but the name. The GABF had changed the name to “American-style Black Ale” for its competition, and that’s a good thing. If words can mean anything, then they mean nothing and point to nothing worthwhile. That’s true in wine and in food and most every sphere of human activity people really care about. It ought to be true of beer.

Teri Farhendorf told us her story of being a longtime brewmaster who left her job and trekked across the country sleeping in her camper outside breweries all across the country.  She’d stay the night so she could brew with friends she’d made over the years the next day, then move along. She documented it in her blog that steadily grew in readership as the her trip continued. She encountered women at different breweries who gravitated to her because they’d been working in isolation and thinking they were the only woman in a male-dominated business. They were, to a degree, but not to the degree they thought they were. There was no master plan from the way she describes it, but her use of online technologies to build a community of women with whom she shared her passion led directly to the founding of what became the Pink Boots Society. If ever there were a case study on how online communication media form vibrant communities, this is it.

Finally we heard from two brewery owners, one a philosopher, the other a jester. Their messages were at the same time thought-provoking and, dare I say it, entertaining. I’d nominate Roger Baylor of New Albanian Brewery in New Albany, IN to be brewing’s Philosopher-King, but then he’d just ignore the philosophy part and spend all his time plotting his own overthrow as king. That’s just the way he rolls. He spoke briefly about his concern that the danger of the craft beer revolution is that the revolutions tend to lead to new orthodoxies and codifications which, eventually, need to be overturned by revolution. It’s a horrible oversimplification, and you can read more of what he actually means here.

Jeremy Cowan is the comedy genius who brought us He’Brew: The Chosen Beer. Finally entering the promised land of Kentucky this week (it’s long been available to those exiled across the Ohio), there’s no doubt that an important part of Shmaltz Brewing’s marketing strategy has been to suck up to beer writers. That’s not deep analysis on my part: Cowan said those exact words multiple times during his presentation. I believe he actually wrote it on one of his PowerPoint slides. His reason for being at the conference, besides trying to sell his beer, was to also talk about his book Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah. And urging us to buy it. It was downloading onto my Kindle before he was even done speaking and you can bet I’m going to write more about it. It’s a self-produced book through a very small press, and the trials and tribulations of getting that done while moving the company’s operations across the country into a new brewery were the backbone of his talk.

I’ve probably not done any of the talks any justice with my thumbnail sketches, but I hope, if nothing else, you get a sense of why it’s taken a while to sink in. The heart and soul of Hoperatives will always be the event listings and information about what’s happening in the Cincinnati beer scene. It’s why so many of you come up to us when you see us and thank us for the site. What you don’t know is that when you do that we both just want to throw our arms around you and thank you for reading. But that would just be weird and uncomfortable for everyone, so we don’t do it. But we really want to. Hope that doesn’t creep you out. Much.

Anyway, what I’ve taken away from this conference is a desire to tell more stories. They’ll be about beer and they’ll be here on Hoperatives. I have a couple of ideas and as I write them I know I’ll get others. That’s the way it works. I know I’m never going to make a living doing this, but that’s OK. It’s a pretty good thing having a place to tell stories about the things you love.

I hope you like them.