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Thread: Called to the Bar - On beer writing

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    A few weeks back I was asked by What’s Brewing in my capacity of Secretary of the British Guild of Beer Writers to write something about beer writing for their back page column Industry Insider. I noticed in the new issue that someone has written in a letter taking me to task for ‘bemoaning’ the lack of narrative books about beer , whilst forgetting The Longest Crawl by Ian Marchant. He’s right, I completely forgot about it. I read it several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and whilst I’m on the forgetful trail, another excellent narrative book about beer (or maybe pubs), is The Search for the Perfect Pub by Robin Turner and Paul Moody. However, enough of the sackcloth and ashes, the reason for this post: if you missed it or don’t get What’s Brewing, here is it (this is the version I sent in and it had several cuts to make it fit, it’s only here because I cannot find the print version online, so this is not a case of poor subbed me).


    Writing about beer is the best job in the world. Apparently. That’s a phrase I (along with colleagues in the British Guild of Beer Writers) frequently hear, as if I spend all our time propping up the bar or travelling from brewery to brewery or pub to pub.


    Yes, there’s a great deal of fun in beer writing and a fair amount of beer consumed (moderately of course). I go to beer dinners, visit breweries in the UK, across Europe and the US; occasionally brew myself; go to great pubs all over the place; judge beer and receive beers in the post. What’s not to like? Oh and I get paid for it.


    However, I can count on one hand the UK beer writers who make a living from just writing about beer. I also write about travel, occasionally turn my hand to freelance subbing and editing and host beer dinners and talks. Yes, it’s not a bad job, but not the best paid.


    The majority of Guild members either write about beer in their spare time (some are journalists in other fields) or communicate about it as PRs, consultants, brewers or sommeliers. We’ve even got a poet in our ranks (he’s also a part time King of Beer in Derby), while a couple of playwrights have recently joined. Beer writing (or should that be communicating?) is a broad church, all of whose members share a powerful passion for beer.


    Despite the financial disincentive to write about beer, as the Guild’s Secretary, I continue to receive requests to join, from both the UK and across the world. We also have members in the US, Canada, Italy, the Low Countries, Austria and Greece — it all makes for a healthy discourse.


    Was there ever a golden age of beer writing? Some might say that it could have been during the early 1990s when Michael Jackson’s column in the Saturday Independent was the first thing I turned to or when Roger Protz popped up regularly on the BBC Food Programme. Or is now with books, blogs, apps and beer tastings going on all over the place? I’m inclined to the latter.


    The national newspapers, as ever, are desultory in their beer coverage — a pub column here, a feature on women in brewing/beer/whatever there. On the other hand, the regional newspapers cover beer and pubs a lot more regularly, while trade publications such as Publican’s Morning Advertiser, Host, Inapub and Pub & Bar provide a healthy amount for work for Guild members.


    On the magazine front, there is of course CAMRA’s Beer, while Beers of the World, which was briefly resurrected, is now online (the history of UK beer magazines is a fraught one and needs a separate article). Let us not forget CAMRA newsletters — I spent ten years editing Somerset CAMRA’s Pints of View and it was good fun.


    On the book front, yes there’s a liturgy of lists, whether 1001 Beers, 300 Beers, Craft Beer Worlds or Yorkshire beers. However, there are also home brewing books plus gift-type did-you-know-this-about-beer books and guidebooks.


    For me, what is missing (and this is a constant source of conversation between some beer writers) are more narrative books about beer, something that tells a story, or undertakes a journey. Apart from Pete Brown’s trilogy of Man Walks Into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, there is no real beery equivalent to Andrew Jefford’s magnificent book about Islay whisky, Peat Smoke and Spirit (though bloggers Boak & Bailey’s forthcoming Beer Britannia will be eagerly awaited).


    From my own experience, publishers are unconvinced that beer narrative books will sell; maybe beer writers have to do what Tony Hawkes did, take a fridge (full of beer perhaps) around Ireland or something? It’s a shame because beer writing is crying out for something that merges beer, history, travel and anecdotes along the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts or even Harry Pearson’s light-hearted take on Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land.


    Then there are the blogs: seven or eight years after their emergence there is still a vibrant beer blogging community out there, even if some complain that many consist of beer tasting notes and ‘where I got drunk last night’. With my blog (maltworms.blogspot.com) I enjoy the freedom to write about beer in a way that I cannot do when I have been commissioned; it’s place where I can experiment and think aloud about beer issues. Finally there is Twitter, where brief reviews, comments and links to beer stories can be posted


    As well as the up and down nature of beer writing’s financial side, to me there’s also another issue beer writers need to be aware of: independence. By the very nature of what we do, beer writers are part of the industry (beer is sent to us, invitations are issued to launches and dinners), but there is a need to be separate from the industry. Beer writers should not be cheerleaders for every beer in the universe, while some writers are better than others in covering the complex issues of, say, the pub companies.


    As for the future of beer writing, I’m positive. It’s no good moaning about the lack of coverage in the national press or the fact that a lot of beer books are list-orientated — people who want to be beer writers have to think beyond the traditional ways.

    The whole concept of beer writing has changed in the last decade. I remember when Zak Avery, Beer Writer of the Year in 2008, started doing his beer tastings straight to camera and putting them out on Youtube. This was then a relatively new concept and at the time I remember commenting that this was asymmetrical beer writing: Zak was also writing articles, blogging as well as filming. It pays for a beer writer to use several different approaches to communicate about beer. For me that is beer writing’s future — a diversity of voices, methods and opinions letting the world know about the rich universe of beer, breweries, pubs and the people who make it all work.



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