Last weekend, I participated on a beer writing panel at the third annual craft brewing industry convention, Beer-Con. The panel included a quintet of local writers, editors, bloggers and podcasters. Having written about craft beer for many more years than the rest of the group, I was appropriately described by the moderator as “the veteran of the group” (where’s Peter Rowe from U-T San Diego when you need him?) and asked how the scene has changed for the better as well as the worse since I got into craft beer back in the nineties.
The most obvious thing to cite was the sheer increase in volume of brewing companies, beers, and craft beer drinkers. When I got into craft beer, the only local beers available came from Karl Strauss, Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, Pizza Port, Oggi’s and Coronado Brewing Company. Yes, seven companies—hard to fathom in a county that now sports ten times that many brewhouses. While a bit limited, it never felt like it, and because the options were so finite, it was easy to wrap my head around the concept of craft and drinking local, get to know each company, learn about beer and the companies' back stories, and monitor the growth of each of those players.
One thing I made note of at Beer-Con is that, with the big craft beer boom happening on a local and national level, the evolution of American brewing, the introduction of more avant garde styles, the rapidly expanding beer vernacular, and the amazing number of local breweries, craft beer is a much more confusing subculture for newcomers. When I had my a-ha moment, Arrogant Bastard Ale and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (my first two craft beers) were outlandish. Now, the American strong ale and barleywine styles are commonplace throughout the nation. Double IPAs were the exception, and now they’re the norm. American takes on Belgian styles were fairly non-existent, and now it’s rare to come across a brewery that’s not producing a witbier, saison, or tripel.
I was able to dig in and slowly shovel through the layers of the world history of beer along with the rest of the, then, very small and slowly growing legions of craft beer fans. Now, the rabbit hole is deep, and those who experience their craft epiphany can easily find themselves plummeting down it, almost involuntarily. Fortunately, there are a wealth of resources that didn’t exist back in the day. Most of them are online, but there are also numerous books and, of course, the musings of writers like myself in various publications, including an expanding number of periodicals devoted specifically to beer. But, now as it was back when, the best resource remains the craft beer enthusiast.
With the exception of snobby, blowhard snark machines that make up but a skinny and highly insignificant sliver on the craft fan pie chart, the majority of artisanal beer fans are passionate and inviting. They appreciate being part of something that’s still, for the most part, in its early stages, but also want to see it grow. As such, they’re excited to explain the beer scene, its characters, and, of course, the beer, to anyone willing to give it a chance. This is one of the best things about the craft beer movement. And, as evidenced by the robust number of attendees at Beer-Con, this spirit is alive and thriving.
It’s not surprising. There’s never been as much stellar beer in San Diego as there is right now. Unfortunately, there’s also never been as much bad beer in the county at any one time as there is currently. Upon stating the latter, I was greeted with raised eyebrows from many in the crowd. It was something that, as someone so taken with the local beer industry that I changed my entire career path to become an official member of it, it pained me to say. But it had to be said—especially since, apparently, few others are willing to.
During a question-and-answer session I was asked why it is that I would report the negative aspects of local brewing operations. Why I would “attack owners’ babies.” My reply to that was that they’re not their babies, they’re their businesses. It's a parents job to feed their babies, not the village's. A business depends on the village (i.e., customers) to keep the business nourished. So, any business worthy of existing should fundamentally benefit both the owner and its patrons. While others on the panel stated that, if they came across something negative at a brewery or found its beers to be substandard, they simply wouldn’t write about them, or worse yet, would do their best to find one good beer in their stable to highlight while leaving out information about all the bad beer, I just can’t go that route.
As a journalist paid to be an advocate and quality resource for readers, I believe it is of the utmost importance that I provide consumers with all of the information they need to make informed decisions. Basically, I try to provide what it is that I would want to read if I didn’t write and was a consumer looking to get the best grasp possible on the plethora of craft beer available to me as a San Diegan. If writers don’t disclose the bad with the good, there is no way for a reader to be able to discern anything from the prose they put out in their blog or publication.
Some writers (many, in fact) make the argument that them not writing about a business is the same as passing negative judgment about that business. If they won’t cover a brewery, it's a clear way of communicating to readers that the operation is lousy. But that thinking is severely flawed. As stated before, there are more than 70 brewhouses in San Diego County. I’d argue that no single beer writer has been to all of them (they might tell you they have, but trust me, they haven’t...even I have one left on my list that I haven’t made it to yet), so if they haven’t been there, they can’t write about them. But if you go by their defensive stance that not writing about a business means said business sucks, that leaves the reader mistakenly thinking a brewery is subpar simply because the writer hasn’t been there yet.
The easiest way for someone to trust what a writer puts out there (whether they write about beer or any other consumer product) is for the writer to be authentic; true to their readers, the businesses they cover, and themselves for crying out loud. While on the panel, I shared my wish that beer writers would tell the truth. I also said it would be great if those same folks would stop being so happy about getting free beer and being on the craft beer gravy train.
While I still purchase most of my beer, occasionally, a business will provide unsolicited samples. It’s the way it is and, so long as it doesn’t alter a writer’s view and incite them to paint a more favorable opinion of a beer or brewery than they otherwise would have, it’s no problem. But all too often, it does, especially with writers who have never operated within a traditional journalistic structure guided by long-standing ethical mandates. Because of the rise of online outlets and social media, the inability of major publications to employ reporters and pay writers the way they used to, free beer has become the primary, if not sole reason many people get into blogging and writing about beer. For many, it’s the only “compensation” of any sort that they receive. It’s all about the beer and the close-up brewery experiences for them, and that creates a dangerous situation for readers looking for the straight scoop.
And we haven’t even scraped the surface of writers who make money by selling advertising space on their website or blogs. Obviously, this compromises a journalist’s ability to say something negative about a business. Ditto those who sell consultant services…like the company the individual who asked me how I could attack babies blogs for. What a valiant stance to take on behalf of all the brewery owners in San Diego, confronting the villainous beer writer who would (gasp) do something so deplorable as putting the consumer first and (double gasp) sharing their authentic opinion. I don’t sell advertisements. I don’t have an app built around selling premium packages to brewery owners. I’m a writer paid directly by a publication that asks me, in return for the compensation they provide, to be diligent about reporting on the entire scene and be truthful.
And as I did at Beer-Con, I’d like to discuss how I develop the opinions that I share in print about local breweries. They are not fully my own. Like anyone, I am capable of forming my own opinions on anything and lead with them always, but when it comes to talking about the quality of a brewery, one man’s opinion, even if it comes from someone very knowledgeable on the subject, isn't always enough. When I visit breweries or taste their beers in a critic capacity, I most often do so with highly qualified individuals by my side—brewers, beer bar owners, brewing industry personnel, quality control professionals, certified beer judges, Cicerones (the certified beer industry equivalent of sommeliers), and the like. Even with something as subjective as beer, consensus is often reached and their expert input is invaluable.
So know this, reader. Even if it’s unpopular with others, you can trust what I report here and in the other publications that I provide craft beer content for. I see the truth as the most essential component of reporting on any subject and will afford it to you always. I am honored to have you in the audience and will never take your presence lightly.